“Work hard” is advice with a short shelf life

I’ve experienced the value of hard work and the danger of working too hard. My work must work for me, not the other way around.

I come across the advice that one needs to “work hard” frequently in my reading. There are other, more sinister variants that are common too, like “Work harder than everyone else”, “Outwork the competition”, or “Do what it takes”. This is commonly offered as advice on how to be successful, as a desired trait for a job applicant, or as something someone did that made them stand-out and reach heights that others aspire to. While I agree that a strong work ethic is an important quality to develop early in one’s life, I think it’s vastly overemphasized as a means to be “successful” and can lead many people astray.

Working hard is often regarded as a perpetually active state, a super power that must constantly be deployed like Spiderman swinging on his web in each encounter. If you are fortunate, this feels effortless, natural and empowering. The results can often lead to thrilling highs, the high of exceeding your bosses expectations, of exhausted praise from peers and of big rewards. Unfortunately, there is a more-common-than-not flip-side to this. Working hard is also synonymous with putting in more hours, being constantly connected, and working because you “should be” and are expected to if you are really passionate about your customers/your art/whatever. Striving to work hard can cause one to ignore boundaries, be one-dimensional, have a distorted view of self-worth and ultimately chase after results and expectations instead of accepting (and appreciating) reality.

How does someone parse the good hard work from bad hard work?

In the year 2000, I was just starting my bachelor of arts in marketing and internet studies (my 3rd major, after somehow failing to apply to the art program and giving computer science a go for a couple of quarters and hating it). It was then that I discovered the web, a new to organize information and design using new creative tools, and it was all I wanted to work on website design. I loved spending time doing this and did so almost any chance I could get. I was energized by the work, and I was by all definitions “working hard”. This was good hard work. My personal life and school life flourished.

Contrast that experience with another around the year 2009. I was working as a member of a remote team on things I didn’t really care about, but that I thought were important for me to know and experience. I was meeting with teams from the UK, France, Singapore and India and thus was pulling crazy hours to make it all work. I was paying my dues and getting good experience, or so I thought. I was by definition “working hard”. This was bad hard work. My professional life stagnated and my marriage fell apart soon after.

The key difference between these experiences is that when the good hard work was happening, I wasn’t thinking about the work. I was thinking a lot about (and doing) what I was truly interested in, I was doing work that was aligned with my goals at the time, I was challenged, I was having other experiences at the same time that gave me breaks (college is good for that), and it all fed and amplified my sense of self-worth. Contrast that with the bad hard work phase, in which I started to ignore side projects, didn’t look after myself physically, felt my marriage deteriorating, and was in many general adrift.

I’ve had a job since I can remember, starting with working in my Dad’s shop before it was legal, to a steady career in retail in high school and college. Even in those early years of learning the value of hard work (and having it suck at times), my overall feeling was one of pride and agency in my future. It was good hard work.

I’ve wasted plenty of time stubbornly working harder and ignoring the signals that something is amiss, that my priorities are off, that my work is working me and not the other way around. I bet a lot of other people are in the same boat.

I love and value hard work, but it’s advice with a short shelf-life. Once you learn the basics, working hard comes for free when you are doing what matters most. Knowing what matters most is the real challenge. That requires dedication, discipline and focus. Committing to that is what life is about and to do it requires that you truly work hard.

(By the way, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t do hard work)