Imagine this scenario. A man is watching his seven-year-old son’s soccer game. There’s no scoreboard, but his son’s team is obviously dominating. At the end of the game, the referees direct all the kids to the middle of the field to shake hands, and then each player is handed a participation trophy. As the children leave the field admiring their prizes, the man yells out, “That’s not fair! Those kids didn’t win. Why does everyone get a trophy?”
Now flash forward to the next morning. That same man is dressed in his finest business clothes and on his way to his white-collar business job, where he enjoys relative success. As he’s walking up to the building, a homeless man approaches him and asks for money. The man keeps right on walking as he says, “If you worked hard enough, you wouldn’t be in this situation.” He goes about his day without giving the homeless man a second thought.
Do you see the problem here? There is a fundamental disconnect between what we say we believe and what we actually believe when it comes to hard work. We say that hard work is all that’s necessary to succeed (as in the case of the homeless man), but in reality, we often get upset when hard work is rewarded (as in the case of the kids at the soccer game). It may be a simple example, but the soccer game scenario reveals two other attributes that we tend to reward as much as, if not more than, hard work: talent and luck.
In sports, the team that exhibits the most talent usually wins. The players can try as hard as they like, but if they aren’t any good at the game, they’re going to lose most of the time. This is true in other aspects of life, too. For example, the work force. Imagine you’re a manager with two employees you’re considering for promotion. One of them works very hard. He shows up to work early every day and stays as late as necessary to get the job done. The other does great work but doesn’t put forth as much effort. This job comes easily to him. He gets the work done, but he never pushes himself, and he often leaves early. Which one are you going to give the promotion to? Probably the one with more talent.
I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. Talent should be rewarded. If someone’s good at something, they should probably advance in that field so that they can continue to improve and do even better. And sports would be pretty boring to watch if the players weren’t talented. I’m just saying that hard work alone is not enough to make it in the sports world, or the work force. There is an element of talent involved that many people overlook when they offer the simple solution, “Work hard, and you’ll do fine.”
The other attribute that our society rewards is related to talent. It’s luck. This is one thing that people adamantly deny when talking about employment opportunities. They say everyone has a fair chance and that all they have to do is work hard to succeed. But everyone doesn’t start off with the same chances. I was very fortunate to be born in a wealthy country to a well-off family in a good neighborhood. I was fortunate to go to a great school, to receive encouragement at home to excel in my education, and to not have to work in high school and instead focus on getting into college. These are all opportunities that many of us take for granted and that too many others don’t have.
We’ve all seen luck play out on the sports field, too. There’s an element of luck to everything from work to family to dating and so on. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with rewarding luck, either. It’s unavoidable. I just think it’s important to recognize that our society is set up in a way that rewards these other things—talent and luck—and not just hard work, as many people say.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that hard work has no value or that there aren’t a lot of people who have worked very hard to get to where they are. What I am saying is that hard work isn’t the one-size-fits-all solution that many Americans believe it to be, even if it should be. So give those kids their trophies. They worked hard to earn them. Let’s stop saying that we reward hard work and actually start finding ways to reward it on the ball field, in the workplace, and everywhere else.