The Illusion of Hard Work

“Hard work” is one of the most overused phrases in defining success.  The use of “hard work” to define career and life success shapes our perception about these concepts in politics, community, and friendships.

There are more apt descriptions of work that more accurately describe our relationship with career and achievement:  challenging work, working diligently, working long hours, negotiating, working in the sun lifting heavy things, precision work, writing a thesis.  These can all be examples of “hard work.”  All work can be challenging be it mowing the lawn, cleaning house, to filling out a complicated spreadsheet or reviewing lines of code.

We can all put in long hours, but in my opinion longer hours are fruitless without a purpose that justifies them.  Putting food on the table and a roof overhead are certainly good reasons to work hard, but the person working fast food 40 hours a week may put more time and effort than an office employee working on reports or sales and for a lot less money.

It is usually the argument that “I work hard, so I deserve more” I get that strikes a dissonant chord with me.  We all work hard at times.  We all have challenging aspects of our jobs, but the amount of money we make is not reliant on the amount of work, or the difficulty of the work at least not proportionately.  The amount of money we make is usually reliant on the amount of capital it generates.

Wages can also be reliant on being in a position of authority, but authority is not always derived through hard work or experience.   In fact, I would say that authority is usually derived through nepotism, favoritism, a healthy does of ambition, confidence or in other cases from already being in a position of authority.

“I went to school for six years” is another argument I hear conflating hard work with wage outcome, but the MIS or engineer will almost always make more than an MPA or MSW, often at the same price of education.  So it is not the amount of schooling or the quality of schooling that determines wage outcome.   As many of my peers have discovered a person with a trade or technical skill certification that is in demand can often out-earn a college graduate or master’s degree equivalent.

We justify our lot in life to ourselves in some way whether to justify making a lot of money or why we can never get ahead.  But usually on either side of the income spectrum, it is not the result of or lack of hard work, but a combination of work, motivation, socioeconomic background, education, gender, perception of our work, capital importance of work, contracted price of work, etc.

None of this is to demean those who put forth great effort in their work and who are rewarded for their efforts; rather it is to acknowledge that many do work long hours and work complicated jobs, but that their end results and wage will vary and not always based on their efforts or merit.

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