on hard work

7:58 AM

I recently read this article by Ann Bauer on truth-telling in the writing business and it reminded me of something that's been on my mind for awhile now. It reminded me of a time not too long ago when I think the last remaining shreds of my childhood idealism and fantasy were burned forever, in a good way. Just go along with me for a little bit and I will explain.
You see just like most kids of our generation, I was raised to believe that "the sky is the limit!" or "reach for the stars" or "there's no limit to what you can accomplish." These are lovely sentiments, especially for a ten year old child. These mantras are great at helping you blossom as an adolescent and channel your inner strengths and to believe in your dreams. However, I believe that after a certain point as an adult they can actually begin to be detrimental. Have you ever heard the saying "stop banging on a wall hoping it will turn into a door?" I think we do that all too often under the guise of "never giving up on our dreams." But in an effort to prevent a complete erosion of our self-esteem we need to look at our dreams a little more realistically and be comfortable and brave enough to augment them if necessary.
You don't want to have to tell a child that the elementary, middle and high schools they are going to or will go to will to some degree determine what college they can get into. You don't want to have to tell them that what state or city they come from will also dictate what they can achieve. You don't want to tell a child that how much money you have may determine things like schools, higher education and career decisions. Because that is not the time, a person's childhood is a special, magical thing and it is to be treated with reverence and care. But as an adult I think it's actually freeing to help your child (or yourself) understand that due to a myriad of reasons there may be a certain "ceiling" to what you can achieve in a given field or that what you "dreamed" of doing may need to be changed and altered.
And I'm going to say something here that may not be very "inspirational" but it's a realization that has helped me in a profound way. It's frustrating to hear successful people answer the question of "how did you get to where you are" by saying "hard work, lots and lots of hard work." Hard work is part of the equation, part of anyone's equation for that matter, but it's certainly not the whole story. Number one, this comment instantly presupposes that anyone who hasn't achieved said level of success is simply not working hard enough. This is preposterous - everyone is working hard!! Here's why this lie works so well - because it gives all the credit to the person making the comment, denigrates everyone around them and then on top of it leaves the less successful people confused because they know they work very hard but just aren't achieving the kind of success that they dream of. So they go home determined to "work harder" and they will, most likely with only moderate improvements at best. Why? Because "hard work" is not the single most determining factor of success. To believe that is to pretend that we live in some fairy land where 99% of people are just lazy, un-successful people and that the 1% of successful people are the only ones working hard.
And I can tell you from personal experience that this is ridiculous. My mum worked herself to death as a housekeeper for many years when we moved to America. My mum worked until 2 am almost every day at McDonalds until she almost ruined her health. My mum worked incredibly hard at an accounting department of a school, so hard in fact that she got promoted and promoted until she eventually landed the wonderful job she has now. But to pretend like all my mum has to do is "work really hard" and she will become the next Sheryl Sandberg is just plain ludicrous. Because my mum does and will continue to work very hard but due to a million different pieces of the puzzle of her life including but not limited to the fact that she did not grow up in this country and did not receive higher education here, there is a ceiling. Plain and simple.
Because success is a combination of a million different things - from your upbringing, to schools, to financial status, to your personality and yes, sometimes, even your choice of faith. It's someone giving you a break, it's a connection, it's a savant level of genius or talent, it's a lot of "right place, right time" and probably just as much hard work as the rest of the world puts in on a daily basis. Pretending like this isn't the case hurts all of us. I believe that there is something very brave about crafting achievable, realistic dreams because when you make them come true the experience becomes empowering and propels you forward as opposed to continually striving for something that never comes to fruition and leaving you feeling less than and stagnates you. When you reach for something that isn't yours you eventually become bitter and hopeless, feeling as if there must be something wrong with YOU. In fact the only thing that's wrong is that it is not FOR you.
I've actually always admired Emily Schuman of Cupcakes and Cashmere for always being forthright about her success. In particular, she explains her journey in detail in this interview with The Everygirl. Emily has done a wonderful job of showing exactly how her certain kind of success worked and although there is no doubt that she has worked and continues to work very hard one can easily see that there were a lot of important links in the chain that weren't in her control but being the intelligent woman that she is she took each little break and opportunity and ran with it. And we all need these "breaks," these opportunities but not everyone gets them and what I'm suggesting here is that it's not your fault - it's just luck, or lack thereof.
I get so tired of seeing all these "work hard" and "don't give up" posters all over pinterest and instagram. I feel so sad for the hundreds of people that feel imprisoned in their "dreams," telling themselves every year that "this will be the year" or that they will "work harder." I think it's not about how much or how hard you work (though that is important) but it's about finding exactly what you need to work ON and unfortunately the answer to that often takes years and many misses. What I'm saying here (more to myself than anyone else) is that it's ok to sometimes release yourself from a "dream" that you feel just isn't yours, isn't happening or doesn't feel right. Trust me, it's not because you're not working hard enough because sweetheart - I know you are, you are working your little bum off and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Let it go, give it to someone else and try your hand at something else because trust me, when it's yours you don't need to kill yourself to get it right. I like to think that when you finally get it right the pieces just fall into place. And hard work is part of life for everyone from ceo's to stay at home mums. Lack of success does not mean lack of hard work. In my humble opinion anyway...

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8 notes

  1. I'm sure you've read Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers… Well this post is a more concise, more helpful version of that book! And it is 'inspirational' to realize that success depends on context/environment as much as it does on hard work. For me, realizing what I can and cannot control takes a huge burden off my shoulders and helps me know where to focus my energies. You're awesome, as usual!

    1. Yes I have! Thank you Christy! So true. I couldn't agree more. I think it's about realizing when you keep hitting walls everywhere you go that "hard work" is not going to knock any of them down. It's just not meant to be in that case. Thank you so much for reading my dear! xo

  2. I have loved reading and following your blog for so long now - but i'm not sure I have ever commented. I respect where you're coming from with this but I just can't agree with alot of the content. I find the Cupcakes and Cashmere interwith with the Everygirl to be the exact opposite of what you're trying to prove - when asked how she landed the job with Teen Vouge - she doesn't admit to having a connection - but says "I can't say exactly how I landed the job, but I think it was a combination of my work ethic, communication skills (follow-up emails, hand-written thank you notes, etc.), and my eagerness to learn." Also, I too believe in setting realistic, attainable goals - but you seem to make it sound like when someone says they got to where they are because of "hard work" it is somehow putting the rest of us hardworkers down - when it in no way should have that effect. I disagree that someone who says their success comes from hardwork that they are in any way implying the rest of us arn't hard workers. If the jist of your article is that you wished more people acknowledged that along the way they had alot of help, or luck, and it's not just hard work, that's fine. But it's sounding a bit like a "you're only so successful because of how you grew up" and I think that's unsupportive and inaccurate. I'm shocked that you actually claim that what city or state you grew up in can limit what you acheive in life. Perhaps this post comes from a place of frustration, just had to voice my dissent - but please know I do agree with 95% of what you say on this blog, sorry i havn't commented sooner :) Atleast you got us thinking!

    1. Hi Alison! Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! The reason I brought up Emily is because I have always found her advice super helpful. Although, perhaps, she didn't expound on that specific point more I think she did a pretty good job of giving a fairly concise map of her journey that showed more than just "a to z." My major frustration is people only noting "hard work" as the reason for their success and excluding everything else that goes into one's career journey. As far as the geography of success I included it as one of several factors of success and certainly not the most important one as I believe that there really is no ONE factor. I also probably should have included a link to this article that I had on my mind as I was writing this (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/03/23/sunday-review/notable-boomers-and-where-they-came-from.html) I was nervous about posting this but honestly my kids and clothes aren't the only things on my mind and I like to use this space as a way to get my wheels spinning and this was something I had been thinking a lot about lately and I just wanted to share. I certainly don't think I have all the answers but I think just talking about things can help get me there. Thank you for being an engaging conversation partner :). Wish we could have chatted over coffee :) xo

  3. Ha, this is just what I needed. Good writing.

  4. I love you for this post. Really. Thank you.

  5. This post is SPOT ON! Thank you for sharing your thoughts! This is something that has been on mind all the time since I had my daughter. Obviously, once you have kids you have so many hard decisions to make about how to spend your time and they all involve sacrifices of some kind. I've had such a hard time figuring out what sacrifices are worth it to me (spending less time with my daughter to spend more time on schooling and therefore "fulfilling my dreams" with my career but sacrificing precious time with my growing daughter, etc). I one hundred percent agree with you that it is healthy to accept the reality of our situations that we were born into, raised in, and that our life has lead us too. We all have privilege and luck that has played into our current situations, and we all have limitations (and limitations aren't necessarily negative, like you pointed out! They just direct us on the path that is meant for us!) Okay, I'm getting rant-y, haha. This grad speech touches on this subject and I love what he has to say about luck: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyBvbot3emM

    Xo Hannah


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