The Effort Delusion – Why Hard Work Isn’t Enough

Working Hard?

It’s time to face facts. Hard work isn’t enough to succeed in today’s world. If there ever was a time when sheer force and industry would get the job done it has passed. I’d like to argue that hard work is being replaced by three other factors that will be far more important in the future: creativity, relationships and learning.

In an agricultural and industrial era, hard work was crucial. If you wanted to eat you needed to hunt, farm or work in a factory to trade for food. To get these done you needed effort. Usually physical and often sustained for up to sixteen hours a day. It wasn’t easy, but hard work mattered.

Over the last hundred years, the economy has shifted. Today tractors, robots and machines have drastically cut down the amount of people necessary to feed us and put roofs on our heads. Instead, this means that more people are engaged in information work, managing knowledge, ideas and data.

An Information Economy Means Ingenuity Trumps Effort

This isn’t new, and I’m not one to doomsay about how the end of all we know is nigh. But much of the cultural advice we’ve received growing up has been past down over the last century, and I think parts of it are becoming outdated. This is the advice that praises hard-work, effort and discipline over the ingenuity, understanding and connecting.

The Unbalanced Edge of Technology

If you say technology makes us more productive, I’d have to agree with you. But I think what is really important isn’t that technology makes us more productive, but how it makes us more productive. Technology isn’t a universal multiplier of effectiveness. There are some processes that can become almost infinitely more productive with the right applications of technology and others that have only minor adjustments.

As I’m writing this article, I could have written it on paper, but I am choosing to type it on the computer. Due to the time I invested in learning to type with a keyboard, I’m probably about twice as efficient than with a typewriter and at least 4-5 times more efficient than with a pen and paper. This kind of advantage is important, but it is just a linear upgrade.

However, when I publish this article, it goes through my blogging platform WordPress. Immediately, any sites I link to are pinged about my new post. Almost three thousand people will instantly have access to this post via feedburner and a few hundred more will get it in a day through e-mail.

After this, the nature of the web allows people through social media sites and tools like StumbleUpon to start tagging, tracking and organizing this article into a structure. People thousands of miles away can get access to this post within seconds of my hitting “Publish.” This is millions of times more efficient than sending out paper copies and the comparison isn’t even close if I were orating to a random crowd as would have been done in the days of the ancient Greeks.

What This Means to the Hard-Work You Value

I know what you’re thinking. So what? I don’t need to tell you how wonderful and powerful the internet is. And I don’t really want to write an essay about how the world has transformed, you can read The World is Flat or other great books on globalization and technology to get that. I want to get to my main point: that effort is becoming overshadowed by other qualities in a world different than the one our grandparents use to advise us on.

Technology doesn’t improve productivity, it warps it. I can invest hundreds of hours delivering a paper newsletter, but through technology I can invest almost none and get a result thousands of times more efficient. With such an intense warping of productivity, effort gets blurred out of the equation.

Effort’s Heirs: Creativity, Relationships and Learning

Because technology warps inputs to give completely different outputs, effort is no longer the main ingredient in value. Depending on your combination of creativity, relationships and learning you can create thousands of times more value than someone who is working far harder than you.


Creativity has always been important. But when technology can make huge advances in productivity, this is increasingly so. Why? Because we still don’t know how technology can create the majority of productivity increases.

Hundreds of years ago your grandfather would teach you how to hunt or farm. A few advancements might come along which you could integrate, but there were limited options for how you could improve. Today the ability to provide value has changed dramatically so that coming up with a new approach could drastically cut the effort or resources required.

Just as a minor example, when working on a software program, I managed to save hundreds of hours of work by buying a twenty dollar plugin. Now try to apply that kind of thinking to the farm or even factories a century ago. Creativity trumps effort.


I’ve seen arguments that relationships are becoming more distant in a digital age, as computers and screennames replace flesh and blood. I’d like to argue the opposite, that in a digital age, relationships are more important than ever.

Humans evolved under circumstances where the average size of a tribe was only a few hundred people. Technology means that I now have direct access to several million people and am only a few degrees away from a few billion. The six degrees of separation is closing fast, and most people don’t know what to do about it.

Ben Casnocha, who I’ve blogged about here, has said that he doesn’t believe successful people are usually the smartest (or as I’d offer, the hardest working) people in the room. Rather that they know how to get the smartest people in the same room to come to a solution. Relationships trump effort.


Decades ago you could get a degree, get a job and pay the bills. While this is certainly true today, more and more people are realizing that with new technology comes uncharted territory. By learning new skills and understanding changes in the world you can create value with far less effort.

Take a look at Steve Pavlina. Here’s a guy who after a few years building a blog and writing articles, is earning several hundred thousand dollars a year without working eighty hour workweeks. Did building Steve’s site require effort? Yes, but that effort has far less to do with it’s success than the understandings Steve brought to it. Learning trumps effort.

Does This Mean Effort Isn’t Required?

No. I still think you are going to have to work. Just realize that the value of your effort has gone down considerably. It’s as if you were a king hoarding gold and a peasant from another country discovered a way to make gold out of lead for free. Your gold can still buy things, but when the capacity to create gold out of nothing comes, it becomes far less valuable.

Effort will always be required for success. But I believe that the direct application of effort is becoming less important when compared to these other factors. Effort is no longer the limiting factor.

Everyone Judges Their Inputs and Outputs – I Think It’s Time To Change the Inputs

When working towards a goal, everyone takes a look at their inputs and then examines their results. Most people have learned to view the major input as effort. In other words, if I want to become a millionaire, I’ll need a certain amount of effort to achieve it.

I think we need to collectively change what we see as our inputs. Effort should take a backseat to the amount of creativity, relationships or learning we require. So if you want to become a millionaire, you’ll need a certain amount of creativity, connections or understanding to get there.

A Personal Example – Internet Entrepreneurs

I got a comment in the feedback from an reader who sensed I was a tad bitter, and that I dwelled on how hard it was to be successful. I’d like to believe that my sentiment is more optimistic, but it has definitely changed from several years ago. I have seen people become enormously successful with a moderate amount of effort and I have seen many more struggle after endless exertion.

Worse, when most of those struggling people try to find cause for their failure they blame the lack of effort invested. I disagree. I don’t think the problem is that they aren’t trying hard enough. This can be the case, but overwhelmingly I think the problem is that they aren’t trying smart enough. They aren’t maximizing their creativity, relationships or understanding and aren’t getting the results they want. More effort in this case is like going back to the agricultural age where staying up an hour later and plowing another acre would make a big difference. That isn’t so when the click of a button can set in motion thousands of independent events.

When I recently surveyed many of my readers on their goals, I was happy to hear that many are actively trying to make money as internet entrepreneurs. Most are still in the early stages of building a high-traffic website. A resounding sentiment I’ve heard is that it is a lot harder than they initially thought. I agree.

But I think the real difficulty isn’t the work. Writing more than a thousand words a day between your blog and other projects isn’t that hard. All it takes is a bit of training and practice. What is difficult is mastering the other three factors that make the majority of your results. The real difficulty is knowing what to do when working harder won’t cut it.

Thinking Points – Breaking The Effort Delusion

  • Are you judging your inputs based on ideas, connections and understandings or do you judge them on effort?
  • Is your first reaction when trying to solve a problem to put more effort in or to step back and build the other three capacities?
  • Do you get frustrated when your exertions don’t seem to match your results?

The reason effort is becoming a less useful measurement for inputs isn’t because the world is cruel or the apocalypse is on its way, but because the amount of new opportunities has skyrocketed. I believe we need to change our sensors to detect these opportunities.

I’d like to know what you think of this idea. I would be disappointed if I didn’t get at least a few comments telling me why I’m wrong.

Image courtesy of flickr

  • Andrew Tracey

    No, I think you’re absolutely right–my only possible criticism of your post is that you didn’t really provide any information on HOW to go about increasing ones creativity, learning, and relationships in order to make exponential gains in ones income. Each one of those factors is a post by itself, but now that you’ve opened Pandora’s box, I kind of expect this post to be one that leads to a lot of future ones designed to help people with these three factors.

    Sorry, but you ought to have known that a lot of people would respond to this type of message with “Really, Scott? I need to work smarter instead of harder? Alright then, I’m listening….[uncomfortable silence]”

    Don’t get me wrong, I ABSOLUTELY agree with you, very strongly, but I think you’ve sort of opened Pandoras box and now people are going to expect you to really address all this stuff.


  • Scott Young


    In order to keep the post manageable, I had to keep myself from answering those questions. Yes, removing effort leaves a vacuum for an alternative. I’ve already written posts that indirectly tackle many of those questions, but I expect I’ll be writing more.

    Thanks for your feedback!


  • seagull

    Really agree with you.
    I think there could be an equation like this:
    Effort * Efficiency = Output

    Effort includes time , physical power and etc.
    Efficiency can be enhanced by technology, help through relationship and etc.

    Both of effort and efficiency are vectors. So to maximize the output, we need to maximize effort and efficiency, at the same time we should also keep them in the same direction.

  • Kali

    I agree that cultural advice is outdated and that we need to emphasize creativity, relationships, and learning over effort to adapt to a changing environment. I believe the barrier to adaption is internalization and frustration because when we internalize or get frustrated we usually don’t make the wisest decisions. And so, this is a great post because it underscores the importance of stepping back and looking at what other capacities we need.

  • name(required)

    it seems like your more talking about basic economic principles like the specialization of labour(your “creativity”) and how techonology can increase productivity and can create competitive advantage. Adam smith talked about this, one of the first economists.

  • Ruth

    I’m a baby boomer with children in the 21 to 25 age room. My grandmother was born in 1880 and my father in 1915 so it’s exciting to be so intimately connected with such a large historical range of thought. There are an abundance of personal development writers on the web but your site is so exciting because you are the arrow into the future. It is a new world and the blogs of the young are boats carrying us into new vistas.

  • Leo

    There are a lot of factors involved, you touch upon some interesting points. It is a bit like courses for horses.

  • Derrick Kwa

    I just blogged about your post. I think you’re right in that the value of hard work is depreciating.

    Something I didn’t write in my blog was the possibility that the traditional idea of hard work has a negative effect. People value hard work so much that when they face a problem, they merely try to work harder, which doesn’t solve anything most of the time. Look at depression rates and such and I think you’ll agree that most people can’t afford to work any harder, in fact.

    Also, the traditional idea of the value of hard work also hinders people from quitting, in my opinion (the value of quitting can be found by reading The Dip by Seth Godin, if you haven’t done so already).

    Good post, though. I agree largely with what you wrote.

    As Seth Godin said in one of his interviews, “you could sharpen your needle all you want, but it’s still going to be a needle in a really big haystack. And I think the way you win is by getting out of the haystack.”

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    seagull, if you want apply my idea to your formula it is that the effort variable has a small range (0-3) and the efficiency variable, with the introduction of new technology has a huge one (0-10000). Yes effort matters, but because of the warping effect technology has on productivity, it is no longer the most important ingredient to focus on.

  • SuperTom

    I disagree, what you mean is you have to leverage effort with technology. But its always been like that from the hunter that used a spear to the one that wanted to use good old fashion hands like his daddy.

    But also i agree with, not that Creativity, Relationships and Learning replaces effort but it has ALWAYS been like that, you figured it out not cause its a new error but something that only effective know.

  • APA

    Sorry but I just cannot agree. I don’t get why you associate hard work or effort with using old and outdated methods for learning.

    Let me illustrate with an example – Suppose I am also a veteran holistic learner like you but I push myself harder to integrate new ideas into my web. Suddenly I come across a new idea that takes my ‘methods’ for holistic learning to a whole new level. I am able to learn even more in ever decreasing amounts of time and coupled with more ‘learning’ time (I won’t say ‘studying’ since it holds negative connotations for the both of us) will be able to learn a whole lot more than I would have otherwise I would have taken a more relaxed pace. This in turn can lead to ANOTHER major influx of ideas which may AGAIN take my learning to a whole new level. You will agree then, that all of this would not have been possible had I not pushed myself harder?

    In my humble opinion, what matters the most is interest and motivation. When you have the interest, creativity, learning and hard work all fall into place and balance each other. It is then that the combination seems ‘just right’. I have seen countless of classmates boiling their heads off and studying fifteen hours a day to merely ‘pass’ an examination. I have also seen other people (though definitely in the minority) who have a more-than-average intelligence, yet they don’t fare well on their examinations. They are just not interested.

    That having been said, nice blog! I am enjoying your ideas on productivity and holistic learning 🙂

  • Scott Young

    Good points APA

  • Amanda

    The baby boomers have permanently changed the work landscape of USA. They are work-addicted, derive their identities through work, live to work, and practically never retire. It is the form a mental disorder, many are deranged and cannot help themselves without intensive therapy. This boomer work addiction was seem from their parents whom went through the first depression (we are currently in the 2nd depression/severe recession), and saw how “hard” their parents worked to make ends meet. Now with retirement funds gone, few jobs, massive unemployment, people underwater on their mortgages, those boomers will not retire and be further work-addicted, working even “harder.” The USA quality of life is quite poor in relation to other countries whereby their is a much better balance of work and living life. USA jobs will terry nickell dime you everywhich way, and give pittance of 10 days to have off. That is laughable; however, most americans are sheeple and do not stand up for their rights, or assert their rights, and hence they get what they deserve. Psoriasis, gi problems, heart attacks, diabetes, hypertension, and other stress related diseases from work addiction–the only socially acceptable addiction in the USA. sheeple actually brag about how much work they put in (sheeple nod approvingly); similar to a crack addict stating how much crack they did (sheeple discontent).

  • Terry Nickell

    We all work so hard for what? The bossman makes me plow the horse fields, then i go to the barn and clean horse doodee, then my wife is working on weekends—for what. i live in my family’s house and have nothing to show for it but a belly for beer and chicken wings. you are so right, hard work is for suckers and those baby boomers. now i have to get back to cleaning the horses and have another meeting with the bossman, the midwest (midworst, especially kenyucky) sucks!

  • E-Z

    The old saying still is correct… work smarter not harder.

  • Bev

    Hard work is for suckers/saps/chumps/lackies. Work smart. Leave the “hard work” to stooges and uncritical thinkers who think that hamster wheeling will actually get them places.