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Opinion | The seductive illusion of hard work

  • Hard work has always been romanticized but never as much as it is nowadays
  • Hard work and success are most certainly correlated but people are misguided if they think hard work alone can lead to success


I spent my Christmas break in London. Every morning, I would read a bit and then step out for tea and scones at a local bakery on Angel High Street. At the bakery, I stumbled on to three students who were raising money for a prominent international non-profit. They stood right outside the bakery and handed out flyers to all customers but no one ever stopped to make a donation. Repeated failures didn’t seem to daunt them. They would be outside the bakery every day, going after people with the same pitch over and over again. I know this first-hand because they pitched to me five days in a row without a tweak.

On the sixth day, I chatted with them and said if they came up with 20 alternative strategies for fundraising in an hour—roughly the time I would spend at the bakery—I would make a donation. By the time I was done with my tea, they had 20 cool ideas ready. I filled in my details, gave them a donation and walked back.

That day I had rewarded their innovative ideas, not the hard work they put in chasing me for six days. I had no way of knowing whether they would implement any of the ideas but I wanted them to realize that their current approach was not working. I was hoping they would understand that the illusion of working hard during holidays was preventing them from critically analysing the situation at hand: Which was how to get more donations.

Hard work has always been romanticized but never as much as it is now. Social media is plastered with quotes along the lines of “You can’t out-work me" or “Sleep is for the weak". People take great pride in flaunting their punishing work routines, and robot-like well-being rituals. Proclamations of hard work are distracting and debilitating for almost everyone involved. First, they confuse being busy with being effective. Second, they unintentionally standardize aspirations. Third and most important, they make it seem like pivoting or changing course of action is a sign of weakness. Hard work and success are most certainly correlated but people are misguided if they think hard work alone can lead to success.

I am a part of several global communities like Network Capital, Global Shapers and UNLEASH, and on analysing the highest performers among these communities, I can safely say that the informed and intelligent choices these people made were the real catalysts of success. Hard work helped but only because they had made wise choices in the first place.

Arriving at the right set of choices needs robust mental models and intentional experimentation. Unfortunately, the incentive structures in schools, colleges and most workplaces are antithetical to calculated experiments and evidence-based decision-making. Most work and education systems, instead of encouraging us to design frameworks that work for us, nudge us into a weird competitive game with ourselves and our peers.

If you are trying very hard, find yourself uninspired and exhausted, you are most likely playing the wrong game. No matter how many hours you put in or how hard you continue to toil, things won’t change. Also, instead of competing and wondering who works harder and longer, focus on understanding your strengths, weaknesses, inclinations and motivations.

The night I was taking my flight back to Delhi, I found a postcard under my door. This is what it said: “Thank you, for helping me find a home and some hot food on Christmas." It was signed by the recipient who had benefitted from my donation. The three students had changed their approach. They had now started sending notes and were letting the beneficiaries speak for themselves instead of the monotonous morning pitch made by them.

It’s time to ignore impassioned proclamations of hard work and focus more on picking the right solutions for problems. Let’s begin by stating the obvious—sleep is not for the weak and working hard for the heck of it is a waste of time and potential.

Millennial Matters is a column that recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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