The Risk of Working Hard

Seth Godin writes:

If you're going to work…

work hard.

That way, you'll have something to show for it.

The biggest waste is to do that thing you call work, but to interrupt it, compromise it, cheat it and still call it work.

In the same amount of time you can expend twice the effort and get far more in exchange.

Agreed, so why don't people work hard? Here's a non-obvious reason: working hard is risky. If you work hard and fail, you don't enjoy the self-protection that less than 100% effort affords. If you get a C on a test in school, and you didn't study much, then it's no big deal — you just didn't study enough. If you get a C on a test in school, and you studied really hard for it, then you must just be dumb.

In other words, if you work hard and fail, there's the presumption that you're innately not very talented. If you don't work hard and fail, you can credibly preserve the belief or illusion that had you only put forth 100% effort, it would have worked out.

(A hat tip on this idea is owed to some writer I can't remember, maybe Gladwell.)

23 Responses to The Risk of Working Hard

  1. Chris Pearce says:

    One of my high school teachers back in the 1990s outlined this argument to my class, so this idea is not unique to Gladwell.

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    Carol Dweck covers this issue in great detail. People who have a “fixed” mindset view failure as a sign of uncorrectable unworthiness, thus avoid challenges and self-sabotage as above.

  3. Steven says:

    This is interesting in light of Lebron’s comments after losing the NBA Finals last night:

    “I’m not going to hang my head low. I know how much work as a team we put into it. I know how much work individually that I’ve put into it… I think you can never hang your head low when you know how much work, how much dedication you put into the game.”

    Reading this, my initial reaction was “but the Mavs worked harder. Which of course isn’t true: the series was so close, luck was probably the MVP. So is Lebron wrong? Did he fail because he didn’t work hard enough (surely not as hard as Wade, Dirk), or was the work he put in, because it satisfied his measure of hard work, sufficient regardless of the results?

  4. Venu says:

    Umm.. isn’t it more plausible that people don’t work hard because we have multiple ends/desires in life other than achieving success in some narrow field? ‘Cause we don’t always *enjoy* working hard?

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yes, that's the "obvious" reason. I was posing a new, different reason.

  6. Krishna says:

    Elasticity of Hard Work is off-putting in that there could be too many incremental claimants for the label, tempting the smarts to leave it to others to bring it up to a rudimentary level. Example : Alexander Graham Bell worked hard to invent the telephone. Al Gross extended the principle to invent a pager. Martin Cooper found pagers inadequate and worked hard to invent the cell phone. So it could be possible that people choose to avoid reinventing the wheel.

  7. Russell Stadler says:

    Maybe Erik Hoffer?

    “There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life. Moreover, when we have an alibi for not writing a book, painting a picture, and so on, we have an alibi for not writing the greatest book and not painting the greatest picture. Small wonder that the effort expended and the punishment endured in obtaining a good alibi often exceed the effort and grief requisite for the attainment of a most marked achievement.”

  8. Nic says:

    there’s also a peer presure as well – others see you work hard, expect you to do well; makes it (i feel) mcuh harder to admit failure.

  9. Debra says:

    Some people don’t know what hard work looks like. They have no model.

    As a society, we shield people from what hard work looks like because we’re afraid to have a courageous discussion “hey, what you’re doing is not going to get us where we need to go”.

  10. Venu says:

    I guess I don’t think the non-obvious reason explains
    a lot more beyond what’s already explained the obvious reason.

  11. Venu says:

    Btw, no sarcasm intended in the above comment.

  12. Jmugan says:

    They say that you should teach kids that intelligence comes from practice and is not an innate ability. That idea was discussed in a Scientific American article by Dweck (as mentioned above) in 2007: The secret to raising smart kids.

  13. litmus says:

    Actually, this post is owed to the Irish comedian Dylan Moran as illustrated in this video about potential. (starts around the 30 sec mark)

  14. dave says:

    Or maybe the particular task in question is valuable, so people don’t want to expend a lot of effort on it.

    One thing I learned from poker is that table selection is as important as playing. If you pick the best tables (the best places to work) then you’ll get a lot more out of it then just mindlessly sitting down at a table (following orders no matter how dumb).

  15. “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.” -John Wooden

  16. Dave says:

    What about moving beyond the “success/failure” paradigm? Working hard gives you an element of self knowledge that slacking doesn’t. As has been said, slacking allows you to say “I could have gotten an A/been a football star/run that company/cured cancer/built a rocket and flown to Mars if only I had tried. But I didn’t. I’m as good as that guy, he’s just got skewed priorities.” Who knows what they would have done if they actually tried? Trying and failing tells you what your limits are, where you might improve etc. But we’re all equal and the same if we talk about what we “could’ve done” It’s a way of blending into the crowd instead of being an individual.

  17. SelfPercievedFailure says:

    How about people who already feel worthless. People like me who belie that hard work will not be rewarded significantly more than enough work to get by while secretly goofing off and reading books at work.

    People who feel that their work hardly mattersand know that they are mediocre and not smart or good enough to ever have their work really matter.

  18. joe says:

    thanks for the positive vibes. not just good advise for work but life in general.

  19. bob smith says:

    It’s an apples to oranges comparison. It compares getting a “C” with lots of effort to a “C” with little effort, but that’s impossible for an individual.

    The true comparison is..

    Getting an “A” with effort or a “C” with less effort


    Getting a “C” with effort or a “D” or an “F” without effort.

    The effect might still hold true for students getting “D”s and “F”s, but I think it’s harder to argue that you’re secretly a brain trust when you get those grades.

  20. Ian says:

    Anecdotally, I can say this holds true for me. I am self-employed and so have to motivate myself to work hard. However, I do sometimes go through periods of not working so hard. When things don’t go as planned I tend to blame the periods of not working hard as being the cause.

  21. jenny says:

    To work hard you have to desire the effort . physically and mentally straining yourself near 8 hours daily is killer. so you really gotta love the strain. To all the slackers . . Buck up and be worth something.

  22. zack says:

    i know man i worked 12 hours a day for an year for an entrancecexam which i flunked last year i didnt even go outside home literally,i thought an years sacrifice unlike being a normal teenager was all for a good cause i was passionate and hey hey hey i flunked again cheers mate hardwork doesnt mean shit now i answer people who knew i worked my ass off why im still a loser thnx god for fucking me over

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