The two types of hard work
There are two flavors to hard work.
Something can be hard to figure out, like a puzzle, but once done, the hardness is gone. Poof. You struggled to prove a theorem, or to design a complex system, but now you that you have done it, it’s not hard anymore. People will congratulate you and will call you intelligent.
But there there are other things that are hard for a long time, like putting in the hours necessary to acquire expertise, or the grunge work that looks unappealing but is important to keep your job going.
The former can be categorized as hard work to solve difficult problems, whereas the latter is just hard work per se.
The former requires intelligence and an aptitude to solve the difficult problem at hand, and a willingness to put in a lot of effort for a short period of time, whereas the latter requires a lot of grit, plenty of discipline, and the ability to keep going for a long time, come hell or high water.
Sometimes people confuse one for another, or don’t necessarily consider the latter.
The former kind of hard work is, of course, important, but the latter seems to be much more important to get ahead in life.
When I had finished my high school and had cleared a tough entrance examination, I remember someone saying I had “done it” and don’t need to worry about jobs and livelihood for the rest of my life. I disagreed, thankfully. The first kind of hard work helped me cross a mountain and come to a nicer pasture, but the journey could hardly stop there.
Both of these hard works are related of course. Without the second kind, you cannot acquire expertise, which is essential to solve the difficult problem that you encounter in the former.
The first kind of hard work is a reasonable proxy for judging whether someone is capable of the second kind, but doesn’t always hold. This is why hiring can go wrong at times because candidates could put in a lot of hard work just to clear the interview and may not have the grit required to persist.
It’s possible that a lot of our success visibly comes from the first kind of hard work. You write a book and you are propelled to stardom, or figure out a mechanism in Chemistry that gets you a Nobel prize. But none of those would have been possible had you not put in the hard work necessary: practicing the craft of writing for decades, or spending endless years building good mental models in Chemistry and even doing all the grunge work of writing and getting grants to keep your lab afloat. There is no overnight success.
So don’t forget the second type of hard work that sets you up for success but doesn’t quite get it. It prepares you for action, and when you get there, you have to switch from marathon to sprint mode and succeed.
I came across this idea of the two flavors of hardness somewhere which I have lost reference to, but also stumbled upon a variant recently in the context of software engineering and in another essay. Worth checking those out.
Here are other essays that I have enjoyed reading recently:
How To Understand Things by Nabeel Qureshi
How To Do Hard Things by David R. MacIver
How To Be successful by Sam Altman