Hard Work Means More than Hours

Seth Godin posts something he wrote four years ago in is blog, but some of its points I think are timeless.

It’s mostly about what it means to work hard. In manual labor, that was easy to measure, but what about when we all sit at a desk? People then cite how many hours they spend at the desk (or laptop, blackberry, etc.). He argues that’s working long, but not hard.

It’s hard work to make difficult emotional decisions, such as quitting a job and setting out on your own. It’s hard work to invent a new system, service, or process that’s remarkable. It’s hard work to tell your boss that he’s being intellectually and emotionally lazy. It’s easier to stand by and watch the company fade into oblivion. It’s hard work to tell senior management to abandon something that it has been doing for a long time in favor of a new and apparently risky alternative. It’s hard work to make good decisions with less than all of the data.

Today, working hard is about taking apparent risk. Not a crazy risk like betting the entire company on an untested product. No, an apparent risk: something that the competition (and your coworkers) believe is unsafe but that you realize is far more conservative than sticking with the status quo.

Hard work is about risk, decisions, and conversations. It is about dealing with these things and the emotions that come along with them. In general, we are woefully unprepared for this.

Most people will spend an entire career without really learning about the ins and outs of hard work. We don’t learn about risk. We don’t learn about confronting people’s fears. We don’t learn about how to tell the truth to senior management. Or if we do “learn” about them, it is often through a negative experience. Godin goes on about what hard work really entails:

Hard work is about risk. It begins when you deal with the things that you’d rather not deal with: fear of failure, fear of standing out, fear of rejection. Hard work is about training yourself to leap over this barrier, tunnel under that barrier, drive through the other barrier. And, after you’ve done that, to do it again the next day.

The big insight: The riskier your (smart) coworker’s hard work appears to be, the safer it really is. It’s the people having difficult conversations, inventing remarkable products, and pushing the envelope (and, perhaps, still going home at 5 PM) who are building a recession-proof future for themselves.

Hard work, both as an individual and as an organization, is going to distinguish success and failure, but it requires much more than a 4.0 grade point average. Have you noticed the increase in popularity of executive coaching? I think it ties directly into this.