Monday, September 19, 2022

The Problem With "Hard Work," "Grit," and "Rigor"

I'm currently reading neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's book Self Come to Mind and came across this fascinating observation: "(S)mart brains are . . . extremely lazy. Anytime they can do less instead of more, they will, a minimalist philosophy they follow religiously."

I might quibble that the word "lazy" is the wrong one here, perhaps "efficient" is a better one, but his point is one I've heard before in other contexts. My wife, for instance, during her days as a corporate executive, once said that she preferred employees who seemed "smart, but lazy" because they were motivated to get the work done in the most efficient way possible.

According to Damasio, human brains have evolved this way because cognitive processes can consume a great deal of both time and energy, and our evolutionary survival as a species depends on conserving both.

Our public dialog about education has in recent decades become increasingly infested with talk of such things as "grit" and "rigor." The idea is that if only we can press children's noses more firmly against the grindstone, they will somehow learn the lessons of industriousness and "hard work" which, as our pop culture myths have it, will lead to success. This is "common knowledge."

The truth, however, is that there is little real evidence that hard work and planning increase one's odds of success any more than, say, natural talent or sheer good luck.

"Work" is one thing, but "hard work" or "grit" or "rigor" is quite another. The inclusion of the modifier "hard" suggests that this is something we would rather not be doing. By its very nature, "hard work" doesn't pay off now, the only moment any of us truly possess, but rather at some point in the non-existent future. In other words, hard work calls for us to sacrifice our certain joys and pleasures on the alter of some future payoff. And as the Yiddish proverb cautions us, "Man plans and God laughs."

No, despite proclamations of the victors, my experience has been that hard work does not inevitably lead to success. Far from it. Plenty of people, most people in fact, work very hard indeed, and success still eludes them. I'm thinking of those single mothers working three minimum wage jobs, but who still can't pull their family out of poverty. I'm thinking of all those minor league baseball players who work their tails off, but never make it to the big leagues. I'm thinking of the 95 percent of small businesses that fail within five years. Cold-hearted critics will say, "Ah, but if only they had worked harder." Or worse, "If only they had worked smarter," which is a dig at their poor planning. But the evidence seems clear to me that hard work and planning are hardly guarantees of success: most of us will still fail in the hard work and planning paradigm, no matter how heavily we mortgage our present to pay for the future.

There are those who will insist that hard work is its own reward. A life doing the things I'd rather not be doing at the expense of things that could bring me joy or satisfaction right now? Sound like flimflammery to me. There a those who warn us "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there," but that's a recipe for arriving at a destination only to find you've missed out on the beauty along the way.

Throughout my career as an early childhood educator, a career I never planned for, but rather fell into, I've lived among humans who haven't yet bought into the ethos of hard work, rigor, or grit. Oh sure, they apply themselves in ways that might look a lot like the proverbial hard work, but because it is entirely self-selected, because it is done in service to the moment rather than some distant goal or objective, we know it as play. Hard play if you will. And unlike hard work, which must come at an evolutionary cost, hard play is genuinely its own reward. It's how we learn about ourselves, our passions, and what makes us come alive. Hard work is inflexible. The dictate to keep your head down and focus on the prize causes us to ignore the flowers, to set our relationships aside, and to live for an imagined future. Hard play, on the other hand, is infinitely flexible. It ensures that we will stop and smell the flowers, to treasure our relationships, and keeps us anchored in the only thing any of us really have -- Now!

Too often, we adults look at children engaged in hard play, and assume it is our responsibility to impose hard work upon them "for their own good," but we would be much better, I think, to step back and learn from them . . . for our own good. These are the humans who are living authentically. They might not always be happy, but they are successful. They teach us that the real secret to success is hard play.

In our society, the "successful" will always claim, in hindsight, that their secret is hard work and planning, but that is an insult to the vast majority who work hard and plan, yet still find themselves coming up short. 

What I have learned from children is that hard play and flexibility may or may not lead to riches or glory, but it will always leads to success. Evolution has designed us for exactly this.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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