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The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Work

I know, I’ve been writing a lot about the workplace, and changes that I think are coming, but I want to take a moment today and talk about how we got here, and why this is so difficult.

I want to start this conversation with some quotes from this article, which I think does a good job of identifying why we see so much burnout, and why it’s unlikely that we’ll make any radical changes soon.

Why do we buy into the ‘cult’ of overwork?

The article starts out talking about the “Protestant work ethic”, the idea that working hard, for as long as it took to get the job done, was a moral good. Then it traces the history of this same ethic as it evolved over the years, from Japanese culture, to America in the “greed is good” 80s and right up to the present day, where we make heroes out of tech founders who brag about how little they sleep. I’ve said this before myself about the eDiscovery industry too, we sure do like to brag about our work hours, and we aren’t the only ones:

But for those who embrace the overwork culture, there’s also a performative element, whether that manifests as a new car to show off, a ‘dream career’ doing something meaningful or even exhaustion that can be displayed like a bizarre kind of trophy.

Centuries ago, “guys had duels and they’d have a dueling scar, which is almost a kind of badge of honour. You fought and you survived”, says Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s where you brag about, ‘Yeah, I don’t sleep’. It’s that kind of thing.”

Whether you want to talk about social media posts about “always grinding”, the never-ending side-hustle, etc. even in the midst of a global pandemic and the acknowledgement of the mental health issues tied to overwork, we still brag about how much we overwork. In the workplace, we talk a good game about employee wellness, and work-life balance, but who wins all the accolades at the end of each project, or quarter? The folks who put in the “extra effort”. (aka “hours”)

It’s as if we never really left that early Protestant environment, and it’s the same reason why so many people who have been successful have such a hard time accepting that things have changed. We still hang on to the belief that says good people work hard, and that hard work leads to success. Bad people don’t work hard, and this is why they don’t have success.

This idea has, in essence, become the core identity of successful people. And, as Seth Godin recently explained, changing someone’s identity, is a whole other level of difficult.

If our ideas are equated to our identity, then talking about ideas is very much the act of talking about yourself.


And thus the tension is created. Our culture and our economy are built on ideas. Many of our society’s ideas get better over time (you don’t go to the barber for bloodletting any longer–it’s what probably killed George Washington) and yet some of them get stuck. Often, we need a generation to step away before an entrenched idea begins to fade, because the people who have been embracing that toxic or outlived idea see it as part of their identity.


As the media realizes that they can improve profits by narrowcasting ideas to people who embrace them as part of who they are, it gets increasingly difficult to have a constructive conversation about many ideas–because while people are able and sometimes eager to change some of their less personal ideas, we rarely seek to change our identity.

So, for generations we have grown up with the idea that people who work hard are successful. Those of us who have had even some modicum of success are very likely to credit that to our hard work. This is why the idea of privilege is so difficult. We see it as taking away some, or all, of the credit that we give ourselves for hard work, and working hard leading to our success is how we identify ourselves. That doesn’t leave room for things like luck, randomness, and privilege. But, they exist.

The story we tell ourselves about the super successful is that they worked hard to go from nothing to successful, and while I don’t want to take away from the intelligence and skills they have and the hard work they do put in, let’s face it, they were also in the right place at the right time, with the right resources.

We celebrate the Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg’s of the world for dropping out of college to build a business from “nothing” as if attending Harvard in the first place was nothing. As if they didn’t already have the education, resources and connections that would help them be successful in ways that most of us will never have.

Since we all grew up believing that good people work hard and are successful, we look at these uber-successful folks and assume they have made it, and that if any of us simply works hard enough, we can also have an idea and turn it into a billion dollar business. That’s what we see, what we believe, and what we act on. So when someone suggests that something other than hard work is at play, we get offended, even when it makes sense.

So, to make an example of myself, I work in a highly technical industry, even though I have no educational background in technology. I had to work hard to learn technical things. I have devote time, effort, and brain power to learning really technical things. That hard work has helped me be successful and reach this point and have the experiences I have had in my career. Having said that, though, I also have to recognize a few other things. My first technical job came about through luck. I happened to be working a pretty clerical job at a place where an IT person left and created a vacancy. I will also fully acknowledge that being a white man, helps. People generally don’t immediately question my technical abilities, because I “look” like a highly technical person. That opens doors that haven’t traditionally been open to other people, even some who have more educational background than I do.

But I can only acknowledge that by untying my identity as a human being, and a professional, from this mythology of hard work = success. Most people who have been highly successful, are not going to just give up this identity, and they will not stop rewarding the people who work the hardest, and by hardest, of course, I mean, the longest because that is their story, their identity. Telling them that the reality is different, that their hard work helped, but so did a 100 other things that were outside of their control? Doesn’t fit the story, so stop talking about it.

Never mind the fact that for everyone of of those, there are hundreds of stories of people who worked just as hard to create a business, and failed, or who have worked harder still to get ahead, and have never been given an opportunity.

For them I have to ask, what did the successful people work harder myth get them? What good did it do? How much of their life was spent in pursuit of a story that was never true?

Don’t we owe it to the millions of us who aren’t going to be Elon Musk, to devise a better workplace, a better system, a better measurement of good vs bad?

I’d like to think we can, but it will absolutely take tearing down the old identities, which will not be easy.



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