The Great Myth of Hard Work

Why hard work doesn’t always pay off – and what you can do about it

Posted Aug 24, 2012

Mary Lou* had just been to see her doctor before she came to see me. “My doctor says I need to lose weight,” she said. “Duh. I knew that. And you know how hard I’ve been trying.” I nodded. “But she says I’m not trying hard enough. She says if I really want to lose weight, I can do it. I just have to work harder at it.”

That phrase upsets me. That idea upsets me. Mary Lou had been working as hard as she could to lose weight. There were a number of reasons that she could not do it, and not all of them were psychological. But unfortunately, she tended to blame herself for many things over which she actually had no control, including the genes that had given her big bones and an unhealthy body mass index. The doctor’s suggestion that she was overweight simply because she was not working hard enough took hold in her psyche and gave her yet one more reason to be angry at herself – which, for someone like Mary Lou, who used food to soothe herself and also t punish herself, was yet one more reason to eat.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great believer that innate ability, or talent, is not enough to get us anywhere. We’ve all seen youngsters who are born with a musical or an athletic talent who don’t think they need to practice to excel – and who are eventually surpassed by less talented, but harder working peers. Research (for example, by K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues – see reference below) has shown that hard work, meaning focused, intentional practice, can outshine innate ability in many different areas of our life.   

But on the other hand, hard work simply cannot change everything. I first learned this long ago when I was first studying to be a psychoanalyst. One of my clients was a delightful young man with a charming sense of humor and a slightly off-beat way of looking at the world. One day, however, that off-beat perspective turned into clear hallucinations. He said that the walls were talking to him. “They’re sending me messages through the wires in the walls,” he added. Who was sending these messages? He could not tell me, but he was very clear about one thing: he had to do what the voices were telling him to do.

The young man was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. When the voices finally subsided, we continued our work together; but with a difference. I understood that his possibilities were limited. He could still get better, and he could have a rich and fulfilling life. But he could not get away from the possibility that the symptoms would return. “He will not be a ‘garden-variety neurotic,’” my supervisor said. Much later a wonderful book, “The Center Cannot Hold,” described what my supervisor was trying to explain to me. There are simply limitations to what we can and cannot achieve. Hard work or not.

I was thinking about this dilemma yet again as a young, idealistic friend who has recently become a school guidance counselor in an inner city high school spoke about some of her students. She was thrilled that one youngster in particular had been accepted to a top college, with a full scholarship. But she was also worried. “We’ve given him so much support here at the school,” she said, “that I think it has made it possible for him to live up to his fullest abilities. He’s worked so hard to achieve this. I’m afraid once he’s away from the supports, he won’t keep it up.”

What she meant was that neither his own talents nor his hard work were all that had made this youngster able to achieve his goal of getting into a good college. It was the full system of support and guidance, a feeling of being “held” as the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott might have put it, as well as those other factors. And yet, of course, without the hard work and basic abilities, all of the nurturing and support in the world wouldn’t have gotten him accepted into the school he would be attending.

The myth that we can achieve anything we want if we just work hard enough, then, is just that – a myth. The hard work is accepting that everyone and everything has limitations. And finding ways to accept that limitations are just part of being human – not signs of failure.

*names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy


The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology) by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (Jun 26, 2006)

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks (Aug 12, 2008)

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