Interviews

Hard work is not a precondition to success – that's just nonsense

8 min read

12 December 2016

Entrepreneur Ed Cooke used a chance trip to the Aloha state Hawaii to reflect on why hard work and long hours aren't helpful to growing a company.

There’s quite a strong cultural emphasis within the entrepreneurial community on hard work. Part of this is of course self-aggrandisement. We entrepreneurs like to think of ourselves as differentiated from the normal populace by the scale of our effort and endurance: like people who do cross-fit or who take cold showers in the morning.

Yet nurses have more difficult, emotionally draining work with longer hours. Teachers, much of the time, too. There’s no evidence we start-uppers have it especially hard. So why is the cult of hard work so prevalent in this industry?

One reason for this is that one wants to succeed, and it’s easy to conflate success and hard work, because the latter seems to lead the former.

When you work for longer hours you imagine that you will get more done because you have more time to do it. This reasoning can mean one takes a certain (punitive) satisfaction from 14 hour days: the suffering involved seems to correlate with how well one is doing. Another reason is that what one is doing is difficult, and so by putting in lots of effort it intuitively feels one is more likely to succeed.

Another reason is that you feels like that you are doing is difficult and that difficult things take lots of effort. So if you’re not in difficulty, if you’re not suffering, then you’re probably not making progress.

This mentality is roughly how I’ve lived for most of the last five years: addicted to hard work because it feels like a necessary precondition of success. And there is lots of pressure to achieve that success: one’s team, one’s investors, one’s better self, one’s dreams, etc. So you work harder and harder.

Now, I came to remark upon that this month that this whole connection between hard work and success is essentially nonsense. This occurred when I most unusually and spontaneously took a few days off, after an invitation to a party hosted by a jocular professor who lives in Hawaii. I rarely do time off, but I never get invited to Hawaii, so I spontaneously went along (even if with tremendous reluctance and a sense that I was being a bad boy and I should probably be working on a spreadsheet or trying recruit an extra iOS developer).

In any case, there I was in Hawaii, on a beach, up a volcano, snorkelling, partying with symmetrical people, doing anything but what I was supposed to be doing – and unexpectedly I had a string of the most lucid insights about how to grow the company that I’ve had in years.

I understood some fundamental things about Memrise’s future branding, our team culture, our strategy for growth, and the paths certain key team members can take in their growth. Some of these were problems I’d been ruminating on forever. It was like the fog was blown away by the Pacific winds, knocked on the head by the coconuts, evaporated by the sunshine.

In a certain sense, it’s not an exaggeration to say, I did more useful work in a few hours of lassitude on a beach than I’d managed in the 2,000 hours spent slaving away the rest of the year in the office.

The Hawaiian adventure in other words was a compelling reminder that the most important goal for a new business is to do the right thing vs. to do it efficiently and fast. Or to put it in irritating American terms “to work smart, not hard”.

Returning to the UK, we’ve immediately implemented a few changes in Memrise. More holiday allowance for a start, for everyone. A decision to increase the percentage of our time we spend in experiments and play (and planning) than in pure action. More team expeditions. We’re just in the first steps of this process, but we’re keen to transcend our implicit puritanical notions that hard work and suffering = goodness at work.

Reflecting on the essential conceptual confusion, I’ve been thinking about how we live as a society with the myth that we determine our lives, that we have “free will”. This is the one concept in philosophy so obviously confused that every first-year undergrad successfully debunks it with ease: it simply makes no sense to imagine, as Nietzsche put it, a human “pulling themselves out of the bog of existence by their own boot-laces”. We are determined by a million things we don’t choose in the moment (our DNA, our histories, our environment, our social status, our available cultural possibilities, the micro and macroscopic details of the times in which we live).

We are, in other words, all undifferentiated parts of the flow of energy in this complex mêlée of the world. But if we pretend that we are islands (“my success comes from hard work”, i.e. from the inside, from something we control) it makes it easier for everyone to sustain the view that’s its fair for some to have lots and others not much.

This is behind the fact that everyone knows how Larry Page co-founded Google in a garage on a shoe-string budget, while hardly anybody knows that his brother, Carl Page, had already sold a startup for more than $500m before Google even kicked off. The latter fact doesn’t sit well with the sense that people graduate to tremendous success through internal impetus, vs. social context. We prefer to celebrate hard work than privilege, because it reassures us we’re in control of our destinies – and makes the world feel more logical and fair.

My adventures this month, though, have me thinking that playfulness and spacious creativity don’t need to be the victims of this metaphysical conspiracy. I’m fine with the world being unjust, so long as it doesn’t mean we all have to work slavishly hard in useless addiction to that unfortunate fact too.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.