Will Working Harder Really Help You Get Ahead?

by Miranda Marquit · 13 comments

Working hard

Hard work is considered a virtue in our society. The assumption is that hard work will lead to more money, and to career success.

Lots of money is proof of a good work ethic. If you don’t have the job you want, with the pay you want, you’re supposed to work harder, and you’ll eventually be rewarded.

While hard work is indeed something admirable, and while hard work can result in more opportunities, the reality is that sometimes hard work just isn’t enough.

My Husband’s Experience with Hard Work

During the last three years, I’ve had some rather interesting experiences with hard work. Rather, I’ve watched, with interest, my husband’s experiences with hard work. My husband works very hard, and he gives his all to his work. In fact, he often goes above and beyond.

And how is he rewarded? By being passed over for jobs.

The first instance was with a long-term research study. He put in the hours as a student, and he did the work of a professional. The higher-ups asked when he would graduate and told him to apply for not one, but two, different positions with the project. After two grueling interviews, two candidates, neither with his experience or education, were hired for the positions. All the work he did on the project resulted in nothing, and someone else is taking credit for the groundwork he laid.

As an adjunct, he has been teaching at a university for the past two years. Even though he doesn’t have “official” office hours, he’s always willing to work with students. His classes are consistently full (with waiting lists), while the other instructors can’t fill a roster. In fact, students from other stats and psychology classes come to his lab for help, since he’s known for giving personal attention and guidance.

He’s been passed over twice for an opening at the university. He’s teaching all the classes the “new hire” is supposed to teach, and he’s done everything asked of him (and more), and they won’t hire him. Instead, they keep offering the job to people who are only using the offer as leverage for higher pay. The position is still unfilled, and he’s been told that he can no longer adjunct at the school.

All of his hard work has resulted in his being effectively let go.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

My husband’s unfortunate experience has taught me that it’s more important to work smart than it is to work hard. My husband has been one or two credits short of a “full load” for several semesters. He’s doing the work of a full-time professor (when you add in the unpaid hours spent helping students), but he’s only getting one-third of the pay.

All the hard work isn’t paying off, either. Instead, he’s got tenured professors calling for his dismissal — because their class numbers are dwindling as their students seek help from someone who’s actually interested in them. My husband has a great skill set, and he works hard.

But it doesn’t matter.

Instead of working so hard, my husband should’ve focused on looking for a job that actually appreciated him. He relied on hard work to land him a full-time position at this university. Instead, he could’ve told the university that he would teach half as many classes and spent his time looking for positions that want his skill set and dedication.

Additionally, rather than spending as much time helping students, he could’ve been networking with tenured professors and playing the political game a little better. It says something sad about the state of that university, but it’s the reality.

Sometimes, instead of working harder, you need to work differently.

What do you think? Is hard work enough to get you ahead?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • ADG says:

    I’m trying to find the answer to this question as a business owner. I’ve actually stepped my game over the last 3 months and seen my income increase 3x. So I think if you own your business and work hard, it does pay off. I’m not so sure if you work for someone else, it’ll pay off which is pretty much what happened to your husband.

  • Deah says:

    I’m in my early 50’s but what I even began noticing even in my twenties were that the people who get ahead or recognized are not always or usually the hard workers. In my 20’s, I worked in the office of a mill. The boss just thought this one man in the warehouse was the greatest and this man could do no wrong. He was out for what seemed to be petty things at times but it didn’t matter. Not sure he did that much at work but I think he was the foreman and could tell the others what to do.

    I’ve worked with people who could apparently convince others how busy they were all the time. But when I’ve worked with them, they seem to do a lot of personal things at work. I’ve seen people who act like they are overwhelmed all the time or tell people all they have to do. Apparently, bosses believe that and that seems to work for those people. They could have project or work done in the amount of time they talk about it. Sometimes, people buy them lunch or flowers.

    Sometimes I am surprised that some people even have the job they do have, but then they’ll be promoted into a corporate position and people will act like they are
    so wonderful.

    Also, some people are very comfortable with the ones in charge and hang around them a lot. Other people may not think they work that hard but the bosses do.

    Of course, I think of myself as a hard worker (and a thinker). I don’t know that people I work with or for think I’m that hard of a worker because I don’t hang around with them and tell them how much I do all the time. My assessments are above average or better normally. When I do a project or schedule an event I try to work out all details so it’ll go smoothly. But I think I would like to learn how to be more of a “Shiner or Star”. Then when people want my help, they’ll say i know you are very busy but if you have time, etc. But I think I may have to work a little less hard so people would know how hard I work because I have to blow a lot, tell what all I have to do, and look very frustrated at times. Maybe I make what I do look to easy! I’ll have to work on that.

  • Don says:

    Great comments all. I have worked exceptionally hard all my life and not seen the success I should have with my skills. One problem was out of balance idealism. Thinking honesty and integrity were so important that the rewards would automatically come without focusing on making sure I was going to be rewarded for the work I was doing. In short, not protecting myself and therefore not my family either.

    There is nothing wrong with making good profits for good work and consciously working in an environment where you know you’ll get that profit. Echoing Ruth here I think. It’s worth having your husband check his feelings about money, wealth, profit and having it as a goal as well as hard work and integrity.

    Money is a wonderful commodity and can ease many stresses and do a lot of good well used. Accumulating it with a clear conscience is a wise endeavor.

    very best to you, D

  • William @ Bite the Bullet says:

    What goes around comes around, you reap what you sow, however you like to think of it… hard work pays off. If it doesn’t in this job, it will in another. It’s one of those things that you don’t know exactly how it works, but it works.

    Having been in a similar situation, it seems to me your husband might have overlooked the fact that the big thing in universities is research, not teaching. It’s (IMHO) a sad indictment of higher education that students, and what the professors dismissively call the dissemination of knowledge, plays second fiddle to what they call (with a reverent pause and deeper voice) the creation of knowledge (academic-speak for research).

    Way back when, I had a job where I was underpaid and where I elected to follow the “over and above the call of duty” thing. I was passed up for my boss’s job when he (with my help) got promoted. I left. My next job paid me triple what I earned there. Coincidence? We’ll never know, will we? 🙂

  • Bryan says:

    I believe in working efficiently. Anything that saves time, energy or money has my vote. Also creating a distraction free zone is key. People skills are important too, which is why its taught in kindergarten. Doing high quality efficient work gets a thumbs up in my book. Working smart or hard is not enough. Being more efficient and getting the process down pat is Key

  • Ruth Cooke says:

    I’ve known some university professors in my time (and still do), and from what I hear about them, getting ahead in an academic environment is NOT about how well you teach or how well your students like you. It’s about how well you play the political game, and how much you publish.

    Whether or not your husband succeeds at his job depends on one thing: how well his expectations match up with his ambitions. If it is his ambition to get a full time, tenured position at a school that values political savvy and publication over students while spending most of his time teaching and tutoring, I very much fear that his expectations are out of line with his ambitions.

    If, however, it is his ambition to simply be the best teacher he can be, then his expectations of what the job really entails and his ambitions match up, and he will succeed. He might then be more financially successful at an institution that values teaching skills above “platform.”

  • jim says:

    Been there, done that. Worked my a## off, did WAY better than all of my coworkers who appeared to have a whole lot of “down” time. Finally figured out that if I just added “people skills”, while still working way harder than anyone else I’d reallly “suceed” – and it works. But, it takes BOTH skill sets to do that.

    Wishing him, you, yours the best.

  • Jamie says:

    Great article! I’m currently under the pump at work, seemingly doing longer hours than most. I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to make my work day ‘smarter’ whether it’s using a good old pen and paper task list or an online system such as Evernote to help me keep track of everything.

    And, also learning to say ‘no’ – that is still the hardest thing I’m learning to do as you want to try and do well for the company, however, your focus wanders from project to project and you can’t give each project the attention they deserve.

    Delegating is also crucial, I have a mate who’d say “delegate before you get relegated” and he’s spot on.

    Another thing we’re looking at is outsourcing some low value tasks freeing us up to focus on the higher value tasks for our clients.

    I do work hard, but I know I need to change my strategy towards prioritisation if I’m to get on top of a forever building workload.

  • @pfinMario says:

    To some extent. On the other hand, it could also be the creation of those looking for a convenient absolver of guilt if we too completely believe the converse — because clearly if someone is poor, it means they haven’t worked hard enough, right?

  • Steve says:

    Sometimes it is not hard work or ability alone that matter. Relationships are the key. Managers hire those they like. People skills are important, so hard work without developing relationships may not get rewarded.

  • Alex C says:

    Hard work is still important to do, but also you must work smarter. Instead of working hard on the things that do not matter, he needs to focus working on the things that will get him ahead.

    Vilfredo Pareto, an economist, created a principle that is known as the 80/20 rule. What he said is 20% of your efforts will result in 80% of your success. 20% of the population owns 80% of the wealth. 20% of the work force creates 80% of the results.

    In order to work smarter it is just about finding the things that are in the 20%, because this will have a profound impact on his success.

    Our time is limited in one day so it does not serve a purpose to do lower tasks that do not matter. At the end of the day to, if you want to get ahead, it is much better to read a book to learn, then it is to do the dishes.

    I think successful and rich people understand this concept, which allows them to get ahead.


    Hard work is still the key here. Look at his skill set now versus when he started. With continued hard work his skills and knowledge will only increase. However, being smart about things is also important. It is obvious that he is not being appreciated in the current setting. Knowing this is a skill too and knowing how to move on for a better opportunity is something we all learn as we progress through our working career. But hard work is always, always part of the equation; it is just not the whole equation.

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