Hard Work’s Overrated, Maybe Detrimental.

A co-founder of Flickr argues that hard work often doesn’t amount to much–and neuroscience offers some backing for the claim.

overrated hard work

Caterina Fake, who, with her husband Stewart Butterfield, founded Flickr, knows a thing or two about bliztkreig work schedules. But she points out that late nights are seldom very useful in the grand scheme of things. Hard work? Overrated:


When we were building Flickr, we worked very hard. We worked all waking hours, we didn’t stop. My Hunch cofounder Chris Dixonand I were talking about how hard we worked on our first startups, hisbeing Site Advisor, acquired by McAfee–14-18 hours a day. We agreedthat a lot of what we then considered “working hard” was actually”freaking out”. Freaking out included panicking, working on things justto be working on something, not knowing what we were doing, fearingfailure, worrying about things we needn’t have worried about, thinkingabout fund raising rather than product building, building too manyfeatures, getting distracted by competitors, being at the office sincejust being there seemed productive even if it wasn’t–and othertime-consuming activities. This time around we have eliminated a lot offreaking out time. We seem to be working less hard this time, evenmaking it home in time for dinner.

Much more important than working hard is knowing how to find the rightthing to work on. Paying attention to what is going on in the world.Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you wantthem to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself inthe right place where information is flowing freely and interesting newjuxtapositions can be seen. But you can save yourself a lot of time byworking on the right thing. Working hard, even, if that’s what you liketo do.


That raises the question: How do you set aside the mind space to see patterns, make connections, and read what people want? How do you find the right thing to work on?

Fake points to the salient example of Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA. They spent a lot of time lollygagging and goofing off, going to parties and bullshitting over coffee.

That might seem like a historical footnote, but our everyday experience vindicates it. After all, have you ever had a great idea at your desk? But how often does that bulb go off in the shower, or in bed?

Modern neuroscience actually supports this apparently lackadaisical approach. It turns out that the best way to find breakthrough ideas might be to avoid working hard. As the Wall Street Journal reported this summer:

By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming,yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments.Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associatedwith complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumedwere dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only timethese areas work in unison.

“People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty,” sayscognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff at the University of BritishColumbia in Vancouver, who reported the findings last month in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As measured by brainactivity, however, “mind wandering is a much more active state than weever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complexproblem.”

She suspects that the flypaper of an unfocused mind may trap newideas and unexpected associations more effectively than methodicalreasoning. That may create the mental framework for new ideas. “You cansee regions of these networks becoming active just prior to peoplearriving at an insight,” she says.

The researchers found support for the idea that blinding insights favor a prepared mind–that is, you’ve got to really internalize the problem at hand if you’re to find any sort of solution. (For more on that, check out this article from last year in the New Yorker, by Jonah Lehrer.) But to actually bring those insights to life, you’ve got to step back. (See why graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister advocates taking time off.)

But if the daydreaming hypothesis is right–and it seems hard to deny–more hours at your desk are actually counterproductive. You’d do better by setting aside lots of playtime, to let your mind wander. Only then will you stumble your way onto what’s important.


Modern office design is actually converging upon this idea, without any prodding from neuroscience–for example, Facebook’s new offices seem to be organized more around living rooms and DJ booths than cubicles. Elsewhere in office design, conference rooms are quickly being crowded out by lounge spaces. In other words, the very types of places that Watson and Crick found so useful.

[Via Kottke]

[Photos Courtesy of The U.S. National Archives]

About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.