A case for “hard work pays off”

Over the weekend, a friend of mine came to visit. She's a career counselor and, while I wasn't looking for free advice, the conversation naturally turned to my job hunt.

“How's it going?” she asked.

“It's bleak,” I complained.

“Oh, I know.” She told me about clients she's worked with who went on second and third interviews. Those clients were sure they got the job. Then they found out they just…didn't.

“Employers can choose from the cream of the crop right now,” she told me. “Some companies aren't even actively hiring. They put out job ads just to see what else is out there.”

She's gotta be kidding, right? I might be applying to companies that are, for all intents and purposes, keeping their options open?

“That's like asking someone out when you're married,” I joked.

I've always been a firm believer that hard work pays off — and in the past, it has. Last year, I was a testament to that cliché. I made six figures doing something I really love — writing. But now, on my third month of searching for steady work, I'm starting to second-guess myself.

“Hard work doesn't matter,” a co-worker once told me, after he'd been fired. “It's all how you play the game,” he said.

Back then, I rolled my eyes and chalked up his perspective to his being a negative person. But now, I can kind of relate to the cynicism. While I'm not into playing games, I can't help but scoff, at least a little, at the whole “hard work pays off” cliché.

Yet something in me still believes it's true. The past few months have been extremely stressful. Depressing, even. Sometimes, I want to give up just to spite Fate. But somehow, I'm persistent. Somehow, I do still think hard work pays off — here's why.

I've Seen It Work

On top of hunting for work, I've been reading a lot about wealth inequality. So, you know, that hasn't done much for my cynicism. It may be true that the rich get richer and the poor and middle-class take two steps back for every step forward. Maybe hard work isn't what it used to be, but I've seen it pay off for one persistent couple: my parents.

“We bought a new car,” my mom told me a couple of months ago.

“Huh?” I asked. “What about the Toyota?” I thought for sure she would drive that thing into the ground to really get the most out of it. This is a woman who can't throw away takeout containers because “they're still perfectly usable.”

When I asked her why they decided to buy a new car, my mom went through a series of justifications that weren't necessary. Having both grown up in poverty, I can tell my parents still feel a bit guilty when it comes to spending. Perfectly good reasons aside, my parents simply wanted a new car and, for the first time in their lives, they can afford something they “simply want.”

My mom grew up third-world poor, and my dad spent part of his teen years living on the street. They met at the grocery store where they both worked. They continued to work there through the first half of my childhood.

My parents always felt bad for not being able to provide enough for their children. So now, I can't help but feel proud of them when they tell me:

“If you need anything, just ask.”

To reach a place my mom calls “financially blessed,” my parents were resourceful and persistent. But they also worked their butts off through all the tough times.

Getting Rich Slowly Requires Hard Work

From having goals to living below your means to being OK with failure, getting rich slowly means working for your wealth.

Paying off debt isn't easy. Neither is saving money when you can barely cover your bills. But many of you have done it or are doing it now.

So far, the idea behind getting rich slowly has worked for me. And it worked because, even when I felt like giving up, I kept going. No, I was never in hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of debt. And yes, I got lucky with a couple of great jobs. But there were plenty of times that I wanted to stop saving, live it up and forget about the future. While tempting, I worked through those thoughts — and I'm glad I did. I think if I work through this tough time, my future self will probably thank me.

Cynicism Doesn't Help

Bouncing from disappointment to disappointment, it's hard not to become cynical.

But there's cynical, and there's being realistic. I'm learning to tell the difference between the two. It helps to ask myself whether my attitude helps or hinders or me.

Knowing that I probably won't get the high-profile job I've seen posted for the past three months is, basically, realistic. It helps to remind myself not to get excited about this job. Realistically, my chances are slim.

But the cynical side of that is, “It's probably not going to happen anyway, so why even bother?” That doesn't do me any good. It's just not practical for me to wallow in cynicism and self-pity.

Ultimately, I Work Hard for Myself

Not that it's anyone's fault, but when I was laid off, I couldn't help but feel angry. Even though they acknowledged my hard work, even though it was out of anyone's control, I felt resentment for having given it my all.

But the thing is, ultimately, I work hard for myself. I don't even really do it for my career. I like to work; I like to feel useful and skilled. I like knowing that I've earned my keep, no matter where it comes from.

There's No Other Choice

Sometimes, you just don't have the option of giving up. You can stop paying off your debt, but you'll just be in even more debt. I can give up on looking for work, but struggling to pay the bills for the rest of my life doesn't sound good. I don't give up on “hard work pays off” because, well, I don't have a choice.

Although it's unfair to compare situations, and although it sounds remarkably futile, it could always be worse.

Somewhere, someone is working way harder for way less. And not just in third-world countries — in this one, too. Some people don't battle with cynicism as much as they simply struggle to survive. My cynicism and doubt would be considered entitled and spoiled to many people in the world.

This isn't to say you shouldn't question the cards you're dealt. It's not to say that, when something isn't right, you shouldn't do something about it. But sometimes, there's nothing else you can do. Sometimes, you just have to put your head down and keep going until it gets better.

More about...Career, Psychology

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
42 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Olga King
Olga King
6 years ago

“Somewhere, someone is working way harder for way less.” – that’s my way of looking at life. That, and “you just don’t have the option of giving up.” Not sometimes. Never. Giving up is not an option. Keep on saving. Working. Moving forward.

Beth
Beth
6 years ago

I was “downsized” so I can relate to what you’re feeling right now. You’re friend is right: hard work has nothing to do with it. A whole lot of us lost our jobs despite our loyalty and work ethic. Losing a job isn’t personal – “it’s business”. (How I hate those words…) On the other hand, hard work has everything to do with it. I left with a strong portfolio and solid references — and some freelance work to tide me over. It’s hard to see when you’re in the middle of it, but hard work is what will get… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Thanks, Beth! It’s gotten better, but it’s definitely been an ongoing lesson in “it’s business.”

Brian @ Luke1428
Brian @ Luke1428
6 years ago

Hard work is built into our nature. Granted, we may not always see the financial results from it, but the internal rewards it brings are far more valuable.

Dissent
Dissent
6 years ago

Internal rewards? Are you talking about the continuance of food consumption? Doing work is not rewarding. It is, by definition, something you would rather not do. No one is working hard who loves what they do. There are no internal rewards for doing something you don’t want to do without gain. I am not one of these people who believes that hard work is a virtue. Someone who loves to work hard has a mental condition called masochism. Hard work is a necessary and unfortunate fact of existence. For the last year or so, I have not really been working… Read more »

getagrip
getagrip
6 years ago

Hard work alone may not make you successful, but I’ve never met anyone who is successful (through their own merits) who didn’t work hard.

That doesn’t mean they are all workacholics (though some are), many work hard while at work. Many keep a good balance. They look for ways to keep moving both themselves and their organization or business forward. They exhibit focus and get jobs done. Even some of their “failures” lead to some success. To some extent, it’s not just working hard, it’s working hard on things that will get you ahead, get you noticed.

Dave @ The New York Budget
Dave @ The New York Budget
6 years ago

I like what you touched on towards the end. I think a lot of people justify their actions based on external forces (“I don’t work hard, because it is pointless” or “I’m not faithful to my spouse because he/she is a louse and doesn’t deserve it”) – I am much more focused on me and the type of person I want to be. If I let external forces derail me from being a good, hardworking person, then it hurts me more than it hurts the company, the significant other, etc.

Brian@ Debt Discipline
[email protected] Debt Discipline
6 years ago

Hard work, effort will get you noticed whether it’s in your current job or a future one. The right attitude typically does not go unnoticed. I do agree that the business game or politics can play a part in your career path some times good, sometimes bad and that truly unfortunate.

Frugal Finn
Frugal Finn
6 years ago

Very good points, I personally work from a company that has been losing money for several years in a row and we have had 2 waves of lay-offs last year alone. This year they announced that they would close 30% of our offices, thankfully I still work at one of the few that actually make money. I have also worked there for a while and I am in a position that I should be one of the last that get laid off if there is a new round of that. You just have to keep working hard and making sure… Read more »

Beth
Beth
6 years ago
Reply to  Frugal Finn

When job losses were coming in my company, I did everything I could to work hard and make myself indispensable. Sad to say, that didn’t help me. There are often many factors beyond our control. I realized later that my feeling that “If just work hard enough…” was a little insulting to those who lost their jobs before me — as if they did something to deserve it.

Sometimes downsizing gives companies a chance to “clean house” of ineffective employees, but hard workers lose their jobs too.

Becky @ RunFunDone
Becky @ RunFunDone
6 years ago

I agree that hard work doesn’t always lead to financial pay-off, but I’d say that it certainly helps! Don’t give up!

lmoot
lmoot
6 years ago

I’m convinced working hard works best when you’re working for yourself. I think there are certain professions where there is a game, but there are still many that are performance-based; I hope anyway. I agree though that just getting your foot in the door may not have as much to do with hard work as it does with making the right moves. For example, choosing an employer that is most likely to be impressed by your speficic experience (even if they pay less than others). Employers are people too and from my experience they like to feel commonality with prospective… Read more »

Matt YLBody
Matt YLBody
6 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

“I’m convinced working hard works best when you’re working for yourself.”

Couldn’t agree more. I find it more rewarding – things are on your own terms and there’s a real sense of accomplishment building your own dream rather than someone elses.

If you’re not building your own dream you’re building someone elses.

Beth
Beth
6 years ago
Reply to  Matt YLBody

Why can’t you we both? I work in a not-for-profit sector, so my job involves helping people achieve their dreams. I enjoy my job, and the stability and income help me build my dreams.

I think on PF blogs there’s too much of the “if you aren’t working for yourself, you’re just a cubicle monkey” attitude. Different work environments make different people. Entrepreneurship is great, but it isn’t the road to happiness for everyone. (Almost half of new businesses don’t last five years, statistically speaking.)

Ely
Ely
6 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

Likeability is *really* important when you’re hiring someone you’ll have to work with every day. Experience will come, skills can be learned, but being able to get along is critical.
I may not be the best in the world at what I do, but I keep my attitude positive and I’m easy to get along with. I think that’s worth plenty.

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

Oh lordy. Wouldn’t hire someone who has the same name? That’s nuts. I’m sure the more you apply to those competitive positions, the more your aversion to rejection will naturally develop. This whole experience has felt a lot like dating. You get along great, you’re a perfect match, you share a few laughs, and then you never hear from them again. I guess you just get used to that. And, yes, again, I think working hard for yourself helps with adapting to the rejection. I think it’s natural for people to try and find meaning in things, i.e., “This happened… Read more »

Jerome
Jerome
6 years ago

I have hired a lot of people in the past 20 years and I always try to find candidates who are efficient and get things done, rather than candidates who work very hard. Working hard in itself is fine obviously. But in my opinion it is more valuable for a company if somebody is able to get things done, for example by smart prioritising or efficient management of a project team.

MPM
MPM
6 years ago

When all else fails, that is when you MUST push through and keep treading forward. If you do not have a “job,” your actual job is to find that job. While people sometimes do get lucky and catch a break here or there; ultimately, many times those who have received “luck” have worked extremely hard at what they want everyday.

Dick
Dick
6 years ago

A view from the other side: Working hard can also backfire if you are not careful 🙂 I experienced that myself a couple of times and it creates ‘interesting ‘situations. I used to work somewhere and as a new employee I ended up doing the work of two people. Not because I wanted to show off or anything but I just was more efficient etc. When the CEO asked my boss what he thought of me, he had an interesting problem which raised the eyebrows of the CEO somewhat. I go with the flow now which isn’t always ‘easy’ .… Read more »

Tina
Tina
6 years ago

I think during hard times, everyone has wondered “why this has happened to me”. After my DH was laid off and took a job for almost half his income, we wondered why. But we found ways to cut back. Not that we have been able to save because the bills take up most of our income, we do try to put a little away each month. We haven’t given up even when we have been hit with emergencies like the new dryer we purchased last month and the alternator repair the month before that. Just keep your chin up, and… Read more »

M
M
6 years ago

I read recently that someone received the following advice, “Look over the valleys.” Keep your focus on career improvements in the long term. I suspect we all forget that in the day to day grind at work.
Kristin, I know many posters here approach the “work hard” concept differently. But I’m sure you worked hard to write the article. Personally, I benefited from the dialogue, so thank you.!
Keep your eyes up, kid. There’s nothing down below.

Laura
Laura
6 years ago
Reply to  M

Thanks for sharing this. “Look over the valleys” is going to be one of my new phrases now.

Scondor
Scondor
6 years ago

Maybe I’m defining hard work and pays off at different levels than you, but I feel that hard work rarely pays off. Seems like what pays off nowadays is responsibility and decisionmaking. Are you responsible for 20 employees in the branch, or are you responsible for 20,000 employees in the division, or are you responsible for the entire company? Can you make decisions that benefit the bottom line? Can you influence the decisionmakers to buy from you? Can you write things that 20 people will like, or 20,000 people will like?

Joseph
Joseph
6 years ago

After months of not earning any income and watching my hard earned savings go out, it is really hard to not be cynical. I once heard that the employment and recruitment process is “thoroughly broken.” People are lost, clueless, to what is real talent and what is fake talent. Your point that the poor and disenfranchised should not buy the “just work harder” message is a good one. It is my work to help evolve consciousness and understanding that I give act tirelessly. It is an honor to live in the place where the really poor, as you describe, can… Read more »

Joe
Joe
6 years ago

I think working hard will pay off in the long run. You might encounter some setback, but you’ll get back up and keep going. If you slack off, then it can become a habit and it will catch up to you.

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Well laziness doesn’t pay off that’s for sure. I was very lazy in my 20’s, job hopped a lot and lived with my parents. Went to college and dropped out. I also grew up very spoiled and my parents gave me money until my late twenties. Finally at 28, we all had enough and by we, I mean my parents and I. I was tired of wasting my potential and they were tired of me not knowing how to hold down a job and be an independent person. This was also during the great recession in 2009 so I had… Read more »

Jeni
Jeni
6 years ago

Great article. It rings very true to my current situation as well. I worked very hard, so hard it intimated my boss to the point it made her feel threatened, ultimately costing me my job. I did not know about the balance of “playing the game” and working hard. With this new found knowledge I am back on the job market. Optimistic, but frequently feeling discouraged and angry at myself for being so naive. And more frustrated at employers who mislead with job postings, getting multiple interviews and feeling confident about getting a offer, only to receive no response at… Read more »

Keith
Keith
6 years ago

My wife and I have been underachieving financially for several years. Last year I decided we had to make something happen. I sold my car and used the money for a downpayment on a rental property. We used credit cards and paid cash for another smaller rental. I spent many, many hours learning as much as I could about landlording and owning rentals. Today, both properties have great tenants and are turning a nice profit each month. We’re about to acquire our 3rd. Also, our credit cards are close to being paid off. Only debt will be mortgages. Shortly before… Read more »

Susan
Susan
6 years ago

Like most good habits, working hard takes practice. You do it everyday, day after day, then you get good at it. Then, you can’t envision your days without it. And like most good habits, it pays off in the end. But not on its own. Just as flossing wouldn’t be much help without brushing and mouthwash, working hard needs to be used in conjunction with other skills, such as expertise in your field; likability/niceness/getalongness (whatever you want to call it, still a skill); ability to recognize what needs to get done in the job, company, industry and the flexibility to… Read more »

Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
6 years ago

When I try to explain what it’s like to be a professional actor it’s basically taking everything you’re feeling right now in your frustration to find work followed by the total elation you feel when you get a job- but in a cycle that moves too quickly. Rather than dealing with the cynicism, rejection, and hopelessness of job hunting once or twice in your lifetime, it’s constant, punctuated by periods of work (which if you’re lucky, makes it worthwhile).

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

Ow, Kristin, I read this much earlier today but didn’t know what to say about it– sure, being connected is good, being liked makes you less likely to get fired than being a good worker, etc., but all other things being equal, of course hard work pays off. Reason I didn’t answer immediately though was because it seems you’re going through some tough times and need a little encouragement, and I didn’t know what to say that was useful. Because you know your resume better, you know your job market, and as you actively seek work you know what’s out… Read more »

Beth
Beth
6 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Interesting points about video! I was chatting with a creative director the other day and he thinks that video is the “in thing” right now, but many companies are just realizing they aren’t seeing much return on investment for the videos they produce. His advice to me was to focus on content strategy and marketing rather than on production. With writing and video, people who are willing to do it for cheap or free (for a hobby, side gig or for the “exposure”) combined with companies not being able to recognize good quality or willing to pay for it is… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

True, some of that was video–but maybe about 20%. The rest was writing. I subcontracted a lot of the video stuff and most of my work was scripting and hosting. Still, I think your point stands whether it’s writing or video. But I don’t want to resign myself to the belief that, as a writer, I’m doomed to a life of low pay. Even if it might be true, one sure-fire way to make the low pay thing a reality is to tell myself I should only be making X amount. It sounds idealist, and I wrote about this when… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
6 years ago

I’ve always thought that hard work pays off on a personal level: You know you earned that dollar honestly and you know you’ve given a project (or a job application) your all.
Sometimes life just stinks. You play the hand you’re dealt while always continuing to try and improve the luck of the draw.
I wish you success in your job search.

Elissa @ 20s Finances
Elissa @ 20s Finances
6 years ago

Hard work is a requirement, I feel. It is something I think people can’t afford to forget to do anymore. And it does pay off. At the very least, you know you tried.

Nik @ Midlife Finance
Nik @ Midlife Finance
6 years ago

Failing is a choice and if you want to succeed, you really need to work hard. Financial freedom can be attained with you having the right plan and execution and of course, hard work.

Nick
Nick
6 years ago

It is a game but you need to work hard at the game of staying ahead. This means reading trends and capitalizing when opportunities arise. What I’ve learnt is loyalty does not pay.

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
6 years ago

The reason that the cliche “Hard work pays off” is so tempting to use is because it gives us the perception that we have more control than we do in life (as well as the fact that the cliche has a very karma feel). There is a lot we have control over, but there is even more that we don’t–and that is a scary thought. I personally have not seen much of a connection between the people I know who work hard as being rewarded more than people who don’t work hard. A lot of my friends from high school… Read more »

Marie
Marie
6 years ago
Reply to  phoenix1920

I’ve found the opposite to be true in my area. Tourist and one-off places, like restaurants in the airport, tend to bring in poor tips because people know they’re in once and gone. It’s the smaller places, with regulars who want to ensure consistent good service, that provide better server wages.

Sarah
Sarah
6 years ago

Kristin, I love this post. Thank you for sharing this struggle that we all face at times, but which is especially hard in these particular times. I feel fortunate to be able to read your work here at GRS.

Edward
Edward
6 years ago

I as looking for work in a saturated IT job market in Vancouver in the late 90s. Every single weekday I would get up early, wait for two hours for phone calls, put on a suit and tie, then go the employment resource centre where I would fire off 5-7 resumes–at least 2 with proper cover letters attached. It took 3 months to land something. By my reckoning I had close to 250 resumes floating around out there in the market. My roommates (lazy and collecting welfare (I wasn’t)), would almost complain watching me–“How can you go out and do… Read more »

Karen
Karen
6 years ago

I’ve re-started a career, and after many resumes and hours of job hunting, I’m slowly gaining traction. My advice is to everyone is keep going! Eventually there will be a break.

shares