“If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.” —Steve Jobs, co-Founder of Apple Inc.
As someone who grew up in the United States, there is this great emphasis on hard work and that if you do “A”, then “B” is sure to happen.
I believed that for a time and worked hard as a millennial, while being gaslit by older generations about how entitled, useless, and lazy I am in the world they created, being blamed for the economy as a seventh grader when crises were hitting the fan, at one point working three jobs and still being told I’m partying too much, then working sixty to seventy hours a week, then going back to school to complete my graduate degree, only to get another job working sixty to seventy hours a week… and, (you guessed it) still being told I made some error along the way that earned me my position (a position I am actually proud of), but a position that is still seen as subpar or mediocre in the grand scheme of American excellence.
Despite it all, me and other people in my general age range and younger are still being told that we’re not working hard enough when the wealth gaps are clearly disproportionate for my generation and Generation Z compared to Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation.
There was a time when one five figure salary could buy a house. Now, you need a six figure salary to afford rent. And, then I was shoved into the front lines as an “essential worker” during the pandemic. My payment? An occasional gift card and a sign outside of my workplace calling me a “hero.” I certainly worked hard… with the cloud of mortality hanging over my head.
So, in this present day, hard work does not make me feel fulfilled because I see no end to it.
There is a caveat, however, to my thinking. It is not that I do not believe in working hard. I believe in working hard with a purpose.
Ten years ago, hard work used to make me feel fulfilled because I thought I was going somewhere. I thought my actions would contribute to something positive in my community. These days, hard work makes me feel less fulfilled and more distressed. I’ll never forget when I was in college and read this Italian idiom from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert: “dolce far niente“, which is translated as “sweetness of doing nothing.”
Those who do the most “nothing” are the most successful in life. It is something I envy about European culture; the fact that your career and job is just something you do and has nothing to do with who you are.
I worked hard for a career-based identity because in America, who you are is connected to your titles, productivity, wealth, and connections—which, if you ask me, have nothing to do with your actual identity, but more to do with the perception of individual importance. Is being a CEO of a social media company, for example, truly revolutionizing and improving human connection, or is it a marketing job with the sole purpose of demanding engineers to keep users engaged in an algorithmic loop that exposes them to as many ads as possible? Some identity.
Rethinking the idea of hard work does not mean I want to sit around all day and watch television and scroll social media; I barely do that on my days off. However, I do feel fulfilled when the hard work is work I choose, does something for me, and tangibly improves the lives of others
It also means that I do not want to waste my life doing things I am forced to do because there is a societal expectation to fulfil and the narcissism of parents and family to feed.
The only positive about hard work in the context of wealth (and that is only if you get there) is that it will certainly take care of your basic needs.
Otherwise, after we all climb up those ladders, kicking others off along the way, then what?