Apr 082008

The idea that hard work is the way to success is so ingrained that it’s rarely questioned. Well, I’m going to question it. I’m sure you know of people that seem to be slacking off yet getting results you would like to get. Part of you might think it is unfair and part of you might want to change the situation. I would like to suggest that because you might be so glued to the idea that hard work is the only way to great rewards that you are ignoring easier ways to gain rewards simply because they are “too” easy. This is likely not a conscious filter; it’s one of those subconscious filters that you only think about if/when they are violated. You think within those filters, not think about the filters. Filters also means beliefs here, so I will use the two interchangeably.

First we have to define what hard work and then clarify the relationship between hard work and goal achievement, I will focus more on money in this post, although I feel this idea can be generalized. My unconscious definition of hard work was essentially suffering, and I didn’t feel right getting money for something if I did not feel it was difficult for me. This is clearly stupid because that means I’d have to half-kill myself to become a millionaire. I needed a more empowering and accurate belief.

Eventually what I realized is that there are at least three different kinds of effort: physical, emotional and cognitive. Of those three kinds of efforts, anything that pushes your abilities to do something is what I would call hard work. Thus hard work is a sort of optimum level of difficulty. Too easy and its obviously not hard work; too hard and you’re just not getting anywhere and I would call this futility. I discovered this difference when I thought about why people couldn’t get themselves to go excersize for as little as 10 minutes. Its not that their bodies can’t handle walking or jogging for a few minutes. I realized that people probably saw it more as an emotional effort than a physical one. They might be afraid of how they’ll feel: out of shape, slow and perhaps in pain.

Another thing I realized is that there are at least two levels of hard work. There is what is subjectively hard for you and what is hard for the general population. For example, cold-calling may be really difficult for you, emotionally (it’s obviously not very difficult physically: you just pick up the phone and yap a bit) but it might be super easy for someone else with a higher level of courage. However, while something may be hard for you, it also may not be hard for the general working population. As an example, assume I have a lot of difficulty talking on the phone so I would not make an effective secretary, even though many people can qualify to be secretaries (although being good ones is a different issue). I’ll come back to why this dichotomy of hard work is important in a bit.

There is the question of the end results that you are looking for, such as money. Effort does not necessarily translate into results, sometimes you need a different kind of effort (such as working on your beliefs rather than just within them). When talking about money, Warren Buffett suggested something wonderful which is that money is a ticket on social value. Human consciousness is necessary to recognize its value, otherwise it is just some paper and metal. Having a dollar basically says that you have the right to withdraw one dollar’s worth of value from society whether that be in the form of goods or services. So, to get money from people, you have to give them something that they value. In general, they would probably something they value more than the money they are exchanging for it, otherwise they may as well keep the money. The more you can give, the more you can get.

So, you get paid for doing socially valuable work that has an impact. Generally, the more people you can provide value for and/or how much value you provide, is how you get paid more. Pavlina talks about this issue here: What is Your Value? and Purpose = Permanent Message + Temporary Medium.

Having defined hard work and creating some form of social value are two independent and not always causally related things, let’s see how they’re linked. Social value also follows a sort of law of supply and demand, and when there is less supply and more demand, you can charge more for your service. You want to charge in accordance with the value you create, as well. There is not just a monetary cost that you charge, though, there is also an attentional cost, too. Steve Pavlina‘s site, for example, doesn’t charge money to view the articles, but it does require attention, and he has to give enough value to make it worth people’s attention and time that they’ll stick around and potentially click on ads or buy his affiliated products.

Because social value follows a sort of supply and demand law, something might be really hard for you but easy for many people and thus the price of that thing will be lower. On the other hand, if something is easy for you and hard for the general population, you have less competition and potentially more demand for it, if it is socially valuable. The social value is an important distinction. As an example: you may be fantastic at making buggy whips, but you likely won’t get rich just making buggy whips simply because there isn’t much demand for it.

Imagine two overlapping circles. Socially valuable work is not necessarily hard work and hard work is not necessarily socially valuable. Hard work is important, yes, but hard work which is effective and gets you closer to your goals is important. As Seth Godin suggested, you could work 100 hours a day and do nothing, and you cannot claim that you are working hard.

Another excellent perspective on hard work by Seth Godin is here. I feel he is talking about emotional effort: taking risks, going against what other people are saying and so forth.

Some general notes related to this theory: people who get fired after working for a long time may say something along the lines of, “I worked so hard”. They might have been working hard indeed, however they might not have been creating much social value. The value that you create has to be perceived as such by the other person, and especially by whoever you are working with or for. Thinking about is, I would say that this is where marketing comes in.

The monetary value of something in our society is not defined by what is “right” or “wrong”. Top movie stars, for example, can make millions of dollars in a given year while top doctors (depending on where you are) who save lives every day may make as much as a million dollars. I feel that this has little to do with society’s “values” being skewed but more to do with the nature of their businesses. Top movie stars get paid out of the 8-13 dollars many millions of movie goers and DVD buyers will pay in perhaps a year. In a way, they have a larger impact. On the other hand, top doctors may only have a few hundred-thousand life-saving operations over the course of their careers. The doctor’s results are linked to their time and attention and there’s really no way around that because there are only so many hours in a day. A movie star, however, is working on a more scalable model which doesn’t require their attention to generate the actual income.

Main Points:

  • Working hard will not always give you the results you desire.
  • What is hard for you and what is hard for the general population can lead to your results being different because if it’s easy to do something, a lot of people will be doing it and thus drive down the relative value (ie price) of that thing.
  • Hard work has at least three types: physical work, emotional work and cognitive work.

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