You Only Think You Work Hard

"Everyone on my team is telling me how hard they are working, but what does 'working hard' really mean? Should I be excited because people are doing challenging things or putting in extra hours, or should that only matter if the output is there?"

April 24th, 2024   |    By: Wil Schroter

Most people think they work hard when, in fact, they hardly work.

If you ask the average person if they work hard, most will tell you, "Yes!" with a combination of pride and resentment. The idea of working hard is generally associated with a measure of self-worth and contribution, so naturally, we'd all like to believe we're part of that.

But what is the cost of "thinking" we work hard while actually being fairly shitty at it? What happens when everyone around us (including us!) genuinely believes they work super hard, even though their actual output and productivity aren't that great?

As startups, we live and die by our productivity and that of our teams, so if we're all operating under the illusion of "working hard" without having any metric to judge that by, we could be losing a race that we think we're winning.

Confusing Effort With Progress

When it comes to our work, "effort" doesn't mean squat. If I spend 40 hours trying to fold a paper airplane that doesn't fly, whether or not I think I worked hard isn't going to change the outcome. Also, I should probably question my future as an aeronautical engineer... or an origami-ist for that matter.

The implication of working hard is that we create great progress, but the reward only exists if the output matters. Putting in tons of effort without getting any results certainly isn't something we should be proud of, much less "defend" in terms of our contribution. If anything, working extra hard without any extra benefit should be our biggest fear.

Most people confuse working hard with "expending effort." Effort should be considered our cost of outcomes, not something that pays off in and of itself. No one has ever built anything great by simply "putting in effort." The results sort of matter.

Hard Compared to What?

It's impossible to say we worked hard unless we've got some way to measure what "hard work" actually is. Do we measure our efforts compared to our own capabilities or to others?

My 7-year-old son and I work out together. When he deadlifts a 60-pound dumbbell (to his credit, he's a jacked little 7-year-old), it takes all of his effort to get it off the floor. When I lift it, it takes notably less effort to get the same outcome. Which one of us is "working hard"? Does our inability to do something that comes easy to someone else still qualify as hard work?

What that means is that we have to ask ourselves whether any task or responsibility we're assigning is really hard work or if it's just hard for the person who's doing it. Once again, saying that we "work hard" just because something is hard for us personally doesn't necessarily inspire a reward. If anything maybe the fact that the work is hard is the reason we shouldn't be doing it to begin with!

Working Hard Implies Extra Effort

Last week I watched a social media influencer ranting that they worked super hard, and on any given week at their job, they were putting in over 30 hours. I thought, "That's not working hard, that's just called 'work' period." There is some threshold where just getting the job done doesn't qualify as a bonus; it's just the work equivalent of "just showing up."

Now, it's not as if the number of hours we work is the only metric. Personally, the most important work I get done is accomplished in about 15 hours per week, although I certainly put in well more than that. But if after 15 hours I call it a week and say I "worked hard" because I put in my minimal effort, I can't feel good about that.

If we're going to build a startup culture around working hard and creating great things, as leadership we need to set the tone of what working hard really is. It's not just hours, it's output. It's not just effort it's results. It's not what it takes to achieve the baseline, it's what it takes to raise the baseline. When we're aligned like this across the board, we deserve the credit that comes from proclaiming "I work hard."

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About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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