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The Point of Hard Work

03 Aug 2022

Why is this still a question every young person has?

You might have firm ideas and I’m sure they’re correct, but please accompany me in a relook. As a teenager is thrust into the world by her parents, she observes variability in work ethic. She comprehends the impact on her paycheck. Though also observed in school when younger, it’s different at work. Now, she’s on her own and you don’t work because your parents ask you to (as presumably children do for school) - you do it for cash. So our teenager starts working hard because she wants cash, like any of her age group.

After a few weeks, she realizes that entry level jobs need high energy but low accountability. As a result, some people slack off quite a lot. This frustrates her because slacking off results in only a small reduction in pay but that’s about it. Also, not being sore after working the fryer all day at that fast food place is no joke. When our intrepid new worker talks about this with elders, she’s taught the ‘value of hard work’. It’s followed by the how she ‘has it easy’ compared to their own glorious golden days. We’re all familiar with this tradition. The previous generation criticizes the current for not wanting to do certain tasks. There is some bias to this because it conflates the willingness to do those tasks with work ethics. Technological progress decimates back-breaking or mind-numbing work, not laziness. I saw this in action at Ford Motor Company, when I was helping launch a transmission production line. UAW operators appreciated the superior ergonomics on the transmission line. Working on vehicle lines was more detrimental to their health because of tasks requiring hands raised 120 degrees to their body axis. This was in no small part due to there being fewer opportunities for automation. You could say my work was ‘easy’. Even if you agree, doesn’t it make sense that we would all want technology to automate such work? and thus also the role that prevents injury due to said work? Since this would also obviate the need for ergonomics, I’d have to move to other roles but that’s better, isn’t it? Or should some people always perform such work? If yes, consider that washing dishes was manual until the dishwasher arrived. And before water ran via pipes to homes, you’d have to wash by the river. You can imagine an eighteenth century washer cursing us if we were to wish there was a ‘machine’ that did this work. But if that washer were in our era, they’d be too stunned to remember their criticism. The point? Much of the criticism comes from wanting such a solution and not having it. In other cases, that generation is the one that automates it in the first place.

This in only physical hard work though – the one you do with your body. There are other types of hard work. In the case of running businesses, the energy might be low and the accountability is high. Still, there is something similar happening. In the excellent book, The E-Myth Revisited, author Michael Gerber talks about ‘working on the business, not in it’. He uses the fictional example of a baker turned frustrated entrepreneur. This young baker toils to start her own bakery but after a few months everything she likes about baking is gone. Instead, she wrestles with payroll, maintenance, taxes and hiring. She’s ‘working hard’ but not getting anywhere. What Gerber advises applies well to a bakery, or any business providing conventional products and services. Futuristic startups making nuclear fusion components? Maybe not, at least until the technology is democratized or at scale. The idea is that it may look like you’re working less ‘in’ your business but that’s only so you work ‘more’ on more businesses. Grow from one bakery to five and that won’t be slacking off. You won’t be baking, doing payroll or hiring – which you think was ‘real hard work’ – you will have branch managers for that. You will be hiring those exceptional managers, acquiring investment or launching new products. It’s not work you can do if you’re busy waking up at six in the morning to bake the best cake ever.

Let’s come back to our bright-eyed teenager. The right answer to a question like, “why do I need to work hard if XYZ doesn’t” or “it doesn’t get me anywhere” could be as follows. There is a use of that mind-numbing work after all. Cleaning the fryers will tell you the effort needed to run a restaurant (or bakery). It will inform your calculations because you have a first-hand account of doing the work. It will also allow you to empathize with your future team but no, it won’t ‘get you anywhere’. Let’s put it another way. The purpose of a hundred hours of cleaning fryers is get that one opportunity to manage the whole branch. Or better, you get noticed by a recruiter for a customer service role for being extra careful with his order. That will allow you to work in roles where there will be a shift from fryer cleaning to sale closing work. It will shift you from low accountability work to high accountability. And that’s it. The sole purpose of grueling, physical work is thus to have more shots at roles where you work ‘on’ things rather than ‘in’ things. Hard work is an ethic but one that is a means to an end, nothing more and nothing less. There might be people you think have luxuries you desire without hard work. These people may have landed these by way of an inheritance – which is their parents’ hard work. It couldn’t be luck, if you were thinking that. Based on what we discussed, luck will be ‘created’ by the hard work put in. Don’t worry about it – this person will need to have their own ‘hard work’ discovery to move higher. Even if their base level offers them luxury, it doesn’t offer them infinite shots. That comes only with hard work. You, like our teenager, now say a leasing agent at a rental property firm, will remember her fryer days. She will work hard to get more customer tours and go the extra step to close the lease. This, and some networking, too will get her a shot at being a general partner in a construction venture, who knows?

If you’re in your teens or twenties and reading this changed your mind, I’m glad! But if you discovered this on your own early enough, well, that’s ideal.

~ Siddhit