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Hard Work: What’s It Good For?

We look at recent trends advocating a super-chill approach to making ideas happen. Is the dream of a 4-day workweek too good to be true?

A meme has been floating around for some time now about hard work – and how it is overrated. I’ve come across a number of “How I Work” articles by prominent entrepreneurs that talk about the merits of “sometimes” heading into the office, watching lots of television, and questioning the need for a 40-hour workweek.
Many of these articles profile people who have built multi-million dollar businesses – companies that required a 24/7 work ethic during the start-up phase. No doubt, in the early days, these same folks had rigorous schedules, spent long nights overcoming major technical challenges, and developed loyal communities – user by user – through ceaseless efforts.
So why all this talk about chilling out from those who must have worked tirelessly to get where they are? Something doesn’t add up. This trendy new approach to work seems absent of the ambition and relentless drive necessary to make ideas happen.
Certainly, it’s possible that these successful entrepreneurs have started to coast a bit – and with millions of customers, it is their prerogative to do so. I’m also aware that as we get older, start families, and settle down, it’s natural to think about how to work smarter. A 24/7 schedule isn’t sustainable forever. But I still can’t help but wonder if these entrepreneurs are sharing the right message?So why all this talk about chilling out from those who must have worked tirelessly to get where they are? Something doesn’t add up. The push towards tremendous achievements – the determination we see in visionaries ranging from Steve Jobs to your everyday start-up founder who quits her day job to pursue a dream – is what drives bold entrepreneurial pursuits. Such journeys, I have found, require incredible amounts of sheer energy, focus, and time.
Having recently concluded four years of interviews for a book on the topic of making ideas happen, I can say one thing for sure: Hard work is the single greatest competitive advantage. Ideas don’t happen because they are great. The genius is in the execution, aka the “99% perspiration” that has become this site’s namesake.
Perspiration implies sweat, self-discipline, and (yes) occasional exhaustion. I think this is what Malcolm Gladwell teaches us in his book Outliers when he proposes that a true mastery of anything requires 10,000 hours of doing it. There are no shortcuts to lasting success.Hard work is the single greatest competitive advantage.  Hard work is always the baseline of great achievements. And I don’t think these successful entrepreneurs-turned-naysayers have defied the odds through casual effort.They have either chosen not to share this part of their past or have forgotten the drive that started it all. Perhaps their new take on work is akin to an adult’s take on grades or playground politics in elementary school – in retrospect, you wonder why you stressed so much.
One lesson here is to question the nuggets of wisdom we take away from success stories. Retrospective insight is a dangerous thing: it can taint advice. Hindsight becomes biased based on the luxuries one enjoys from his or her hard work – four-day weeks among them. Needless to say, once a ball is rolling, it’s easier to keep it going.
That said, a contrarian perspective is always valuable when it makes us rethink the status quo of normal working hours, meetings, and traditions of the daily grind that we’re all liable to fall into without measuring the outcome and remembering our intentions.
I agree that lots of energy is misappropriated. And I agree that we must preserve the sanctity of our minds, creative stimulation, and always strive for balance. But I think it is dangerous to gloss over the merits of tried-and-true persistence. The importance of hard work is a timeless truth. Rather than fight it, let’s roll up our sleeves and run with it.

How About You?

Could you have arrived at your current success without hard work? Do you think hindsight clouds our perspective on how we could have done things more efficiently in the past?

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (52)
  • Conor

    A dream remains a dream until it is converted to disciplined, daily action.

    If someone tells me that they plan to write a book and they will take some time off in the future to write it… they will never write it. If you write 100 words a day, you have a book in 15 year; if you write 500 a book in 2 years; 1000 = a book in 6 months… The dream and all the inspiration and all the great ideas are worth zero without the daily work of producing words.

    There is perhaps another aspect of hard work that needs to be clarified – I will call this the difference between being busy and being effective. Most of the world is actually very busy. You can hear on the bus or train home “I am so busy… I have no time… I am working so hard”. The large majority of this time is on wasted work. A few people have achieved effective – they productively dedicate their time to the important stuff (not email, meetings, status reports) but completing and shiping great work. I wrote a post on the ideas of bad work, good work and great work:

  • Daniel Decker

    First off, great article. Well said. Ideas without execution are just dreams, not reality. Talkers talk. Doers do. I think this trend of hyping the downplay of hard work has more to do with some trying to capitalize off the desire of many to achieve success the easy way (but really there is no easy way or else it wouldnâ??t be called work). Many are trying to sell the magic pill, so to speak. Sadly, many are attracted to the â??get rich quick,â?? â??overnight bestseller,â?? â??how can I make it big without doing the workâ?? mentality. They donâ??t truly realize the years of work that often precede the success.

    For me, I want to work for what I achieve. I donâ??t want it easy or else I might be more inclined to take it for granted. Thatâ??s the trap, I think. I’m all for productivity, working smarter and finding new ways to do things but I don’t really want to skip the steps that help me learn. That’s where not only a business or initiative is build but also character.

  • Cimifly

    Well said, Many successful people build a notion that success is easy and you don’t have to work too hard to make it. Yea Right! they never tell us about the sleepless night for weeks and months. The brain always working and effortlessly doing things to make it happen. Let get real people, don’t sell us a deceitful dream. To make it in life involves handwork, smarts and efficiency. Remember in high school to pass that test you had to study and that involved putting in work and time. The same principles apply now just on a grand scale using the values and lessons you were taught at a very young age.

  • Elizabeth Kaylene

    If I hadn’t been working hard at my web design business over the last year, I’d still be working a dead-end part-time job. It’s nice when you get to a point when you don’t have to work as hard, but even companies that have been around forever still require hard work to keep them going.

  • Karl

    To me, the four-hour work week represents the culmination of years of hard work. I’m working hard now so that eventually, I can live more simply. When I was self-employed, I found that my partners and I could “work” about 25 hours a week and still support ourselves. The other time spent during the week was at meetings, special events, luncheons, and the like. In a way, all of this networking was “work,” but it felt a lot more like “fun time.” Maybe the people working “short weeks” are just the ones who have managed to unite their work life and home life somewhat harmoniously.

  • Editor

    Editor’s correction: We originally quoted Caterina Fake in this article (as saying “hard work doesn’t amount to much”). That was a mis-attributed quote. It was actually a quote from Fast Company author Cliff Kuang. Our apologies for the error.

  • sky tao

    Thank you, this could not have come at a better time. I absolutely agree hard work, especially in this current financial climate, should be proof of one’s ability to shape and mold the financial crisis into a financial haven.

    Because they still had enough courage in them to remain hard working where others have cut and saved and held back, the hard worker pushes forward, struggling and sacrificing even more than the day they begun. I started my business last year and where I was doomed immediately to fail, one year on I have results, improvement and interest.

    As for $? Ah, I gotta keep working harder 🙂

  • Eugene

    I think it is a matter how people define work. Or what for that matter. If you’re doing what you love, they say it isn’t work so it shouldn’t be hard.

  • sudeep

    well this article is so true.. but yes hard work alone cant shape any career… there are other aspects too.. like a little of creativity, a small idea, a pinch of luck and most important will be capability of decision making,focus etc etc…and of course to get it we really need 10,000 hours of work…

  • Niels Matthijs

    Not only is hard work necessary for “making things happen”, it’s also a crucial element in thinking up these very same “things”. Humans are naturally lazy, and only through hard work do we find the strength to set our minds to something that will make our lives (hopefully) a lot easier.

  • Wyatt

    The 10,000 hours is important from the perspective of producing what your heart, gut, wants to produce. When you delve into that many hours you know because it will either be seriously grinding work or a joy. A very small percentage of what you produce is actually any good. Read the Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and you find further perspectives on that 10,000 hours and basically once you find what you want you, “better get busy.” It is sweat sure, the greats like the Beatles, Bill Gates, and others, would not have gotten there working at it for four hours a week. The Beatles played an amazing amount of hours together and didn’t just sound good right off but they played and played and played. They were out there doing it because that is what they wanted to do. There was passion, hard work, and then being in the right place at the right time. All of these elements come together in the perfect storm. These days the Internet and having a website, using social media, help to leverage these elements so you can have your own perfect storm. Lots of work though. I am about to read your book and looking forward to it. 99 percent is a great site for inspiration. Thanks!

  • Melani

    It’s about working smart. I hear entrepreneur friends say to me all the time, I work 80 hours a week or I only got 3 hours of sleep last night. Sometimes I think to myself, what would happen if I shadowed that person for a day or week. Do they really ‘work’ 80 hrs/week or is 40hrs of it wasting time or standing in line for the new iPhone. That doesn’t count as ‘work’ hours!

  • Charlie A

    The idea of a 4-day week certainly has its appeal and to some extent justification. You could get all of your work done in a shortened week except for the extraordinary amount of time wasted on unnecessarily long and lack-of-focus meetings along with other wasted hours of people who are addicted to the sound of their voices as they pontificate to co-workers who have real work to do. Those practices alone can lead to needless, painful and counterproductive 14 hour work days. Or longer. However, anyone dreaming about a 4-day work week has never been a full time freelancer. I think our unofficial motto is, “We close a half day in case of nuclear war.”

  • Alan


  • Sarah

    great insight!

  • Jonathan Patterson

    The best line in this article… “Retrospective insight is a dangerous thing: it can taint advice.” So true.

    Additionally, I’ve also always said that good ideas are a dime a dozen, execution is everything. This further corroborates my thoughts! Fantastic article.

  • Anne

    In most cases that I have seen this suggestion it has been in regards to people working at companies not starting them. You will have happier, more productive employees who feel more fulfilled if they are not so pointlessly overworked. Obviously, it will take more effort to start a new venture.

  • bubs353

    Great article! Loved reading it

  • Juan

    Definetely hard work is the only-way to move up in the ladder of success. Another great advantage here in the States is the system that allows everybody to be somebody, to be successfull – it does not matter where you are coming from, it really matters where you are going, it really depends 100% on you.

  • Scott

    My ‘meme’ on the subject is – nothing works without work

  • Pedro Da Silva

    “Perspiration implies sweat, self-discipline, and (yes) occasional exhaustion.” is something I can relate to. I am certain I am close to my 99%…

  • WannabelikeSheen

    hereditary wealth.

  • Jim Dominic

    Are you talking about “hard work” as in doing arduous tasks, or are you talking about “hard work” as in doing simple tasks over many hours and days? I may put in a lot of hours, but am I really doing “hard work”? Everybody probably thinks they’re working hard–so how do we define it? By what standard is it measured?

  • Steve Rogers

    Nice article and a good response to the “4-hour” franchise.

  • Asdf

    This depends. The best programmers are lazy because they want to accomplish the most with the least work, because efficiency is a laudable goal. It’s strange to think of laziness and lack of work ethic as good, but in some ways I believe a healthy disdain for work is more than necessary, it’s sound reasoning.

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