On the fallacy that hard work leads to success

By Marc McDougall

How do you build a profitable business in 2019?

As someone who has been trying to do this for the past 6 years, I can’t tell you how much I have toiled over the answer to this question.  As much as I’d like to believe that I’m getting there, I’ve found that I know much more about what not to do, rather than what you should do.

However, if you randomly sampled the US population, they’d likely give you one of several answers:

  • Hard work
  • Money/Connections/Opportunity
  • A really, really good idea.
  • Luck

Today, I’d like to tackle the one at the top of the list and (in about 6 minutes) do my best to propose the idea that working hard has very little to do with building a profitable business.

The case for working hard

Before I tackle an idea, I like to bolster it a bit to make things a bit more fair.

I think when people say that hard work pays off, what they mean is that if you task two people with solving a problem, and one of them sits on the couch watching Netflix while the other hits the bricks, the latter will be much more likely to solve that problem.

This is a very fair argument to make, and in a vacuum it makes quite a bit of sense.

There’s also the emotional appeal of working hard to consider.  Hard work typically implies a sense of humility & honesty that’s ironically a really compelling sales strategy.  There’s certainly a case for branding yourself as a “hard worker”, because it’s a simple sound-byte that conveys a deeper, meaningful idea about your business.

There’s definitely value in working hard, though to claim that it’s directly responsible for success in business is a fallacy.

When working hard falls apart

My argument is not that hard work is invaluable, but rather that when the idea that “working hard leads to success” is exposed to the real world it quickly falls apart.  When problems are complicated enough, hard work & resolve alone are not enough to sustain an average human towards solving a problem.

There’s two reasons why this doesn’t work: first, if your primary differentiator as a business in a market is the claim that you “work hard” (read: “harder than you can find elsewhere”), then all your competition needs to do to supplant you is hire enough labor such that you can no longer work as hard as they can cumulatively.

Second, not all work is created equal: 100-hour work weeks don’t mean much if your spending it working on a fruitless marketing campaign.  If your competition is spending 10 hours a week talking with the movers and shakers of your industry over wine and cheese, you’re going to be really distraught to come out of your overworked haze only to find they own the market.

In retort to this, proponents of “working hard” often refactor the statement from “hard work”, to “effective work”, and that takes me to my final point:

How do you build a successful business?

It’s pretty clear to me that hard work has very little to do with success in business…but of course that begs the question: “what is a better predictor?”

To be totally transparent, I honestly don’t know (if I did, then I wouldn’t be sitting here writing blog posts, that’s for sure!), but I’ll take my best stab at it.  Here’s what I would consider a more complete picture, ordered by importance:

  • Intelligence/intellectual capital, because knowledge is power and if you know something I don’t you have a tremendous advantage over me.
  • Money & connections, because relationships rule the world, and big pockets makes the pursuit of success in business much less dependent on your time.
  • Personal accountability & likability, because you ultimately need to bolster those connections with a human relationship, and people don’t form relationships with people they don’t like and trust.
  • Creativity, because if you can think of an interesting marketing campaign or key differentiator that dwarfs the efforts of your competition, then that’s exactly what you’ll do.
  • Work ethic, because it’s hard to do anything in this world without working hard.
  • A wee bit of luck, because the scale of the Western economy is massive and very hard to predict.

…and underpinning all of this is a sense of calibrated perseverance.

Calibrated Perseverance:- A set of characteristics describing someone who embodies an extraordinary resilience in the face of adversity, while maintaining the ability to look inward and adapt themselves to feedback from the market with a radical sense of honesty.

Everything in the list above is something that you can eventually learn or understanding in time, but if you don’t persevere when things get tough, then the list doesn’t matter that much, does it?

Perseverance alone is not enough though — this is why you see TLC shows all the time about failed businesses that refuse to close their doors.  Sometimes, the market is telling you to adapt, and you need to be able to calibrate your strategy so that you can persevere in a way that the market rewards.

Anyway, my point in writing this article wasn’t to pat myself on the back for not working too hard, but rather to address what I think is often overlooked in the digital age: the missing nuance.  Yes, a strong work ethic is important, but it’s not as important other influences.

In the unstructured life of an entrepreneur, it’s very easy to get lured in by the coos of marketers with trite one-liners about grinding all day, and that leads to serious bouts of burnout that take a very real toll on our very human minds.  Working hard is the barrier to entry nowadays, not the roadmap to the exit.

Exhausting yourself is easy: being effective is hard.