Why hard work is so important (and still under-rated)

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

To be one of the best in the world at something, you have to work hard. 

While this seems obvious, there are many people who don’t believe it’s true. Many people believe you can become great just working 9 to 5.  It’s not clear where this controversy comes from.

It could be a result of the fact that we can’t all agree on how many hours of work really constitute “hard.” Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at something.  But it is not just the hours … it is the obsession that matters.  

You cannot be great at something unless you are obsessed with it.  You need to be thinking about it all the time.  That obsession may consume you and it might not be healthy for you … but that is the difference between the great and the merely good.

Hard work is a prerequisite to changing the world. 

People who changed the world were workaholics. Look at Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, or Alexander Hamilton. They all put in many hours more than a standard 40-hour week. 

The difference though is that their work is an extension of who and what they are. 

They worked hard because it did not feel like work.  At least not always.

Actually getting 40 hours of work done in a week is rare.

There are very few people who can do world-changing work in a 40-hour week. I’ve never seen one. 

Some people can actually do 40 hours of good work in 40 hours (that is an amazing skill that usually comes with experience).  For the rest of us, it usually takes 60 hours of work to get in 40 hours of great work output. 

But you don’t need to “change the world” to do good work.  At SafeGraph I’m not looking for people that want to work 90-hour-weeks.  People like that long-term are less likely to join a company — they are much more likely to start a company.  I’m extremely happy to work with someone that does 40 hours of quality work a week. And if that person can get 40 hours of work done in 40 hours, that is great.

The output for most employees is a lot less than 40 hours in a week.  Even people who work more than 60 hours rarely achieve 40 good hours of work.  Really good employees can reach 40 hours of work (and the best people can do it in just 40 hours) consistently every week.

Hard work and the athlete

Think about those professional athletes who have achieved remarkable accomplishments. Consider the way they take care of their eating and sleeping habits. Is this separate from their “work” day? 

What about the time they spend in the gym, away from the court? Or the re-hab, cryotherapy, and massage therapy they spend hours undergoing? 

All of this is work.  Many of them spend over 5 hours a week just planning out their meals.

Each hour of the day becomes an extension of what they are at their core: athletes who want to sweat, improve, and win. Hard work is not an option for these high achievers, it’s their default.

Photo by Andre Tan on Unsplash

There’s a great story about Kobe Bryant training with the American Olympic basketball team in 2012. A trainer met Bryant in Las Vegas and offered to help him whenever he needed it. Bryant ended up calling this trainer at 4 a.m. in the morning to do a conditioning stint. 

After the workout, the trainer went back to bed to get some sleep before an 11 a.m. scrimmage with the full team. When the trainer returned to the court, he asked Bryant how long he had worked out. Bryant told him he hadn’t left the facility – he had wanted to hit 800 shots and just finished. Bryant had shown up 7-hours early for a scrimmage game. 

That’s what it takes to achieve massive success.

To those in the right industry, hard work feels like play. 

If you are one of the best at what do you, your work probably feels like play. That’s one of the keys to being successful. Find something you love to do, that you’re good at, and that you can get paid for.

Kobe Bryant loves to play basketball and everything in his life is an extension of that love. Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett love to read about businesses. Munger has been called a walking book with two legs by his kids. This isn’t work for them – it’s play. 

Most people don’t want to be the best at what they do. They are content with working the standard 40 hours per week in a job they can stand, and then spend their free time pursuing other things. There is no shame in this.

If someone finds their job hard and exhausting though, the idea of working 60-80 hours per week will sound like torture. But it means they are working on the wrong things (or working with the wrong people). 

If you are going to put in enough time to change the world with your work, it has to be fun for you. It has to be joyful and filled with meaning. Otherwise, you won’t stick around long enough or move fast enough to make a lasting impact on your industry. 

Massive Success Requires Massive Sacrifice 

But remember, it is not always play.  Achieving massive success always means very big sacrifices.  If you are not prepared to make big sacrifices, you are not prepared to achieve big successes.

Even the best athlete moans when they need to pass up a doughnut.  But success requires delayed gratification.  

There is a Twitter meme that you can have your cake and eat it too.  That you don’t need to sacrifice to achieve success. That you don’t need to work crazy hours.  That you don’t need to feel pain to gain. The only scenario where that is true is for the handful of people that were lucky enough to be born with such extraordinary gifts.  But it is not good advice for the rest of us.

You can’t be great at everything, and you can’t be great at anything, but you can be great at something.

Time is a limited resource, and so you need to choose what to focus on. In the professional world, you can’t be a world-class surgeon and build world-class data companies at the same time. You could try to spend 20 years doing one, and then another 20 years doing the other (assuming you love both of them), and perhaps you can be great at both, but not at the same time. 

These same rules apply to your personal life. You can’t simultaneously be great at work, be a great parent, be a great spouse, be a great friend, and be a great citizen. You need to choose one. Yes, that sounds super harsh but it is true.  

And everyone is choosing by their actions.  When you choose to spend more time with your kids you are likely choosing to spend less time with your friends.  Friendships, like all important things, require a certain number of core hours to maintain. So you are implicitly choosing to be a parent over a friend.  

The world functions in such a way that if you choose one skill and devote yourself to it, you can find greatness. But you can’t be great at all of them at once. As the saying goes: “you can have anything you want, but not everything you want.”

It’s easy to signal hard work with “time-spent,” but it’s the quality of work that matters.

It’s not the number of hours you work per week that matters, it’s the quality and focus you bring to that work. 

Many people spend their energy status-signaling about how hard they work without producing significantly during that time. 

But it’s the quality of that time that matters. The employee who shows up at 7 a.m. and puts in a 12-hour day, but spends much of their time pushing emails around is not going to be as successful as the one making real break-throughs. 

On the other side of that are those who protect their status by claiming that hard work won’t allow you to achieve what they have achieved. They are “special” in some way (read lucky) and their genius alone has brought them success. Hard work was never part of their equation. 

This may actually be true – they could have been lucky and not worked hard to get where they are. But that approach probably won’t work for you. The best path to success is hard work, not luck. 

As Keith Rabois says: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. But those who run marathons run sub 5-minute miles, every mile.”

Hard work can be isolating.

If it were easy, everyone would do it. But working hard is isolating

Paul Graham has a great model for this kind of time management – he calls it maker time. Maker time is an isolated time set aside to do deep, creative work (like coding or writing). As it’s not collaborative, it can be done outside office hours.

Manager’s time, on the other hand, is cut into single half-hour slices filled with meetings and collaboration. These are by-default during office hours. 

When we talk about “working hard,” we are usually referring to isolated, maker’s work done outside 9-5 hours. This has consequences for your personal life. It means sacrificing time with family. It means spending less time with your kids. Spending less time with your friends. 

Genius work is often done alone. 

There are only three ways to be massively successful.

There are only three paths to massive success (see below).  But I want to quickly define “massive success.” Massive Success is not merely being a very good musician … it is being Prince.  Massive Success is not merely being a very good athlete, it is being LeBron James. Massive Success is not merely being a tech entrepreneur, it is being Elon Musk.  Massive Success is not merely being a local politician, it is being Gandhi.  

Very few people are massively successful.  Very few people even want to be massively successful. 

There are three ways of being a Massive Success:

  1. Getting extraordinarily lucky 
  2. Being born with extraordinary gifts that no one else has
  3. Working insane hours

These are the only three ways to Massive Success.  And many people that reach Massive Success have a combination of these three.  

But if you do not have extraordinary luck (like your parents do not happen to be billionaires) and you were not born with an IQ score of over 200, your only strategy to reach massive success is working crazy hours.  

Even if you were born with gifts that are off-the-charts rare (think of LeBron’s James amazing athletic ability coupled with his near-photographic memory), you likely still need to have LeBron James’s famous work ethic to succeed.  

Hard workers are the ones who improve the world. 

We enjoy all the pleasures of modern-day life because someone worked hard to create them. Dreamers who put their dreams into action have given us medical breakthroughs, space exploration, democracy, and the rule of law. 

Hard work is a prerequisite for changing the world. There’s no substitute for it. And despite what some may say, it’s still underrated. 

If you work hard with the right people on the right product, you can change your life and the lives of millions of others.

Special thanks to Thomas Waschenfelder for his help and edits.

8 thoughts on “Why hard work is so important (and still under-rated)

  1. Dyniol

    Lovely post. It can probably be complemented with the Under Armour Michael Phelps advert (90 seconds well spent).

    It’s notable that in WW2 the British establishment had a simple criteria for recruiting Spitfire pilots:

    1.) Have you ever owned a motorcycle?
    2.) Do you own one now?

    The ‘correct’ response was 1.) Yes 2.) No, as they wanted people who were brave enough to take risks, but not dumb enough to continue with them.

    A question for you Auren; have you identified a simple reliable question like this to identify intrinsically motivated hard workers?

  2. MI

    > Find something you love to do, that you’re good at, and that you can get paid for.

    I would be interested in a follow-up post on how to find this (working on your strengths may be part but is obviously not the whole thing). Suspect lots of people *could* work extremely hard for the right thing but just haven’t found it.

  3. Steve Mohebi

    Great post, thank you Auren. Reminds me how you used to say these very words nearly 20 years ago: can’t excel at work, friends, marriage, and parenting. Have to pick just one or two.

  4. Amlan Gupta

    Great article but I wonder if there are some exceptional people who contradict the thesis. For example, Bruce Dickinson who is the lead singer for Iron Maiden, a qualified airline pilot, championship fencer, and involved with several bushiness. A renaissance man (person?) if you will. I fully admit that is is a very rare individual though.

    1. Bork

      You raise some valid points. But I started my career thinking like you did about hard work. I’ve worked 130 hour weeks and received a particular flavor of gain for it. But I now see this line of thinking as oversimplified.

      Society is complicated, and the optimal strategy for success in various different past of its state spaced clearly vary. I can’t account for all of the variability, but would offer my updated thinking as follows: There is a minimum level of concentration one needs in life and work to be successful. Successful people seem to be good at saying no, and getting more hours in that other people and their top priority. But beyond that, for most career tracks, the people that emerge at the top run superior social algorithms. Success is largely a social endeavor.

      I have had an unusual career. Through twists of fate, perhaps, I have had the opportunity to work with some of the most successful people in multiple industries. The leaders I’ve met have had their share of busy weeks and sleep deprivation, but nose-to-the-grindstone doesn’t seem to be their success strategy nor their baseline state. It is more complicated than that.

      I am protecting anonymity below by being vague.

      Think about all the careers that got sunk by not practicing honesty in every last detail of life. I know someone who has squandered a huge inherited business empire. It has almost certainly been because s/he wasn’t capable of being truthful with business partners.

      I have worked closely with someone who is by all objective metrics the most successful person in a red-hot, high-profile field. S/he is quite lazy. There was a period of about a year, a few years back, when back s/he only worked about 3 hours a day (with some variability; and except for maybe one of two weeks when a major deadline was hitting). Other years there was a bit more investment, but it gives a flavor of the personality. But thisachieved monumental success none-the-less. S/he has put most of their non-meeting-time into thinking about exactly how to discuss something, of coming up with exactly the right the rights words, the right phraseology, the clearest conceivable arguments. How do you convey a complex idea in fewer words, with less jargon? It results in a very powerful effect. Everything else has been delegated to subordinates or unwitting colleagues.

      It’s believed that a high percentage of large-company CEOs are sociopaths. I can tell you from personal experience that is definitely sociopathy is very common amongst national-level politicians. I am not sure if sociopathy a successful algorithm, because many people may tried but been run out of town.

      Organizational psychology has been studying how to optimize worker productivity since the early twentieth century. In general, with work on a production line that requires little executive function, people’s productivity scales with the number of hours work. However, deeply cognitive work is sensitive to stress and anxiety levels, and may deplete neurochemical resources or alter its metabolism in non-optimal. Organizational psych studies have general found peak worker “productivity” under 50 hours. There was a study a few years back that suggested it was around 35 hours.

      From my own experience, work and productivity have a non-linear relationship. When I am fresh, a good two-or-three day focused burst can achieve amazing results. But that intensity seems to cause some some sort of depleted mental state. I can be very depleted and still be relatively social and engaged in meetings, but it continually amazes me how poorly I plan and strategize when I am in that state of cognitive depletion. I have learned to build that vacillation into how my organize my calendar.

      I recall from Gleik’s autobiography of Richard Feynman a discussion of psychological exams Feynman took toward the end of his career to study the foundation of his “genius.” It was largely disappointing. His IQ was a bit above average but unremarkable. The one clue they got: When asked to describe his approach to work, he said “I go through periods where I work hard and periods where I am lazy.” Or words to that effect.

  5. Brian Norton

    it is very often the case that people think (or assume) that their schedules are set for them but their circumstances and don’t realize how culpable their are in their own narrative. It blows my mind when smart people think others must have it easy or “have it all together” just by how it looks from the outside. I have always found myself inherently good at a large number of things and only great 1 or 2 things and it mostly comes down to the time consistency and commitment.


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