Worst Advice Ever? “Work Smart, Not Hard”

June 6, 2014

Worst Advice Ever? “Work Smart, Not Hard”

What does that mean? Try to find the best way to do something? It will most likely make your life simpler? For me, it always meant, find the path of least resistance. Find the easiest way. At face value, it doesn’t seem so bad. As a matter of fact, it seems pretty good, like sound advice that everyone should take. Sadly, it might not be as safe as you think. I took that advice and took it to heart and paid the price in years.




I’ve always been pretty quick mentally. Maybe it was to make up for my lack of athleticism but I never had to put too much effort into scholastic advancement. If I saw it enough times not only could I remember the information, but I could also apply it to differing circumstances that seemed to fit the same mold. I didn’t have a straight “A” brain with no studying but with minimal effort, I could stay in the “B+” to “A-” range.

Elementary, middle, and high school, while socially not the easiest, were no issue academically. Even undergrad was survivable while spending all my nights up and out. I probably could have done better in organic chemistry but I figured if I could get the B+ and catch up on some sleep, it wasn’t the worst thing ever.

It was graduate school that started teaching me lessons that I was a bit too slow to learn.  Academically, I could survive. I came in lacking information but once I got the hang of it, I was fine. Wasn’t at the top of the class or anything, but I wasn’t doing too badly. The problem was that I lacked a whole lot of work ethic that was a requirement for a PhD in organic chemistry. (Though I slept through most of it, I really did like the class. It was just crazy early for someone going to bed at 3 am.)




When it came to experimental research, I had the worst time. I would come up with a great idea, and watch it fail. Then I would try something else that seemed the obvious solution and it would fail again! It didn’t make sense! After a few months, I realized that colleagues of mine seemed to be getting good results but mine were always slow and pitiful. What was going wrong?

It finally occurred to me that all the people who seemed to be getting the most results didn’t seem “smarter” than me.  Something else was contributing to their success that I was missing. They did seem to always be working but I figured that was because they needed to throw the kitchen sink at their stuff to make it work. I figured it made much more sense to have a solid theory so you could decrease the amount of stuff you had to do. (Do I seem arrogant? Don’t’ worry. That won’t last long…) These colleagues finished, defended their theses and left. So did the class after them. How do I know? I watched them all go. Can’t think of anything more humbling for a guy like me. My “smarts” were worth nothing. I couldn’t produce results because I didn’t have the consistent action necessary to make anything of my “bright ideas”. I wasn’t practicing my craft like there was no tomorrow so I could be the expert I needed to be to earn a PhD. I was doing as little as I could.

So I’ll give you some advice that you should definitely take. “Work smart AND hard.” People tend to think that the memorable people in our world are people born into talent. We look at their talent as if it were something we could never attain, as if it were something in their genes. In reality, the people who are most consistently successful are the ones who have become obsessive about their craft and have practiced it at a cost.




Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, has done the science to back up my claims. He refers to people who don’t fit into our normal understanding of success as outliers. One of the common themes in the book is the “10,000 hour rule”. The idea is that greatness requires a lot of time – approximately 10,000 hours. He uses examples such as Bill Gates and the Beatles. Bill Gates put in programming time on a computer he had access to when he was in high school. The Beatles put in time in Hamburg, Germany performing over 1,200 times. He doesn’t suggest that talent has no bearing at all; merely that talent or genius alone is not enough. The time you put in will show. Obviously, if you like doing something and have a knack for it, you’ll be more likely to put the time in.

What’s the point of all this? Talent is great. Real work is greater. It will always be. Talent is great but it won’t make you famous and it definitely won’t make you successful. You gotta put in the work. So forget working smart as opposed to working hard. DO BOTH. It’s what the greats would have done. It’s what I’m doing now. See you on top.

Calvin Grant

  • Calvin:
    WONDERFUL article. I appreciate the insight you provide with regard to putting in work! I am a believer that one should incorporate both strategies into the work ethic. To achieve any real measure of success, HARD work is inevitable. But at the same time, we can be smart and wise in how we approach the hard work.

    I read Outliers last year. The “10,000 hour rule” you went over revolutionized my thinking about goal achievment. There is a certain amount of time and effort we have to commit to our skills, our crafts and abilities, IF we want them to be all they can be. That kind of time takes sacrifice on a large scale, and that, indeed, is hard work. So, yes…do BOTH! I’ll join you at the top, friend. Keep the seats warms for me…

  • Shavavian

    I really like this article. It’s interesting that it took so long to actually affect you negatively, but I think it’s something that a lot of people can relate to.

  • Sean Watson

    Thank you!!! Glad someone expressed and said that…i always thought that philosophy was off too…best to do both..that is great!

  • Nikita

    In my opinion most of what you are saying is wrong. The only right thing is that you have to do both. How you got to this conclusion or that Malcolm Gladwell backs up your claims is soooo wrong.
    For some reason you are equating smart work and talent ?! Thats not right. Smart work is doing research and looking for information about how to improve the way you are training or trying to get better at something. That has nothing to do with Talent. If you want to gain muscles you cant just go to the gym, doing what ever for three hours and expecting to get big muscles, eventhough you maybe worked really hard. You have to make Research about what exercises to do, what to eat, how to rest and so on. That is what smart work means. You have to know the best way to get where you want to get.
    I dont know why you are talking about the time where you wanted to get your PhD?What you did had nothing to do with smart work. You maybe were smart, but beeing smart isnt enough to call the work that you are doing smart work. You were smart and you put in some Kind of work? Does that mean your work was smart intentional and deliberate? NO.
    I thought we are on ETs page right now? Didnt he talk about working on your work? Thats what smart work is. It is knowing what you have to do to get what you want to get..
    The 10.000 hour rule is about DELIBERATE PRACTICE. Thats a synonym for smart work.
    My point is that you are totally reducing smart work. Of course its smart and hard work over smart work, but its smart work over hard work, too.
    The worst Thing you can do is just doing as much as possible to say that you work hard. To really get results in any Domain its nessescary to know which way of training is able to get you These results as fast as possible. Therefore you Need smart work.
    I guess you that pracitce doesnt make perfect, only permanent?
    To be perfect you have to put in perfect practice. Of course Perfect practice is a mix out of hard and smart work but if somebody every should decide between hard and smart work the answer should always be smart work.

    • Calvin Grant

      I can see you point here. And I can agree with most of it. What I was trying to make reference to is not my ability to pick up on things quickly or the PhD program directly. I was trying to make reference to smart work absent hard work. I would do research on the best way to get reactions done and then make the necessary changes. Most times, it would work but without hard work, the advancements were infrequent. While I agree that working smart can bring you the greatest effects for the least amount of effort, if not much work is done, there is still not much to gain. As you said, if you work hard, but lack direction, you can do quite a bit and end up no closer to an end goal. Working on your work is making sure you get the greatest effect out of your work by being deliberate about it, evaluating it, researching it, and understanding how to get the most out of it. But as ET says, “Knowledge isn’t power, applied knowledge is power.” Research and understanding means nothing without action. And it is best that this action be consistent action toward a measurable goal. That is the point of this post. It is not a comparison of working smart and working hard and which is better or more necessary. It is a suggestion that true success will come from the combination of the two. And I think we all can get behind that. Thanks for your post. I love hearing from insightful readers.

  • Cris

    Thanks for this article, it was great. As an employer, if I had to chose between a hard worker and a smart worker, I’d chose the hard worker. I can teach someone how to do a job but I cant teach integrity, perseverance and passion.

    • Calvin Grant

      I can see your point. A hard worker can be taught what is necessary. And perseverance is something that usually needs to be practiced. Can’t think of any other way to get that. Best wishes.

  • CG

    Right on. There are a lot of people with talent who arent the best they can be because they rely on talent only and dont work hard.

  • Jose Swanson

    Man I always thought that advice truly made no sense….thank you for arguing in the favor of why its a silly philosophy and proving that you NEED BOTH

  • Capricia Davis

    Wow, great article! I can definitely relate. I graduated college with a 4.0 GPA with barely any effort. Grad school isn’t proving to be too difficult either thus far. However, when it comes to work ethic, that’s definitely an area in which I need to grow in. While I work hard, I could definitely stretch myself more. Sometimes it’s hard having things come easily to you because what other people would consider excellence is quite mediocre to you. I’ve always been smart, but I know if I push myself to work harder, the combination will allow me to achieve more than what I’m settling for.

    • Calvin Grant

      That’s awesome. I hope grad school is a success for you. It might be best to try your hand at something you don’t excel in just to get the practice in. As great as you are, when you don’t go all out, there’s so much that the world still loses out on.

  • pcl

    As a general rule, I’d say that working smart is more important than working hard, but assuming you can rely on either strategy all the time will trip you up sooner or later. The Japanese fought harder than just about any other nation in WWII, but we came up with the bomb. Skilled plasterers still condemn the use of drywall as using the “easy way out” in place of real craftsmanship, but most frame interior walls are now done with drywall, not plaster. Many employers consider any resistance to drudgery as laziness and contemptible, but some of the greatest innovations in history have been motivated by a desire to avoid drudgery. Working hard on a bad idea, burying oneself in menial tasks or micromanagement can all lead to failure when the “big picture” is ignored. On the other hand, there are some, hopefully few, but some things in life that can only be accomplished by working through all the grunt work task by task. While one should always be on the lookout for ways to simplify, expedite or eliminate these tasks, when workarounds are not forthcoming, it’s time to bite the bullet and do what it takes to get them done.