Does Hard Work Pay Off?

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BRANDY W: We live in a culture in which workaholism passes for normal. A prevalent belief is that the harder you work, the more you succeed, but that isn’t necessarily true.

JULIAN M: That’s true. Constant work or hard work doesn’t necessarily result in success.

BW: Regardless, a strong belief is that hard work is a guarantee of tangible success or results. For example, there are popular expressions: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”; “Winners work harder and longer.”

JM: For the most part, with simple physical labor, you will generally see tangible results with a lot of hard work, but nowadays we’re more disconnected from physical labor and that reality and that connection to the earth. Now people aren’t grounded in the same way. They apply the hard work motto to motives and ambitions that aren’t necessarily grounded in reality. For example, you can work very hard, but have a bad idea or have an unsound plan. Or the motives may be an issue. You can work very hard, but your motives may be questionable. Hard work may or may not result in success, or it may result in dishonest success, which generally doesn’t last.

BW: But in our culture, the general attitude seems to be, as long as you are achieving material success and social approval, what difference does it make what the motives are.

JM: People have varied reasons and motives for why they work so hard ranging from healthy to unhealthy. But yes it’s true, material success seems to be a primary motive. So they can keep up with the Joneses, that sort of thing.

BW: I once worked with someone who worked extremely hard, but in the end, the work didn’t seem to result in much. And it wasn’t because he was incompetent. He seemed to get a sense of identity and self-worth through how hard he worked.

JM: That’s true, in our culture, many people get a sense of self-worth from how hard they work and other external things. It’s commonplace for people to have checklists of everything they’re trying to accomplish and if they knock off the list, then they feel good about themselves

BW: But in reality, all that work could ultimately not bear any fruit whatsoever. People also work hard to gain status to compensate for feelings of inferiority, shame, or guilt. Achievement becomes a mask to cover up those feelings.

JM: Right. Many people get their self worth from achievement. But self-worth and self esteem shouldn’t be based on achievement. If you completely identify with achievement, and then if that fails, you’re pretty much lost. And people who work relentlessly hard for personal achievement, often find that the hard work doesn't pay off in the way they expect, or if it does, it doesn’t deliver that happiness or love or satisfaction they thought they were going to get from it. And they usually sacrifice personal, intimate relationships in the process.

BW: And in this culture, people neglect rest to work relentlessly hard, and they even brag about it like, “I only got three hours of sleep last night and look at everything I accomplished today.” And if you can function like this for extended periods of time, this is viewed as an achievement, when really all you’re doing is neglecting your health.

JM: And what you’re accomplishing isn’t necessarily of high quality. You can’t think properly or reflect properly or react properly when you are constantly neglecting rest. Work needs to be balanced with rest. People work themselves to death essentially in this culture.

BW: In your work, you probably witnessed a lot of workaholism.

JM: Right. And interestingly enough, workaholics can actually be very ineffective and unproductive workers for a variety of reasons depending on the individual.

BW: But workaholism is a socially approved of addiction.

JM: As you said, there is a strong belief that no matter what, if you work hard you will succeed. And that you are entitled to this success. And this success will guarantee certain things in life, but that isn’t true. And when the expected success doesn’t show up, which is often the case, then a person can become very disillusioned and sink into despair or depression.

BW: This probably helps to fuel the rampant addiction we see in our culture.

JM: Right, the two are probably connected. So there’s a lot of misunderstanding about hard work. Hard work is not workaholism.

BW: These days, it’s popular to apply sports analogies to a real life or business context. For example: training and working relentlessly hard in the way that an athlete does will make you a “winner” in life or business.

JM: Applying sports analogies might be helpful in some areas, but I think it can also be very misleading, because they’re not the same things. Compared to real life, sports is actually a closed system. In a closed system, hard work is more likely to pay off. Take a simple example: if you work hard at practicing bowling, you’ll probably get better and win more because all you’re concerned with is making the ball hit the pins. But real life isn’t that simple. Real life isn’t like bowling or football or other sports, for that matter. A game is a closed system with a simple objective—scoring the best score. Life actually isn’t a game. Some people claim it is, but it really isn’t. War certainly isn’t a closed system. Business and life certainly aren’t. So you do people a disservice and mislead people by claiming you can apply sports analogies to become a winner or success in life.

BW: But in this life, you can’t avoid work.

JM: That’s true and working is critical and important. But I believe there’s always a choice in attitude. Work can be a joy or it can be misery. Sometimes, you have to have jobs you don’t like just to pay the bills—I’ve been there—but you can find joy and satisfaction in that. Joy and satisfaction in earning your keep or providing or doing a good job. Even when you love your job, there are times when it’s drudgery or it’s boring, so you can find satisfaction in a job well done or at least completed. But as you said, some people work hard to compensate for feelings of inferiority or shame or those sorts of motives which is different than work based on love. When there is love, there is more of an ease and flow to the work. If there’s love, do you really have to struggle and work as hard as when there is no love?