The Truth about Hard Work
When we are talking about hard work, we aren’t necessarily talking about physically working hard. On a physical level, depending on your current physical strength, a work could be easy, demanding, or impossible. You might wonder if physically demanding work can come under hard work, but if you enjoy that physically demanding work, you won’t feel it as hard work.
Hard work isn’t about doing mentally challenging things either. You could come home tired from work and play a game of chess with your son to refresh. Chess is a mentally challenging game, but some people find it refreshing. So the hard work we are talking about is neither a physical difficulty nor a mental difficulty, it’s more of a feeling.
You’ll feel a task is effortful if there’s an opposing force that’s stopping you from doing that task. Such opposing force exists when there’s a conflict of interests within you. Suppose a part of you wants to sit and do the work, but another part of you wants to rest or scroll social media. If there was no desire other than doing the decided thing, then there won’t be any force (psychologically) opposing you from doing it. Hence you won’t feel that you are working hard to complete the task.
The concept of Hard Work can not exist without inner conflict. So the opposite of Hard Work is not Easy Work; the opposite of hard work is working in sync. You could be doing a work that squeezes out all your physical and mental capabilities, but if no part of your body or mind is resisting it — your entire being is working towards it in sync — you won’t feel that you are working hard.
Instead of trying to work harder, it makes more sense to resolve you inner conflict. By forcing yourself to work harder by watching motivational videos and getting inspired by successful people, you are covering up the real issue that needs some inquiry. By blindly pushing harder, you are simply ignoring dealing with the root cause of the issue.
Hard Work and Talent
You are not wrong in noticing that all the high performers push themselves more than average human beings. But I’d ask you to notice one more thing: aren’t they doing something they are interested in and passionate about? Hard work without any love for the process is just self-torture.
To be clear, I am not talking about the resistance that you feel before starting a work session. I am talking about the lack of interest you feel while you are engaged in the process – when you are doing the day-to-day tasks in your pursuit. A common example: you might not feel like doing one more set of pushups, but once you do the first rep, that resistance vanishes. If this is the case, then you must do it. Beat that resistance in the beginning; it’s just your mind’s inertia. But if you hate yourself while doing each rep of that set, then I believe you’d do better with some other sport.
Everyone has different tendencies towards different things. You might like a different kind of partner than others; you might have a different taste for food than others. There are some default likes and dislikes of your body and mind. I am not talking about likes and dislikes created by the mind, but I am talking about the inclinations of your entire being (body, brain, mind, feelings, emotions, upbringing, DNA, all combined).
A work feels hard when you are working against your being’s inclinations. You might be good with logic, but are forcing yourself to do some manual work. That’s hard work for you, but someone else might find the same manual work more engaging than analysis work. If you are asked to eat a scoop of your favorite food every day, that’s not big of an issue, but if you are asked to follow a diet composed of food you do not like, it becomes hard work.
Expanding your current limits and growing your capability
While we are talking about talent and hard work, one must keep in mind that talent and passion are not rare. Almost everyone at the top of their fields is talented and passionate. Your inclinations and talents will take you to a level above the average players, but beyond that, you need to get serious about your subject.
You can’t gain mastery in a field with unserious attempts. After one point, you’ll have to grow your capabilities in order to level-up in your game. But that does not mean you make “get comfortable being uncomfortable” your moto, which many motivational speakers talk about.
Two things are essential: testing your limits and playing at the edge of your limits. You don’t ideally want to go beyond your limit, because that’d technically mean you’ll breakdown something. But most people have perceived limits, not real limits. That’s why it’s important to test your real limits from time to time.
Once you find your true limit, spend a small time playing at the limit, and more time playing just below your limit. Playing at the edge of your limits is the way to expand your capabilities, to dive deeper into your skill. The major problem with the motivational things is that they focus more on breaking the limits, which often break the person too. If you currently deadlift 100 kg, and your goal is to deadlift 200 kg, you don’t go to the gym and lift 150 kg the next day. You keep training at 100 kg and gradually increase the load each week and check if you can lift the new weight with the right form. If you find your posture is compromising at a given weight, you reduce the weight and train. That’s how you take your current limit of 100 kg to 200 kg. You don’t reach a goal by getting comfortable being uncomfortable; you get there by proper training.
For most people who read this, you probably can’t afford a coach. You are your own coach. And falling into the motivational traps can damage your training. When you are working with the hard-work mindset, the chances are high that you’ll either keep switching fields or break down at some point. These two are the most common results I’ve seen in people who watch motivational stuff. They are either running nowhere or push too far and crash and burn. Being the coach of your life, you can’t afford this drama. The path to mastery is straight: find the skill you have a natural inclination towards, find the secrets of your skill, notice how your mind interacts with your skill, train according to the patterns of your skill and the patterns of your body and mind. There’s no place for hard work in that equation.
If your end goal is hard work, you will likely focus too much on working hard rather than getting the results. Taking the deadlift example, your goal is to lift 200 kg, not to spend more time in the gym. It’s easy to lose track of the real direction when you train with the mindset of working hard.
Working hard for a better future?
It’s commonly advised to the young kids to work hard to accumulate the maximum amount of things early in life. This is probably the worst advice for young kids. The youth is for exploration. It’s the best time to explore their interests and talents. If someone tells you to invest this precious time in making 200 sales calls every day to accumulate more money early in life, I’d say run away from that person.
Investing time to find your art is the best investment you can make when you are young. Once you find which skill deeply interests you, triple down on it. Gain mastery in it. And you know what, it won’t feel like hard work. Yes, it will feel DIFFICULT for sure, but it won’t feel like hard work. And eventually, all the external things you desire will come to you through that skill.
We first fix a goal and then think about what tasks we’d have to do every day to achieve that goal. We need to flip this around. Find your inclinations first – subjects that interest you and skills that you pick up faster than others. Then try to build a career or a business around that skill to fulfill your external goals (I know this is not simple; that's why I wrote a book on it). But it’s much easier in the long run, and you’ll probably reach higher goals than you can imagine right now.
Working hard today so that you can enjoy the rewards tomorrow is a flawed concept. Does your life consist of “todays” or “tommorrows”? With the mindset of building a better a tomorrow you end up living your entire life looking towards the future when your present passes by.
I understand that you might be in a bad place right now, and desperately want to get out of it. But tell me one thing: why are you convinced that you HAVE to do something you don’t like to improve your conditions? Who wrote that law? Can’t you find some path that interests you and use that path to uplift your current life? You can either work out of desperation to get out of your current situation or you can work out of your love for an activity or a cause. Which one will lead you to a better place, materially and mentally? You decide.
The hidden cost of the Hard Work mindset
We can’t talk about hard work without talking about results. Let’s be honest, your desire to work harder comes from the desire of getting bigger things in life at a faster pace.
The Universe works in cause and effects (at least that’s how it appears to us). To manifest an outcome in the universe, a series of causes and effects have to be manufactured first. Once the process is fulfilled, the outcome manifests.
What we are not taught is that there are always low-cost alternatives to achieve a result similar to the one you are chasing right now. If the current process is hurting you, then simply change the route, or change the destination altogether. Because the joy of the destination will last only a few days, but the process will cost you years of struggle and compromises.
Often you think you need to work harder to gain more results, but in reality, you might need a better strategy. I see too many youngsters hustling and struggling to get results just because they do not understand the concept of scaling, delegation, leverage, and marketing. You are scaling your inputs by working harder, but the outcomes don’t scale proportionately with your inputs.
In a simple system with fewer, tightly help parts, the number of options is limited. But luckily, most of our systems, like economic systems, social systems, and biological systems, are dense complex systems with loosely held parts. In such systems, options are nearly infinite. There is an infinite number of arrangements you can make to gain the desired result or overcome an obstacle on your path.
You are resorting to hard work because you are not aware of the alternatives, or you are not thinking of creating a new path of your own — a path built specifically for you and not for the general public. You don’t want to take that risk because you were never told to look for options. Hence you think working harder on the only option. It is the only way you know of to achieve more, and achieve faster.
It’s not that you’ll encounter no obstacles on your path. But every problem has a solution. And when you can’t find an effective solution, you resort to hard work. Instead of resorting to hard work, training your mind to find effective solutions to the problems is far more advantageous in the long run.
Working hard is a typical employee mindset cultivated by our incomplete education system. An employee knows only one path. So if he wants to increase his speed of growth, the only option he has is to work harder. On the other hand, business people know delegation and leverage, and they have an eye to spot profitable options. They don’t stick to one path, and they are not afraid to build new paths if they get better results at less cost.
When we think about work, we often don’t think about the environment and people. There could be a work that you don’t like to do alone, but like to do it with your friends—like, going to the gym. Going to the gym to pursue your physique goals could be hard work for you, but what if you do it along with your friend? You might not like writing alone, but you might enjoy writing with a team or writing on a specific theme.
If you get addicted to the Hard Work mindset, you will settle for the option that requires the most hard work instead of finding the option that brings the best results. The difficult path isn’t always the path to the best results. Quite the opposite, the difficult path is almost always inefficient. If you put all the things at its supposed place, the system should operate smoothly, not forcefully. A properly manufactured, well-oiled machine works at high speeds without making any noise. And if you find some friction inside the machine producing noise, it means there’s something wrong with the machine. A good system should consume LESS energy, not more energy to deliver a result.
Working hard has shown to degrade your performance. The limit is different for everyone, but the productivity starts to go low beyond a certain point. Dustin Moskovitz, the co-founder of Facebook and Asana, talks about this in his blog post. He describes that if he hadn’t worked that hard during the peak days of Facebook, he might have contributed even more to the company. He shares how his work-induced panic attacks and chronic health issues limited his ability to give his best to the company.
I must clarify one thing: looking for alternatives doesn’t mean looking for easy things. As we discussed, the opposite of hard work is not easy work; the opposite of hard work is a work that syncs with you. Those looking for EASY alternatives are more likely to fall into the trap of various schemes.
Imitating Hard Work
We discussed the definition of hard work at the beginning of the essay. But there’s one more kind of hard work — perceived hard work. This kind of hard work, which is prevalent in modern society, is a correlation factor, not a causation factor. We commonly see success and hard work at the same place, in the same person. That makes us think that hard work must have caused the success. Then we try to imitate the hard work with the hope of achieving that kind of success in our life as well.
What you perceive as hard work in a successful person is actually a side-effect caused by something else inside him. The cause is not visible to others, often the person himself can’t observe it, but the perceived hard work generated by that cause is visible to others. As a result, those who get inspired by that person try to imitate the hard work, but no one can copy the cause due to its hidden nature. For effect to manifest, the cause has to be there; you can’t simply copy the effect without the underlying cause present in you.
For example, one of the causes of perceived hard work could be the person’s love for the process. He might be doing more of it because he simply likes doing it, but you might not like doing it; hence you think he is working hard while he’s just playing.
“To the experts, what looks like hard work from the outside, is play from the inside.” — Naval Ravikant
Qualitative vs Quantitative Improvements
One more problem with the hard-work mindset is it focuses more on quantity than quality. Doing more of something doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing it better. Most people generally take working hard as working more. But the increase in quantity does not translate into an increase in the quality of your work. Do you want to work more, or do you want to work better?
An athlete who keeps on practicing the same moves isn’t necessarily a great athlete. Practicing more and more of what you already know isn’t going to increase your performance. But this is exactly what people tend to do when they work just for the sake of working hard. It feels very hard for sure, and people take pride in it, but it doesn’t give proportionate results.
If you are a writer, for how long you can write isn’t the goal, right? Ideally, your goal should be to write a masterpiece whenever you put a pen on the paper. This reminds me of Picasso’s famous story when he charged a lady $5000 for a painting that he made in 5 minutes. You don’t want to become capable of painting non-stop for 4 hours; you want to become capable of painting a thousand-dollar piece in 5 minutes. Unfortunately, hard work only helps you improve the quantity, not the quality.
When you are not blinded by the hard-work mindset, you’ll see that adding more quantity, after a certain point, doesn’t show any improvement in the quality of your work. If you take two people, one trains for qualitative improvement, and other trains for quantitative improvement, who will win after a year?
Why is the Hard Work culture spreading so much?
It’s clear that the path of Hard Work is inefficient as well as ineffective. It not only gives sub-optimal results, but it also adds unnecessary stress and anxiety to your life. If this mindset has such disadvantages, then why everyone promotes it?
One of the reasons the hard work mindset is so much propagated in our society is because many successful people talk about it. The story of hard work is the story of a hero. Everyone wants to be the hero of their life, and more importantly, they want to show others how heroic they are. What could be a better way to create that image than telling the story of how hard you worked in your life to get where you are today.
There’s also a negative incentive to not spread the easy story behind one’s success. People think a person needs to “deserve” success to possess it. That’s why modern society has started to look down on pure talent. If you are brilliantly talented in a skill and win all the competitions, but you don’t practice or train much, people won’t respect you. In fact, people will admire the one who’s consistently losing matches, but trains and practices very hard every day.
Some of the people you take inspiration from to work harder in life are addicted to hard work. By working harder in life, many people are actually trying to run away from some other real problems in their life. But on social media, that part isn’t shown. They exhibit their work ethic on social media to get more admiration. The appreciations from their peers, friends, and followers, and the short bursts of achievements bring them temporary relief from the pain of their real issues.
Some people use Hard Work as a pre-defined excuse so that when they fail, they can at least say, “I worked hard on it, but it didn’t work out.” This is a typical no-my-fault attitude. But since the concept of hard work is over-romanticized in our society, people don’t realize this truth. We don’t realize that hard work is of no importance if it doesn’t bring results. It’s easy to use hard work to delegate your faults. And if you don’t accept your faults, you don’t learn the important lessons from your failures.
When you come across the concept of doing something even when you do not want to do it, instead of blindly forcing yourself towards action, it’s much better to pause and reflect for a moment. You can either suppress the inner conflict by working hard or eliminate it by inspecting your situation, goals, and feelings. Choose wisely.
Whenever possible, try to work WITH your being, not against it. Develop eyes to see the patterns of the game and your mind. The better you know yourself, the more you can customize the path in your favor. Build processes that sync with your nature instead of following readymade processes.
Don’t get motivated by watching videos or other people. And do not build plans in a motivated state of mind. When making a life decision, or building a business strategy, make sure you are in a calm mental state to see reality more clearly. You need to choose a path based on reality, not based on your emotions.
Remember, hard work is a form of laziness. Laziness to explore the best path, laziness to understand your game’s patterns, and laziness to introspect. Observe your field, understand your market, and carve out a path of your own. If you follow one of the limited numbers of paths that everyone else is following, then you won’t have any other option than working hard.
Short bursts of hard work are understandable. Not every step of your process will be smooth; some parts will demand working on things you don’t like. Use hard work when required, and then leave it. Use it as a tool in your arsenal, not as a mindset. If occasionally, a small part of the process needs hard work, go ahead and get it done. But if your entire process is based on the concept of working hard, then it’s a very inefficient system.