“Nothing is impossible if you work hard enough”. Bullshit.
“Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.” Dwayne Johnson
“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.” Colin Powell
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” Stephen King
“I can tell you that hard work pays off. It’s not just a cliche.” Cameron Diaz
You don’t have to look far to see more examples of successful people extolling the virtues of hard work. Extreme hard work. Articles outlining the work schedule of billionaires — rising at 6am and doing a 10 mile run. Getting up at 5am to do conference calls with the other side of the world. Rising at 4am. Working 100 hour weeks. Working 7 days a week. Sacking off friends and family to pursue your dreams. Staying in the office until everyone else has left, finishing one last task. Getting ahead start on tomorrow, today. Sleeping 4 hours a night. Answering every notification on your phone to do with work at all hours of the night. Sleeping in the office. Always being on. The grind. The hustle.
The narrative constructed in blogs, biographies, guides, and self-help books is that those that rise to the top of their chosen path do so not because they are more talented, but that they work 10x harder than anyone else to achieve it. That’s what makes them stand out and succeed.
There’s a fetishism around hard work. Being ‘busy’ is good, desirable, necessary.
This is misguided both because it’s dangerous, but also more fundamentally; it’s completely wrong.
Why it’s wrong
I like Will Smith.
Will Smith often reflects upon his own success by framing it in terms of hard work. He says he considers himself to have average talent, but a work ethic far greater than his peers. You can hear him express this in a number of different ways, and at first, this seems like a very appealing idea, and is intuitive. It’s motivational, it’s simple to understand.
I am probably only averagely talented, so if I work harder than anyone, I can succeed too!*
*first part of this sentence is never uttered aloud
Similar narratives are constructed around sportspeople, business people, actors and musicians. Jonny Wilkinson stayed hours after training to practice his kicking. The Beatles played thousands of hours in clubs before they hit it big. Successful entrepreneurs work 120 hour weeks. That’s why they made it. Others may have had more raw talent, natural ability, or better luck, but by sheer force of will; blood, sweat and tears, these people persevered and rose to the top.
These stories however are misguided, for two reasons.
1. Blind luck plays far more of a factor than anyone cares to admit
You know what Will Smith also has? A fucking beautiful face. He’s been charismatic since an early age. He was born in the land of the free and the home of the brave. He was raised in a middle class family with a father that taught him that ‘nothing is impossible if you work hard enough’. He went to a strict religious school. He met someone in high school that shared his love of Rap and would eventually become DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Imagine if he was horrendously ugly. Grotesquely so. Imagine if he had a degenerative physical disease. What if he was born in Sudan? What if his father was an abusive drunk? What if his family were desperately poor? What if his high school friends were criminals in waiting and led him astray? What if he got hit by a car when he was 12 and shattered both of his legs, leaving his growth stunted and in hospital for a year? What if his mum got terminally ill just before he decided to embark on his rap career?
None of the things that shaped Will Smith as a person in his early life did he influence deliberately, or as an act of hard work. None of any of us do. We don’t control what year we are born in. We don’t choose the wealth of our parents, or their parenting style. We don’t choose our physical appearance, or sexual orientation, or skin colour. We don’t choose our neighbourhood, our first school, our early classmates, our teachers. We don’t choose how our society treats people from our socio-economic class, race, religion or sex. We don’t have control over many of the formative experiences. We also don’t control when many bad things that happen to us.
Yes it is true that we can control some of our attitude to these things, and how we react to certain experiences. But even our capacity for things like perseverance, resilience, positivity, and capacity for hard work are influenced by and bound by external factors. “My respect for hard work comes from my father”, “my love of science came from my first school teacher” , “the local library had a computer that I was fascinated by”. All of these things, just luck.
In order for hard work to even begin to make a difference in our fortunes, a huge number of uncontrollable prerequisites have to be in place. Take away enough of those things beyond our control and it really doesn’t matter how hard we work. Try telling a young girl born in Syria with talent for singing that is she just works hard enough she can do whatever she wants. Try telling a young boy in the Rohingya that if he works hard enough he can be the next Elon Musk.
Yes there are examples of people that live in unimaginable hardship that have ‘beaten the odds’ to rise up out of their surroundings and achieve their dreams, but look closely at those lives and there will still be a stream of events and influencing factors that lead them to their success. Some other factors will be seemingly in their control (perseverance probably being one of those), but they form a part of a much larger picture of events that lead to someone making it.
What’s more, if we happen to be one of those that do succeed, we tend to falsely attribute our own input in that success. A study by Paul Piff (the TED talk can be found here) looked at how players behaved in a rigged game of Monopoly. One randomly-chosen player in a randomly selected group was given certain advantages at the start of the game — twice the money, rolling two dice instead of one each turn, and more access to resources (higher bonuses for passing ‘go’). In this scenario, we know for sure that the game is arbitrarily rigged in favour of one person, who has a much higher chance of winning. However when interviewing the players afterwards, he found the following:
“At the end […], we asked the players to talk about their experience during the game. And when the rich players talked about why they had inevitably won in this rigged game of Monopoly they talked about what they’d done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game. And they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation — including that flip of a coin — that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place. And that’s a really, really incredible insight into how the mind makes sense of advantage.”
The way the mind makes sense of success is to look backwards and find reasons for success. Our minds don’t deal well with chance, and luck. We also want our situation to be the result of factors within our control, so even when they are not, we convince ourselves we had some influence over our path. We want to be able to justify any rewards we receive — ask the 1% if they deserve the huge wealth they have amassed and most will find ways to justify their earnings. Few if any will say they were wildly lucky and don’t deserve to earn millions more than nurses, doctors, firefighters and those in public services who also work damn hard.
So what if you’re one of the fortunate ones that live free of enough of these disadvantages that hard work can make a difference to your future situation? If you are middle class, live in a stable economy that encourages pursuing your dreams, have the means to do so, and have others that will join you on the journey? Is it enough then? Nope.
2. Survivor Bias means we forget all those that didn’t make it
Survivor Bias — Survivorship bias, or survival bias, is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of visibility. […]
Survivorship bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored, […[ It can also lead to the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than just coincidence.
For every shining beacon of success in any industry, we look at the characteristics that got them there, and immediately attribute their success to their characteristics. Like Will Smith, this can be hard work, so we infer that to be in the same position in the future, we would also need to embody those same characteristics.
But for every Will Smith, Lady Gaga, Williams sisters and Elon Musk there are thousands upon thousands who had the same attitude and work ethic (if not better) and still did not make it to the same heights as them.
Let’s look at American professional basketball for a moment. Their model is slightly different to the UK in that most professionals do not join academies early in their lives, they tend to make their way through high school, and then through college on a sponsorship before being ‘drafted’ by a professional club.
So let’s take the journey of those that play basketball through high school in the US (figures taken from 2012):
High school players: 545,844
College players: 17,500
Does that mean that each of those 48 draftees worked harder than the 545,844 others? Did they just want it more? Put in more hours at the gym?
For every hard working success story, there are thousands of others who worked just as hard but didn’t make it. Maybe they made a string of poor decisions, had some poor advice and guidance, or suffered from a series of injuries, or as the movie Moneyball made us aware of, just didn’t ‘catch the eye’ of the scouts because they had a strange technique.
This false narrative is constantly applied across a number of professions, companies, movements and people. We need to make sense of why a person succeeded, so we trace a route backwards in time and come to the conclusion that somehow they were always destined to succeed because of the events and qualities they possessed. This is clearly false. This is why we constantly see predictions about people, companies and movements that fail to materialise. They show all the signs of potential success that we know have been present in others that have succeeded, but fail themselves. It’s far messier and less predictable that we would like it to be, but we only focus on the winners of this game, and it gives us a hugely distorted view on the ‘guaranteed’ ingredients for success.
Why it’s dangerous
Let’s say you’ve bought into the idea that hard work will make all the difference. You start putting in long, brutal hours in order to succeed (because hard work = long hours right?). What are the risks of doing this?
Well for one, you might end up like this dude:
Hopefully he’ll make it and one day he’ll be sitting on huge piles of money and success, but he’ll also probably have a family that resent him and his children will probably have some pretty serious father issues. But hey, at least he can buy them a new car for their 17th birthday. YAY.
Putting all of your non-work relationships to one side can lead to one of two things — one, you succeed and then spend years either relatively lonely or looking to reconnect with those you shunned in favour of your work, or two, you fail (since most people do statistically) and you have no success and also no friends or close relationships. Neither of those sound particularly great. No-one on their deathbed ever says “I wish I could have traded in the relationships in my life for more success”. On the contrary, people say they wished they had worked less hard and spent more time with friends and family. This sounds obvious, but so many find themselves neglecting friendships and family for the sake of some idealised version of achieving their dreams.
Even if you don’t care about the relationships in your life, working too hard can have serious consequences. Burnout is real. Not only is it dangerous for your health, it can actually make you less productive. Thankfully, there’s increasing awareness of this issue, and take it from Arianna Huffington, the best in the world at sports and business often have a rigid, disciplined devotion to getting enough sleep. This NY Times article mentions a number of studies that suggest the benefits of more time away from the desk:
- In a study of nearly 400 employees, published last year, researchers found that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burn-out. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.
- The Stanford researcher Cheri D. Mah found that when she got male basketball players to sleep 10 hours a night, their performances in practice dramatically improved: free-throw and three-point shooting each increased by an average of 9 percent
- When night shift air traffic controllers were given 40 minutes to nap — and slept an average of 19 minutes — they performed much better on tests that measured vigilance and reaction time.
- Sara C. Mednick, a sleep researcher at the University of California, Riverside, found that a 60- to 90-minute nap improved memory test results as fully as did eight hours of sleep.
- In 2006, the accounting firm Ernst & Young did an internal study of its employees and found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings from supervisors (on a scale of one to five) improved by 8 percent. Frequent vacationers were also significantly less likely to leave the firm.
In other words, even if you only care about your own success, not taking enough time away from it will actually make you less likely to succeed.
So this means we shouldn’t work hard, right?
Well, no. If hard work, talent, luck, environment, society, team, market, and numerous other things are all cogs in the success machine, you can’t simply remove one and expect to still build a success rocket.
Hard work can to some extent help game the system of fortunate events, and if I remove that, there’s a chance that good fortune will never befall me. If I want to be an actor in Hollywood, no amount of sitting at home hoping for it will make that happen. Learning and acting at every opportunity, saving up money to move to Hollywood, attending all events and trying to meet those in the industry will all improve the chances of getting a break. So you should still give it a shot, and try damned hard.
But also don’t ruin yourself by pushing too hard. If you’re not succeeding at working 70 hour weeks, be wary of thinking that doubling that time worked will help. It will almost certainly erode your ability to function as a normal human being, and will lead to stress, burnout and probably shorten your life permanently.
It may sound obvious, but balance is key. Resting, switching your mind off work, sleeping, maintaining and building healthy relationships, having hobbies, exercising and all manner of non-work related activities can give you a far more satisfying existence then forsaking everything else in the pursuit of success.
You can (and should) focus on other elements of being a success that are not simply putting in more hours. Take this from the founder of Basecamp:
People make it because they’re talented, they’re lucky, they’re in the right place at the right time, they know how to work with other people, they know how to sell, they know what moves people, they can tell a story, they can see the big and small picture in every situation, and they know how to do something with an opportunity. And so many other reasons. Working harder than other people is not the reason.
There’s plenty of things in that list of reasons that can be worked on, studied, practiced and improved that don’t involve 4am starts every day. Don’t trust stories and narratives that over-simplify the journey to the top, but also don’t think that that journey is impossible.
If you can find a way to take a shot at your dreams, do it. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, after all. It’s the risk and the first step is the hardest. It takes courage to build something, and courage is having the will to act, knowing that something may go wrong and you may miss out. If all it took was hard work to achieve success, all business advice books would be pretty short, and very similar. They’d also be completely wrong.