Before you roll your eyes, just hear me out.
The phrase “hard work” has been seized by those who seek to disparage and denigrate others. We hear it from condescending parents, the folks on Fox News, snobbish peers, and self-flagellating workaholics who think that anything less than a twelve-hour day is a sign of laziness and entitlement. It’s become loaded with so much derision that it’s nearly useless in conversation.
This is unfortunate, however, because there really is value in working hard.
But not in the way that it’s typically understood.
I’m not talking about working two minimum-wage jobs or grinding out one’s days in a tiny cubicle doing something you hate. Nor am I talking about working for free at an internship in the hope that someone will toss a few scraps of opportunity your way. That’s definitely hard, and it is work. It’s just not the hard work that I know and understand.
Hard work is about passionate, worthwhile dedication to activities that provide a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s about deciding what makes our lives worth living and focusing our time, effort, and energy on those pursuits.
Hard work is separate from our jobs.
Sometimes they do overlap, but it’s bigger than that. Our jobs are rarely part of some grand purpose for our lives. They’re just a means to a paycheck. That’s it. So instead of waiting for the right job to come along and tell us who we are and why we matter, let’s work hard to discover that for ourselves.
I live a full and active life outside of my job. After leaving Teach For America only to find that law school had become a debt trap and the past six years counted for nothing, I took it hard. But I reinvented myself and discovered a love for endurance sports—especially running. I work hard every day to become a better athlete, and I hope to eventually to run the Grand to Grand Ultra, a seven-day, 170-mile race through the Southwestern United States. I also cycle and swim, and I’m building a fitness resource to help beginners revitalize their lives like I did. Nearly all of my spare time is invested into this, and I love it. The sense of satisfaction that it provides is far more than I’ll get from any job.
Others have found their own purposeful activities. They pursue yoga, draw comics, play in local bands, learn skills like woodworking and volunteer their time. Some spread the message of their religion, and others spread the message of no religion.
Sometimes this generates income, but that’s not the point. What matters is that they’re actively living life and pursuing something that matters. They aren’t sitting in front of the television, living life vicariously through the stories of others. Nor are they living the consumer life and thinking that everything will be better with the next purchase.
My generation was hit hard by the economic crisis, and we haven’t recovered.
Many of those who have jobs are underemployed, working long hours for less pay than they deserve. Some have moved back home to reduce expenses, and I’ve even heard that, as a whole, my generation will never reach our parents’ level of economic security.
This has led to a lot of anger, confusion, and self-doubt. People wonder what they did wrong, regret past actions now that they see how the game is played, and feel anxious about the future.
These folks would really benefit from hard work.
But they shut down when I talk about it, because they don’t hear an uplifting message about taking control and embracing life; they hear a condescending message about accepting drudgery and the daily grind.
This is a problem.
Hard work is incredibly beneficial. It enriches our lives, and it focuses our attention and energy on things that matter. It keeps us from wasting away with constant entertainment, alcohol, comfort food, and succumbing to the lie that we need a fancier home, a nicer car, or a bigger television. It stops us from thinking that we need to finance “the good life,” because an active and meaningful life is far better than that.
Hard work is when Megan Tan didn’t let her post-college failure define her, but instead owned her situation and created a podcast about her job-hunting trials and tribulations.
Hard work is when my friend John didn’t settle for a conventional nine-to-five, but fought to build a career spreading a message about his religious faith.
Hard work is when Josh LaJaunie pursued long-distance running and healthy living even though he weighed more than 400 pounds.
For many of us, hard work really is the key to living a better life.
Just not the hard work that we usually hear about.
Author: Frank Beard
Photo: Sean MacEntee/Flickr
Editor: Jean Weiss