Why “Hard Work” Doesn’t Yield Success

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill

29 October 2017

Phew. We made it through midterms…

Some of us made it out in better shape, but in the end, what matters is that they’re behind us.

The time after midterms is always interesting to me.

Nothing slows down like after finals, since there are still assignments and new material to cover, and as a consequence, we tend to overlook its value.

I really do think it’s the best time to reflect on how we’re doing, since we still have half the semester to make course-corrections. (Unlike after finals).

But this time it’s a little different.

This year I’ve finally come face to face with a harsh reality:

Hard work doesn’t imply success, and success doesn’t imply hard work. It’s a much more nuanced relationship.


If you’ve read my post about my first hard failure, and how that changed my career, then you’ll know that I’d never really struggled to succeed in anything until recently.

So I know what it’s like to be the kid that is just good at stuff.

But lately I’ve adopted a something of an “always work-harder” mentality, since, unfortunately, relaxing will only get you so far.

Thing is though, there’s only 24 hours in a day, and only so much energy your body can invest before failing you.

Sadly, hard-work too, it seems, can only get you most of the way there.

How can we close the gap to the summit?


Constant Vigilance

I used to split a lot of firewood growing up.

Looking back, (since midterms are a good time for reflection) I remember it was never easy.

It was always hard work.

But along the way, (since I was a lazy freeloading teenager) I was always looking for ways to make it easier.

I learned that if I shifted my stance slightly, I’d spent less energy maintaining balance. I learned that if I swung in a big-round-arc, the weight of the axe would carry through with little effort. I learned how to navigate knots in the wood. I learned that transporting wood is WAY easier with a wheel-borough.

What does that have to do with software engineering? Well, not much. But! It has everything to do with the idea of constant reassessment.

If I wasn’t constantly looking for ways to split faster, more efficiently, I’d have been out there sweating for hours with a sore back.

It was still hard work, but I could get it done much much more efficiently.

The point is, don’t use how hard you’re working as a measure of your input.

Your output is still dependent on the input. But effort is an incomplete input.


““All my life I’ve been surrounded by people who are smarter than I am, but I found I could always keep up by working hard.” ” – Glenn T. Seaborg

Effort will deceive you.

Our brains are lazy, as I wrote about last week, but they’re lazy in some insidious ways.

Our perception is the only lens we have to see the world, and unfortunately for us, our perception is dictated by a very lazy commander.

I tend to have two types of work days: High effort- low output, and low-effort high output.

It seems counter-intuitive.

But the days that we struggle the most to grind out some work tend to be the days we’re the most distracted, most brain-fogged, and generally the least productive.

Meanwhile, the days when we’re fresh, motivated, and “in the zone” pass by with almost no effort, hours pass, and we emerge from the desk feeling just as good as when we started, wondering where the day went.

If you’re judging your input by your effort, the output might disappoint you.

Assess the process

So, instead of assessing only the effort, or only the result, it’s time to assess the entire process.

How much valuable effort is wasted one value-less output? Is there a better way to do it? The only way to improve is to analyze both sides

What happens when I do: _____.

The best musicians don’t just practice more. They actively practice the most valuable technique to them at the time.

You could run every day of your life, and never be as good as the pro’s. Sure you’d be pretty good, and probably better than most people. But “just running” isn’t the same as “training”. A good training program is constantly reassessed and tweaked to optimize the output.

The only way to truly excel is to work hard, AND work smart. But you’ve heard that before.

I just hope this post will help someone get out of the “Work=success” mindet, like I was recently caught up in.

Just “working hard” isn’t enough. 

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