The Lie of Hard Work and Success (Essay)

By May 8, 2024 No Comments

The lie that hard work guarantees success undermines its true value.

I’ve been at this so long, I’ve given so much, so why aren’t I farther along? Why am I not succeeding?

The answer is a need to reframe a common expectation mistaken for truth because we’ve repeatedly been convinced of a lie. Namely, while hard work results in many good things, success is of the least guaranteed among them.

Caution of the trap in how we’ve presented the relationship between hard work and success isn’t entirely new, as man of many hats but always a blue collar Mike Rowe has hammered similar points for years. And while we’ve stintingly begun sowing long overdue aspersions on the egregious fabrications of “You can be anything” and “Dreams you wish will come true,” we’ve still a ways to go with success.

For some, experience or skepticism has skewed perception of this false equation, so they’ll readily agree hard work is a lie. They’ll point to unreliable dumb luck, or its capricious sister Lady Luck. That success is unpredictable, that it comes easier and sooner to some over others proves it to be as fickle a companion. After all, where does luck come from? A gracious bestowal of the atomized universe? Or perhaps Pluto’s been returned to planetary favor to bestow heaps of dazzling success atop cross-century love.

Neither disparagements are true and neither are the intent. The aim is not to totem-lower hard work but reframe the expected outcome into something more true and worthy than subjective, projected success.

Although the focus here is on physical work, other effort-demanding endeavors, from intellectual pursuits to creative experiments and innovations are not precluded. Often, we genuinely commit to paths or relationships that simply do not pan out despite the absence of identifiable cause. We also pinpoint individuals deserving of success that never comes, which raises other questions about “deserving” and the true dispenser of success. We take to blaming lack of success on supposedly faulty factors in the equation, but it’s indisputable that despite earnest hard work, we don’t always succeed. Moreover, there are times when an effort is successful but the result is not what we desired. There are many things not in our control.

Such truth should not dampen the drive to achieve, but solidify the foundation of a more preferable framing. As there is only one Wayne Gretsky, Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, et al, hours and hours of practice will not recreate their successes, because they were theirs, in their times, in their ways. They came not only from individual effort but also from a combination of factors outside their control that ensured those hours paid off as they did. For any who readily acknowledge the G-d factor in all this, such conclusions are clear.

Either way, hard work yields results of some kind, so adjusting expectations to mitigate frustration is necessary to avoid anticipating the lie we were raised on. Hard and honest work increases skill, maximizes experience, and most importantly lets a man look himself in the eye at the end of the day. It’s knowing you showed up, committed, did your best, but also knowing that the rest is out of your hands. It specifically does not guarantee success, which is a nebulous term of kaleidoscope definition at best.

Harper Lee’s one book To Kill a Mockingbird made her a millionaire. Longevity. Fame. Fortune. A resounding success by common metrics. Financial security and enduring accomplishment are desirable across professions, but Harper Lee also never married or had kids. Setting aside the details of whatever led to such results does not affect the overall approach to this topic. Would any honest person driven to storytelling truly be satisfied with only ever publishing one book, even an undeniable success? Would a struggling parent trade family for money, an item but no person to carry on the family name?

Who’s more successful, the man with ten employees who works for himself or the man who works in a thirty-story office building, one of one thousand international employees? Can any of the richest men plumb their own sewers? Filter their own water? Wire their own lights? A man is generally considered successful when he pays more for food rather than the man who grows his own in his backyard. Is building a skyscraper a bigger accomplishment than building a community?

Many shuffling places atop Forbes listings can’t even keep a marriage together, so if money equals success, but success can’t buy marital endurance, then who really comes out ahead? The one with billions of dollars or the one with lifetime spouse and family? A sports car can’t drive faster than a jalopy in traffic, though the engine may be louder. And never mind that we’ve identified “having a lot of stuff” as a marker of wealth and success, as in this age lower incomes can have lots of stuff too. Even acknowledging the axiom that it’s more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes than on a bicycle doesn’t specify how many Mercedes are needed to reach comfort level. How much having is enough?

Substituting words like “accomplishment” doesn’t either repair the equation for this raises similar questions. Least of all, “what is accomplishment” and how is it sensed, and most of all, “is hard work for naught without an accomplishment to show for it?” How many reject the credo of hard work altogether when the desired, envisioned goal is not achieved? How many decry the effort involved a waste of time and not worth the energy if success doesn’t glitter at the end?

What would make this essay a success? Millions of views? Hundreds of shares? Either speaks to eyes on the words, but not actual reading of the words. How about a dozen readers bringing it up in conversation? And if the latter comes to be does this make the entirety of the essay a success, or only mean that a particular aim has been successfully met?

All to say, success means different things to different people, and not one is guaranteed through hard work. “What does success look like to you” leads to definable goals and measurable progress, but the answers further prove that success exists on an evolving gradient.

Compounding the lie of mis-defined success, instant gratification has also undercut the true value of hard work, because it mandates an immediate result, only slightly worse than measuring the merit of hard work in broad descriptors of success. Motivational speaker Simon Sinek has commented on how instant gratification confuses the work ethic and long-haul mentality of young workers. Any honest man could admit that same day delivery, like binge-watching, was of the worst best business ideas for how its eroded the cultural psyche. Perhaps we’re all just one day away from being the next Sugar Man. Perhaps we’re reticent to let the lie go.

Attempts to salvage the supposedly immutable relationship between hard work and success with assurances of, “Overnight success decades in the making,” or prophecies such as, “Work hard and eventually you will succeed,” make no better promises. The first is particular in its application, the second contains not one but two imprecise terms, “eventually” and “succeed.” It’s just as well those two have found each other. A one-hit wonder is a flash in the pan and leaves just as quickly, a long-hauler is overlooked for his dependency. Which make a country run?

Hard work does produce some instant results, though they’re often unnoticed beneath the fug of fatigue and only slowly seep into the subconsciousness over time. Foremost is a thing we once revered called dignity, since ignored and even abandoned by those in favor of rat-racing after flashier promises of success.

We must extricate hard work from success to truly benefit from it. Because success does not await upon everyone’s path and many factors aside from personal work ethic affect the journey, from national economies to the will of G-d Himself.

And if this seems ridiculous think that “work smarter not harder” can yield success, yet also opens the door for all sorts of shortcuts and chicanery, ditching dignity at the wayside. Wealth may increase, fame may grow, goals may be met, but is it not possible for pedestaled successes to square with cut corners, whereas dignity will only ever call a spade a spade.

Consider President Teddy Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” delivered in 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris. His remarks were roundly received then, and resonate soundly today, particularly with young men. Specifically, the “Man in the Arena” which bellows a flame of responsibility into a fire of passion, and has less to do with general promises of success and more to do with the glory of grit, determination, and hard work. The combination of which delivers the dignity of showing up, standing on your own feet, and investing your whole self into maintaining and bettering the world gifted to you. Dignity individually earned through hard work reciprocates by broadly lending itself to hard workers of any profession.

We don’t know the name of every, if any, man who paved the roads we travel or placed a girder in the bridges we cross, yet we rely upon a job well done to travel them still in decades to come. Is this not a notable sort of longevity? A part in building for the benefit of others more commendable than some vague promise of success which may not outlive you in this world.

Like the glorification of “true love” over respect, the promised path from hard work to success missed the mark of a value more vital, worthy, and durable. Although hard work is itself a value, proper application yields another disregarded and undersold for decades, good company to neglected, misunderstood respect.

Hard, and honest, work does not always lead to “success” but it does assure dignity. At the end of the day, that’s a much better place to hang your (hard) hat.