We are now in the final stretch of 2019. You might perhaps be starting to mentally check out of your responsibilities at work, starting to countdown to the new year. Or you might be on holiday now, clearing your annual leave. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, you might actually be rushing to finish the work that needs to be cleared before the new year starts.
How had the year been for you? Was it successful? Did you work hard enough?
As a Singaporean, the message that you can be successful if you are prepared to work hard had been ingrained in me since young. Except that no one explained what does it really mean to be working hard, and what does it really mean to be successful.
(This article will explore the idea of hard work. Read this article on the idea of success.)
Think about the meaning that you have assigned to hard work. What does working hard actually look like to you? When are the times that you have felt that you are working hard? And what were you actually doing during those times? Can hard work actually be measured?
I think the easiest way of measuring would be to measure the amount of time you spend working. Even the news has the underlying assumption that hard work could be measured by the number of hours spent at work. But all your working hours are not created equal, right?
You can be at your desk physically, trying to churn out a report. But your mind could be somewhere else, thinking about your child’s concert that you are missing.
Or you could be at a meeting, but end up chatting with your colleagues more than discussing the strategy required to solve the team’s problem. Such conversations might help you develop stronger relationships with your colleagues. But does it make sense to spend half the day chatting, only to end up putting in overtime just to clear your tasks for the day?
Or maybe you are really giving your best effort to the project at hand. But have you ever had to spend the entire day working hard at a task or project, only to have to redo everything because you (or your boss, or your team) didn’t spend enough time and effort to question and prioritise the tasks even before you started? So now that you have to spend 2 days instead of 1 day at the project, did you actually work harder?
It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that you are working hard. Measuring time spent is such a convenient way of measuring hard work. But are they all spent on things that truly matter?
I don’t think that you can bulldoze your way to success merely by working long hours alone. It might give your boss the impression that you are willing to work hard. But I don’t think the payout is great in the long run. Think about all the other things that you are sacrificing – things that you should be spending time on but might not reap immediate benefits.
If you don’t limit the time you give to a task, the task will keep on expanding and increasing its demands on your time. There will always be something that can be perfected. Always respect Parkinson’s Law. But somebody is waiting for you to deliver your work. And others are waiting for you to knock off so that you can meet them for dinner on time.
Do better work instead
Which areas will make the most impact on your work? Spend more effort (not necessarily more time) in those areas. What are the tasks and projects that will actually make a difference in somebody else’s life? Do the work that actually matters instead.
I think the alternative to hard work is to do better work instead. After all, better is… better.
Better work is when you respect that quality is at least as important, if not more important, than quantity.
Better work is when you don’t just measure by time spent. Some work might require you to spend more time, others will require you to think of ways to spend less time on it.
Better work is when you take into account the impact of your work 5, 10 or maybe even 50 years down the road instead of only caring about the benefit that it will bring you the next year.
Better work is when you actually care, not merely showing up just to do the bare minimum that you can get away with without getting fired.
Better work is when you are contributing to the things that you want to contribute to, not just showing up to get paid to do a job.
Better work is when you can actually leave at the end of your workday feeling satisfied with the impact that you have made.
And speaking of impact, it reminds me of an example regarding logo design that I’ve heard somewhere years ago. Now, think about the most iconic logos that you can remember offhand. Do you think you can draw the outline of the logos by hand easily without looking it up on the internet?
I would bet that you can at least draw it close enough that others can figure out which company’s logo you are drawing.
Of course, when it comes to design, there are many things that you can fret about that are unseen to someone with less experience. Each slight change by the millimetre might affect the design to the eyes of the designer.
But I think what is important over here is this: the most iconic logos are not complicated. It might have taken years of experience for the designer to get to the point where he or she can create a simple but effective logo that can truly add billions of dollars of value to the company. But it might not have taken that much time to sit down and draw the final logo itself.
Now, imagine that you are the client. Do you think the logo is worth the designer’s asking price because of the value it can bring to your company, or do you think that it’s not worth the price because it doesn’t take much time (and hence the designer is not working hard enough) to draw the final artwork?
So now, regardless of the meaning of success, do you think hard work equates success?