In the second year of my MBA program, I applied for a coveted position with the U.S. federal government. After months of rigorous preparation and sacrifices, including missing out on time with family and friends, I faced a full-day interview in Washington, DC. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t offered the job.
The rejection made me wonder: Did I not work hard enough? Such doubts point to the hard work fallacy—a deeply held belief that effort = success. Of course, a variety of factors, both within and beyond my control, might have influenced the outcome.
My experience isn’t unique. As evidenced by the examples below, hard work doesn’t always produce the desired results.
A student studies for hours only to earn a poor grade on an exam.
An athlete trains for years and does not make it professionally.
An entrepreneur puts their heart and soul into their business but does not generate enough revenue to justify continuing operations.
A scientist works on a line of research for years, only to find that the desired breakthrough remains elusive.
A business person dedicates their life to a specific investment strategy and produces below average returns.
A married person nurtures their relationship only to see it end because of irreconcilable differences.
Let’s delve deeper into why hard work doesn't always translate into the results we expect and how we can better calibrate our expectations.
Why Do We Assume Hard Work Will Lead to Results?
In cultures that emphasize individualism, where hard work is touted as the primary path to success, working hard and failing to achieve our desired outcome is confusing. A variety of factors can lead us to assume that effort will produce the results we desire.
Locus of Control: If you believe that your success or failure is a direct result of your actions, then you have an internal locus control. As such, you may overemphasize personal effort because you feel you have a significant influence over outcomes.
Just-World Hypothesis: This is a cognitive bias in which people want to believe that the world is fundamentally just. Thus, if you work hard, you feel you will achieve the desired results. If you don’t get what you want, it feels like a violation of this fundamental rule.
Ego Defense: When you recognize that your efforts might not be enough, it can be a blow to your self-esteem. Rather than confronting your potential personal shortcomings or the role of luck, it is psychologically more comfortable to believe that effort should always lead to success.
How Can We Overcome the Tendency to Overemphasize Effort?
Included below are strategies you can employ to overcome the hard work fallacy.
Explore a different approach. Instead of “working harder,” consider “working smarter.” Explore different approaches, techniques, or strategies. Sometimes, a slight change in your process can yield better results. I’ve explored ways to improve the process you can use to strengthen your ability to listen, speak in public, and interview for a job.
Consider adjusting your goal. Instead of aiming to win a trophy, focus on improving your skills and becoming a stronger team contributor. Instead of focusing on a specific grade, focus on deepening your understanding of the subject. Instead of targeting a specific title or salary, focus on building meaningful relationships and making an impact.
Stop comparing. While it's natural to compare yourself to others, especially when you surround yourself with other high achievers, remember that everyone’s journey is unique. Others might have their own advantages (or set of challenges) that aren’t visible.
Develop a reflective practice. Build time into your daily schedule to reflect on your experiences. Taking time to look inward can help you recognize patterns, biases, and areas of growth.
Seek feedback. Develop the habit of regularly asking others for feedback. Finding an expert to provide you with input can be particularly helpful if you find yourself plateauing. When you solicit feedback from others, be prepared to receive constructive feedback.
By cultivating these practices, you can develop a more balanced view of your efforts, acknowledge your limitations, and better understand the many factors that contribute to any given outcome, even if it’s not the one you worked so hard to achieve.