Hard work pays off.
I have spent most of my life blindly accepting and even perpetuating that statement. From clients, to myself. From my friends, to my children. I have repeated that belief over and over again without thinking. It’s meant as encouragement, as a way to keep going even when it seems like hope is lost. Just keep at it! Hard work pays off!
Except for when it doesn’t. I’ve come to realize lately how disheartening that can be when you are the teenager busting your butt to get a better grade in a class, but despite all the studying, all the late nights, you still end up right where you started. Or what about the aspiring athlete who spends every moment practicing, trying to perfect their craft, only to find out they didn’t make the team? It’s in those situations that I’ve begun to ask myself, “Didn’t that kid work hard?” And almost without fail, I can answer that yes they had. They had given it their all, and still did not reach their ultimate goal. And what about the flip side of that? What about the kid who really didn’t have to work at all? Can we conversely say, “No work also pays off?” Some people never have to work at something, and yet, they reap the rewards they’re seeking with ease.
I think we can also apply this in the context of diet, exercise and eating disorder recovery, too. Hard work pays off. How often have your heard that in the context of working out? It is assumed that the harder you work in the gym, the better your results. The more you work on your diet, the smaller you will become. While often we accept that as gospel, science tells us that the complete opposite can be true. That when you have someone working at maximum capacity in the gym, all while “rocking” their meal plan, they may not lose weight at all. Do we tell this person, working out 2 hours per day while eating a measly 1200 calories that they’re not working hard enough? Is the message still to just keep working harder? Work out harder? Eat even less? It’s a dangerous message and one that is not based on facts. Often exercise is best prescribed as the least effective dose. Do as much as you need to to achieve your goals, and no more than that. Bodies need rest, food, and recovery to perform optimally.
I have also found in my work with clients in recovery from eating disorders that hearing “hard work pays off” often leads to feelings of failure and inadequacy, hopelessness, and discouragement. If the message is that all you have to do is work hard at recovery and you will recover, then what about those clients who dive head on into recovery work only to relapse? Often they begin to believe that they just didn’t do it well enough; didn’t do it right at all. That leads to feelings of shame and disappointment.
What I have learned is that hard work can pay off, but often in ways that we likely don’t expect. Maybe it teaches us to sit through discomfort. Maybe it teaches us that the thing that we were working toward wasn’t actually worth all the effort. Or maybe we achieve some other outcome we didn’t expect that proved to be beneficial. Maybe we grew into a deeper understanding of ourselves. But expecting that we will “win” at whatever we are working toward is a false notion that can lead to paralysis when we don’t get what we wanted.
I think the message that hard work pays off is rooted in good intentions but fails as a means to help someone keep going even when the outcome wasn’t what they were going for. If they fail to reach their goal after working so hard, what keeps them moving forward? If, after failing to get an A in a class after constant hard work, does that mean they just stop trying? Doesn’t it breed the type of mindset that says, “Why did I ever bother trying at all?”
Now I try to remind myself and others that working hard does pay off, in some way, at some time....maybe not now. Maybe not in the way you think, but the attitude that you have when you are actively working toward self improvement (strength goals, school goals, recovery goals, etc) is usually one of hope and positivity. The “I can do this” strength that you muster is valuable in life in general, even if it doesn’t turn out as planned. And when it doesn’t? The strength we have developed will help us build resilience even further. We will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep going, one foot in front of the other, all the while recognizing that though the outcome isn’t always predictable, our belief in our abilities can be