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The Myth of Hard Work: Why Intelligence and Direction Matter as Much as Effort

The idea that hard work is the key to success has been drilled into our minds since childhood. We're told that if we put in the hours and effort, we'll achieve our goals and be successful. However, research suggests that this may not always be the case. In fact, simply working hard may not be enough to guarantee success, and could even lead to burnout and disappointment. Instead, it's important to focus on working smart and making informed decisions about how we direct our efforts.

Today we will explore why hard work alone may not be enough, and provide practical tips for how to achieve success by working smarter, not harder.

Explore, Then Exploit

One of the biggest mistakes early-career professionals make is diving headfirst into their work without taking the time to explore their interests and strengths. It's important to remember that exploration is a crucial part of the career development process. Taking the time to explore different roles, industries, and tasks can help you identify what truly excites and motivates you. This information can then be used to inform your career choices and help you focus your efforts on the areas that are most likely to lead to success.

To make the most of your exploration phase, try the following tips:

  • Take on a variety of tasks and projects to get a sense of what you enjoy and what you're good at.

  • Seek out mentorship and guidance from experienced professionals in your industry.

  • Attend networking events and conferences to learn about different career paths and opportunities.

  • Keep an open mind and be willing to try new things.

Once you've explored your options, it's time to exploit your findings. Focus your efforts on the areas that align with your interests and strengths, and work to develop your skills in those areas. This will help you stand out in your field and increase your chances of success.

Use the 80-20 Rule

The Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, suggests that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. In other words, a small percentage of your efforts can lead to a disproportionately large percentage of your results. To apply this principle to your work, take a close look at your daily tasks and projects. Identify the 20% of tasks that have the biggest impact on your goals, and focus your efforts on those areas first.

Here's how to apply the 80-20 rule in your daily work:

  • Start your day by working on the most important tasks that align with your goals.

  • Prioritize tasks based on their potential impact, rather than their urgency.

  • Eliminate or delegate tasks that don't contribute significantly to your goals.

  • Use technology and automation to streamline repetitive tasks.

Prioritize Systems Over Goals

While goals are important, having systems in place to support your efforts is even more crucial. Successful people often have systems that help them achieve their goals with relatively less effort. By focusing on building good systems, you can create a framework for success that will help you achieve your goals more efficiently.

Here are some tips for building systems that support your success:

  • Identify the habits and routines that support your goals.

  • Create a schedule and stick to it.

  • Set up systems for tracking progress and measuring success.

  • Develop a support network of peers and mentors.

  • Continuously evaluate and improve your systems.


Hard work is often seen as the key to success, but it's not always enough. To truly achieve our goals, we need to work smart and make informed decisions about how we direct our efforts. By exploring our interests and strengths, using the 80-20 rule, and prioritizing systems over goals, we can increase our chances of success and avoid burnout. Remember, success is not just about putting in the hours, it's about working intelligently and intentionally.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.


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