Hard Work Is Necessary, But Not Sufficient.


As I peruse the self-help book aisle or stumble upon the latest entrepreneurial guru on YouTube, I’m often met with a simple message: work hard.

There’s truth to that message, of course. If you want to get better at just about anything, you need to work hard. But hidden beneath the stories of getting up at 4 am, working 90-hour weeks, or taking part in whatever exhausting grind it seemingly takes to reach the top is another message: the reason I’m successful, and you may not be, is because of hard work. Some gurus even say it out loud, Rachel Hollis being the latest example.

But is that really the case? Of course not.

When it comes to hard work, we make a fundamental attribution error. We confuse hard work aiding in our own improvement with hard work separating us from others.

Working hard leads to improvement against a prior version of ourselves. It does not do a good job of explaining the difference in performance between individuals.

Take the classic idea of deliberate practice as the key differentiator of performance. Deliberate practice is an intensely focused type of practice coined by Anders Ericsson that then was made famous with the 10,000 hours rule of expertise. Does deliberate practice lead to improvement in knowledge or expertise? Absolutely. But does it explain the difference in performance or level of expertise between two people?

According to a 2014 analysis, researchers found that deliberate practice explained the following percentage of variance in performance:

24% for games
23% for music
20% for sport
5% for education
1% for business

In a follow-up study, the authors narrowed in on performance in sport. In this study, they found that 18% of the variation in performance was explained by deliberate practice. However, when looking at elite athletes, it only accounted for 1%.

Why? Nearly everyone is working hard at the elite level. Everyone is “in the club.”

Think of it like this: Hard work might take you from JV to High School Varsity, but if you’re on an NCAA D1 track team, just about everyone who sticks around is working incredibly hard. Those who didn’t want to work that hard have already been weeded out for the most part. The difference between the 1st and 500th best athlete in terms of effort put forth is negligible. Or, as a college coaching friend liked to say, “Everyone in the NCAA trying to run a 10k is running 70-plus miles per week.” Maybe a slight exaggeration, but his point was that by the time you get to a certain level, everyone is putting in the work. The national champion isn’t working any harder than the guy or gal who finishes last in that championship race.

The point isn’t to dismiss the value of hard work. In nearly every area, it’s necessary. It absolutely helps you improve. My concern is more of why do we moralize hard work, effort, and success, and then look down on failure?

We denigrate those who didn’t achieve some standard of success, be it financial, performance-related, or notoriety, as not working hard enough? We use effort to explain the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Or, we go on rants about how “most people won’t work this hard” to explain our success. Yet, data and real-world experience say otherwise.

We fall for the meritocracy trap. We reduce the complexity of success to something straightforward (i.e., hard work). It might be well-intentioned, but when we leave out all the messiness of luck, talent, opportunity, etc., it sends a false message and sets an unrealistic standard.

Hard work allows us to explain success or failure with something we can control. We are in charge of the effort we put forth. At an individual level, it makes those who have achieved a lot feel better about their success. They can explain it through a simple refrain: I worked harder.

At a societal level, we like to tell the hard work story because it’s inspirational. It sends the message that if you simply put in the effort, you, too, can achieve success. This message is meant to empower; yet it often it backfires, leaving those who work incredibly hard left to wonder what went wrong when they don’t reap the promised rewards. It leads to the narrative that if you aren’t achieving, you must not be working hard enough instead of helping us search for the real answer for why we might not be improving, which has a lot to do with luck, geography, and myriad other factors.

So, what’s the takeaway?

We absolutely should celebrate hard work. We should push it for improvement of ourselves. To reach your potential, work hard!

But as the explainer for those who make it and those who don’t? Hard work is a lackluster indicator, and that’s at best.

Most people work pretty dang hard, especially at things they care about. So when it comes to hard work, remember that:

1. Hard work gets you into the club. It gives you a chance. But it doesn’t explain much of the difference between two people’s performance.

2. Stop moralizing success and failure. There are many reasons for it. Success and failure are messy. Embrace the messiness. You don’t need to minimize others’ work to be secure in your own.

— Steve

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