Black man working large electric phosphate smelting furnace make elemental phosphorus, TVA chemical plant Muscle Shoals, AL). 1942 by Alfred T. Palmer (via LOC)

Hard Work Is A Necessary But Not Sufficient Cause of Success

Forrest ChristianCareers 4 Comments

A friend of mine made up her mind in college that she was going to be a professional singer. She worked hard at it, did the various groups, choirs and solo performances. She even went pro in a little jazz quartet with some others.

After college, she decided to continue her studies and went to a prestigious conservatory in New York City. She worked hard there, too, and was dedicated to the opera career.

Until, while trying to make some money on the side, she landed a leading role in a Broadway revival.

Now, you’ve got to think: here’s someone who has it made in the shade. She’s under 25 and in her first Broadway appearance has a leading role. She’s making money, getting great reviews, and surely the world is her oyster.

And then she got a throat disease that destroyed her singing voice.

Sometimes no matter how hard you work, not matter how much you “make things happen”, you still aren’t going to succeed.

Life’s like that.

When I talk about the Secret Rules of Career Success I’m really shorthanding things. It’s really the Secret Rules of Avoiding Sure Failures. I can tell you, given who you are, what opportunities are have only a slightly non-zero chance of working out immediately or which if they do work out will kill your chances in the long run. For example, if you decide to take that high-paying job that is two levels beneath your capacity for work, I can all but guarantee that you will end up fired. I can totally guarantee that unless something amazing happens (“career miracle”) you are going to destroy your ability to get the next job, for reasons I explain.

But that’s different from saying that anything can guarantee you success.

Surely my friend had all the things for success in her chosen career. She worked hard. She took opportunities (like the Broadway role) when they came up. She made opportunities likely by putting herself out there. And she prepared, prepared, prepared so that when opportunities came up she was qualified to take them.

But it didn’t work out.

There are all sorts of reasons that you may never have work that fits. You may be caught in the GenX generational war with the Baby Boomers, who would rather promote younger Millenials ahead of you for strictly generational reasons. You may have been hit with a disability. You may have a spouse or family that can’t take what would be necessary.

You may have simply made a series of choices that didn’t work out, done the work and paid the dues but in the end had it all fall down around you.

It happens.

Americans like to think that success comes to those who work hard. It’s true that without hard work you’re unlikely to succeed, Whether you’re a thief or an investment banker, you can’t get ahead without putting in the time to master your field and working hard at getting constantly better.

But that is a far cry from “if you work hard you will succeed”.

There isn’t any guarantee of success, and that includes hard work. Providence (or fate or luck or fortune, if you want) plays a part. You may work hard and fail — or be denied your career, just as my friend was. Life isn’t fair.

I’m not sure why I’m mentioning all of this. Those of you who have worked hard and had good fortune believe that you have made your own way, that you are the result of your own power. So you aren’t going to believe otherwise, and perhaps it is not good for business if you do. (Most executives are blindly optimistic, which is why technical reasoning that mean something can’t ever work will never stick and impossible projects will continue to waste money.)

But perhaps those of you who have worked hard, have taken risks, have paid your dues and slogged away, only to find the rewards given to someone else — perhaps this helps. You may not be able to recover, for there are endless unrecoverable career errors, including when you made the best decision at the time. You can’t hedge all your bets and succeed. Which means that odds are you can lose everything while doing everything necessary to succeed.

If it happens, perhaps you can make a different type of life for yourself. My friend now lives outside a midwestern American city with her kids and husband. They hand raise some cattle on the side. They work hard in their church. They have friends they count on, faith they lean on, and the house is getting paid.

It is perhaps a different life than the one that she imagined for herself, even before she hit Broadway.

It’s not a bad life. It’s just not what she expected.

Life is like that.

Comments 4

  1. Sometimes the lessons we need to learn in this life are different from what we originally suppose they are.

    What is success?

    Fully owning one’s path with an openness to continued learning about life is about as close as one can get. Said differently, success is being the best you you can be without impeding others from doing the same. Plus the whole destination vs. journey as the goal dialectic.

  2. Post

    Alicia, the story was about a journey being destroyed through no fault of her own. So if the journey is the point, it’s even more tragic.

    There are many ways this can happen. Most common are social causes. Yes, some people do indeed beat the social milieu and achieve the journey they want. But some people also win the Powerball. Most people don’t. You can work hard and do everything right, yet still end up with nothing but disrespect and contempt from your world.

    Which means that it’s best to be on a different journey.

    A friend of mine was an internationally ranked tennis player. He had to leave competition but he framed it as God wanting him to do something different. He framed his life journey to success wasn’t even “obey my God and live that out being the best tennis player I can be” but rather “obey my God and live that out wherever he leads me”. He had to do no major reframing of his life journey when his professional career was cut short because it was only a means to an end, and not the end in itsef. Had he framed success as “being the best tennis player I can be” he would be a failure. Success is still defined as achieving a goal, but his goal is to grow closer and closer to his God, continually changing to be more godly. While this isn’t something most people want out of life, the idea of framing your journey so that it is above all circumstances seems wise, and can probably be done in a variety of ways.

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