On the Meaning of Hard Work

My co-founder and I had a good debate recently about the meaning of hard work. I felt particularly passionate about this disagreement, despite the fact that there was no immediate decision to make. Disagreement is an important part of our working relationship and I’ve learned that disagreement leads to more creativity and better decisions. I observed that — as so often when we disagree — we were agreeing about the principle and arguing about semantics.

The topic of hard work came up in a discussion of our principles and operating system. We are very aligned on the principle that we want to create a culture that values productivity over mere activity and busyness. We’d seen how many organizations can invest immense activity into non-value add activities like reading and replying to emails, attending lots of meetings and creating an endless stream of PowerPoint slides. We hope to create a culture that cuts out much of that busy work and lets people structure their time in a way that maximizes value-adding deep work and gives them the freedom to lead great lives.  

We were trying to find a snappy set of words to capture some of this thinking and Achim proposed:

We work hard as the exception, not as the rule.

I know what he meant, but reading the words I couldn’t help but interpret them differently. To me it felt like they were saying: we take it easy most of the time, but every once in a while we do a crazy sprint and work really hard. In Achim’s defense, that is not what he was saying. But I don’t think it’s such a stretch to interpret it the way I did.

I’ve always been a fan of the gritty, plodding tortoise in Aesop’s fable, The Hare and the Tortoise. Despite the hare’s impressive bursts of speed, the tortoise’s consistent pace won the race. Perhaps I identify with the tortoise because my style is similar. The concept of grit also resonates with me, Angela Duckworth defines it as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” I wanted to find a set of words that captured that gritty perseverance but also highlighted the need for rest and balance in life. My counter-proposal was:

Work hard, not long

I explained: Hard work is like a good work-out, it should help you get closer to achieving your goals as well as giving you a sense of achievement and flow. But just like it is important not to overtrain, it is important not to overwork. There’s nothing good about being a workaholic. Once you work beyond a certain point, you start to get diminishing returns and negatively impact your productivity.

I actually found a thread of comments in the document we were working on that captures the disagreement:

So what we were really arguing about how to define “hard work.” We were arguing about the words. I can see where Achim is coming from in this discussion. He’s associating the word “hard” with something damaging. He’s even made some recommendations about what to use instead. Unfortunately, none of the alternatives feel as powerful to me as “work hard.” Perhaps it is an irrational attachment to a particular formulation. But I feel that culturally, the combination of “work” and “hard” has more meaning than if we replace the modifier “hard” with another word like intense.  

We never resolved this particular disagreement. I remain attached to “hard work.” I think work should be hard. Part of being productive is focusing on the things that are most important instead of the easy tasks that can make us feel a sense of achievement but don’t get us any closer to our goals. The easy tasks are seductive because they are easy. Usually, the important things are hard. It’s solving the big questions and tough challenges that moves us forward. The critical distinction is that solving hard problems doesn’t necessarily mean working long hours and being constantly busy. On this, I believe Achim and I are in full agreement.

I’ll give the final words to Tom Hanks, who summed up my position nicely in a film from 1992:

It’s supposed to be hard…

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.

—Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own

Interested in the topic of personal productivity? Read more on trickle.app in the stream Personal Productivity: Work less and get more done.