It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way If I can’t work up to you You’ll have to work down to me someday
Anyone who has taught on just about any level has heard a student or twelve whine some version of “but I worked oh-so very hard on it” after turning in a poor assignment. The student’s assumption is that putting in a great effort is tantamount to producing good work. They imagine that, upon hearing their woeful tale of travail, you will immediately raise their grade in the belief that indiscriminate exertion is the primary measure of quality.
And, let’s face it, we have all thought or said that the key to success is to work harder, but that claim, however heartfelt, is misleading.
99% PERSPIRATION - 1% INSPIRATION < GREAT SUCCESS
Here is the worst-kept dirty secret you already know. Effort, as quantifiable as it may be, is in no way a measure of quality. Certainly, effort can improve quality, but there is no objective assessment of quality that can be ascribed to effort. Work is good or bad no matter the quantity of effort input. Michelangelo spent about three years shaping his David. If the massive figure took only two years to sculpt, would we admire its beauty more? What if it took four years?
Surely you have seen work that has taken an impressive amount of time and sweat that is still not up to snuff. Perhaps you have produced such work. I know I have. I have been working my tail off to learn ukulele, and I can say with a high degree of confidence that I have reached the level of “makes your ears bleed” in terms of my playing and aspire to plateau at the level of “doesn’t anger anyone” some time before I die. Pity my family and neighbors. Maybe next I’ll pick up the bagpipes.
When I was in graduate school, one of my buddies decided he wanted to master the art of drawing. On top of writing a doctoral dissertation in literature, a massive undertaking by itself, he started attending drawing classes and studying books on artistic technique. He particularly wanted to learn to reproduce the human figure in pencil, and, judging from his considerable output, he was most keenly concerned with the female nude, preferring to skip a night at the pub with his friends to score more studio time with a model posing au naturel.
He worked oh-so hard at his craft, and his drawings, which he proudly displayed, were distressingly perfect, executed with mathematical precision, prosecuted by the numbers according to preordained proportions. And that is where it ended, with the aesthetics of a machinist. So far as he was concerned, because he had struggled so long to memorize and reproduce a formula of human proportions, he had attained mastery although he manifested all the artistic grace of the caliper. Content with his achievement, he stopped drawing and turned to learning the mandolin with similar results.
NOT EVERYTHING THAT CAN BE COUNTED COUNTS
I'd been so fascinated by the motion that I’d forgotten to measure what it was bringing forth.
The same phenomenon and its associated self-delusion is commonly in play in the workplace. Look around you. Many of the hardest workers are objectively the least productive relative to their effort. Yes. They toil endlessly, almost heroically, and get a lot done, but what is their true productive value given all their noisy grinding? Perhaps you and I are like them.
Observe for your edification Betsy down the hall laboring away well into the late evening. Maybe you even stay behind longer than necessary just so she can’t claim to always be last in the building. I’ve done that. How dumb am I?
Yes, Betsy works hard, but does she accomplish more or do better work than I do? In competing with her and staying late, am I producing more and better work? Possibly more, but better? My goal should be to produce the best work I can, not just work the most hours. And yes those two are often mutually exclusive, for there is always a point of diminishing returns of both quality and quantity.
You have, no doubt, heard the dichotomy between working hard and working smart. It has become an annoying cliché, but don’t roll your eyes just yet. For all the dichotomy’s banality, it is no less true. At the risk of committing a heresy against one of our most sacred cultural assumptions, I will assert that working hard ain’t all that.
Of course I am not arguing against hard work. Hard work is generally good and frequently necessary. I am, though, arguing against hard work as an end unto itself. Hard work is not inherently virtuous, and too much of the hard work we exalt in the workplace is just pointless or even bad, like my buddy’s drawings, or worse, like his mandolin playing, or worst of all, like my ukulele playing. The effort cannot be the end itself, nor does it always give way to a positive result. We must learn to work smart, to calibrate the effort required to produce the best work without assuming harder is better.
Of the two compliments below, which would you rather receive?
1. My, you really are a hard worker! 2. My, you really do good work!
If these compliments represented two candidates who were applying for a job with you, which one would you be inclined to hire?
I once had a colleague who frequently and effusively praised her staff’s hard work in public, but I never once heard her comment on its quality. Over time, I noticed that her people sagged incrementally with every commendation of their drudgery—the precise opposite of what I expected to see. They looked more worn and beaten each time she lauded their effort, and it dawned on me that they wanted to hear, just once, “what a good job” rather than “what a lot of work!”
By the way, late Millennials and Generation Z-ers may already have an advantage over us old-timers. Among them there is a valuing of quality personal time and a sense that a job or career is not life itself. Perhaps this attitude is driven by the spirit of no-one-ever-lamented-on-their-deathbed-that-they-should-have-spent-more-time-at-the-office. Or maybe it is the result of watching their boomer parents slog in a world of increasing demands and shrinking rewards. Or maybe they’re all just a bunch of lazy, candy-ass ne’er-do-wells. Whatever the reason, I am all for it. They are right. Labor union activists a century ago did not fight and even die so that we could just squander the weekends, 40-hour work weeks, and vacation days they won for us.
Over the past decades, American productivity has increased and wages have largely stagnated. In addition, Americans more and more forego earned vacation time or do work during their vacation. Why? Does working longer with less rest make us more productive? Absolutely not! If you doubt me, the opening chapters of Daniel Pink’s 2018 book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, will swiftly disabuse you of that canard.
The formula is rather simple. Work better not just harder, or, more precisely, work better and only harder when it contributes to better. You will improve your life and your work.
PS: You may feel the urge to criticize this piece, but before you do, please bear in mind that I really worked really really hard on it!