Why Hard Work Isn’t Enough to Succeed: Here’s What to Focus on Instead

Jayson DeMers
4 min readNov 9, 2020


Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

From a young age, we’re raised to believe that we can accomplish pretty much anything so long as we work hard enough to achieve it. For the most part, it makes sense, at least intuitively. If you study for three hours while your roommate studies for one, you’ll probably do better on the test. If you spend 50 hours at work every week while your peer spends 30, you’ll probably stand a better chance of getting a raise or a promotion.

This idea follows us at every stage of our lives, and it leaves us with a vital philosophy in Western culture; as long as you work hard, you’re going to be successful. But there’s a problem with this philosophy: hard work isn’t always enough.

The Netflix Approach

The idea is hard to accept at first, especially if you’re a hard worker who continues investing time and effort to get what you want in life, so it’s best to introduce the alternative with a corporate example. Netflix (yes, the company responsible for all those late-night television binges) has found success in part because it has abolished the idea of hard work being the sole determining factor in an employee’s progression within the company.

Netflix introduced this idea in a 2009 slide deck explaining the company’s culture, but the idea dates back to 2001. Former Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord has been on podcasts and spoken in several interviews since her departure about the work culture they’ve cultivated instead.

After experiencing financial trouble in 2001, the company made a bold move to lay off a third of its employees — not based on how long they’d been with the company or how hard they worked, but based solely on what they contribute, and how they impact the company’s bottom line. It infuriated some long-time, hard-working employees, but those who remained ended up getting more done because they didn’t have to correct others’ mistakes, or work around unnecessary teammates.

Even after that initial layoff, Netflix paid almost no attention to employees’ hard work. They allowed unlimited vacation time and flexible hours, focusing on results and innovation instead of hours worked or effort spent. It resulted in letting go many employees who worked hard and performed well, but it also resulted in the better performance of the company (and in many ways, less stress for the employees).

The Problems With Hard Work

The Netflix example may seem harsh, especially if you’ve based your career around working hard. What if you were fired after a decade of putting in long hours and genuinely trying your best?

But there are three main problems with hard work that an alternative culture or approach could correct:

· Hard work doesn’t equal results. First off, hard work doesn’t necessarily correlate with results. For example, it doesn’t matter if you put 100 hours into the design of your landing page; if it doesn’t convert, it might as well have had 1 hour spent.

· Hard work isn’t efficient work. Next, consider that hard work isn’t necessarily efficient work. If it takes the person next to you 3 hours to complete a task that you could have completed in an hour, that extra hard work may have actually only cost the company unnecessary time and money.

· Hard work doesn’t encourage innovation. Finally, focusing on hard work doesn’t encourage innovation or novelty. Instead, it encourages repetition and persistence. Those factors can be good, but you also need some drive to try new tactics, incorporate new ideas, and learn new things in your life.

What to Focus on Instead

None of this is meant to imply that hard work isn’t valuable — only that your hard work should be reserved for when it counts the most. So as an individual (whether you’re a professional or an entrepreneur), what should you be focusing on instead?

· Efficiency. Focus on your efficiency. Instead of spending more hours, focus on doing more with the hours you already have. For example, you could automate certain processes, delegate work beneath your paygrade, or find new strategies to accomplish more within a set timeframe. You can also work on eliminating redundancies in your workflow, or abandoning tasks, meetings, and projects that eat up your time unnecessarily.

· Results. Focus on results, prioritizing the work that seems to yield the highest return on your time investment. What’s really going to help you succeed? Reduce or eliminate anything that doesn’t fall in line with that vision, and don’t be afraid to make cuts.

· Improvement. Focus on improving yourself and your surroundings. Instead of working hard on level one, spend some effort trying to get to level two. Invest in yourself, learning new skills and gaining new experiences, and invest in your environment by training your employees and making sure you have the best tools available for the job.

Hard work is incredibly valuable, but we shouldn’t keep thinking of it as the most important factor for success. Instead, we should see it as one of many factors that can help us, but can’t save us all on its own.



Jayson DeMers

CEO of EmailAnalytics (emailanalytics.com), a productivity tool that visualizes team email activity, and measures email response time. Check out the free trial!