It's Risky to Work Hard

Good email exchange up between Bill Simmons of ESPN Magazine and Malcolm Gladwell. Their sports knowledge is way over my head (I am only a mediocre fan, after all) but Gladwell touches on something really interesting.

It’s very risky to work hard.

Because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection. I swear that’s why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I’ll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don’t study for tests — which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you’re stupid — and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.

I see this all the time, and indeed have practiced this form of self-protection myself. It’s also a treadmill that you can never get off once you’re on. If you establish a reputation for working as hard as you possibly can at X, and then fail at X for whatever reason, everyone is going to say you failed. You’re a failure. It wasn’t just that you blew it off. That’s why people specialize in something, announce to the world that they’re good at it, and make sure they never screw it up.

How many times have you gotten something from someone with the cover note, "This is just a really rough cut, let me know your thoughts." I have both received and sent this kind of thing all the time. People are very cunning at revealing how hard they really worked at something.

8 comments on “It's Risky to Work Hard
  • How about the converse? It’s risky to take it easy.

    Far better to work hard up front, establish your reputation for excellence, and then use that reputation to ease your burdens.

    Anyone who’s been a star student knows that reputation carries a lot of weight.

    Nor is this limited to the academic world. Why do you think Michael Jordan got the benefit of the doubt from the referees? Why do we still go to see movies with over-the-hill stars?

    You can only afford to take it easy after you’ve proven your merit.

  • There’s a psychology term for this sort of behavior it’s called cognitive dissonance. You can avoid the internal conflict between your beliefs and your actions (cognitive dissonance) by blaming something else (the drinking) instead of yourself.

    This is a great point to make, glad you brought it up.

  • I really, really dislike the mentality behind all this. Prepare for failure and how to save face. Of course you WILL fail this way. Whatever happened to preparing for success?

  • Of course working hard IS important. And no one should just take it easy.

    But the point is that we don’t / can’t work AS hard at everything. Some of us work harder at certain parts of our lives than at others. It’s natural to announce this (to others or to ourself) to manage our own self-esteem. We fail all the time everyday. To cushion these blows we couch our failures in terms of how hard we worked at it. Tim’s right — it’s cognitive dissonance.

  • Ben, I agree to this point, but I think it’s different from the original article. Of course we all fail at times, and of course we don’t put 100% in all the time .. and we likely all know when we could have done better, vs. when did all yet failed. But the way I deal with “failure” (which, btw. is not always failure), is to move on, don’t look back.
    What I disliked in the original post was if you “cushion yourself” in advance ,it may very well become a self-fulfilling prophecy, since you are already mentally conditioned for failure.
    That said, I’m doing a couple thing now in parallel, and knowingly put little effort into some I consider low-chance. But that is not cushioning, it is not for my self-esteem, or to look better to the outside world, it is simply a matter of prioritization.

  • I know I’ve been guilty of this behavior. Still am. In part, I think it’s because I know I can put in less effort and often still get A’s and say ‘gee, I didn’t even need to work hard!’ even though I know I’m slacking. I think it’s a fairly dishonest way of making myself feel smarter for being lazy.

    In fact, pretty much the only time I’ll genuinely work hard is if there’s competition involved, and I think someone else will seem ‘smarter’ than me.

    Other than that–I always leave myself enough reason to believe there was some outside factor if I don’t pull in a high grade–cognitive disonance is well-practised in this house.

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