We hear that we should work hard, that hard work pays off, and that hard workers get ahead or can overcome otherwise impossible obstacles and challenges. So what does it mean to do hard work?
How many different ways are there to say it? Put your nose to the grind stone. The early bird catches the worm. Apply some elbow grease. The American Dream is made of this "hard work" stuff. At the very heart of our entrepreneurial ethos is the idea that if you apply yourself, harder than everyone else, then you can overcome otherwise impossible obstacles and challenges, and find great success. We imply that it is waiting for you, just on the other side of that great slog (which is also character-building and conveniently riddled with lessons to be learned).
I even established hard work as the third pillar of getting things done in my last Art of Business post. I defined work as a real and focused effort applied to produce an outcome. So what is the "hard" version of that? Applying yourself in a focused way surely is all you can do, right? Work is work, is it not?
As I (anecdotally) queried colleagues, friends, and even a stranger or two, a common theme embodied in the concept of hard work took shape as something more to do with the ability to persevere than any specific task or single thing that was actually very difficult to do.
Hard Work is more of a mental effort than literal heavy lifting (though that certainly still qualifies as hard work). In our business context, hard work is doing work (that does not register even a micron on the glamor-meter) consistently and with quality, and continuing that cycle until a real and advantageous result is produced. Hard work is about doing something that may not directly inspire you but that is necessary for you to achieve your goal. It is this mental perseverance--putting your mind to a task (or collection of tasks) and seeing it through, no matter how mind-numbing or blatantly unexciting--that we tend to think of as hard work in business.
There is also a correlation between work and time that compounds to be hard work. Often it is not just mental perseverance through one major task, but through a significant enough of a time frame that a real and lasting result is generated. There is also an element of believing in yourself, and the work you are doing, to achieve your goal that is a driver for you to do the work necessary to see a project through.
We say hard work pays off and it does so in a number of ways, but primarily through the demonstration of a result that has come to be due to a consistent application of effort. Akin to testing a hypothesis, other observers can see the results of the effort that was applied first-hand and correlate it to the demonstrated success as a proof of a concept.
The most important aspect of the concept of hard work is that it cannot be faked. The work is necessary and cannot be circumvented, skipped, or artificially accelerated. This does not mean that an alternate (more efficient) solution is not available. But, even that requires dedicated effort to understand the body of work that needs to be done and devising a new solution, method, or approach. That dedicated effort is the very essence of hard work.