What kind of work ethic does it take to build a successful career?

Finding a job that doesn't feel like work.

What kind of work ethic does it take to build a successful career?


I was all set to write you a nice post about how to ask for a raise. That was until, over the holidays, tech-Twitter reignited everyone's favorite debate over what kind of work ethic it takes to build a successful career.

Dunks were made. Thought leaders were ratio’d. And Blue Checkmarks collectively wasted lots of time.

I’ve learned my lesson to stay out of public culture spats, but that doesn’t mean I’m not itching to weigh in on this topic.

How you spend your own time will have a big impact on your personal satisfaction. In aggregate, the time our society allocates to work versus leisure has a significant effect on the success of our economy and culture. So, while I’m not a fan of the way this debate is framed, I think it’s an important one to have.

As a starting point, perhaps we can agree that finding meaningful work is a worthwhile endeavor. Most of us spend half of our waking hours at work, which amounts to about 80-90 thousand hours over a lifetime. The output of that time, including the money, relationships, and energy we derive, impacts our ability to enjoy the remaining hours of our waking life. Given the irreplaceable nature of time, we should all seek work that is (at the very least) engaging, if not truly meaningful.

Unfortunately, engaging work is hard to find. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only 34% of employees feel engaged with their work. Part of this could be solved by better matching between candidates and roles; however, I suspect that many jobs are inherently unmotivating. In his 2009 book, Drive, author Dan Pink cites research that highlights the keys to feeling motivated at work:

  • Autonomy – the ability to control what you work on, where and when you put in time, and who you collaborate with
  • Mastery – the drive to keep improving at something you care about
  • Purpose – the sense that your actions are impacting the world in a meaningful and positive way

Jobs that meet all these criteria and provide adequate compensation are rare and valuable. To land one, you’ll need to stand out from other qualified candidates by cultivating valuable skills, knowledge, and attributes of your own to offer in return. Even if there isn’t a hiring manager standing in the way of your dream job, you’ll still need to compete to convince customers and investors to part with enough money to pay your salary. So, what does it take to build the kind of competitive advantage that will help you stand out from the competition?

The answer, in part, is time. To build a competitive advantage, you’ll need to invest hours into honing your craft. These hours will go toward researching, practicing new techniques, and gaining experience. Unlike other parts of your job, these learning activities can’t be delegated to anyone else or automated through better tooling. You’ll need to put in the time yourself to get the benefit.

In an ideal world, the hours you devote to your typical job responsibilities would also help you progress toward your career goals. Unfortunately, when you’re just beginning the path to mastery, it’s hard to land a role that lets you spend time on activities that perfectly align with your learning goals. That’s what makes your nights and weekends so precious.

During your off-hours, you get to direct your learning. You get to work on building whatever skills or knowledge you need without worrying about being scolded by your manager. Hopefully, you’re spending those hours on activities that inherently motivate you and don’t feel like drudgery. If that’s not the case, it’s worth re-examining whether you’re on the right career path.

What I’m not saying is that you should work long hours for the sole purpose of pleasing your boss. Indeed, some jobs necessitate this and are worth keeping. Still, the reason it makes sense to spend nights and weekends in your twenties working to build your competitive advantage is so you can escape these unmotivating roles and their arbitrary rules.

Can this be taken too far? Of course. If you neglect meaningful relationships during your twenties, they may not be there when you need them in your thirties. Your physical and mental health are also essential to maintain. Even if you are only attempting to optimize your learning, skipping out on sleeping, exercising, and eating well may strip you of the motivation you need to make the most of your learning hours.

I realize this question, like any other that incites this level of emotion, has a political angle. In general, the left believes that telling underprivileged people to work long hours in an economy where the deck is stacked against them is immoral. They see those who encourage hard work as downplaying the role of unearned privilege in their success.

Meanwhile, the right often argues that advising underprivileged people not to put in long hours strips them of their best tool for social mobility. They view those who discourage hard work as attempting to downplay the impact of their work ethic (or their parents’) on the success they’ve achieved.

My own view is that most people who end up successful start out with some significant advantages. Some of these advantages, like an attractive face or a high IQ, are baked into their DNA. Others are instilled by their early environments like high-income parents or a tight-knit community-oriented upbringing. That said, one of the most valuable advantages a person can cultivate, whether by nature or nurture, is a strong work ethic. Without it, other advantages can easily be squandered.

To test this, imagine funding income-share agreements for a bunch of college students out of your bank account. In an attempt to get a high return, I suspect most people would heavily weight work ethic when selecting who to support. While there are many ways to measure work ethic, the number of hours someone spends working and learning is a pretty damn good proxy.

I understand why people get up in arms about this topic. Often when people post on social media about the long hours they put in, it feels like performative hustle. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad strategy to spend nights and weekends in your twenties working. The critical distinction is that instead of spending those hours pleasing the crappy manager at the job you hate, invest your time to build a competitive advantage that will lead to the kind of job where the hours you put in don’t feel like work.