For a country that values hard work so highly, we really don’t seem to have a common definition of it. If we did, we’d have more appreciation for what others did for a living.
Let’s start with the facts. Americans work longer hours and are more productive than any other country on the planet. So we put in the time and have a ton to show for it.
We work 40, 50, 60, 70 plus hours per week. Some people leave their job at the door when they punch out; others never seem to stop working. Either because they are moving on to a second or third job, or feel as if they need to always be connected to work via email (checking with a frequency we often mock teens when they relentlessly text friends).
The nature of the work is diverse. Some perform backbreaking tasks that take a physical toll every day, ultimately causing a body to break down prematurely. For others, the stress is more mental. Constant pressure to perform and deliver contributes to different health issues associated with stress.Is this what we value?Apparently not. In Gallup’s annual State of the American Workplace study, they found that 70% of Americans either hate or are completely disengaged in their jobs.
So we may be working hard, but it doesn’t seem to be working for us.
When I was little, people of little means who seemed to be working constantly surrounded me. My mother raised her three children by day and bartended by night. For a child, her hours seemed incalculable. There were no benefits and no paid vacation to speak of. She worked to live. Work put food on the table and helped provide for her children. The more she worked, the more she made. The better she was at her job, the more likely she was to get the extra shift when it became available.
So when I began working on a farm when I was 12 years old, I had the same mentality. The more potatoes I picked, the more money I could make. Later, when working at a fast food restaurant, I realized that harder and better work could translate to better shifts, even if I was only 16 years old at the time. Hard work simply meant more money.
With working hard also came pride in a job well done. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Even if you’re only a street sweeper, decide that you’re going to be the best street sweeper that ever was."
And so at different times, I felt that I was the best potato picker on that farm, the best dishwasher at that bar, and the best sandwich maker in that fast food joint.
Working hard does come with its own intrinsic rewards: money, pride, a sense of accomplishment, respect from your peers. But it does not automatically come with mobility. Had I stayed on that farm, at that bar, or in that fast food restaurant, inevitably I would have hit a ceiling. A ceiling defined today by stagnating wages and decreased benefits. Eventually even the intrinsic joy from working hard would become a more bitter fruit.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell throws down the 10,000 hours gauntlet. Research suggests it is this number that will lead to mastery in any given task. Want to be a masterful writer? Write for 10,000 hours. Want to be a masterful skier? Ski for 10,000 hours. Want to lead the "British Invasion"? Play music for 10,000 hours.
In this last case, he uses the example of the Beatles and the amount of practice time they put in before making it big. Pointing specifically to a three-month gig in Hamburg, Germany where they played anywhere and everywhere as a seminal period during which practice and hard work were particularly intense.
While there is no doubt that the Beatles practiced often and hard, practice should not be read as a simple prescription for success. After all, not all musicians who "practice, practice, practice" make it to places like Carnegie Hall or the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Paul McCartney summed it up differently in an interview commemorating the launch of the "British Invasion" on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964: "There were a lot of coincidences. Us coming together. Having all these different skills that complemented each other. John Lennon in a band and you have pretty good band. Paul McCartney in a band. That’s a pretty good band. Same with George and Ringo. But together, well that was something special."
Beyond finding each other, they also needed to "find their music." And the fact that all four of them consistently brought to the group a different set of influences ranging from Elvis Presley (whom Lennon said without Elvis there is no Beatles) to Buddy Holly (whose band’s name, The Crickets, inspired the naming of The Beatles) to Little Richard (whom they met in Hamburg and provided invaluable words of wisdom for the group to put their own music out there).
Any history of the Beatles will undoubtedly show that beyond mastering the craft by putting in the time, there were coincidences, influences and circumstances that, if you pulled one of those threads, it is possible that the whole fabric of their music and success could unravel.
Increasingly as the topics of income inequality and social mobility have received more public attention, a spate of new books trying to uncover new formulas for what it takes for a child to succeed have arrived with much fanfare. Here "success" is defined in the context of moving up in social class. In books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, really smart people attempt to describe what character traits are essential for success. While their formulas vary, there is one constant: the idea of "grit." Grit has many definitions, including "perseverance and passion in achieving long-term goals." But at the core of their descriptions is grit defined as "persistence of motive and effort." In others words, persistence in hard work. These books are all well-written and valuable contributions to better understanding the dynamics of moving up the ladder in life. But they each also fall back on the overwhelming importance of working hard—in this case, defined as doing so over the long haul. Again no doubt that grit or hard work—whatever you want to call it—is critical to success. But a new spin on an old theme carries with it the risk of minimizing the importance of many of the other things we talk about here. The solution isn’t to just teach "grit" but to figure out how to minimize its necessity.
In his New York Times column, Charles M. Blow likens life to a hill in need of climbing: more so for some than others. He writes, "It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it is so. Some folks are born halfway up the hill and others on the top. The rest of us fall somewhere in between. Life doles out favors in differing measures, often as a result of historical injustice and systematic bias. That’s a hurtful fact, one that must be changed. We should all work toward that change. In the meantime, until that change is real, what should you do if life gives you the hill?"
His answer: work hard and climb. Seems obvious and it is. His admonishments that "you may have been born at the bottom, but the bottom was not born in you" and "you have it within you to be better than you were, to make more of your life than was given to you by life" are quintessentially American. But he also puts us in a familiar bind. Of course, hard work is necessary and the alternative, self-defeating. But as he writes earlier in his same piece, "I know it’s infuriating when people offer insanely naïve solutions to our suffering." Yet isn’t he, and by extension all of us, doing exactly that?
In Alaska, some salmon swim 31 miles upstream to spawn. At the same time, bears fresh from hibernation will take their young cubs on an equally incredible journey that will see only half of the cubs survive their first year. They begin by walking two weeks without eating until they arrive at an open meadow, where they will take a break and feed on grass. Continuing the mother will lead them onward avoiding predators and battling the elements until they get to the same final destination as the salmon.
The reward for the bear’s hard work is feasting on the salmon. The reward for the salmon’s 31 mile swim is the chance to avoid being eaten by very hungry bears.
The lessons? One, as a species, we don’t own the corner on hard work. And two, the best, and perhaps ultimate reward for working hard is doing what it takes so our offspring at least have a chance in life.
It is in the nature of bears and salmon. Can we say the same about humans?
The issue with Gladwell and others is not their theories so much as it is with our unquenchable thirst to have the answer or at least the recipe for what it takes to get ahead. Social scientists, journalists, and media organizations all feed our insatiable appetite for trying to unlock the mystery that is "getting ahead in America."
New theories and books are constantly added to the mix, each with the hope of solving this problem of decreasing mobility.
But the issue is so complex and so individualized that any one theory or book serves only as a small meal that we digest all too quickly. By the next day, we are hungry for more.
Recently, Inc. Magazine included a quote from Gladwell summarizing a tenet from his latest book, David & Goliath. He starts by including the old adage, "what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger," and suggests that it is through these types of hardships that success becomes possible. Nice sentiment. But really?
Yes, many people overcome adversity and as the adage goes "bones grow stronger in the broken places." But in reality, what doesn’t kill us usually inflicts some damage, sometimes devastatingly so. To slough it off as what makes you stronger, strikes us as something that we tell each other during difficult times but never truly believe. It is a hope and desire, not always a reality.
I want every hardship to translate to strength. In my own life, it sometimes has. Yet at the same time, I’ve seen too many lives battered, wrecked, and ruined until only a shell of the original person remains. They didn’t become stronger. They became weaker. This is normally a result of repeated injury.
When we buy into some new formula or theory, we look at people who don’t make it through this lens and cast them as failures or weak. This is grossly unfair. We need new theories, new learning, and new voices not to give us the answer or another empty bromide, but instead to add a new chapter to an epic story. They add to the story. They don’t become the story.