You’ve heard it said that “hard work pays off.” I tend to agree with this— generally. 

The thing is, there are lots of ways to work “hard.” And not all of them “pay off.” 

Not all of them can possibly pay off, when you think about it, insofar as there are plenty of people in the world who are working equally hard, but at cross purposes. If “hard work” was all that was needed to succeed, everyone would. And we know that’s not the case. 

“Working hard” is often very helpful on our personal development journeys. I consider diligent effort to be a tool, one of many that we have to learn and use wisely. 

That is to say: if you’re going to work hard, make sure you’re working smart. 

If you’re going to work hard, make sure you’re achieving results. 

If you’re going to work hard, make sure you’re heading in the right direction. 

The engine of a car can work plenty hard if it’s revved up to a hundred miles an hour— but all that hard work won’t do it much good if it’s pointed in the wrong direction. 

And why would a car be heading a hundred miles an hour in the wrong direction? Often, because its driver didn’t consult a map, and hasn’t been paying enough attention to the landmarks they’re passing to know that they’re lost. 

We tend to glorify “hard work” in our culture. We consider the willingness to work hard a marker of good moral character. We tend to trust people who are hard workers more than people we don’t consider hard workers— they often strike us as more honest and virtuous than those we consider slackers. 

There’s an extent to which the willingness to work hard is certainly admirable, insofar as it’s not easy. 

But the fact is, people who are using “hard work” are simply utilizing one tool from their tool box that they happen to be good at using. 

What good is using the tool of “hard work” if we’re not also using the tool of “sensitivity to results?” 

What good is using the tool of “hard work” if we’re not also using the tool of “willingness to adjust?” 

People who are convinced that “hard work” is the key to the kingdom of results in and of itself are often faced with a harsh reality with their work is met with less success than they’d prefer. 

Often when people’s “hard work” doesn’t pay off, they get angry. They feel that because they used the tool of “hard work,” then they “deserve” a certain result. 

Unfortunately, life has a tendency not to care about what we “deserve.” 

Life rewards those who develop their skills and use their tools judiciously. 

(Life also has an annoying tendency to disproportionately reward those who are in the right place at the right time— but that falls squarely under the heading of “things we can’t control.”)

My point with all of this is, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “hard work” is all you need in order to succeed. It’s a tool without which it tends to be more difficult to succeed— but it is one tool among a handful of important tools. 

Just like any tool, it’s important to know when and how to utilize the tool of “hard work.” 

If you use the tool of “hard work” in times and places when it’s not the tool that is called for, it’s very easy to burn yourself out. 

If you fail to use the tool of “hard work” in times and places when it IS the tool that’s called for, you’re going to get out-hustled. 

Tools can be tricky things to manage. They can make, say, building a house a lot easier— in fact, it’s hard to build a house WITHOUT using tools. 
But they can also smash your thumbs if you’re not using them mindfully. 

There are a lot of people out there who like to shame people for their supposed aversion to “hard work.” In their model of the world, the main reason why people aren’t succeeding is because they’re simply not working hard enough (this is connected to what I mentioned earlier, about “hard work” being connected to virtue in many peoples’ minds). 

I’m gong to suggest a different hypothesis: if you’re not succeeding at the level you prefer, your lack of “hard work” MAY be contributing. 

But it may also be your lack of another skill or tool as well. 

Think of “hard work” as a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. 

When you need the right tool for the right job, you definitely need to be able to pull it out of your toolbox. 

But make sure you’re stacking that toolbox with an array of tools for an array of purposes— and, even more important, make sure you’re developing enough understanding of and experience with your tools in order to be able to use them well. 


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