The Hard Work Paradox (Part 1): Why Success Takes More than Effort

Many of us pride ourselves on our work ethic, but in the professional world outworking everyone isn’t a sufficient strategy for getting ahead. Hard work is the basic ingredient of career advancement. Not much will happen for you if you’re not willing to put in some serious effort. But it also probably won’t set you apart from your peers as much as you might think. One of the quirks of working life is that we usually sabotage our ability to differentiate ourselves on the basis of how much effort we put into our jobs. I don’t see this as a bad thing necessarily. When it’s hard to differentiate yourself this way among your peers, it can signify a competitive and stimulating environment. However, the situation does require you to think differently than you used to about how to stand out in the crowd.

Every now and then we all have to sprint in our jobs to crank something out before a deadline or deal with an intense time of year, but I think the majority of the pain from overwork is self-inflicted. Young professionals often sacrifice their free time and personal relationships, and sometimes their sanity in their attempts to squeeze every drop of productivity out of each day. Why? Well, when you get past the work ethic and pride, the ultimate motivation behind all of this self-denial and delayed gratification is success in some form - or at least improving the odds of it. In theory, that should lead people to expend effort in the areas that have the most influence on their odds of getting ahead (within ethical boundaries). What I see instead, however, are hordes of young people who try to outwork each other in a competition to see who can work the most nights and weekends and produce the most output the fastest. Many companies implicitly or even explicitly encourage this, and I wouldn’t call it a “bad” strategy, but it’s often an inefficient way to reach your goals. Working on the right things is more important than simply working a lot. Not only that, I’ll propose that outworking everyone simply is not a viable long-term advancement strategy because of what I call the “Hard Work Paradox.

When I look at my first ten years in the workforce, I passed up dozens if not hundreds of potential happy hours, dates, and other more enjoyable activities so that I could work more. At first glance, it seems to have mostly paid off. I got promotions and made career moves that allowed me to live comfortably while maintaining most of my friendships. I somehow managed to meet and not lose my wife while I was pushing my limits at a startup (I regard this as a small miracle. I was thirty minutes late for our first date at a fancy bar which I picked mostly because it was around the corner from my office). And yet, dusting off my hands and saying “job well done” avoids a question that still bothers me: Did I really have to give up so much of myself in those years? I’ll never know the answer, but I do know in hindsight that being a hard worker didn’t make me stand out. In fact, it seemed like the harder I worked in my career, the less it set me apart over time. I’ve dubbed this phenomenon the “Hard Work Paradox”, and it is one of the things that inspired me to start this blog.

The Hard Work Paradox

The hardest working people tend to be least able to distinguish themselves on the basis of hard work.

The Hard Work Paradox stems from two facts about professional life, one obvious and one less so. The first is that there are only so many hours in a day, and thus a finite limit to how much you can work. So even if you work a lot, there’s a physical limit to how much you can set yourself apart through work quantity before you even get to the toll it takes on you. The second, subtler fact underlying the Hard Work Paradox is that people who work really hard gravitate toward industries, then companies, and ultimately teams where everyone else works hard too. This ultimately diminishes their ability to distinguish themselves simply on the basis of how hard they work, because it’s the norm where they are. The reverse is also true, by the way. If you are in an environment where you’re able to easily work much harder than everybody else, then it’s not likely a good environment for you to stay in long-term. It might feel great to be the star performer, but you likely won’t be pushed to improve the way that you need to be in that kind of situation.

The key takeaway of the Hard Work Paradox is that you need to take a holistic view of what being great at your job really means, beyond just putting in the effort. As I mentioned in my previous post, the determinants of professional advancement you can control are the quality of your work, making your organization more successful, and getting people with authority to trust you with some of your own. Within each of those areas are many, many dimensions along which you have an opportunity to differentiate yourself. The challenge is also the opportunity: master the hidden elements of your role that will guide your success.

What Conquering the Hard Work Paradox Doesn’t Look Like

If you’ve ever seen a character in a sitcom or a movie go to a job interview, they almost always are asked to describe their biggest weakness is. The typical response is being too much of a perfectionist. It’s the classic bad-thing-that’s-really-a-good-thing in the minds of most people. Unfortunately, being a perfectionist only seems like a positive until you have no choice but to make hard tradeoffs and you don’t have any practice at it. In my first few years out of college working first at a consulting firm, and after that at a tech startup, I got antsy at the thought of someone else working more than I did. It felt worse when I saw other lauded for how hard they worked. Just overhearing someone else’s effort being complimented gave me the itch to stay late or work over the weekend just to turn some assignment around faster than anyone expected. I went through several months-long periods at a time in which I spent practically every waking minute of my life either at work or studying for classes I was taking on the side (minus a night of drinking with friends on the weekend). I took refresher courses for skills that had rusted since college and programming classes to pick up new skills. I spent hundreds of hours over nights and weekends studying for an intense financial analyst exam that I hoped would be a cheaper substitute to build my resume than business school. A prescribed medication for a sleep disorder that I had acquired allowed me to sustain twenty-hour work days for long periods of time without feeling the effects of prolonged sleep deprivation, and I took full advantage. I felt inferior being surrounded by people who seemed like they were better at their jobs than I was, and I compensated by working as hard as I was capable of in response. But I still didn’t feel like I was separating myself from the herd, so I would work even harder.

The problem with my approach was that focusing so much energy on doing my work better or faster kept me from stepping back and asking bigger questions like, what should I be working on that would really add value to my team or the company? How do I get the right people to take notice? What are the important problems that I should be thinking about? Answering those questions allow you to make big jumps in your contributions to the business, but I was too focused on doing what people told me to just a little better or a little faster. It was not the best use of my energy, and it caught up to me in an unpleasant way when my peer group started getting promoted.

In Part 2, I’ll dig into what I learned from watching people who figured out how to thrive in a world governed by the Hard Work Paradox before I did.