‘Work Hard & You’ll Succeed’ Simply Isn’t True, So Let’s Stop Saying It

Illustrated by Vero Romero.
"If you want it, you’ll succeed," the image reads. Another says: "If you don’t it means you didn’t work hard enough." Next to it, in thick capital letters: "Luck is for losers." 
In the idealised world of Instagram, mantras like these fit right in – and to an extent, they work. In a moment of saturation, when everything feels too much, we want something simple to spur us on. 
We all want to believe that hard work leads to something good: a promotion, a pay rise, some sort of recognition. It’s an idea that is repeated often by those who have seen (especially financial) success; Donald Trump famously bragged: "Hard work is my personal method for financial success." And last year he tweeted: "No president ever worked harder than me!" Which should probably be our first clue that the idea is deeply flawed. 
"Work hard and you’ll succeed" has been the simple formula passed from generation to generation, each working 'harder' and becoming more 'successful' than the last, if you believe it. The advice fits snugly with those who romanticise working 'to the bone' and wear their sacrifices as medals. It’s rooted in individualism; packaged as political weaponry. Except, when you listen carefully, you realise it’s usually uttered by those at the top, looking down. 
For the rest of us, things are a little more complicated. Oversimplification of this kind can even be harmful. "The whole 'we have the same 24 hours as Beyoncé' thing is, for want of a better word, bollocks," says life coach Harriet Minter. "Because we don’t all enter the workplace on the same playing field. While we continue to live and work in a society that favours white, middle class, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, thin people, this mantra can only truly apply to the few. 
"When we tell everyone else that success just comes down to hard work, what we’re doing is setting them up for a really nasty psychological cycle: they will work hard and when they don’t get noticed, they will tell themselves, It’s my fault, so I must work even harder, which they do. The cycle continues, then, until they reach burnout." 
When we’re striving for achievement, we rely on someone else to see that and to reward us appropriately – but when so many other biases are in play, the false belief that keeping our heads down and putting in a bit more elbow grease will eventually pay off can become harmful in itself. Hard work alone cannot override a gender pay gap and it can’t prevent unconscious bias from filling offices with people who all look (and likely speak) the same. 
"I never even considered that I might have been discriminated against until the last few years," says Arnie Puntis, 37, a physiotherapist for the NHS. "I’d always worked hard – before I had kids I would frequently stay late, take on extra work and make sure I was doing the absolute best I could. But looking back, I was the only Asian in my physio school. Comments that I 'speak well', I think, differentiated me; colleagues assumed that I’d been privately educated and treated me as such. Previous employers have said things to me like 'you’re basically white' as though I should be pleased with that. I’m not – I’m brown. If I hadn't been 'accepted' as 'one of them', would my hard work have been rewarded so willingly? I don’t know. I’m lucky that now I have a wonderfully supportive boss who values my work/life balance and, more importantly, my happiness."
Marley, 33, grew up in a town just north of Leeds, amid Blair-era promises of equality and social mobility, with a dream to go to art school. "My family never had any money," she says, "we were always struggling. So when I told my mum I wanted to go to art college at 16, she told me I couldn’t. She said the same when I wanted to go to university. But I believed if I worked hard enough, it would be possible. I became determined to prove her wrong and to make a success of what I was doing. I didn’t feel like there was another option; if I failed, that was it." 
Under an incredible weight of pressure, Marley did make it to art college and, later, university. "I like to think I am a hard worker; a perfectionist, perhaps," she says. She now works in creative marketing at a London-based company. Her role is senior but it’s taken her years to get there, she says, after moving to the city just over a decade ago. "Not only that, but it’s taken me that time to work out that I need to prioritise my own happiness over a perception of what 'success' looks like – I learned that the hard way." 

Hard work alone cannot override a gender pay gap and it can't prevent unconscious bias from filling offices with people who all look (and likely speak) the same. 

Last year, Marley was working for a self-confessed workaholic who believed that hard work alone equals success. "In the last month I worked there, I did just over a week and a half overtime for no extra pay, which was simply what was expected of me," she explains. "The workload just kept on getting bigger and it began to subsume my own life – I wasn’t myself, I was snappy in my relationship, low and anxious a lot of the time. Self-doubt crept in; I thought I wasn’t good enough. My relationship with the company became worse the more anxious I became. Maybe, looking back, because I wasn’t being rewarded, despite working extremely hard. Eventually, I burned out. I had to quit." 
Marley’s experience with a workaholic boss is common and, says Minter, often rooted in something called survivor bias: the idea that, once we’ve made it against the odds, we forget about those who didn’t. "There’s always one, isn’t there," Minter says, "who claims they just worked super hard and that’s what got them to a financially/professionally/societally covetable position. 
"Only it doesn’t work like that. For one, we all need help along the way. The thing is that we all come up against adversity in our work lives – and those are the people who have one big disappointment and cannot come back from it because they cannot rationalise what was within their control and what was outside of their control."
There is another flaw in the idiom, too: our definitions of success are evolving. Nikky Cooper, 41, a staff nurse, took a step back from her career after having a second child five years ago. "There’s that saying, that you should work like you haven’t got kids and mother like you don’t have a job – I think that guilt is still there for lots of people," she says. Like Arnie, who also has two children, she believes that working hard towards a different definition of success – maintaining a balanced working and family life – is more fulfilling but crudely overlooked by society.

I don't think that society sees 'success' in my life. They see me as working a three-day week and pottering around for four days. Working hard and being successful changes when you're a mum.

"Sometimes I look around and feel a bit lost," she admits. "Thinking about what I should be doing with my career, which I’ve worked hard for, or if I should be doing more. But I do work very hard – just for a different kind of (less celebrated) success. Especially having a son with special needs, I have to be around. I couldn’t fit neatly into this idea that we should be constantly at work, and I wouldn’t want to."
"I don’t think that society sees the 'success' I do in my life," Arnie adds. "They just see me as working a three-day week and pottering around for another four days. Working hard and being successful changes when you’re a mum – and I do think that there’s a difference for fathers, whose working lives can stay largely unscathed by parenthood, though I think expectations of dads are beginning to change."
We can only keep chipping away at the ingrained ideals upon which society’s flawed framework is built. Of course we should work hard – just not to our own detriment, and not so that our efforts and desire for success can be exploited or dangled before us as bait or as excuses for inequality.
In the meantime, how can we continue to work hard and prevent ourselves from falling into the cycle? "One thing we can all do," says Minter, "is to take a step back and look at whether people have been making decisions based on our efforts and ability, or whether they’re based on unconscious bias. And think about whether we’re behaving like this to other people, too. We need to be more aware of wrongdoing, but also to have more compassion and understanding – and from that a greater desire to change the world."