When hard work doesn’t equal productive work

In March 2020, David Rubenstein gave an interview in which he lamented the vanishing of a system in which “hard work” guarantees success. While the source of nostalgia is understandable, there is an epistemological problem with the conjoined assumptions underlying the concept of hard work and also what a “system” promises, i.e. if one works hard, then one become successful. The issue appears to be one of qualifying and quantifying “hard work.”

My previous article “An aspirational paradox” mentions Abigail Fisher and her failed lawsuit against University of Texas – Austin over her non-acceptance to the institution. The case was a painful example of the disillusionment which must follow when believers in the exceptionality of the commonplace are finally made aware of its mediocrity. The Fisher saga represents the modern tragedy of familial ambition: a child’s parents place her on a systemic path, promised by wise public-school teachers and caring guidance counselors to lead to success, only to discover that the end is the furnace of Moloch. Caveat emptor.

The strange, disembodied entity called “the system” doesn’t fail; what fails is individual and collective concepts of what the system is and what it requires. Mankind has a capacity for filling a void of ignorance with figments of its imagination. In general, such practice is harmless. But when a person believes his own creation and builds his future upon it, that is when the ‘systemic failure’ narrative begins.

Drawing again from my own encounters, for many years I knew a music teacher who believed that one must never listen to repertoire. Yes, you read that correctly: a teacher of an aural art form believes that listening to music is detrimental. The person had many long, pseudo-pedagogical explanations for this peculiar belief. His idea was atypical. Professors at the world’s top conservatories and musicians from major ensembles all emphasize listening as a crucial part of study. Listening as a formal component of music study dates to the invention and mass distribution of the phonograph in the early 20th century. Even further back, students attended live concerts.

This teacher had a pedagogical system built around his beliefs, which included that students should neither learn basic keyboard skills nor how to play with accompaniment. Unsurprisingly, students who adhered to his system didn’t progress very well. Problems ranged from poor intonation and lack of ensemble skills to arriving for college auditions with no grasp of appropriate repertoire. Feedback from competitions was kind but completely honest. The more students failed, the more obstinately he insisted that political maneuverings or class biases were to blame. “The system,” by which he meant auditions, was “broken,” designed to not give people a “fair chance.”

Sadly, this man affected a large number of students, many of whom worked hard – practicing long hours, racking up credits, participating in multiple ensembles – only to discover that their “system” was a fraud. All of their hard work was for naught.

There was one particularly heartbreaking case of a young woman who applied to a fairly prominent private university. By her own account, her audition was catastrophic. In the lead up to the audition, she did her best to ensure success; she had two lessons a week, increased her daily practice time by an hour, and played along to background recordings. The amount of work she did, measured in terms of effort and time spent, was brutal. But she didn’t pass the audition and was understandably devastated.

A system she had followed religiously since fourth grade had failed her; moreover, her hard work was guaranteed to fail. There was no way for her to succeed based upon her training. In some ways, this girl’s story parallels Abigail Fisher’s history. For years both put in hours of effort only to discover that they had misjudged and misplaced their energies. Bluntly, these young women worked hard but not strategically.

The failure of these girls was unrelated to the broader “system,” whether that system was auditions or college applications. To argue that “the system” is broken on the basis that hard work is not rewarded is irrational, albeit understandable on an emotional basis. Before rushing off to denounce “the system” for not rewarding hard work, one should critically examine the foundational premise and ask: Was this hard work or was it productive work?