The Hard Work Paradox: What I Learned by Watching Other People Succeed

Note: A modified version of this article ran on Elite Daily

(Check out Part One if you missed it)

For people who were always successful in school, spending roughly twenty years winning in the classroom is sometimes poor preparation for the business world. One of the unpleasant side effects of how our education system works is that it conditions you to think of success as a simple function of effort. School usually works this way. If you work harder and study more than everyone else, you’ll be at or near the top of the class (creativity unfortunately doesn’t matter much). Applying that same formula to your career works at first, but the Hard Work Paradox dictates that as the stakes in your career go up, hard work just becomes a requirement as opposed to a determinant of success. That’s another way the paradox hits people hard. Just when you’re counting on the familiar formula to start producing some material rewards for you, the trusted relationship between effort and success starts to break down. Once I started my company UserMuse, I realized just how tenuous that relationship can be -- it's ridiculously easy to put an insane amount of effort into the wrong thing in a startup and get squat out of it.

If you are one of these hardworking people who mostly aced their academic career, seeing someone in your peer group advance ahead of you can be unnerving. Even if you’re happy for the other person, it still feels like losing, and losing sucks at any age. I still remember clearly my first feeling of having "lost" the race at work.

About a year into my first job out of college at a consulting firm with a couple of thousand employees, I thought I was doing great. My manager thought my work was good, I was getting the hang of our business, and in my head I was at the top of my group. Then one day I found out that “Michael” (not his real name), another analyst in the group I started with, had been promoted. There were about thirty of us who started at the same time in the summer of 2006, and Michael was now the first to make it to Senior Analyst. A congratulatory email went out to our division from one of the Managing Directors, who informed everyone of Michael’s accomplishments in our corporate finance advisory practice. She also announced that he was moving to a new team that specialized in advising firms on how to manage their internal treasury operations. Round of applause for Michael everyone…

It didn’t matter that I liked Michael and wasn’t especially interested in corporate treasury operations. I was a little freaked out by what was happening. Instantly I had dozens of burning questions: How did Michael get so much recognition so quickly? How does that Managing Director even know him? Does she know about what I’m working on? And many more. It’s not a reaction that I’m proud to recall, but that anxiety is something to which I think many young colleagues can relate. I thought that I was doing all the right things, putting in the long hours, and getting my work noticed. In short, I thought I was killing it, and then out of the blue I got lapped. I assume most of my peers didn’t go through an existential freak-out like I did. But it's kind of a moot point because we all responded outwardly to the news of Michael’s promotion the same way: we each ratcheted up the intensity trying to outwork each other and catch up to Michael. In my mind, I was in crisis mode and it was time to crank things up.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that my reaction was not only silly, it was simplistic. It was simplistic because even though working that much harder wasn’t by any means easy, working harder was an easy answer to my questions. It doesn’t take any creativity whatsoever to work more; just time and discipline. Even though I didn’t have a productivity problem (I was already working pretty long hours), I treated Michael’s promotion as a call to ramp up my productivity even more. Nothing against discipline, but it wasn’t what I needed. I should have taken a step back and looked for ways to contribute more meaningfully to the business.

I wish I had stopped to consider what it really meant to excel at my job and how I could do that rather than blindly just trying to work more hours. My inability to see the bigger picture robbed me of a lot of experiences in my early twenties that would have been more fun than banging my head against the desk at work. At the very least, I probably could have gotten more sleep and been healthier. 

What Does "Work Smarter" Actually Mean?

Maybe the most ridiculous thing about how I handled the news of Michael’s promotion that I didn’t even think he worked harder than I did. I also didn’t feel like he was “smarter” than I was, at least not in the IQ-sense. He was versed in some topics that I was not, but that cut both ways. So what was going on? It took me a long time to realize it, but the biggest difference I eventually saw was that Michael spent a high percentage of his time on projects that were really important to the business at that time. As a result, he created significantly more value for the business, as well as visibility for himself, from each hour of his time than I did. If I wanted to emulate Michael’s rapid ascent, I needed a better yield from my time, not a longer work day. What I really should have asked was how it came to be that Michael worked on such cool, important projects that the bosses cared about while I was working on the same things all the other junior analysts were back then.

My mistake was that I viewed my role too narrowly and just kept plowing away on whatever my manager told me to do. By contrast, Michael looked around and spotted a project on another team that aligned with his financial modeling background. That team happened to be short-staffed at the time due to one of their analysts being on maternity leave. On top of that, the project had executive attention because it served a sophisticated group of clients that elevated the company’s prestige. It wasn’t part of his job description, but Michael saw an opportunity to contribute and went after it. After talking with some of the people on the other team and then his manager, they were all too happy to shift Michael’s responsibilities around so that he could help ensure success on such a critical project. As a result, he was spending close to 100% of his time at the office working on something that interested him, had major value to the business, and elevated his profile among the management team. In fact, when they rearranged Michael’s normal responsibilities to give him time to focus on his new tasks, there’s a good chance that the rest of us took up some of the slack. In other words, Michael probably got his peers to subsidize his career progression!

 So while I was drinking red bulls and trying to do the work that was assigned to me better and faster (some of which was of the “TPS Report” variety), Michael found the most leveraged opportunity for himself to make the business successful and then figured out how to get involved. In so doing, he sent a message to the management team that he was focused on the ultimate business outcomes no matter what it meant. That’s a powerful brand to have at such a young age.

When his project wrapped up, Michael presented the findings of their work and how our clients would benefit to a bunch of other project leads. I remember seeing that senior staff felt comfortable taking off the kid gloves and really peppering him with tough questions like he was a peer rather than a junior guy who was still learning the ropes. That was the most telling sign that he had earned their trust and respect and that he was indeed on the fast track. Pretty soon, other teams were angling to get Michael onto their projects for a rotation. That’s what career momentum looks like.

The Takeaway

Working smarter demands more of your creative energy than working harder does. It doesn’t take a genius to spend all weekend at the office. If your plan is to outwork 100 percent of your peers at all times, you'll inevitably fail at some point and you’re at high risk of burning yourself out in the process. It’s better to find an intensity level that you lets you be productive and still able to sprint when you need to. In the long run, your energy is better spent figuring out how to make the business more successful and start creating your own momentum. That starts with taking a fresh look at what your job really is – which I’ll pick up in my next post.