Well, the actual saying is the opposite of this post’s title. It is supposed to read: “Work Smarter, Not Harder.”

But, that phrase has always left me feeling queasy. So, I suppose a warning is in order: this post is a rant. What do the terms “smart” and “hard” even mean in this context?

Let’s start with “smart”. Beyond the dictionary definition, there are a couple of possibilities. One is that there is some unconsidered path that would be better for our project. Perhaps it is a different vision, a cost saving step, or otherwise. Whatever it is, it would be “smarter” than what we’re doing now.

But since we don’t know what that might be (otherwise we’d already be doing it), then we are obviously not smart. Even if we did discover a more efficient path, well, there might still be yet another more efficient path that we’re failing to get to. Man are we idiots.

Another connotation to “smart” is that perhaps we know something that others don’t. Therefore, we’re “smart” which in turn gives us some license to gloat quietly.

Either way, smart feels smarmy and condescending.

Meanwhile, “hard” carries the idea that we are doing something difficult where difficulty is not necessary to achieve our ends.

The kindest interpretation I can give the entire phrase is that it is useful to consider more efficient ways to get to where we want to go. Fine.

But then what is the point of the statement? Don’t we do that already? No one asks to do something in some more difficult manner than they normally would. We always look for some path of least resistance.

As a result, the statement itself is irritating at best and demeaning at worst, like someone in the back seat giving us directions when we know perfectly well how to get there.

More to the point, hard work is probably better characterized as some combination of sitting with work regularly, setting distractions aside, and sitting through unclear next steps with deliberate pauses. We decide in the moment, “Do I wrap up for the moment and create clear paths to return with a fresh mind? Or do I remain within the work in hopes of finding something deeper or more thorough? Is there another means of handling this frustration?”

I will just end with a possible non sequitur and what I will selfishly claim as my own law:

Dini’s Third Law of Meaning1

For every saying, there is an equal and opposite saying.

In this case,

Work smarter, not harder.

can be countered with:

“Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

  1. I’m not sure yet what the first two laws are, but I just wanted to reserve the real estate, and this felt like it should come third.