Chances are you grew up hearing about the virtues of hard work—how it’s important to “always try your best” no matter what. Or how “hard work always pays off” in the end.
While commonplace and often well-intentioned, the belief in the absolute sacredness of hard work is misguided at best, and very often dangerous, for a simple reason:
Hard work is only valuable if it’s directed at valuable things.
Think about it:
- Is it good to work hard at being a jerk to people who think differently than you?
- Do you aspire to work hard at eating unhealthy food?
- Would you be happy if your child grew up to be a hard-working serial killer?
Yeah, obviously not.
Common, Nick! Anyone can cherry pick silly and extreme examples like that, but exceptions don’t disprove the rule. 99% of the time working hard is a very good thing!
Those examples are admittedly extreme. But the follies of unquestioned devotion to hard work are more common than you might imagine—and certainly more harmful.
Here are a couple real life examples from my own work as a psychologist to illustrate…
Working hard in a career you hate
By the time I met him, Scott had already had a long and successful career as a lawyer. After fifteen years of working his way up the ladder at a major law firm to reach partner, he had spent the last 10 years running his own firm even more successfully. He was extremely well off financially and had a sterling reputation among the legal profession in town. The problem was he hated his work.
The first time we met in therapy, Scott was surprisingly open about how he’d always resented his career. He told me how he came from a long line of hard-working lawyers in his family and got into it because it was “what you do in my family.”
Early on, Scott realized he had a knack for legal work but didn’t enjoy it at all and frequently found it distasteful and not especially interesting. He often dreamed of “just leaving it all” and starting over—a recurring “fantasy” he’d had since his first year of law school.
Scott was in therapy because he was depressed and it only seemed to be getting worse. He was also starting to drink more than usual (which was already a lot). And while his marriage and family life had “never been great,” his wife was threatening to divorce him. Perhaps worst of all, Scott was “just kinda hopeless.” When he looked forward, all he could see was 10 more years of working in a career he didn’t like, only to retire and not know what to do with himself.
Over the first weeks and months working with Scott, it became increasingly apparent to me that the real reason he came into therapy was to grieve. Scott was finally waking up to the fact that he’d spent the better part of his life pouring the best parts of his time and energy into something he didn’t enjoy or find meaningful:
- He was professionally successful—but he dreaded going to work every day.
- He had a beautiful house (several, in fact)—but he never got to appreciate them because he was constantly working.
- He had the esteem of professors, politicians, and judges—but his relationship with his wife and two kids was distant at best and very often contentious.
In short, Scott was coming to terms with the fact that he wasn’t living the life he actually wanted. As he put it even more starkly, “I’m afraid I’ve wasted my life.”
Listening to his story, it was hard for me to disagree.
Working hard to save an unhealthy relationship
Amy was attractive, clever, and wickedly funny. Within twenty minutes of our first meeting in therapy, she had me laughing out loud as she told humorous stories describing the shenanigans she and her younger brother got into as kids growing up in rural Arkansas. Unfortunately, her wit and talent for telling a good tale hid a much darker and painful side of her life.
Growing up, her father had been incredibly stern and hard on her as the oldest child. While never overtly abusive, Amy described him as a physical and moral “task-master,” constantly drilling into her and her younger brother a “Puritanical” view of the supreme importance of family and hard work above all else.
Her mother, on the other hand, was “shy and submissive,” frequently reminding Amy of the importance of “unity and harmony” in a family because, at the end of the day, “that’s all we’ve really got.”
Even though her family of origin took the spotlight in our first few sessions, it was clear from the beginning that the reason Amy was in therapy had much more to do with her current family, especially her relationship with her husband.
When I asked Amy to describe her marriage, he shrugged her shoulders and began with, “Oh, I don’t know—I guess we were happy in the beginning….” She went on to describe falling “madly” in love with her husband as sophomores in college and getting married a month after graduation. But quickly, she felt “empty and distant” in the relationship. Her husband worked long hours and didn’t seem very interested in spending much time with her when he did have free time—preferring golf with his work buddies or vacations with their best friends.
Pretty quickly, the distance and emptiness turned into conflict and resentment. Amy constantly tried to figure out why her husband wasn’t all that interested in her or their two young children. But the more she tried hard to figure it out and improve things, the more distant and irritable he became.
After 10 years of marriage, Amy discovered that her husband had been involved in a year’s long affair with her best friend—the one they vacationed with frequently. Amy was devastated. But almost immediately jumped into trying to repair things with the marriage and “find a silver lining.” She convinced her husband to try marriage therapy, but he only lasted two sessions before storming out at the beginning of the third session.
Amy came to see me because, while she was “desperate to save her marriage,” she didn’t know what else to do. She’d been pouring every ounce of her soul into trying to repair things with her husband, but their relationship only seemed to deteriorate further.
The inflection point in our work came after a couple months of weekly sessions. Amy was describing some recent argument with her husband about their kids when she all of a sudden burst into tears. After a couple of minutes of sobbing (which was unusual for the otherwise self-composed Amy), she told me “I hate that I have thoughts like this, but sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had married someone else.”
Of course, in my head I was thinking, Yeah no kidding! How could you not! But for Amy, who was so committed to working hard to save her marriage no matter what, simply having a thought like this was another sign of her own “weakness” and how she needed to find some way to “bring her family together.”
It seemed clear enough to me that Amy had married someone who was so narcissistic and self-centered that he simply wasn’t and never would be capable of a healthy relationship. But Amy’s entire worldview revolved around the unassailable importance of “working hard at family” and keeping people together.
After nearly a year of working together, nothing had really changed much for Amy. Realizing therapy had no magic solution for saving her marriage, she quit.
As far as I know, she continues to feel a near-constant stream of anxiety, guilt, and resentment about the state of her marriage. And beneath it all, in quiet moments when she’s alone with her own thoughts, a terrible sadness about the way her life turned out and how helpless she saw herself to change it despite (or perhaps because of) all her hard work.
Why hard work often backfires
If you read those examples closely, you likely noticed two big themes that run throughout them, both of which ought to make us more skeptical of an unquestioning instance on always working hard:
1. Opportunity Cost
Economists love to talk about opportunity cost, the idea that if you spend $500 on a new phone, you’re also giving up the chance to spend that $500 on a weekend getaway with your spouse, putting it into your child’s college fund, donating it to charity, or really anything else.
And whether you’re interested in economics or not, we’d all do well to keep this concept in mind as it applies just as much to psychology as finance.
While there are almost always benefits to working hard, we rarely pay attention to the costs. Specifically, we often fail to consider all the things we’re giving up when we devote our time, attention, energy, and even our love, into working hard at something that may not give us much return on that investment.
- All the time and energy Scott poured into his work was time and energy he didn’t invest in his relationship with his wife, his kids, or exploring a more fulfilling career path.
- All the time and energy Amy poured into her marriage was time and energy she didn’t invest in a different, healthier relationship.
And remember, it’s not just that our ROI on that hard work is low—the real problem is missing out on the much higher return on investment of our efforts if they had been directed toward something more worthwhile and genuinely valuable.
Which brings us to the second reason we ought to be more careful with our hard work…
2. Values Alignment
As we mentioned early on, hard work is only virtuous to the extent that it aligns with a worthwhile goal. The obvious example is something like our initial hypothetical of working hard at being a jerk. If the end state isn’t valuable, neither is working hard at it.
But the more subtle point here is that it’s easy to end up working hard at pseudo-values—things you think you should value, but really don’t. Or things other people value, but aren’t actually valuable or important to you.
And if you never question whether your hard work is aligned with your authentic values, it’s very easy to end up spending your life working hard at someone else’s life—a truly tragic occurrence which is all too common.
- Scott inherited the value of being a lawyer from his family. And because he never deeply questioned that value—whether it was actually something he valued—he ended up in my office confiding in me that he thought he had wasted his life.
- Amy inherited the value of working hard to keep family together no matter what. But it was never a value she seriously questioned to see if it aligned with her own wants, needs, and aspirations for her life. So she found herself trapped in a deeply unhappy and unhealthy marriage that she couldn’t bring herself to leave.
Hard Work Should Work for You… Not the Other Way Around
To be clear, I’m a big fan of hard work.
But over the years, I’ve seen far too many examples of how blind adherence to hard work can backfire and make people miserable. Specifically, when people don’t consider the opportunity costs of hard work and the values that work is aimed at, working hard quickly becomes an instrument of destruction and unhappiness.
The ability to work hard is a tool. And like any tool, it can be used well or poorly.
Even if you don’t find yourself in situations as intense as Scott or Amy, more ordinary decisions to work harder are worth reflecting on…
- What is it about taking home work on the weekends that feels so hard to give up? What value of mine is this hard work really aimed at? And what values am I giving up by working so hard on the weekends?
- Why do I feel compelled to dive in headfirst into working hard at yet another side project or hobby? Is this something that really aligns with my values or just another temporary distraction to keep my mind off something else?
- Why am I trying so hard to convince this person of what I believe? Am I considering the opportunity costs of all that time and energy? Do I actually care about changing their mind or does it make me feel good to appear to be the kind of person who “says it like it is”?
Just because it’s hard doesn’t make it right.