Why I Hate the Phrase “Work Smarter, Not Harder”
Why I Hate the Phrase “Work Smarter, Not Harder”
April 22, 2015 at 8:00 am 0
Do you remember that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when a teacher passed back a test you know you failed? I do. It was my freshman year in high school, and I was in Honors Geometry. I'd done so well with Algebra in middle school that I made it into the accelerated class. I didn't belong there. My Geometry teacher, Mr. Shu, dropped the test on my desk, face down. I could see the multitude of red marks bleeding through the page, and I sunk further in my chair. I had friends who never looked at their tests; they just hid them in the back of their folder and waited for their final grades at the end of the trimester. I considered following in their footsteps, but I knew I had to see the grade. I had to punish myself. Just as I was about to flip the page, the kid who sat next to me, who doodled and made snide jokes to his friend across the aisle during class, gave out a short "Woop!" I glanced down; I could see the number circled in the top right of his test: 97%. I suddenly became irrationally angry. He didn't take notes! He didn't even pay attention! He's the class clown! How could he have gotten an A?! He didn't work hard like me!  Emblazoned, I turned the page dramatically. 67%. I guess working hard isn't good enough, I thought. I guess I'm just not smart enough. 

The Problem With This Thinking

The concept of "working smarter, not harder," has been drilled into our brains since the early '30s, since Allan F. Mogensen, the creator of work simplification, coined the phrase. Since then, it has morphed from a simple, inspirational imperative, to an overused, ambiguous business cliché, that more often than not means absolutely nothing at all. The phrase "work smarter, not harder" assumes that "working smart" and "working hard" are mutually exclusive. Our society is obsessed with dualities: gay or straight, male or female, black or white. It's frustrating and counterproductive. Here's the truth: Working more efficiently doesn't ever mean that you will have to work less hard. Working more efficiently doesn't ever mean that you will have to work less hard. Click To Tweet After many years, I learned that.  My problem with Honors Geometry was simple: I wasn't working hard -- at least, not in the way that counted. Sure, I did the homework (even thought I treated it like busy work). Sure, I attended the tutor sessions (even though I abhorred spending extra time with Mr. Shu). Sure, I took notes (even though I never really processed the information). I worked hard in the superficial sense. But I didn't have the passion and perseverance necessary of hard workers. Busy work is neither hard work or smart work. I may have been doing my work as efficiently as I could with limited ingenuity, but I wasn't doing it better.

"Work Smarter, Not Harder" in the Business World

Since becoming a content marketer, I've seen a slew of articles professing "unusual" ways for marketers to work smarter, not harder; "genius" ways for salespeople to work smarter, not harder; and "unprecedented" ways for bloggers to work smarter, not harder. I'm offended when I see each and every one of these articles. You're implying that I'm stupid. You're implying that what I'm doing should take less time and effort than it does. You're implying that what I'm doing should be easy. Ultimately, you're demeaning the work I do. In this day and age, we're too caught up with the idea of "optimizing" our life and work. However, sometimes, work takes time. Sometimes, work is hard. Don't insult your employees by implying that they're not. Yes, we should work smarter. But we should also work harder. Working smarter means using and researching the available tools, technologies, and strategies to find better ways to do your work. Working harder means sitting down and getting that work done, with that passion and perseverance I lacked during Honors Geometry. Smart work without hard work just isn't smart work.

This Simple Phrase is Toxic

The phrase can be toxic to your business. It's just a phrase, but it can inspire smart workers to stop working hard. It can inspire laziness. The simplicity of the phrase -- it does sound good! -- just does not convert to the complexities of a business. In 1997, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, said:

"When I interview people I tell them, 'You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can't choose two out of three.'"

That was over 10 years ago, and it still rings true today. It's the people who work smart and hard that win in life -- who finish their theses, become expert saxophonists, write best-selling books, and find inventive ways to work and live. They're successful not because of their talent -- not because they're smart -- but because they put the effort in. They stuck to it. They're not looking for the path of least resistance, because they know there isn't one. Stop telling your employees that they don't need to work hard to achieve their goals. They'll stop caring if they don't treat their jobs like a mini-business. After all, every employee is a mini-entrepreneur, and everyone needs to work smart and hard to succeed.

Let's Change "Work Smarter, Not Harder"

I'm going to ask that we stop saying the phrase "work smarter, not harder." Let's instead change it to this: Never stop learning. Always be hustling. Work smart and hard, and if you don't feel passion for the work you do, stop doing it.  Don't let lazy phrases rule your work. Instead of looking for ways to "work smarter, not harder," look for ways to work better.  What do you think about the phrase "work smarter, not harder?"  P.S. I'm not the only one writing about this. Check out Oliver Burkeman's column in The Guardian, Jessica Ollenburg's blog post, and Drew Browne's article