Chapter 6: What is Hard Work?

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One topic that I’m quite interested in is the notion of ‘hard work.’ It’s a phrase, along with its relatives and synonyms (working hard, hardworker, hard day’s work, etc.) that is quite common to hear in everyday parlance. At least in the United States, if not the Western world, hard work is seen by many as a critical ingredient for success. We do hard work simply because we believe that “hard work pays off,” and this is certainly true in the correlative sense, i.e. hard work correlates with success. But does it guarantee it?

In this miniature essay on hard work, I’m going to ruminate a bit on the concept of hard work – where it comes from, why we value it so much, and how valuable it really is. I hope this essay is of value to any hard working person or hard working student out there as a way to open up a conversation about a topic that seemingly goes unchallenged or undiscussed.

Where Does Hard Work Come From

As I’ll discuss more in the next section on “work ethic,” in general we associate the concept of working hard (especially for its own sake) to the Protestant work ethic. Work, through this worldview, became a good, or an end, in itself. The actual outcome of the work didn’t matter so much as the work itself, and what that work said about the person who was doing it. So began our own beliefs in the value of hardwork, values which still affect much of our thinking on the topic today.

But Hard Work Pays Off…Right?

We extol the virtues of the ‘hard working’ employee or business owner, and this label of ‘hard working’ is almost a badge of honor for many people. How many hours you put in a week, or how rarely you take a vacation, is something to be proud of for many people, as it’s a sign of their ‘productivity’ and ‘ambition’ (or so they think).

Much of the time, this love of hard work is harmless or even beneficial, as it’s the foundation of much of the society, culture, and economy we enjoy. Unfortunately, some times this respect for hard work just goes too far. In fact, there are cases of super hard working people actually working themselves to death. This takes the saying of “hard work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” into “hard work and no play makes Jack a dead boy.”

Thus, we need to put some skepticism forward here. Given the religious and cultural origins of the concept of ‘hard work,’ and given the dubious benefits associated with working hard for its own sake, we need to question the concept. Is it really true that ‘hard work’ is what we should all aspire to? What’s the limit? Is working yourself to death something to be proud of? What about happiness in this life?

Of course, hardwork is definitely important, and it’s critical to success in almost any fear of endeavor, but we can’t make hard work an end in itself. This is what we’ve been doing for the past few centuries, all starting with the Protestant work ethic. We have to remember that hard work is a means towards an end, and it’s that end that we must keep in sight at all times.

This whole question is made more complicated by the observation that hard work in itself is not sufficient for success. There are plenty of hardworking men and women out there who are busting their butts but finding little to no reward that’s commensurate for their efforts. Thus, there are other factors surely involved, such as luck, what kind of work is being done, and other factors that may lie out of the person’s control. Thus, sometimes we can’t even evaluate the worth of hard work by its material or life outcomes. If we don’t meet our goals despite all the hard work, does that mean the hard work was pointless?

Now, to the crux of the question: So when is hard work good, and when is hard work ‘less good’? When is hard work constructive, and when is it destructive? I believe the answer is this: hard work has to be meaningful, both on a small scale (what kind of work are you doing and what kind of value does it provide) and in the longer term (towards what long term goal is this hard work aiming for?).

So What is Meaningful Hard Work, Then?

Still, this isn’t to say that hard work that you “don’t want to do” is meaningless. And it’s also not to say that you have to be constantly working either. Sometimes it’s good to be “hardly working” instead of hard working, as we do need to take rests and recuperate in order to achieve maximum efficiency. But the key, again, is to make sure that we don’t make putting in long hours and lots of effort as an end in itself. We put in that time and that energy because we are working towards something, not simply working.

The key part to hard work’s meaning is the conjunction of “hard work and dedication.” In the final analysis, truly valuable hard work is all about dedicating yourself to some end goal that the hard work is in service of. It’s pointing yourself towards some meaningful goal – and that, in the end, is what makes hard work meaningful. We barely notice that we are hard at work when we are in flow, when we are fully engaged in something that we believe in and value. This is the key to happiness in many ways, given that so many people feel and experience only misery in their work lives.

Put it this way – picking up a heavy rock, carrying it up a hill, and then rolling it back down to repeat the process 100 times in a day – that’s surely unbelieveably “hard work” in the sense of energy and effort expenditure. But in what sense is it meaningful? How could we say that this hard work would be the ‘key to success’ in any way? And yet we do something similar in much of our lives. We are ‘working hard’ but in reality performing no work at all, because the work is busy work, or it’s pointless, or its needlessly inefficient, or something of that sort.

The Value of Hard Work

Even though I’ve slammed the concept of ‘hard work’ a bit in this article, I do want to stress that I believe the importance of hard work can hardly be overstated. I truly do believe that hard work beats talent any day of the week. Many other scientists and investigators and researchers not only believe this, but they have showed it. For instance, take the ’10,000’ hour rule, which states that all masters or experts in some field of study have put in at least 10,000 hours in it before they reach this master stage. I truly believe that hardwork beats talent simply because there’s not really something called ‘talent’ that exists. Sure, perhaps we have certain inclinations or slight head start advantages. But in the end, the human brain and body is so adaptable that anyone, with the right practice and procedures, can do anything at a very high level. Granted, perhaps not everyone can become world masters, but certainly anyone can be in the top 1% of any activity if they put their work and time in. The key is – few people will actually go out and do this.

How Can I Work Harder Then?

Now, what you may be thinking is, “This sounds great, but how can I improve my work habits?” Many people believe or think that they have a fear of hard work, but I believe that such a belief is false in the vast majority of cases. As we’ll see, one of the main reasons people don’t work hard is because they don’t see the point to it – it’s not meaningful. So don’t worry, we’ll talk more about this – we’re getting there! First, let’s take a detour and make a small discussion of the topic of ‘work ethic.’ Then we can finally start discussing the ways we can all not just work harder, but also work smarter.

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