Doing Hard Work vs. Working Hard

The distinction that makes all the difference

Mike Sturm
Nov 14, 2020 · 3 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Ask any successful person how they got where they are, and they’re likely to have one answer in common: “hard work”. This has led us to believe that we need to put in strenuous effort — give it 110% — in order to rise to higher levels of performance.

But we don’t actually have to put in a ton of strenuous effort. We don’t have to break our backs to extract the blood, sweat, and tears — just to do great things. We do, however, have to do the kinds of things that others aren’t doing and probably won’t do.

To put it another way, you don’t have to work hard to be successful, but you do have to do hard work. And there is a difference between those two things. Understanding that difference is more than half the battle. The rest is just about being choosy.

What’s the Difference?

Working hard means pushing, hustling, going all-out, exhausting yourself (and likely others) in pursuit of completing something. It can make you feel good at times, but it also leads to damaging stress. It leads to burn-out. In a company, it can lead to a decrease in morale.

Doing hard work means attempting things that are difficult, complex, require a lot of planning, practice, time, attention, and perhaps resources. These things don’t often get done. Either people see how complex the work is and run away, or people attempt to do just the parts they can readily understand, but not the rest.

But the important part isn’t how many hours you put in, how much you sweat, or how tired you are at the day’s end. What’s important is whether the hard stuff gets done — no matter how much you exerted yourself.

The Anti-Hustle

Is there merit in hustling? Sure. The hustle gets you lots of practice. Because you’re putting in a lot of time and effort, you’ll tend to get better at stuff. If you’re paying attention, you’ll learn a lot, too. But the working hard part of the hustle won’t necessarily get you the greatness.

If you become seduced by the idea of working hard, you end up busting your ass for something that probably isn’t worth pursuing. If your work ethic involves always finishing what you start — no matter what — you could end up forcing yourself to do a bunch of mediocre stuff.

I’m not saying that quitting should become a habit. But at the very least, quitting is a live option — a possible stepping stone on the road to greatness. The easiest way to become great at something is to quit doing a bunch of other stuff that’s not that something.

When we try something, and we start having to work hard, but it doesn’t put the wind in our sails — quit! Stop doing stuff that’s not worth your time and energy. It’s the fastest way to burnout. Quit as soon as you can, and move on to something else.

I know, I know: “done is better than perfect”. There’s value in completing things. But the context of that aphorism is that getting something done is better than paralysis by perfectionism. But there’s more out there than just those two options. There’s the opportunity to do really good stuff — stuff that’s not perfect — but is also not easy.

Be Choosy

Don’t force yourself down dead ends. Don’t waste your time and energy on things that don’t give you energy back. Explore a lot of things. Start and stop when it’s clear it’s not right.

In other words: be choosy. Be unabashedly and mercilessly choosy.

When you are choosy about what you pursue, and you find something that clicks with you, you’ll gain an advantage over others. Because you’re doing something that clicks with you, that energizes and motivates you — you will do deeper work than anyone else.

When something about the work motivates you, you can do hard work without having to work hard. You’ll do the things that others can’t do — because most people don’t even think of them. And the thing is, that hard work won’t be something you need to work hard at.

Now, go forth and do the hard work.

Curious

Find out what others have already figured out. Follow our publication to join our community.

Mike Sturm

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”: https://goo.gl/UhzUYL.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Mike Sturm

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”: https://goo.gl/UhzUYL.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store