Working Hard Is Overrated

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I’ve seen a lot of hard working entrepreneurs fail, and I’ve come to the conclusion that working hard, while never a bad thing, is not really the magic thing that leads to great inventions or successful outcomes.

Edison, of the “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” quote, tried thousands of materials looking for the right filament for the electric bulb. That might have been hard work, and the fact that he persisted through many failures is key to making something work, but he was also working on the right problem. So often people are working hard at the wrong thing. Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard.

When we were building Flickr, we worked very hard. We worked all waking hours, we didn’t stop. My Hunch cofounder Chris Dixon and I were talking about how hard we worked on our first startups, his being Site Advisor, acquired by McAfee — 14-18 hours a day. We agreed that a lot of what we then considered “working hard” was actually “freaking out”. Freaking out included panicking, working on things just to be working on something, not knowing what we were doing, fearing failure, worrying about things we needn’t have worried about, thinking about fund raising rather than product building, building too many features, getting distracted by competitors, being at the office since just being there seemed productive even if it wasn’t — and other time-consuming activities.

This time around we have eliminated a lot of freaking out time. We seem to be working less hard this time, even making it home in time for dinner.

Watson and Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, are described in Richard Ogle’s book Smart World:

At times the two central protagonists behaved like people whose day job was working up skits for Monty Python….they had distinctly lackadaisical work habits. Watson played several sets of tennis every afternoon and spent his evenings alternately chasing ‘popsies’ at Cambridge parties and going to the movies. Crick, who rarely showed up at the lab before 10 AM and took a coffee break an hour later repeatedly appeared to lose interest in the problem of DNA. On more than one occasion, vital pieces of information were obtained not through hard work but as a result of chance conversations in the tea line at the Cavendish laboratory.

Much more important than working hard is knowing how to find the right thing to work on. Paying attention to what is going on in the world. Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you want them to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself in the right place where information is flowing freely and interesting new juxtapositions can be seen. But you can save yourself a lot of time by working on the right thing. Working hard, even, if that’s what you like to do.

Caterina Fake is co-founder of Hunch, a Web site that helps you make decisions. She previously co-founded Flickr, which Yahoo acquired in 2005. This post was originally published at her blog, and was reprinted with permission.

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