It feels good when you’re known as a hard worker. And with good reason. In just about any field, very few people are successful based on talent and luck alone. They do the hard work to get where they’ve arrived. That willingness to pair ambition with effort is also an important ingredient in developing a passion. It’s only through those consistent strides to get better that you discover the joy to be found in the pursuit of mastery.
But that doesn’t mean hard work is always good, especially if you’re treating the effort itself as the point of the exercise.
Too many working professionals will brag about their late nights and weekends spent working. They’ll respond to emails at all hours and remain attached to their phone, embracing these actions as part of what it takes to get ahead, as if the frenetic pace and absence of downtime are a sign of career success.
You see this at the high school level, too, with students who dutifully plow through classes, test prep, and a long list of activities, sacrificing their enjoyment and even health at the altar of hard work. But if you ask them about their favorite class or activity, or to describe what excites them about college, it’s as if they’ve been presented with a question that wasn’t on the study guide. They’re exerting effort for effort’s sake, without considering what all that effort is for.
They’ve laudably embraced the necessary work. But both the professionals and the high school students I’ve written about above are applying those efforts for the sake of the effort. They’re busy being busy.
I need to be clear here: I’m not suggesting that anyone should withhold effort unless there’s a guarantee of a successful result attached. But something needs to come of your effort other than the right to claim the effort itself. And those rewards can arrive in many different ways.
A cross country team that runs hard together all season and finishes fifth in the league finals can still look back on their season as an entirely worthwhile pursuit. The comradery built during the punishing workouts together is a reward. The pride in pursuing a sport as demanding as cross country is a reward. The sense of self-confidence, the learning around training and technique, and the health benefits–without the hard work, those team members wouldn’t have enjoyed any of the rewards. But the runners wouldn’t see or appreciate those if they found all the value in simply executing the hard work necessary to complete the season.
Wherever you’re exerting effort, it’s worth occasionally asking yourself exactly what’s being provided in return. It could be a tangible benefit, measurable success, a feeling, knowledge, connection, growth, experience, or even just fun.
But hard work in exchange only for the right to say you work hard? That doesn’t feel like a worthwhile exchange.