Does working hard always result in success?

by Don Smith

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All my life, I've lived by the mantra that the harder you work, the more successful you'll be.

Is that true, though?

Is it possible to work hard and yet still not be successful?

Is it possible to be successful without working hard?

I recently read a couple of books that made me think hard about my beliefs around this:

The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris and Retire Rich, Retire Young by Robert Kiyosaki.

Both of these books advocate investing in things that make you money yet do not take a lot of your time or effort. That got me thinking, is a lot of hard work required for success?

Let's look at an example.

Bob, Fred, and Mike are all paid $10,000 to build a pond for a subdivision.

Pond in Subdivision

First up is Bob.  Like many people, Bob is an extremely hard worker who believes in the value of hard work and in being extremely frugal with his money.  He doesn't want to waste money on buying any tools, so shows up to the job with a spoon from his kitchen cabinet.

Work smarter, not harder. Spoon.
Don't dig a lake with a spoon

His friends laugh at him and tell him that he should at least buy a shovel, but he knows that with enough hard work and consistency he can get the job done.  Laboring hard, he manages to dig a pretty good hole after the first day and goes home proud of the hard work he has done and the fact that he hasn't spent any of his hard earned money on tools.  He consistently shows up, putting in 12 hours of hard work every day, and a year later, the pond is built.  He showed them!  With enough hard work, anyone can be successful!

Unfortunately, his customer isn't at all pleased about how long it took, and he isn't able to get the next job even though he worked hard every day until his fingers bled.

Total profit?  $10,000  Total time?  One year of hard labor.

Fred is also an extremely hard worker who believes in the value of hard work.  He also knows the value of working smart, so rents some equipment for $1000 a week.  He works hard for two weeks and makes short work of the pond.  With his happy client as a reference, he gets six more jobs over the next year.

Using equipment to dig a pond

Total profit?  $8,0000 * 6 jobs = $48,000  Total time?  2 weeks * 6 jobs = 12 weeks

Mike is a good entrepreneur and salesperson.  He believes in letting others do the heavy lifting.  He lines up this job for $10,000 and then pays someone else $5,000 to do it.  His subcontractor is happy as he is making a good wage and staying busy.  The customer is happy with a job done quickly and within budget.  Total time invested?  4 hours.

Shaking hands with partner

Mike then goes looking for other business and lines up another deal while the first pond is being built.  He makes sure each job is completed well and has happy customers.  He continues repeating this throughout the year, lining up two jobs a month and keeping his people busy.

Total profit?  $5,000 per job * 24 jobs = $120,000.  Total time?  4hrs * 24 jobs = 96 hrs or 12 days.

The subcontractor that Mike has hired is not just happy; he's elated!  He made a profit of $3,000 per job, worked 24 jobs for a total of 48 weeks worked and made $72,000.  While he certainly worked more, in the end he made 50% more than Fred did, and his salary was much more consistent.

The main difference is that Fred tried to do it all himself but had to pause in between jobs to find the next one, so he was only able to line up six jobs because he was so busy working.  Both Mike and the subcontractor are making more than they could have alone!  That's why many people prefer to work with someone else, it's a symbiotic relationship.

Which of these guys worked harder?

Which ones made more money?

Does working harder always equal more success?

This is an overly simplified example, but it is similar to many real world situations.  I don't want to paint too rosy of a picture of an entrepreneur, though. In reality, being an entrepreneur is much more challenging than this.  People want to be paid even if you underbid and take a loss on the job or if you haven't been paid for the job yet.  Taxes and paperwork take time, decrease margins, and can destroy profitability if not taken into account.  Competition decreases margins, and income fluctuates month to month as demand comes and goes.  These are all reasons why many entrepreneurs have stepped back into a regular steady job after working for themselves for a time, they want the stability.  The upside can be significant too though as we just illustrated.

Let me ask you this.  What would happen to these people's careers if they simply stopped working altogether?  My guess is that their success would be pretty limited.

What I've found in my own career is that success finds me most often when I'm working hard and consistently on the right things.  Success has yet to find me while I am sitting around doing nothing.

Step back for a moment and ask yourself what actions do you take regularly that contribute to your success?

What actions do you take regularly that do not contribute to your success?

I think you'll find the old 80/20 rule at play, 20% of your actions are producing 80% of your results.

Focus on getting rid of the 80% of your actions that produce no results.  Invest in tools and people when it makes sense to do so.  Spend more time focused on the things that are producing results, and I think you'll find that you are being more successful while at the same time working less.

About the Author 

Don Smith

Happily married with five kids, Smith owns a technology company, is the founder of this site, has served on the board of directors for multiple companies, and loves playing soccer, hiking, and mentoring.

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