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Your great-grandfather knew what it meant to work hard. He pulled grass all day long in the field, making sure that the cows got fed.

In Fast Food Nation (Houghton Miffiin, 2001), Eric Schlosser writes about a worker who ruptured his vertebrae, broke his hands, burned his lungs, and was eventually hit by a train as part of his fifteen-year career at a slaughterhouse. Now that’s hard work.

The meaning of hard work in a manual-labour economy was clear. Without the leverage of machines and organisations, working hard meant producing more.

Producing more, of course, was the best way to feed your family.

Those days are long gone. Most of us don’t use our bodies as though they are machines, unless we are paying for the privilege and getting a workout at the gym.

These days, 35% of the workforce in most developing countries sits at a desk all day.

Yes, we sit there a lot of hours, but the only heavy lifting that we are likely to do involves putting a new water bottle on the cooler or lifting the paper box from the top drawer so that we can put the paper in the printing machine.

So do you still think that you work hard?

You could argue, “Hey, I work hard, I work on weekends and pull all-nighters sometimes. I start early and stay late.

I am always on, always connected with my smartphone so that I can receive my emails anywhere, anytime and respond immediately.

The delivery guy knows which hotel to visit me when I am on vacation, because I’m always connected and working.”

Sorry. Even if you are a workaholic, you are not working very hard at all. Sure, you are working long, but today “long” and “hard” mean two different things.

In the old days, we could measure how much gain someone harvested or how many pieces of steel he made. Hard work meant more work. But the past doesn’t necessarily lead to the future.

Our future in the workplace is not about time at all. The future is about work that is really and truly hard, not just time-consuming. It is about the type of work that requires us to push ourselves, not just punch the clock. Hard work (not long work) is where our future job security, our financial profit, and our future joy lie.

It is hard work to make difficult emotional decision, such as resigning from your job and setting out your consultancy.

It is hard work to invent new innovative system, service, or process that is remarkable.

It is hard work to tell your boss that he is being intellectually and emotionally lazy.

It is hard work to tell senior management to abandon something that has been done for a long time in favour of a new and apparently risky alternative.

It is hard work to make good decisions with less than all of the data.

It is much easier to stand by and watch the company fade into oblivion.

Today, working hard is about taking apparent risk not putting more hours doing the same thing.

Not a crazy risk like betting the entire company on an untested product, no, but taking an apparent risk: Something that the competition (and your co-workers) believe is unsafe but that you realise is in fact far more conservative than sticking with the status quo.

The new definition of hard work is doing things that cannot be replaced easily, taking the risk to do something that might not work, doing work that matters, not doing repetitive work over and over, that is long work.

You putting long hours doing something you can do with your eyes closed, there is nothing hard about that.

One thought on “The New Definition of Hard Work: A Brief History of Hard Work, Adjusted for Risk

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