Yusuf Birader

What "work smart, not hard" actually means

Growing up, I often heard the popular saying, “work smart, not hard.” It’s catchy and seemed like a sure fire way to get great results without having to put in any work. Sounds perfect for a young high school student who had an allergy to schoolwork- where do I sign?

But deep down, I knew it didn’t make any sense. Surely, if I wanted to do really well, why wouldn’t I work smart and hard? And what does work smart actually mean?

With these misgivings, I simply dismissed it as a saying without substance.

But over the last few years, I’ve worked on creative projects which have forced me to reconsider. I’ve come to realise that the meaning of this apparently empty saying is a bit more subtle than I first thought. And something which is crucial to understand.

One of the most important things I’ve had to unlearn in the last few years since I graduated is that something must be hard to be worth doing.

My time in the classroom reinforced this- the harder the question in the exam, the more points are awarded. Harder research sounds more impressive. Solving hard problems pampers the ego.

So students, especially ‘smart’ ones who have thrived in the academic setting leave with the impression that anything worthwhile must be difficult, and that failure to do hard things reflects poorly on their intelligence.

When a hard problem turns up, no matter how useless, our egos sharpen- we feel compelled to tackle it as a matter of pride. It’s a syndrome so common, it’s even been named.

But rarely do we take the time to question the question- to ponder whether such difficult problems are worth solving in the first place or even whether they can be reformulated into something more tractable.

Doing any of this in a school exam is a sure fire way to fail. But in the real-world, this approach should not just be encouraged but is necessary.

The reason is that outside the boundaries of school, problems are usually ill-defined and flexible. There is rarely a single solution and the various solutions are seldom equal, often having varying tradeoffs in effectiveness, time and cost.

Outside of academia, the rules of the game don’t reward those whose scale the highest mountains but those that reach the destination and live to tell the tale.

And it’s why for the most part working smart, not hard is the right way.

Those in business, where the sunk cost of diving deep into difficult but useless problems can be fatal, have known this for a while.

They’ve trained themselves to stubbornly refuse to solve hard problems, especially when doing so is purely out of pride. Only in the case of absolute necessity, when no other path can be found, are such problems taken on.

Jason Fried mentions how he seeks out the judo solution- “one that delivers maximum efficiency with minimum effort. When good enough gets the job done, go for it.”

So, when I find myself looking into the eyes of a hard problem, I stop. I know it’s time to reevaluate. To pushback and to see if there’s an easier route. There nearly always is.

It feels painful- to park the part of the ego that thrives on doing hard things as a point of pride. But I know deep down that if I’m to deliver for those relying on me, I need to embrace the constraints and find purpose in pace and progress.

So, before you’re pushed to working on something hard, see if you can work around it smart.


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