Does Hard Work Always Pay Off?


I met with a student recently who was upset because he had put in a tremendous amount of time studying for a test, but he did not do well on the test.

He showed me all the notes he had prepared as part of his studying and all the practice problems he had worked on, and so it was obvious that he had put in a good deal of effort getting ready for the test.

He also told me that he knew of a couple of students who seemed to put no time or effort into studying for the test, yet they did much better than him.

I told him that sometimes the payoff from such efforts may take longer than you think. But I could also understand how such words may have given little comfort in this situation since he was staring at a grade that didn’t seem to correspond with his efforts. Plus there was no long run here; this was the final test of the semester, and there would be no further opportunities to improve his grade.

So was all that hard work for nothing? Are results all that count?

I realized I really don’t have good answers to those questions.

It’s certainly possible because of the time he spent studying the material that it will stick with him for a longer time as compared to those students who studied very little. But again, that’s not of much benefit given the short run nature of a semester. It’s the same in the business world, with its focus on quarterly reports.

I remember in grade school our report cards had a grade for effort, along with grades for math, spelling, etc. But in college or business there is no such grade for effort, your evaluation depends completely on results.

And while I certainly believe there is a strong link between effort and results, that is not always the case, as evidenced by the example above.

I’ve mentioned Dan Pink’s video before where he talks about he idea of the Results Only Work Environment, the ROWE. In such an environment, it doesn’t matter how the employees get the job done, as long as the job gets done. A classic example of the “ends justify the means” philosophy.

My concern with such a philosophy is the development of a “win at all costs” mentality, which usually does not end well for those involved.

All this still begs the question of what do you tell a student, or an employee, who is a hard worker, but not producing the desired results?

Telling them to work harder doesn’t seem to be the right answer; providing them with additional tutoring or training may help, but what if it doesn’t?

Do you suggest to the student or employee that perhaps he or she is better suited for something else?

Personally, I don’t think I could do that. I don’t want to put a damper on anybody’s dream, even if they are struggling.

Perhaps the answer lies in telling the person that it is the process, the means, that matters, and to not put undue emphasis on the outcome. But admittedly, that’s hard to do, since we are always being evaluated, and such evaluations have a direct impact on us. Will my GPA be high enough to get into grad school; will my evaluation be good enough to get a promotion; will all my training help me break the school record.

If people could be convinced (myself included) that the true reward is the intrinsic reward of knowing that you did your best, even if it wasn’t good enough, then it would be easier to answer the question as to whether hard work always pays off.

But given our focus on results, that seems like a tough sell.

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