As recently as last month, Martha Stewart breathed life into the bad advice of “you can do anything you choose.” As I have discussed before, this is not true for many people for various reasons. She also animates the myth that hard work guarantees success. This bit of advice is pervasive because we so much want to believe it is true.
But there is always some truth in every lie, so the third piece of advice I will never give is:
3. “Your hard work will be recognized and rewarded.”
Hard work, in and of itself, will never be recognized and rewarded for two reasons. First, as mentioned previously, it is human nature to want something for nothing. If you put in the extra effort for your employer, then your employer gets more work out of you for the same price they are paying. Your employer has no incentive to pay you more when you work harder, because they will actually be getting less value for their money.
Furthermore, without a direct correlation between “hard work” and compensation, why would you work harder? Your employer cannot monitor you every minute without incurring more costs. Employees generally recognize this, and, on average, work less, not more, over time. Economists call this situation “agency cost” and consider it a factor in the cost of human capital. As a result, compensation is based on quantifiable measures such as time spent in the office or goals met, not on how “hard” someone is working.
Which brings me to the second reason: “hard work” is subjective. Does a miner work harder than a stock broker? It’s hard to say because they are completely different kinds of work. Therefore, does a stock broker “deserve” his million-dollar bonus while the miner does not “deserve” the few benefits for which the union manages to bargain? Again, hard to say.
There is no objective measure of “hard work”—everyone believes that they are working harder than their colleagues. In addition, my grandfather may have “worked hard” when I view his life from my perspective today, but compared to his contemporaries, was he really working harder? Maybe he was a slacker. How is anyone to know?
Claims of hard work require context and objective metrics. To say that one has reached one’s goals simply by “working hard” ignores all the other variables that could account for one’s success: the state of the economy, the financial resources available, the quality of education, location, good health, high tolerance for risk, and even sheer plain dumb luck.
I am not opposed to the giving of advice. But advice must be tailored to the individual. Just because it worked for you doesn’t mean it will work for everybody.
In addition, advice is dangerously tantalizing to both the giver and the receiver. The giving of advice makes the giver feel good while shifting the burden of follow-through to the receiver. The receiver wants a fool-proof, color-by-numbers plan for success. I’d like both sides to step away from the allure of advice-giving and take a hard look at what one really needs to succeed.
Even more importantly, many things viewed as the unquestionable truth by one generation become, with time and changing circumstances, very questionable for the next. In fact, perhaps it is each generation’s job to question the truths of their elders. Only then can we learn what really works for now and for the future.