If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: "Hard work results in success." While that conventional wisdom is endlessly repeated, it's also dead wrong. Hard work--meaning long hours pursuing a single goal--is a recipe for failure.

To illustrate this, consider Olympic athletes. Yes, Olympic competitors spend many hours a day training. However, they and their coaches also know that overtraining--working too hard and too long or the wrong way--can injure you and decrease your ability to win.

The same thing is true in business. People who consistently work long hours burn themselves out and quickly become ineffective. They make dumb mistakes and create extra work for themselves and everyone else.

People who "work hard" often spend energy doing work that's marginally useful or actively counterproductive. A perfect example is the micro-manager who constantly butts in; the harder he works, the more failure he creates.

Hard work is toxic when tries to force something to happen before its time. A good example is the ABC (always be closing) salesperson who drives potential customers away by constantly pestering them. (In China, this is called "pulling up seedlings to make them grow faster.")

Hard work results in failure when the hard worker doesn't know when to stop, like the engineer who can't finish a design until it is "perfect." Another example is "paralysis by analysis," in which would-be decision makers keep "working hard" to think things through. (In China, this tendency is sometimes called "painting legs on a snake.")

In the real world, working hard can be a ticket to a dead-end career. Successful executives are usually more politically savvy than hard working (although they're savvy enough to tout how hard they work).

In many organizations, the hardest workers never get anywhere. For instance, I once worked with a programming group in which everyone avoided writing any code, because then they'd be stuck supporting it forever, with no hope of advancement.

Hard work simply for the sake of working hard is particularly toxic for people who do creative work. As I explained in a previous post, science has shown that people are more creative when they alternate between intense work and periods of relaxation.

I personally have found that if I try to write for more than a few hours at a time, my creativity dries up. If I don't pursue other activities--I have some very absorbing hobbies--on a daily basis, I eventually reach a point where I can barely write anything!

Success emerges not from hard work per se but from figuring out the best time to act and then acting, not from activity for its own sake.

The statement that "hard work results in success" is, in its own way, as silly as saying "binge-watching TV results in failure." Indeed, if you're mentally tired and feeling uncreative, binge-watching TV may be your best strategy. It will relax your mind and distract you from your stress.

And then there's the definition of success. Very few people have ever said on their deathbed: "I wish I'd spent more time at the office." In a sense, "hard work" is the opposite of success. The reward of "hard work" is often more hard work. I can't help but think of my uncle, who made millions of dollars trading collectible currency. He defined success as "being able to take a nap whenever you want to."

Finally, before buying into this "hard work results in success" concept, consider who's been giving you that advice. Hasn't it always been people who will personally profit if you work hard ... for them?

Published on: May 22, 2017
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