Paul Graham, in his latest essay, eloquently writes about the nature of working hard. This got me thinking about the anatomy of hard work, and here are a few thoughts, largely building on his piece.

For starters, natural ability only goes as far. Almost all successful people – no matter what their metric of success is – have put in the hours. While natural ability is a relative constant, by itself, it counts for nothing. Working hard is the execution layer that puts this ability to action, and makes it count for something. What’s even better is that hard work has the ability to trump natural ability, in most scenarios of life. 

Working hard requires sacrifices, mostly because of demands on one’s time. Its very nature calls for prioritization, and the imperative to say no to many things. In fact, saying no to most things. This also brings us to hard work’s close cousin, focus. But that’s for another time. 

Pop culture attributes working smart as an alternative to working hard. I’m not sure how I feel about it. To be fair, that sounds a bit escapist. If one is working hard, and putting in the hours consistently, there has to be something that draws them back to work, week after week. And if one is honest and self-aware in their pursuit of something, the hacks come naturally. Discovering a smart way to work hard, emerges because of it, not despite it.

This brings us to an important element of working hard: honesty with the work at hand. At times, one mistakenly creates the notion that working hard is an end to itself. I’ve made that mistake a few times, not least because late nights at work feed the ego well. In all fairness, working hard at anything – academia, business, job, self-transformation – is a means to an end. 

How we measure progress and the outcome of our hard work depends on the nature of work. For some of us working on empathy, it could be more subtle; for others growing a business, it might be better defined as month-over-month growth in revenues. No matter the task at hand, anchoring our outcomes to some quantitative metric, allows us to remain honest with our hard work. A good example for measuring empathy could be journaling the number of times we interrupted someone while they were talking – both through our voice and through our loss of mindfulness.

There’s something deeper about the nature of hard work that lends an almost pristine fervor to it, and also ties to our honest relationship with it. As Graham says, “There’s a kind of solidity to real work. It’s not all writing the Principia, but it all feels necessary.” Deep within, the right kind of hard work feels right. It feels important, and the subconscious gives you the energy to keep marching forward. 

Does hard work always lead to success, even if we are evaluating such work at a healthy cadence, and iterating as needed? Barely. In fact, I’d say, most certainly not. There are times when a lot of our hard work may not immediately satisfy our goals, and to me, that’s a wonderful thing. In committing one’s own self to honest, hard work, one accomplishes something more: a process. A process of disciplined immersion, which eventually leads to grander things.

So, if you are a student who’s worked hard at your university applications and landed with a few rejections, don’t despair. Take pride in the hours you clocked in, evaluate if there’s room for more, make iterations to how you worked, and reapply. Hard work might optically lead you down the garden path in a given month, or even a given year, but give it another chance, and it will only impact your life in one direction.

One final thought: the beauty of honest, hard work lies in the permissions we derive from it – a permission to give ourselves a pat on our back, and a permission to internalize deep within that if we’ve worked hard with honesty, there’s little else that matters.