Work hard or work smart? How about both?


“Work smart not hard.”

This is one of those ideas that sounds great on a billboard. Sound perfect in a tweet. And might even get someone a few email subscribers for suggest that it’s the truth. But as much as this is a great catch phrase:

It doesn’t speak to the reality of who gets ahead in life.

People who get ahead work both smart and hard. 

That’s right. You can do both.

And it’s a combination of both working smart and hard that differentiates the best from the rest.

Take two people with the same intelligence, same circumstances, same privileges and understanding of the world and give them the same amount of hours in a day. These people are just as smart as one another on day one. These people have access to the same resources. But one person decides that they’re going to work two extra hours every single week without impacting their 8 hours of sleep each night.

There are 52 weeks in a year.

In year one, the person who puts in an extra two hours has 104 extra hours of training, learning, execution & perspective. In year two, that person has 208… In year three, that person has 312.. In year four, that person has more than 400 extra hours of experience under their belt in comparison to the person who they started with.

Who do you think will have the bigger advantage?

One of my favorite lectures is a speech by mathematician Richard Hamming on doing high quality research. It’s just as relevant for business people as it is scientists:

“You and Your Research'” – Richard Hamming

Transcription of the Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar

I give you a story from my own private life. Early on it became evident to me that Bell Laboratories was not going to give me the conventional acre of programming people to program computing machines in absolute binary. It was clear they weren’t going to. But that was the way everybody did it. I could go to the West Coast and get a job with the airplane companies without any trouble, but the exciting people were at Bell Labs and the fellows out there in the airplane companies were not.

I thought for a long while about, “Did I want to go or not?” and I wondered how I could get the best of two possible worlds. I finally said to myself, “Hamming, you think the machines can do practically everything. Why can’t you make them write programs?” What appeared at first to me as a defect forced me into automatic programming very early. What appears to be a fault, often, by a change of viewpoint, turns out to be one of the greatest assets you can have. But you are not likely to think that when you first look the thing and say, Gee, I’m never going to get enough programmers, so how can I ever do any great programming?”

And there are many other stories of the same kind; Grace Hopper has similar ones. I think that if you look carefully you will see that often the great scientists, by turning the problem around a bit, changed a defect to an asset. For example, many scientists when they found they couldn’t do a problem finally began to study why not. They then turned it around the other way and said, “But of course, this is what it is” and got an important result. So ideal working conditions are very strange. The ones you want aren’t always the best ones for you.

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, `

“You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.”

I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this:

“Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest.

I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

On this matter of drive Edison says, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” He may have been exaggerating, but the idea is that solid work, steadily applied, gets you surprisingly far. The steady application of effort with a little bit more work, intelligently applied is what does it. That’s the trouble; drive, misapplied, doesn’t get you anywhere. I’ve often wondered why so many of my good friends at Bell Labs who worked as hard or harder than I did, didn’t have so much to show for it. The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough – it must be applied sensibly.

The point is simple…

You should work smart. But if you want separate from the pack – work hard too…