Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Dish

The real value of hard work

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There’s an animated discussion today among a couple of bloggers (Seth Godin and Ben Casnocha, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan) on the value of hard work. Godin believes that if you’re going to work at anything, you should work hard: “The biggest waste is to do that thing you call work, but to interrupt it, compromise it, cheat it and still call it work.” Casnocha agrees, and suggests that one reason some of us don’t work as hard as we should is because it deprives us of a convenient excuse:

In other words, if you work hard and fail, there’s the presumption that you’re innately not very talented. If you don’t work hard and fail, you can credibly preserve the belief or illusion that had you only put forth 100% effort, it would have worked out.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But I don’t necessarily agree with the underlying assumption, which is that most of us would be more successful if we simply worked harder. Most of the people I know work very hard indeed. The problem, if there is one, is that we work hard on the wrong things.

Few things in life are easier, or more seductive, than working intelligently and industriously on something utterly misguided, as long as the outcome is assured. My own life is a case in point. (Or, at the very least, it’s the example that I can discuss with the greatest firsthand knowledge.) I spent years working diligently on things that had little, if anything, to do with becoming a novelist, whether it was in school, at work, or in various side projects. For the most part, I did fairly well, but the main reason I avoided pursuing my real goals was that it would deprive me of excuses. As long as I was concentrating on other things, I could tell myself that I could be a writer if I just applied myself. But as soon as I quit my job to write for a living—which is what I eventually did—I would have no excuse if I failed. As commenter Russell Stadler notes on Casnocha’s blog, quoting Eric Hoffer, many of us aren’t looking for achievement, but for an alibi.

So the real challenge, even before the hard work begins, is to make sure you’re doing it for a reason, and not as an excuse to avoid something else. And even after you’ve found your true niche, it’s possible to work hard, on a superficial level, while still avoiding actual risk. I work hard as a writer, and I’m just starting to see the results, but I also need to avoid the temptation to channel all my energy into the same handful of pursuits. For instance, there’s a certain kind of short story—the science fiction procedural, for lack of a better word—that I can write easily and well, to the point where it requires a conscious effort to try something else. One of my first efforts at a different kind of story, “Ernesto,” was picked up by Analog, but another, “Warning Sign” is still bouncing around years later, after the anthology in which it was supposed to appear was canceled. So there’s risk involved. But without it, I’m never going to grow as a writer.

Finally, it’s important to remember that hard work isn’t everything. Writers, and most other creative types, are judged by results, not by the effort they expended. I’m proud of the fact that I’m on track to finish a novel in nine months, as promised, but in the end, the book will stand or fall on its own merits. (While it’s probably true that writers who work hard are more likely to succeed than those who don’t, there’s no Pulitzer Prize for work ethic.) And many creative breakthroughs aren’t the result of hard work, but what looks like its opposite: they’re discovered in sleep, while shaving, in the bathtub, partly as a result of all the hard work that has been done before, but also because of its absence. The moral, then, is that hard work is essential—but only for the right reasons, directed toward areas of the unknown, and supplemented, crucially, by laziness.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2011 at 10:27 am

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