Hard Work is Overrated

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An elementary school student works hard over Zoom. Photo courtesy of: Zoom

Like so many of my Asian peers, my first-generation Vietnamese parents had a tendency to instill various conservative ideals and beliefs from my very early childhood. Immigrating from war-torn Vietnam, they were hungry for the opportunities that America seemingly provided them- a quality education, a safe community free from the violence of the past, and, most importantly, the ability and resources to rise out of the circumstances that they were born into. The American Dream was a desperate hope that many immigrants who came from impoverished circumstances clung to. And, they believed, that the concept of the American dream would only be realized with hard work and determination. With such sentiments, they preached that simply anything could be accomplished. And many of them, decades later, were successful, reinforcing their belief in the importance of hard work and sharing these values with their children. 

But, despite what is commonly taught, the celebration of hard work in American and Asian culture is both illogical and a classist notion used to justify or explain the easiness of life for a few, and to persuade the poor, who in fact work hard, to keep doing the same things in order to preserve existing power structures. 

In other words, hard work is overrated. 

From a logical perspective, there is nothing objectively dignified about hard work. Is it not best to accomplish things the easy way? In fact, the concept of hard work is backward. Humans spend most of their lives working hard for one purpose- so that they don’t have to work hard in retirement. Almost every invention or innovation, from the lightbulb to the automobile to the telephone is created in such a way to make life easier for humans. When Thomas Edison created the first lightbulb, it was to make it easier for humans to see in the dark. The automobile was built to make it easier to transport people from place to place. The telephone was created to make communication easier. If it is a human objective to reduce the most amount of work as possible, why is hard work such an idealized facet of our culture? 

I anticipate that people might say that it is hard work that led to the emergence of these inventions. However, this objection itself demonstrates society’s single-minded obsession with hard work because it excludes any other way of working. Work thoughtfully, energetically, or happily and get the same goals completed without the exhaustion, physical or mental, that working hard is associated with. There is little reason to teach our young about hard work, to encourage them to reach this impossible, intangible standard of work when there is little point to hard work other than its production of stress, burnout, and even depression. 

And a focus on hard work is more than illogical- it’s dangerous. 

The notion of hard work remains part of an effort to deflect attention away from class division and even racism because its rhetoric marginalizes the issues of disadvantaged groups. Consider the civil rights movement’s struggle for social justice in the 1960s. When Black Americans called for equality, opposing groups spoke about the successes of Asian Americans. These supposed successes gave substance to the idea that the American Dream does not call for a systemic revolution or overhaul, but that it simply demanded the right possession of ideals, i.e. the hard-working mentality of Asian Americans. This attitude justifies the lack of action towards real issues within public policy- and the political reforms proposed can be dismissed because, according to the mentality, the law is not the problem. It is simply because the poor are not “working hard” enough. As a result, the fact that the sentiment of hard work can be used as a rhetorical weapon against Blacks and other minority groups is harmful and should be eliminated from today’s culture. 

And so, to the chagrin of my Asian parents, I remain convinced that hard work is overrated.