Working Hard in the 21st Century

In the book Act Accordingly, author Colin Wright provides his thoughts on our hyperconnected and hardworking society.  Wright comments on the pride we have in hard work, and how that has translated into praise for those who work 100 hour weeks and toil through difficult paths to reach their journey. Rather than advocate for the traditional path of ever increasing responsibility and hard work, he encourages a different path, which runs in contrast to our thoughts about always being connected and always working. I have come across the idea through multiple podcasts that I listen to with Debbie Millman in a podcast called Design Matters where she called hard work, long hours, and responding to emails at 3 a.m. “a badge of honor”.  What Wright begins to argue is that this work is not the most useful work, because it is often not the most productive.  He writes, “for some reason we treat ‘hard work’ as if it’s an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end,” showing how focused we are on the hard work we do, and not where that hard work takes us or the outcome of that hard work.  He also writes, “Is it noble to work 100 hours a week to accomplish what could be done in 40? Is it virtuous to spend 40 hours hours on a project that could be delivered in 10?”
I think that once we get into the working world and start to build our careers many of us become super focused on reaching a better position and a better salary and in the end we make sacrifices in our personal life so that our work can be the best. This is certainly not a bad thing, and making sacrifices to help grow in your professional life is important, but Wright is arguing that the sacrifices you make should be temporary. Once you adopt the idea that you must always work hard you will have prepared yourself for success, however, hard work in isolation and hard work that does not provide results is not the best use of your time. It is not worth making personal sacrifices to work hard on something that does not reward nor advance your life in a fully rounded way.  As Debbie Millman put it, having a hard work ‘badge of honor’ does not help you if it means that you are getting less sleep, becoming less productive, and losing the ability to be connected to health, family, and spirituality.
The second part of the quote from Wright shows the better alternative to our ideas of hard work. When we value quantity over quality we look at people with incredibly high work loads and praise them. We look at our colleagues who work super long hours  with praise. Unfortunately, quantity does not always correlate with success. If long hours of work diminish the overall value of the final product and if large workloads delay the final product or fill it with errors, then what did the completion of the large workload accomplish?  Wright is encouraging us to not work in a way that places a high value on the quantity of what we do. His quotes show that productivity versus activity should be our main goal, and that we should value those who are able to complete work with high quality in shorter time frames, rather than focus on dragging things out and appearing to constantly be working in a frenzy.

Priming and Creativity

Continuing with the idea of priming, Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds researches the work of Jens Forster from the International University Bremen in Germany.  Forster asked people to participate in simple creativity exercises in environments that were specifically controlled and measured.  Forster began with an activity to mentally prime individuals by asking them to think about a certain stereotype, and measuring their creative ideas.  Following his mental priming experiment Forster executed a visual priming experiment. As Wiseman explains,


“Forster asked participants to take a standard creativity task (“think of as  many uses for a brick as possible”) while seated in front of one of two specially created art prints .  The two prints were each about three feet square, almost identical and consisted of twelve large crosses against a light green background.  In one picture all of the crosses were dark green, while in the other print eleven were dark green and one was yellow.  The researchers speculated that the unconscious mind would perceive this single yellow cross as breaking away from its more conservative and conventional green cousins and that this would encourage more radical and creative thinking.  The results were astounding.  Even though the participants didn’t consciously notice the picture, those seated in front of the “creative” picture produced significantly more uses for the brick.  A panel of experts judged their responses as far more creative.  The message is clear: if you want to fast track a group or and individual to think more creatively, use the power of visual priming.”


I find this experiment and idea to be really inspiring.  I have created my own simple art prints and placed them around my desk at work to help me generate more creative ideas throughout the day.  Prior to reading Wiseman’s book and beginning to listen to podcasts like Debbie Millman’s Design Matters, I never thought of myself as creative, but Forster’s experiments shows that everyone can be creative, especially if we prime ourselves for creativity both mentally and visually.