The Myth of Working Hard vs. Working Smart

Can you get to the top without pushing yourself during long work days?

learn more about Michael Moroney

By Michael Moroney • Mar 3, 2015 Originally published Dec 12, 2013

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Mike Rowe, host of the popular Discovery Channel series Dirty Jobs, recently highlighted the dichotomy of how we portray work in America -- in one corner, the romantic, blue-collar ideal of "working harder," and in the other, the urban, Blackberry-toting notion of "working smarter."

And while Rowe's comments were meant to illustrate the contrast between our perception of blue collar vs. white collar jobs, I couldn't help but think about the plethora of listicles I've read about working smarter, not harder. They all start by discussing the misconception that putting in long hours will lead to success, and then move on to how to cut down your hours and increase productivity by reprioritizing and taking "me time."

The problem with the working hard vs. working smart dichotomy is that all too often we frame the choice as one in which we can only choose "hard" or "smart." The question we should be asking is, why aren't we doing both?

Our culture's reverence of hard work hearkens back to the ideals of America's first settlers, who possessed a tireless work ethic and self-denying humility. This core mentality persisted for over three centuries of American history, as we built outward from an agrarian society and became the world's industrial leader. But in our transition to a service economy -- and particularly during the digital revolution of the past quarter-century -- we began to see the primacy of hard work as a relic of the analog, industrial past and started teaching our children to work smarter, not harder.

Growing up on the doctrine of "smarter, not harder" has had its advantages for many in younger generations. By trusting technology and prioritizing time-efficiency, we've become adept at multitasking and capable of creative, entrepreneurial thinking. From our youth, we've been trained to never be satisfied with the conventional ways of doing things and to keep looking for that better mousetrap.

Related: 5 Stubbornly Persistent Business Myths

Working smart may be essential, but it's only half of the equation. No successful entrepreneur or executive will tell you that it's a substitute for applying maximum effort during every waking hour of the day. To reach the top of your field, you need to not only take advantage of technology and work efficiently, but also be the first one in the office and the last one still plugging away into the wee hours of the morning when your competition is asleep. Smarter work affords us more time, but that saved time doesn't mean anything unless we put it to optimal use.

Top CEOs have reported an average wakeup time of 6:15 a.m., with many rising before 5, and most worked at least two hours at home after dinner. In some cases, they regularly turned in 18-hour workdays. Many of these industry leaders credit their success to working while others aren't.

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of reddit, credits coffee for his ability to burn the candle at both ends in his recently released book, Without Their Permission.

As startup entrepreneur Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR put it, "I get almost as much done outside normal office hours as during them. I'll interview people on Saturdays, late at night, early in the morning... During startup, I think you have the choice of being productive or having a social life, and I've chosen being productive."

If we want to be successful, we shouldn't be content to simply work smarter. The most successful people work smart, but they also work exceptionally hard. They maintain the same level of persistence and drive while learning ways to do things more efficiently. We don't all have to aspire to be CEOs, but for those of us that do, finding more effective ways to do things is only half the battle.

Hard work and smart work alone are not sufficient for business success -- ingenuity, vision, risk calculation, and luck, among others, all play roles -- but both are essential, and it's time to stop treating them as if they were mutually exclusive. Young professionals and budding entrepreneurs must work smarter, harder, longer and better -- because their competition already is.

Related: 10 Myths About Creativity You Need to Stop Believing Now

Michael Moroney

Communications strategist

Michael Moroney is a communications professional working in Washington, D.C., and a 2014 Fund for American Studies Journalism Fellow.

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