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What has Hard Work become?

Hard Work,” as a concept, is so ingrained within our cultural lexicon that it’s easy to be recursive: hard work is… hard work.

In America, we love to identify with the hard working loner, the pioneers and the innovators. Names like Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller conjure images of success, innovation and awesome three piece suits. But the romanticism of “hard work” has allowed politicians and power-seekers to co-opt the term…. Much of today’s divisive rhetoric champions the ‘hard working‘ citizen. And have you ever noticed it’s always ‘our’ team that’s hard working. Those other guys? They’re lazy.

This is a dangerous concept.

Linguistic Labels


Gary Lupyan at Carnegie Mellon University, along with colleagues at Stanford and the Center for Neural Bias of Cognition, have done some interesting work on how verbal labels impact mental associations and characterization. (Download Language is not Just for Talking here)

Learning nonsense verbal labels facilitated categorization more than did learning nonverbal associations. – G. Lupyan, et. al.

Basically, labels give us an easier way to file something in our mental libraries. We form conclusions faster, incorporate information sooner, and retain it better… because we assess this new information much, much less.

Labels also make information ‘stickier’.

There is also some evidence that categories learned with labels were more robust than those learned without labels. – G. Lupyan, et. al.

We hold onto our labels and cast aside the explanation because someone else has done the heavy mental lifting for us. All we have to know is that X and Y are connected, not how or why they’re connected. And this is fine. In fact, our brains have evolved to process information like this because it’s efficient.

However, when this process is turned inward, it is often subjected to the above-average effect.



all rest in Tokyo happens behind the yellow line.

People are prone to fallacies of composition and confirmation bias: we jump to irrational conclusions that tell us what we want to believe. When others tell us over and over again that we’re hard working… we believe them, regardless of the truth. We simply believe it, because we want to believe it. In fact, we believe a lot of great things about ourselves.

So when Elizabeth Warren, who has said a lot of intelligent things, says:

I’m here tonight to talk about hard-working people: people who get up early, stay up late, cook dinner and help out with homework; people who can be counted on to help their kids, their parents, their neighbors, and the lady down the street whose car broke down…

She’s doing more harm than good.

In 2001, a little-recognized paper was published in the journal Cognition. In it, Robert L. Goldstone and his colleagues detail how new labels can alter perception, and new perceptions lead to a change in behavior. (Download Altering object representations through category learning here)

By a Changed Object Description account, category learning alters the description of the objects themselves, emphasizing properties that are relevant for categorization. – R.L. Goldstone, et. al.

And therein lays the danger of unearned labels. A rose by any other name may still be a rose, but call something a rose long enough and people believe it’s a rose.

Believing that a tulip is actually a rose isn’t that different than believing the lives we live day-to-day are typically involve hard work. Both are simple miss-characterizations. The difference is that one misunderstanding could get you in a fight with your spouse, while the other can sabotage every goal you set for your entire life.


Hard work defined

In order to recapture hard work, we need to cast off the watered-down expectation that what most of us do on a daily basis is hard.

Hard work is about risk. It begins when you deal with the things you would rather not deal with: fear of failure, fear of standing out, fear of rejection. Hard work is about training yourself to leap over this barrier, tunnel under that barrier, drive through the other barrier and after you’ve done that, to do it again the next day. – Seth Godin, Small Is the New Big

Hard work involves sacrifice; sacrificing ego, time and comfort come with the territory  When you strain against your limits, when you push into new territory, when you expand who you used to be and give way to who you want to be… you’re probably working hard. When you take leaps of faith and get back up when you fall, you’re probably working hard.

Most of us want things in life, and few of us will be gifted with those things. Sure, some people get lucky, but Hard Work, determination, and perseverance are the common paths to achievement.

What was the last barrier you broke down?


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