5 Ways to Actually Work Smarter, Not Harder

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Hannah Berman175
May 27, 2024 at 10:35AM UTC

At this point, we should all be familiar with the concept of the American Dream and its fallacies. A concept popularized during the Gilded Age with the rise of immigration to the United States, the American Dream interprets our capitalist society as a meritocracy, wherein the amount of work one puts in directly translates to one’s success. This widespread "rags-to-riches" narrative has created quite a few societal problems: not only is fulfilling the American Dream an opportunity only available to a select few, but it has also convinced the American populace that hard work is the only thing that breeds success. This is evidenced throughout American culture — just think of Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, Outliers, which studies success stories and concludes that 10,000 hours of work in any one area translates to mastery. 

But what if you don’t have 10,000 hours to spare on gaining mastery of a subject or if your faith in the American Dream is compromised? Are there other ways to succeed in an American society that might not be as meritocratic as it claims to be?

What does it mean to be hardworking?

Being hardworking is a specific skill, which not everyone possesses (and that’s okay!). A hardworking person has extreme stamina and will continue working on a project no matter what. Duress, setbacks and rejection do not faze hardworking people. They are often perfectionists, focusing on minutiae in order to produce a flawless product. 

Why doesn’t working hard always translate to success?

Being hardworking is a trait highly valued in American society, but it’s not the only key to your eventual success. Proof of this lies in the fact that hardworking people can be found in every socioeconomic bracket, from the poorest members of society to the 1%. One must take into account that some people begin the race to success with significant help and others with virtual disabilities — of course, things like internalized societal racism put people of color at a disadvantage in this race, as in many other races; similarly, growing up in a lower socioeconomic class impedes upward mobility. 

Women have been fighting for gender parity in the workforce since they first "left the kitchen," but the U.S. Census indicates that we still only make 80.7% as much as men. People of color, people of lower socioeconomic status and women are likely just as hardworking as those on the top (who happen to often be white men) but were born into a world with fewer opportunities available to them and therefore have encountered huge barriers to their success. So maybe it’s time to say goodbye to working hard and say hello to other methods that will help you find success in your career more quickly.

How to augment hard work.

To reiterate, working hard is definitely important, but what’s even more important is working smart. Use these tips to add skills to your arsenal that will help vault you to the top.

1. Stay goal-oriented.

No matter where you are in your career, you should have a well-developed sense of your values and your goals. That way, even if you get obsessed with your projects and work intensely on them, you can keep the bigger picture of your overall career in mind. Then, when other opportunities fall into your lap, you can consider them in the context of that bigger picture. If an opportunity presents itself that might help you get closer to that eventual goal, you need to think carefully about what to do. 

A pros and cons list and a decision-making matrix are both tools that can help you when you’re faced with important decisions about your career that might make or break your goals. Sometimes the smartest move is moving on, which can be scary, but it's good to recognize before you've missed your window. 

2. Think of your time as an investment — and only invest in things that matter.

People who are hardworking can struggle to split their focus. Their stubbornness and drive to finish projects can lead them to invest their time in projects that clearly won’t pan out. If you find yourself joined to a venture which you realize is bound to fail — whether it be a new app, a startup, a restaurant, a novel, what-have-you — treat your time as an investment. Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to complete everything you start; and if the time and resources you spent on a project are starting to look like a sunk cost, you should do everything in your power to get yourself out of that situation. 

3. Work on your emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence refers to your capacity to understand others’ emotions and respond appropriately in social situations. In a 2011 study published by CareerBuilder, a survey was sent out to people with hiring power, and the data that came back indicated that 71% of employers prefer their employees to be emotionally intelligent — so much so that they would rather their employees be emotionally intelligent than to have a high IQ. This choice might seem radical, but it makes sense because no one wants to work with someone who can’t read other people. At the end of the day, emotional intelligence can act as the deciding factor between hiring two people of equal intelligence and qualifications. So you might as well work on that EQ, in case it comes in handy. (It will.)

4. Take advantage of opportunities.

Hardworking people can struggle shifting their focus from one project that they’ve already toiled over to another. Instead of committing yourself fully to any one project, you should always be sure to leave the door open to opportunity. There’s always a chance that a better option will come along that might truly lead to your success, and you don’t want to miss that train when it gets into the station. Of course, with that said, you also shouldn’t take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.

5. Use your network

If you run into someone who works in an industry that you’re interested in, even if you’re not really that interested, be friendly. Use your newfound emotional intelligence to your benefit when meeting new people. Those contacts can come in handy down the line by offering advice, introducing you to more influential people, or even helping you get a job. What they don’t tell you in school is that you'll find more success in the job market when you know someone who knows someone, so take advantage of that knowledge and build yourself a network.

Ultimately, career success does have a lot to do with hard work — you can’t expect to succeed without putting any work in at all — but it is also linked to many other factors. Sometimes success means knowing when to give up on something, instead of spending another 3,000 hours doing it just to prove your grit; sometimes success means knowing when to leap at an opportunity. In a world where some groups of people are systematically more likely to get jobs and be presented with opportunities, you shouldn't feel guilty about cutting corners — the competition is tough enough already to justify working a little less hard.

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