Monday, April 19, 2010

Working Hard

Working hard isn’t always working well. Yet many of this believe this is the case. I was watching my brother play an overmatched opponent recently, and the opponent frequently, after hitting an unforced error, yelled at himself to “WORK HARDER!” There was quite a bit of eccentricity to the man, but in that he was representative of most people, I think. My friends in college and still curse themselves about procrastination, sometimes justifiably but just as often on matters where their expectations of themselves were too high: they weren’t automatons. But you know, speaking personally, you expect that somewhere in the world there’s someone working much harder than you and that somehow, he or she and you will come in direct competition for something both of you value and you will lose…game over.

I think this is incorrect. Let’s go back to my brother’s overmatched opponent. He was an effective player…for three shots per rally or so. But he tried to hit the cover off the ball on practically every shot and that’s no way to approach tennis: you have to understand how to bide your time and so on. His premise of his game was all wrong. Working hard on his game without changing his premise would be work without consequence, wasted work.

Take the example of Tiger Woods reconstructing his swing. Commentators lavishly praised the hard work it took to change his swing, but that praise was misplaced: obviously it’s difficult to retrain your muscle memory from one pattern to the other, but the harder work is conceptual. Deciding that you must change your game…that’s the hard part. The rest obviously is incredibly difficult: not merely the regimen in of itself but the fortitude to stick to that regimen. But the prerequisite and the important part is the imaginative part.

Working hard falls under the category of mistakes that are partially true; being partially true, they cannot be refuted, only nuanced. And often times it’s difficult to practice nuance. Because people who are successful work hard, but they also work well. The distinction here isn’t merely in the raw expression of brute work, but at the per-unit output: the efficiency as well as the duration of the work. It’s easier to see the work done than the work made unnecessary by good work, and so we gravitate towards glorifying long hours for their own sake.

Anyway, since this falls under the category of characteristic human mistakes, it’s difficult to see if it could be eradicated. If anything, I think the trend points upwards. Think of the farmers back in the Great Depression: prices fell, so they produced more, making prices fall still further. It’s something of a pattern. Applying to college: parents devoted themselves to their kids, they applied to more colleges, meaning more colleges rejected them, necessitating more effort devoted to the process—better test scores, more extracurricular, more applications (in a phrase: harder work)—leading to more applications leading to…etc. There’s an anxiety these days in most social milieu about our place in the world, and the only sensible resolution seems to be to work that much harder. And yet, since working harder seems only to be a marginal addition, it disfigures a life only marginally. It doesn’t represent a reinvention of life. That’s more difficult, and more necessary.

(Apropos of nothing, but I enjoy it:
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