One of the persistent myths in America is that success is primarily down to hard work. Yes, you cannot have success by lying on the sofa all day. But let us not kid ourselves, it is not primarily hard work that produces economic success.
Let me take a step back and build up an example to explain what I am talking about.
I live in one of the richest countries in the world, Norway. Each Norwegian produce value for about 8x times as much as that of a Chinese on average. Norwegian GDP per capita is about $77,975 while it is $10,098 in China. I could pick almost any country and we would beat them by a large margin, but I picked China for a particular reason.
Chinese people are not known to be lazy. They work hard. Real hard and for long hours. Norwegians in contrast have short work days and lots of vacation. Nor do Norwegians really work their ass of at work. So why are Norwegians so much richer than the Chinese if success is all about hard work?
How about another example? Why are Bangladeshi fishermen so much poorer than Norwegian fishermen? Are they just lazy? Are they not working as hard as Norwegian fishermen?
Of course not! The difference is that the Norwegian fisherman has a large modern fishing vessel with advance equipment and the training to use it. The Norwegian fisherman can fish more fish with less effort.
I pick Bangladesh as an example in particular because in the 1970s Norway tried to help Bangladeshi fishermen by giving them modern fishing vessels. The whole thing failed miserably. Why?
After about 1 year the boats where non-operational? Why? Because the local fisherman lacked knowlege and skill to service the boats. Furthermore there was no infrastructure or facilities where they could be serviced and repaired. Nor was there a supply network of spare parts. Nor any schools teaching people the skills to repair these boats and run this kind of business. You quickly see how all things are connected and the prosperity of one country relative to another relies on a myriad of interconnected factors.
Why talk about such different countries? Because it shows vividly how prosperity in not primarily created from hard work but through capital, skill and infrastructure.
Work hard and you can make it!
The myth America likes to perpetuate is that of America as the land of opportunity. Yet social mobility in America is shockingly low. The US ranks 27, behind old class societies such as the UK.
The ethos is “quit whining, and get to work, because in America anybody can work hard and make it.”
Sure you can work hard and make something, but that papers over pretty inconvenient truths. I have on many occasions sat in a cab in America driven by an immigrant. Sure their life is better than where they came from, but that does not make it comfortable. They work their ass of, but don’t have all that much to show for.
Their plight reminds me of an experience from a summer in my youth when I worked at a warehouse. It was perhaps a mere week. But it was really hard work and my back was killing me. I did my best to keep up, but the boss was not very happy about my pace.
I remember a skinny Vietnamese guy that I worked with. Much older than me. He was in many ways the “the model immigrant,” and even the model worker. He worked at an amazing pace. He seemed to effortlessly move one heavy load after the other despite his limited stature. To top it of he had perpetual smile on his face. He was happy. It seemed incredible to me and I had some conversations with him in the break. The smile was not fake, he actually spoke at length about how much he liked his job. I absolutely hated it. My hat is off for this guy. 23 years later I still think of him. He made a lasting impression.
Since then I got higher education and have been working years in a white collar office making a good salary. Probably several times what my old Vietnamese immigrant colleague made. I don’t make more money because I work harder than him. Quite the contrary. Not only did he work much harder, but he also had an admirable attitude and didn’t make a single complaint.
He is not alone. The world is full of people like him. In America thousands work in Amazon fulfillment centers walking enormous distances every day, busting their ass to get orders white collar workers, with high pay sitting comfortable in swanky offices, ordered.
I didn’t end up where I am because I worked exceptionally hard. I had good parents that got me interested in learning. A mother who read books to me all the time. A father who bought a plethora of popular science magazines which I read. Grand parents who got me and my brother a computer when few had one, because they wanted me and my brother to learn this important new technology they had no idea what was about.
I was lucky to live in a country where the government paid most of my higher education. It is not like it is free. I help finace this system by paying high taxes. But it means I am repaying this over time while doing a comfortable job, not by working my ass off in a warehouse part time while studying.
It is About Human Capital not Hard Work
If you want to be Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, you probably have to work real hard. But for the rest of us having a modest measure of success does not require back breaking hard work.
What matters more than hard work is human capital. My ability to generate value comes primarily from my skills. It is due to the investment in my skills that society has done, that the average Norwegian produce a lot of value.
That and the importance of capital. A modern expensive fishing boat is working capital. It is somewhat ironic that a country such as the US which worships capitalism, so seldom talks about the importance of capital in value creation. How much value a human produce is in large part a result of the amount of capital at their disposal.
That capital can be both in terms of machinery as well as in the form of human capital.
Instead of pestering people to work harder, perhaps one should instead realize the importance of investing in people. In giving them better skills, and in giving them better infrastructure and machine to make them more productive.
Let us also realize there is a difference between leisure and work. I may have spent a ton of hours to become a good programmer. But a lot of that effort was just for fun. While I doubt the people driving a cab in New York 24/7 have all that much fun. Just because you put in a lot of hours doing something, doesn’t mean you where working hard. Perhaps what you did was indistinguishable from pleasure.
We must acknowledge the privilege some of us have, which is to have a job we actually enjoy doing for the most part. Not everybody is that lucky. In fact some of the people who work hardest don’t have jobs they like.