“If you work hard, you’ll achieve success.” It’s a common adage often reiterated in society, but is it true? Some people don’t like the term “hard worker” and believe that equating hard work to success is a myth.
Here are five things to know about the myth that hard work automatically yields success.
While hard work is a necessary ingredient for success, it is not the only one, according to author Bob McKinnon.
“Working hard does come with its own intrinsic rewards: money, pride, a sense of accomplishment, respect from your peers. But it does not automatically come with mobility,” McKinnon wrote in an article for Fast Company.
“Had I stayed on that farm, at that bar, or in that fast food restaurant, inevitably I would have hit a ceiling,” he said, describing some of the past jobs he worked hard at. “A ceiling defined today by stagnating wages and decreased benefits. Eventually, even the intrinsic joy from working hard would become a more bitter fruit.”
Many people living in poverty are hard workers, according to Oxfam, a global organization that fights inequality to end poverty and injustice.
A survey conducted by Hart Research Associates revealed that “America’s working poor have a strong work ethic, put in long hours, and believe that hard work can pay off. At the same time, millions of Americans hold jobs that trap them in a cycle of working hard while still unable to get ahead, which leaves them with little hope for economic mobility.”
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While many people in the top 1 percent of wealthy society attribute their success to being hard workers, experts say people shouldn’t forget that the workforce is not a level playing field.
“The whole ‘We-have-the-same-24-hours-as-Beyoncé’ thing is, for want of a better word, bollocks,” life coach Harriet Minter told Refinery 29. “Because we don’t all enter the workplace on the same playing field. While we continue to live and work in a society that favors white, middle-class, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, thin people, this mantra can only truly apply to the few.”
Despite working hard, there still exists a racial and gender pay gap, conscious and unconscious bias, overt discrimination, decreased opportunities and other societal factors. It is something physiotherapist Arnie Puntis, 37, realized in recent years.
“I never even considered that I might have been discriminated against until the last few years,” Puntis said. “I’d always worked hard. Before I had kids I would frequently stay late, take on extra work and make sure I was doing the absolute best I could. But looking back, I was the only Asian in my physio school. Comments that I ‘speak well’, I think, differentiated me; colleagues assumed that I’d been privately educated and treated me as such. Previous employers have said things to me like ‘you’re basically white’ as though I should be pleased with that. I’m not – I’m brown. If I hadn’t been ‘accepted’ as ‘one of them’, would my hard work have been rewarded so willingly? I don’t know.”
Cornell University economics professor Robert Frank authored the book “Success and Luck: The Myth of the Meritocracy.” In it, he makes the case that we often underestimate the role of luck in our success.
“Luck plays a far greater role in life outcomes than successful people like to admit. When you suggest that luck played a role in their success, they tend to get very defensive,” Frank said in an interview with The Hustle.
Frank defined luck and success as “anything that you’re not responsible for. Something brought about by chance rather than your own actions. For success, I focus narrowly on material success [i.e. the people with the most money — those at the very top of the chain],” Frank said.
While he didn’t negate that “hard work and talent are absolutely necessary for success,” Frank did say they are not the only factors.
“Most of the time, the hardest-working and most talented people aren’t the ones who experience the most success. There are a ton of people who are nearly as talented and nearly as hard-working as those people who probably just got a little luckier,” Franks said.
The cliché, “There is no ‘I’ in team” is a popular one, but many Americans still subscribe to an individualist approach that being a hard worker is the key to climbing the ladder to success. When that doesn’t work, they feel like a failure.
“When we tell everyone else that success just comes down to hard work, what we’re doing is setting them up for a really nasty psychological cycle: they will work hard and when they don’t get noticed, they will tell themselves, ‘It’s my fault, so I must work even harder’, which they do. The cycle continues, then, until they reach burnout,” Minter said.
On the flip side, there are many transparent successful people who have acknowledged they could not have done it alone. It’s why, Frank says, no one can authentically claim they are “self-made.”
“If you’re smart, inclined to work hard, have ambition — these qualities are all some unknown mixture of genetics and environmental factors,” Frank said. “You didn’t choose where to be born, you didn’t raise yourself, or provide the genes that made you who you are. So, when you say you’re ‘self-made,’ it’s kind of hard to lay claim to those qualities.”