On being “hardworking”

‘Hardworking’ was a label that teachers used to describe me. It was in my report cards for some years since Primary school. Presumably, it’s one of many commonly-used terms and teachers had to write reports for 30-40 plus students in each class, and I’m sure that some of my readers also have similar experiences. Still, I remember seeing that word occur often enough to remember it even up to today.
Tonight I had an interesting conversation with a classmate’s friend about a study he read on why certain races are more hardworking (ahem, i.e. Asians) compared to others. It can be traced back to our farming roots. Rice, grown in Asia, required regular tending, while wheat (European) needed somewhat less attention, and finally maize needed the least work (New World – South America). These racial tendencies apparently superceded individual personality traits. (I have yet to locate this study, so if anyone knows the source please send me the link).
Being at an international business school seems to have accentuated the differences to me, as we’ve noticed conflicts over working styles. Some classmates (from the rice and wheat) want to complete the work immediately, while others (from the wheat and maize) feel the work can be done later. So far it is consistent with the farming analogy. However we also depersonalised the differences as we had taken the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator and when there are conflicts we will say “Oh, it’s because I’m a J (Judging) and you’re a P (Perceiving)”. So this study takes things to a new level.
Whatever the case, as we progress in our careers, I think it’s not *that* great a label to be known foremost as ‘hardworking’. That’s what [Dick Cheney called Hillary Clinton today](http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/12/16/cheney-says-clinton-just-what-obama-needs/), among other things. Being ‘hardworking’ doesn’t give you the best-run Presidential campaign, nor the ability to control infighting or boost your team’s morale. Yes, being hardworking is a positive virtue (unless in some cultures you are seen as more ‘uptight’, competitive and harder to get along with). But being labelled foremost as such raises expectations that you will put in longer hours for the same pay (thus lowering your overall value), that you may be more willing to do the dirty, menial or technical work while other people ‘manage’ and ‘strategise’ above you.
My French language teacher, a Mauritian who’s half-Asian, told me he worked so hard that when he quit his last job his company had to hire a few people to replace him. I empathise. This has made me question how I allowed my own boundaries to shift.
Of course, it’s worse to be lazy than hardworking, but we need to address a perception – at a personal level, and for some of us, at a racial level as well. You don’t hear CEOs and other leaders called “hardworking” first, above other things. At that level, we expect words like “brilliant”, “strategic thinker” and “inspirational” to describe the very best of them (and given current times, “honest” would be great too). “Hardworking” is for the peons, the grunts and whatever other low-level computer game characters (who do menial things like chop the firewood and build houses) are called.
The upfront presence of ‘hardworking’ doesn’t negate totally other qualities but it reduces their luster. How likely will you see these pairings in a report on someone:
“Hardworking and strategic” as opposed to “hardworking and meticulous”
“Hardworking and inspirational” (apart from describing community workers and saviours of society, up to Mother Teresa level)
I’d say these combinations are possible, but are more likely a mismatch. The trick is not to suddenly become lazy – that’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face – but to show you can work smart, not just hard. That you work so smart you don’t always have to put in lots of overtime, unless that’s the company culture you’re in, in which case it’s a separate issue.
So: If you’re no longer in school, no longer very young and inexperienced, and “hardworking” is still the first thing that comes to mind when you are described by your boss and peers … maybe it’s time to emphasize other skills that can put you in a better position instead.


  1. earl

    Hi, you may want to refer to this book ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell where in one of the chapters the author examines the relationship between rice paddies and maths results.

  2. Mikk Tamme

    Hei! On C level you say we don’t use hardworking to describe a person? Might it be because hardworking is a thing all C level people should be doing and therefore it is so natural that people don’t talk about this characteristic?

  3. Jael

    Agree. Hardworking was a positive virtue in the past generation where survival was key. With significance being key now, what is valued more is the ability to create value, not to just produce.

  4. Mikk Tamme

    But to add significance and value do you not in most cases have to work hard?
    I am not trying to say that working hard in itself is a big value (you can work hard on total nonsense) but at the same time being great in adding value without working hard might end up in failure also?

  5. vantan

    I get what you mean. The saying that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration comes to mind. What I was emphasising in my post was that, however, you cannot just get by with working hard these days; you need to show a higher level of thinking. Or else you will be efficient at best, but not effective or strategic.
    Furthermore, simply ‘working hard’ at doing menial work like counting widgets can be outsourced. Conceptual thinking and other value-added contributions are harder to replace.

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