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Does hard work actually matter?
From Joe Rogan to Angela Duckworth, persistence and grit are in fashion. But does hard work actually create change?
My mom was a Tiger Mom. She worked as hard as anyone I ever met. Raising two children in a foreign nation, in which she barely spoke the language when she first arrived, she barely had a moment to relax. My most important childhood memory was of my mom, in the evenings, after taking care of everything for her kids and the family; after wrapping up all her commitments for her multiple jobs (as a tax preparer at H&R Block; a principal of the local Chinese school; and eventually as a business owner of the most successful Kumon learning centers in Central Indiana); after barely having enough time to eat and drink and sleep over another exhausting day; after all that, mom would still be sweeping the floors, and cleaning up everyone else’s messes, while the rest of us would go to sleep.
It’s why I didn’t really fault her when, despite the fact that I was getting straight A’s, she always told me I was not working hard enough. She set an example for me that was hard to argue with. I always felt like a lazy person by comparison. (I still do, to this day!)
I’m naturally disposed, therefore, to being biased towards cultural narratives that support the importance of hard work, or what I call the Tiger Mom ethos. And from Angela Duckworth to Joe Rogan, these narratives are ascendant. Duckworth’s research on grit – the passion and perseverance to “stick with it” even when times are tough — has become some of the most prominent in the history of cognitive psychology. (It’s not surprising to me that Duckworth, who is Asian and married into a white-sounding name, apparently had a Tiger Mom upbringing.) And Joe Rogan has developed the largest podcast on the planet with a hard working, everyman theme. As a response to the Coddling of the American Mind, the Tiger Mom ethos seems incredibly attractive.
It’s for that reason, however, that I think it’s important to consider the counter arguments for the Tiger Mom mentality. Here are a few of them.
The focus on individual hard work disguises systemic factors that are far more important. For example, no matter how hard someone in sub-Saharan Africa works, they are likely to end up poorer than even the laziest of Americans. The systems around us often dictate outcomes far more than our personal effort. This is the point variously made by Jesse Singal in his recent book, The Quick Fix, and by the impmortant political philosopher Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit.
The Tiger Mom mentality burns people out, even if it produces short term change. I’ve seen this unfold with the people I work with. When you suggest to people they can never take a break, then sometimes they will break. I’ve been mostly immune to this impact because I’ve always loved the work I do. But even I have felt this a little more in recent years. It’s why, for the first time in my life, I’ve taken a vacation in the last couple years.
A focus on hard work destroys intrinsic motivation. There is a good evidence that, when people are tasked with creative rather than administrative work, they need to be intrinsically motivated by their work. They have to enjoy the practice of work, for its own sake, and not because it will benefit them in some external way. Work, then, shouldn’t feel like work, at least when our problems are challenging and complex. And if we focus on pushing people to work hard, we may be missing the meaning and purpose that would make it unnecessary to ask people to work hard in the first place.
So there you have it — three reasons hard work might not matter. I’ll probably still value hard work, and a culture in line with that, despite these reasons. But these and other reasons have certainly pushed me away from an unreflecting commitment to hard work for its own sake.
But I’ll still probably always consider myself a lazy person. Some things never change.