Why We're Missing the Point of "Working Hard"

February 14, 2014

Written by Spencer Thompson 

Most people like to say they work hard. In fact, it’s a badge of honour to say you are working hard, as often as you can. If you aren’t, you feel like you are “behind” in some way. Without getting into the “balance” argument, I’d like to dive into what working hard actually means and why I don’t think most people do it at all.

Athletics are a really good analogy for business. The idea of teamwork, pushing yourself to get better, setting goals, etc… all make the corollary strong. There is another similarity that people don’t ever seem to talk about—training. Athletes are known for their intense training schedules. The definition of working hard to an athlete is to train. How come? Why bother training? Well, by getting in better shape, becoming a master at your sport, and improving your mental state—your goal is to win. Whether at the Olympics, at the Super Bowl or Wimbledon, your goal is to win a championship. You need to outwork, outsmart and outperform each person you compete against in order to win. This is the beauty of sports.

In business, we don’t take this approach. The reason is simple, we don’t have a benchmark of “winning” in business. So we lack a fixed point to work towards, making it difficult to work backwards. Some people start a business to support their family, some to employ their friends and some to disrupt an industry. Each of their goals are different.

And yet, no matter what person in business you speak to, they all claim to be overwhelmed with work. They are busy, run-down and exhausted. Besides the fact that this is a stupid way to approach sounding important to your friends, it’s also not impressive. Working hard is an irrelevant term by itself when it comes to business.

Working hard actually has two separate components:

1. Domain Labour

2. Training 

Both are essential to survival, but only #2 is important for “winning”. I’ll explain that more in second. Firstly, let’s understand what domain labour is. In every business, there are things that make the business “tick”. These are things like accounting, legal, drafting sketches if you are an architect, arranging flowers if you are a florist, etc… The labour is specific to your domain, and without it, you have no business. Every single business will die without doing these things. Improving your domain expertise is actually fairly straightforward, and progresses throughout a career in linear fashion. The more you lay floors, the more you understand how to do it better, faster and more efficiently. And so the labour you supply to the market is more specific, and by nature, rare, allowing you to make more money as you gain experience.

I don’t think, however, domain labour contributes to training, if we use the athletic analogy. I don’t think it should count towards hard work. I think it is the essential unit you need to survive at what you do.

I believe hard work comes in when we speak about #2—training. Training as a person in a business is an obscure and strange term to use for most of us. I find this interesting for a number of reasons. I believe the simplest way to look at training is to look at what the end goal is—to win, or in this case, to be successful. I’m not going to set a fixed goal for you, but this is important to determine. You could want to build the biggest company in the world, the best salesperson in your company, or win a Pulitzer Prize. Either way, you need to determine what success looks like to you.

The only way to get to this point is to outwork your competition. The way to do this is well-defined, you need to gain, interpret and apply more knowledge than others in your space. Knowledge is the great differentiator in the developed world. Formal education is a part of this, but it’s shocking how believe that the second they are done “school”, they are at their peak in terms of knowledge. These people quickly get passed in life.

Your goal with training should be to gain as much knowledge as you can, as quickly as you can, and apply it back to your work. This is called hard work. People that work harder than others simply learn faster than others. Nearly every successful person will attribute their success to luck + hard work, not brilliance. And this is accurate. They just never define what the hard work is. The reality is, these people absorb knowledge at an enormous rate.

Knowledge can be acquired in a variety of ways. An obvious way is reading books relevant to your goals. Want to know how to win? Read books from people who have won before. Another way is to meet people in the real world. Each sales meeting, networking coffee and co-worker should be teaching you something about social psychology. Domain specific acquisition of knowledge is also important. Want to be a great CEO? Not only do you have to the domain labour specific activities like managing, payroll, hiring & firing, but you need to constantly improve your management, communication & leadership skills. This only comes through acquiring knowledge.

The beauty about knowledge is that the winners aren’t just a little bit smarter than the losers, they are exponentially smarter. Knowledge scales in unbelievable ways. The best analogy is like a snowball, it picks up steam by itself after a while and starts to become easier and easier to roll.

Start thinking of your working day of a training day that an athlete has. Instead of working on your body & sport, work on your brain & domain. (see, it rhymes) Spend your time on things that scale, and grow exponentially. Set a fixed point that you determine is “success” and out-knowledge your opponents to get there. And once you figure out how best to capture the knowledge to help you get there, then yes—work hard.


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