Work Ethic and Success – A Contrarian View?

I have written before (Work Ethic is Always at the Center of Every Success Story — Just Ask Joan Rivers) that work ethic seems to be one of the nonnegotiables for success.  Both Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin trumpet this, with emphasis on the 10,000 hour rule – it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at anything.  People who work hard, really hard, and then practice what Geoff Colvin calls deliberate practice, have a much better chance at success.

Now comes word that the folks who founded Flickr are saying that work ethic is overrated, and not all that necessary.  Here’s an excerpt from an article titled Hard Work’s Overrated, Maybe Detrimental (read the article here):

Caterina Fake, who, with her husband Stewart Butterfield, founded Flickr, knows a thing or two about bliztkreig work schedules. But she points out that late nights are seldom very useful in the grand scheme of things. Hard work? Overrated:
When we were building Flickr, we worked very hard. We worked all waking hours, we didn’t stop. My Hunch cofounder Chris Dixon and I were talking about how hard we worked on our first startups, his being Site Advisor, acquired by McAfee–14-18 hours a day. We agreed that a lot of what we then considered “working hard” was actually “freaking out”. Freaking out included panicking, working on things just to be working on something, not knowing what we were doing, fearing failure, worrying about things we needn’t have worried about, thinking about fund raising rather than product building, building too many features, getting distracted by competitors, being at the office since just being there seemed productive even if it wasn’t–and other time-consuming activities. This time around we have eliminated a lot of freaking out time. We seem to be working less hard this time, even making it home in time for dinner.
Much more important than working hard is knowing how to find the right thing to work on. Paying attention to what is going on in the world. Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you want them to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself in the right place where information is flowing freely and interesting new juxtapositions can be seen. But you can save yourself a lot of time by working on the right thing. Working hard, even, if that’s what you like to do.

I don’t disagree with this.  (And, to state the obvious, I haven’t founded anything as successful as Flickr).  But I do think that it takes a lot of hard work to get to the point where you can “know the right thing to work on.”  It might even take quite a bit of “freaking out,” in order to learn just what does and does not work, what does and does not matter…

The article is actually a call to have “dream space and time,” a concept that I wholeheartedly endorse.  Here’s the last paragraph of the article:
Modern office design is actually converging upon this idea, without any prodding from neuroscience–for example, Facebook’s new offices seem to be organized more around living rooms and DJ booths than cubicles. Elsewhere in office design, conference rooms are quickly being crowded out by lounge spaces. In other words, the very types of places that Watson and Crick found so useful.

And maybe the article hints that when you have learned a few things, you can then work a lot smarter as well as harder.  And I certainly endorse the idea that someone whould be able to be home in time for dinner.

But I’m not really sure this makes the case that success does not come from hard work.  I think it takes hard work to learn how to work smarter. There is still no substitute for work ethic.

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