Stop Saying “Work smarter not harder”

work smarter not harder
Working smarter and harder

PLEASE stop saying “Work smarter not harder?” It’s an awful phrase, that I see it all the time. We should get rid of it.

You know the spam-esque clickbait-y social media posts that clutter your Facebook feed? “Work smarter not harder” is all over those. Inevitably the person posting is espousing some form of fortune cookie wisdom; if only we had the self-discipline to adhere to the advice then our relationships would be better, our jobs more productive, and our lives more fulfilling.

Sure, if you say so pal. This stuff is annoying at best and self-paralyzingly distracting at worst. Work Smarter Not Harder – YUCK

It’s Strikingly Wrong

I went to Carnegie Mellon for graduate school after five years of active duty in the Navy. Being back in school after serving as a submarine officer was an odd experience. I didn’t know much about what I wanted to do with my life; I did know that I could work hard and wanted to make a difference – make my “dent in the universe.” So I got involved with the entrepreneurship programs there – seemed to fit.

By the time my graduate work ended and I was running my own startup and had decided to stay at CMU as an alumni-in-residence, to assist with the program. I had the unparalleled privilege of mentoring some of the young entrepreneurs who were also fighting to make their “dent in the universe.” I can say, with absolute certainty, that what differentiated the successes from the failures was the willingness to work HARD at the thing you love.

The dedication to working hard is a lesson that the military experience imbues in a – shall we say – intense way. That lesson stayed with me through my transition to civilian life; it has always served me well.

If you are in the (often crazy) startup world then you have probably seen one of the many blog posts that emphasize passion as the most important trait in an entrepreneur. Why the non-stop preaching about passion? Because those who are passionate about what they do, work hard – damned hard – to make their passion project work.

It is the hard work that really determines success from failure. Passion is used as a proxy for hard work – passion just sounds sexier. While the real value comes from the hard work, it is easier to sell a blog subscription talking about passion than tough, often-demoralizing, difficult work.

Let’s give passion this concession though: it is much easier to work hard when you’re passionate. THE struggle, if you have passion, is rewarding in a way that is difficult to express in a few words, but it is real. Certainly being smart is neither a good proxy for nor is it a good substitute of passionate hard work.

It’s An Oversimplification

The world is filled with complex, difficult topics; not everything can be boiled down to 140 characters. There is so much more to managing your career efforts beyond that short phrase. We are not always faced with the choice of the smarter path or the harder one. There are shades of gray. And there are certainly times when we need both.

Add to that, there are multiple types of “smart” out there – let’s use the word intelligence for now. Depending on what your work entails or what task is in front of you, different types of intelligence may be necessary. Each with their own type of hard work to build upon. For my work, I do a lot of content marketing. I was trained in business, economics, and engineering – I am not a writer. Being successful means relying on my verbal, visual, and creative skills, but I also work hard at it.

I work hard to leverage each of those skills well. I work hard to develop and work on them. Six weeks ago, I proposed to my girlfriend. It was a big deal for both of us, she is my best partner and greatest supporter, but we are not perfect. We have disagreements, differences of opinion, and frustrations – nothing uncommon for long term healthy relationships. I have learned that in order to continue to grow and develop our rich and deep bond I need to rely on my least well used form of intelligence: emotional intelligence.

I still think flatulence is the highest form of humor; emotional intelligence is not something I’m good at. But I work at it, I work very hard at it, as our relationship is the most fulfilling and happy part of my life.

Working harder not smarter – takes the complex issues in our lives and simplifies down to bite-sized nuggets. The problem is that life is complicated and often requires nuanced insight.

It Has Made Us Lazy

Laziness is the bane of our generation. As much as I am tired of hearing that dreaded phrase, I am more tired of older generations calling us lazy.

For Americans born after 1980 or so, we were raised with constant television, personal cell phones, and easy Internet access. As we entered the workplace for the first time, having a career sitting behind a computer went from possible to popular. Those careers went from belonging solely to sophisticated engineers, to include homemade hackers, and now businesspeople.

Our parent’s generation was the first to be born into an economy where service jobs outnumbered manufacturing and farm jobs. For them “work smarter not harder” meant getting an education and avoiding work in the steel mills. For people born in the past 30 years, service jobs outnumber manufacturing jobs by seven-to-one. We are (mostly) no longer fighting to stay out of manufacturing plants. And the phrase doesn’t carry the same weight.

For those in tech, working smarter not harder means always looking for a short cut; it means “hacking” a solution. We love to experiment; using A/B testing to find optimal solutions with the least work. While that type of development is necessary and useful, it has also led to some crummy outcomes. Namely, clickbait.

Clickbait is pretty good at what it tries to do: get you to click on a link. But entrepreneurs need to know how to market and how to sell products too. This led to another phrase that I have learned to loathe: growth hacking. To borrow from wikipedia, growth hacking is a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business. I know it’s techniques are useful, but the phrase is cliche and watered down now.

It’s the easy way to market. It’s the smart way to market. It’s just not the only method a good marketer must use.

There is a lot more to marketing than just experimentation: buyer’s journeys, sales funnels, lead nurturing – all of these require hard work and investigation. The best piece of advice one of my entrepreneurial mentors told me was, “there is no substitute for getting out there and talking to your customers.” Truer words are rarely spoken.

It takes time, energy, and hard work to get out there, find, and learn from the people you’re trying to help. You have to learn about their story, their struggles, and how they go through life if you’re going to build something of value. Talking to one, five, or ten potential customers won’t do it either; you need to talk to hundreds. There is no way to hack that. No smarter way to do a hundred in-person interviews (surveys don’t cut it).

Bringing It All Together

Knowing how to use your smarts in any of life’s pursuits is important, however it isn’t the full story and the risk of discounting hard work is potentially disastrous. Hard work is a necessity to anyone competing in today’s world. We know that platitudes never cover the whole picture and shades of gray dominate our lives. The danger in overindulging “work smarter not harder” can lead to laziness and bad results.

So join me, pledge to never use the phrase “work smarter not harder” again. We will all be better off for it. Personally, I prefer the phrase “work smarter AND harder” – it has never let me down.