Hard Work vs. Strategic Hard Work

When I was a child in school, I was taught that if you work hard, you would be successful.

If you did your homework, you would get better grades.

If you practiced your sport regularly, you improved and got better results.

While there is definitely a relationship between hard work and better results, the relationship is not a perfect one.

Warren Buffet did not work 10 billion times harder than the rest of us — though he definitely did work hard.

Michael Phelps, the winningest Olympic athlete in history, obviously has incredible outlier-level talent. He also woke up at 4 am to practice every day for 15 years.

Sure, talent is a factor, but talent undeveloped isn’t useful. It takes hard work to get talent potential to become realized talent that can be used.

While talent + hard work explains a lot of successful outcomes in individual endeavors (such as grades in school or athletic performance), the relationship loses its predictive effectiveness in complex systems such as social networks and competitive marketplaces.

For example, the hardest working person in a company does not become the CEO.

When you buy a product in the store, you don’t buy based on how hard the employees in the company worked to produce the product.

When it’s time for promotions and raises, the hardest working person often does not get a promotion or the biggest raise.

So what’s the missing X factor that explains successful outcomes beyond just hard work?

Leverage

Some activities have a greater multiplier effect between effort contributed and results produced.

Not all activities are created equally.

The essence of strategy is to figure out which activities have the highest leverage FOR YOU.

You and I are different people with different talents, skills, competitive advantages, weaknesses, and goals.

What’s strategic for you may be quite different than what’s strategic for me.

If we have very different goals, what’s strategic for each of us will most likely be different.

If we have the same goals, but very different talent sets and competitive advantages, what’s strategic for you will likely be quite different than what’s strategic for me.

This is why blindly copying someone else’s career strategy is really, really stupid.

It’s intellectually lazy.

Being strategic means you must think.

Specifically, you just think about what you’re good at, what you’re trying to accomplish, and which activities related to what you’re good at have the highest multiplier effect.

I’ve devoted 15 years of daily practice toward becoming a better writer. Writing is a strategic activity for me (but it might not be for you).

The more I write, the more good things happen in my career.

I’m a terrible software developer. Even though being a software developer is a highly valued and lucrative skill in our economy, it is not a good strategic choice for me because I really stink at it.

In addition to recognizing what you’re good at, you also want to assess what value is being created for others by what you do.

If I do my job well as a writer, the one million people a year who read my work will improve their lives and careers in some way.

This is producing value for others.

Value = how much value you create per person x how many people benefit.

To oversimplify, you can help one client make $1 million, or you can help one million people make $1.

Both are good outcomes from a value creation standpoint.

The final piece of strategic hard work is value capture.

You ideally want to produce tremendous value for others and capture a small part of that value for yourself.

If you help a client make an extra $1 million in profit this year, charging “only” $100,000 is quite reasonable in comparison.

If your client didn’t make any extra profit this year, charging $1,000 is arguably completely outrageous.

It’s not the fee that’s the relevant factor here; it’s the fee relative to the value created for others.

The difference between hard work and strategic hard work depends on knowing yourself, understanding what others value, finding the best use of your time to create the most value for others, and capturing a small part of that value for yourself.

When you think of your career in these terms, the possible options are infinitely greater than assuming that the only way to be successful is to go to Harvard Business School and work at McKinsey.

Being strategic requires some thoughtful effort. It is far easier to be intellectually lazy and just do what other people are doing.

However, the difference in outcome from hard work versus strategic hard work is enormous.

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