What do you really need to get ahead at work?
I get asked this all the time. The answer varies depending on the person, their goals, and my mood, but there’s one answer I’ll never give: “Work hard.” That’s not an oversight or a misstep. It’s very intentional.
Whenever I hear some public speaker or Silicon Valley personality talk about how it just takes hard work to really succeed, I can’t help but roll my eyes a little. I’m sick of hearing people talk about working hard, keeping busy, putting their head down, etc. We’ve become too preoccupied with “the grind,” and it’s actually bringing us down.
Related: Exploding The Myth Of Hard Work
The Hard Work Bias
We have a bias toward hard work in our society, and it’s causing a lot of damage, not the least of which is its negative effect on productivity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, our productivity rate is increasing at the slowest rate ever, and yet, I’m sure you’d agree, people are working more than ever.
Generally, when people say they’re “working hard,” they mean they’re putting a lot of time in. What they (generally) don’t mean is that they’ve put a lot of thought into that work, or that they know what they’re working on is contributing to something important.
Much of this stems from the fact that our economy used to hinge on time. Workers ran machines or performed rote tasks, and those machines and tasks would give a pretty static output per hour. Every now and then some philosopher or thinker would come along and propose a way to increase output per time unit, but, by and large, more time equaled more productivity.
As we transitioned to the knowledge economy–where more people get to be high-level thinkers and not just rote task performers–we still clung to some elements of the industrial age. It could be that it just takes time to shift our thinking after hundreds of years, but I’d actually propose there’s something more complex happening.
How “Hard Work” Lets Us Dodge The Hard Questions
The rise of knowledge has come with a muddying of expectations for work. If we aren’t just producing widgets, what are we doing? Why are we working? While I’m sure it does take time for a society to change the way they think about what is productive and what isn’t, the real reason people still tie time to the value of their work is because to find another way is a challenge.
Measuring time is easy. There’s a number to compare, and numbers, by their nature, are easily comparable. (As a side note, that’s also why so many people compare jobs based on salary, even though money doesn’t lead to fulfillment–it’s easy, though not informative!)
If I’m a manager and I see that someone is showing up at the office early, leaving late, and responding to emails at all hours of the night, I don’t have to think too much about whether they’re committed to the work or trying hard. Why spend all that time if you’re not really trying?
But if I have to start measuring the value of your work? Ugh. That means I have to truly understand why I hired you and what I wanted you to produce (shockingly, an exercise many managers don’t go through in detail). And then I have to actually look deep into your work–not just the quantity of the work you’re producing, but the quality and it’s contribution to the team or organization.
And that takes time. And because of the way we value work by increments of time–it feels like stepping back to do a high-level, strategic overview of what I want you to perform, and how I want it to move the needle forward is a waste of my time at work, too. It’s a terrible positive feedback loop that keeps us in the cycle of valuing hours instead of productive work.
Filling Time With Non-Work
We all know the people that work around the clock and get little to nothing useful done. When I worked at a large law firm, I encountered many. Law firms still use the archaic billable hours to evaluate their associates, so (generally speaking) lawyers are valued by how much they work–regardless of the value, their work contributes to solving the problem at hand.
I started at the firm in 2007 when we were just getting into the great recession. Work was slow in the corporate group, and by nature, I’ve always been an efficient worker (a friend from undergrad once commented that it seemed like I was having more fun in law school than I did in undergrad–and I was! Efficiency). So, the billable hour was not my friend.
When we were all scrounging for more hours, there was one guy on my team who always seemed to be working. I couldn’t understand it. We were on a deal together, and I kept asking him what he was doing. He finally told me he billed 80 hours putting signature pages together. What? 80 Hours?!
So, this guy was billing a client (I think our rate as first years was something like $315 an hour) for creating signature pages and getting rewarded because that’s how law firms value associates, when that would have taken me maybe a couple of hours because I’m not technically inept, as I assume he was, and then gone on not having work?
So yes, I’m still a little miffed about that, but it’s not personal. It’s a societal issue. What we need to be thinking of instead of hard work is smart work. I’ve done all I can in this piece to avoid the cliche, “Work smarter, not harder” adage, but, yes, that’s what I’m getting at.
Don’t Focus On The Hard Work, Just Focus
Success is not about hard work. It is absolutely about focus and ensuring you use your time productively. But when we constantly talk about how hard we’re working, we perpetuate the idea that you have to work all the time to succeed in this world, and you just don’t.
What you should be doing is deciding what will really move the needle forward for what you’re trying to accomplish each day and week, and focus on that. Focus. If you get done what you decided you wanted to get done, you get to quit.
It’s not hard work–work is work, and yes some work requires more brain power, but most of us smart people like that and want more of it, so let’s stop calling it hard. Let’s call it productive. Effective. Valuable. Anything that speaks to nature over quantity, because that’s what we need more of.
So the next time someone asks you how you’re doing and how work is going, set yourself up so you can answer not by saying you’re working really hard. Instead, try to answer the question by talking about everything you’ve gotten done and how you’ve progressed what you’ve set out to do.