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Perspective | Magazine

Dear Grads: Don’t believe the myth that work has to be a slog

Believing that important work is, almost by definition, tedious, sets us up to fail. Work and fun can coexist.

Person wearing a "Hello I am ... bored" sticker on their shirt.
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For many high school and college students, 2020 felt like a “lost year.” If you’re a graduating student preparing to enter the workforce, this loss has likely felt most acute. Internships were canceled, networking opportunities failed to materialize, and ambitions were paused. You may feel like a runner stalled at the starting line, falling behind in your promising career before it has even begun.

You’ll likely be tempted, once the pandemic recedes, to make up for time lost by taking the first marginally acceptable job offer that comes your way. You might convince yourself it doesn’t matter whether the work seems fulfilling, the company’s values align with your own, or if you’ll gain experience relevant to your long-term goals. You may ignore the fact that it demands a 70-hour workweek, or that your boss will expect you to be available 24/7. You might assume that a year or two at a soul-crushing job is worth it to move your career forward. You would be wrong.

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When we have ambitious goals, it’s tempting to want to sprint out of the gate. In theory it makes sense: The faster you run, the sooner you’ll make up for lost time. But there’s a false economy to this strategy. Moving too fast in the wrong direction will always slow us down the rest of the way.

Treat your career as a marathon, not a sprint. Otherwise, you may find yourself burnt out by age 25 and still be no closer to your dream career. Instead, find what I describe in my new book as the “effortless pace” at which it becomes easy to make steady, consistent progress. Here’s how:

1. Recognize that not all progress is created equal.

Most of us want to advance in our careers as quickly as possible. But in our focus on career advancement and the feeling of forward progress, we may make the mistake of thinking that all progress is created equal.

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All progress is not created equal.

As a teenager I set a goal to compete in a 3-mile cross-country race. When the day arrived, I made my way to the starting line. Normally I’d start out slowly and gradually pick up speed, feeling the welcome rush of adrenaline as I passed other runners from behind. But with my parents and grandparents looking on, my nerves got the better of me. I threw out my game plan and shot out of the gate. I sprinted, hard, for the first 100 yards, then had to pause, gasping. Eventually I caught my breath, but the damage had been done: I’d fallen behind and never caught up. I came in 57th place out of 60 runners — a loss so humiliating that I never again competed in cross-country meets.

Today’s job market is unpredictable and can turn on a dime. Industries get disrupted at a faster pace than ever. Technology renders skills obsolete seemingly overnight. The emergence of a global pandemic has sent the economy into a tailspin. In this environment, the costs of leaping ahead too far, too soon, are high. Far better to make slower, more incremental progress at the beginning, and then pick up speed along the way.

2. Adopt this mantra: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”

Since the end of the Cold War, the military has used the acronym VUCA to describe our global environment: one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In response, it developed new approaches, one of which is captured by the mantra “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast” — meaning, when you go slow, things are smoother, and when things are smooth, you can move faster.

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Soldiers who stop or move too slowly in battle become easy targets. But if they move too fast, they may quickly become outflanked. As soon as they’re in danger, they’ll have to sprint to take cover, and may end up in a place they haven’t had time to survey or assess. When you go slow, you have time to observe, to plan, to coordinate efforts. This is just as true in our careers as it is on the battlefield. Slowing down today makes it easier to move fast tomorrow.

3. Don’t get stuck in the first job you’re offered. You’ll know the right job because you’ll have fun doing it.

Of course, you may take a job because you need money now. Been there, done that. But don’t think you have to stay there no matter what. Find a place where your work is enjoyable and the people you work with bring out the best in you.

Our culture has created a false dichotomy between work that is “essential and tedious” versus “fun but trivial.” And our language reflects these assumptions. Think of these revealing phrases: When we accomplish something important, we say it took “blood, sweat, and tears.” We earn respect for “a hard day’s work” but not “a fun day of work.”

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Believing that important work is, almost by definition, tedious, sets us up to fail. Moreover, it is incorrect. So many of us have absorbed the Puritan notion that anything worth doing must entail backbreaking effort. But what do we gain by suffering through our work? Perhaps we should stop to consider whether we might get better results if we enjoyed that work, instead.

Work and fun can coexist and complement each other. Together they make it easier to tap into our creativity and come up with novel ideas and solutions. Take Ole Kirk Christiansen, whose idea to turn his struggling carpentry business into a toy company became LEGO, from the Danish leg godt, which means “play well.” The culture of productive play Christiansen and his team developed — inspired by children at play — fuels their creativity, and their profits.

No job can feel like play all the time. But when we’re doing something we care about, it becomes easy to find the joy in it.


Greg McKeown is the author of the best-selling book “Essentialism.” This essay is adapted from his new book, “Effortless: Make It Easy to Do What Matters Most,” to be published April 27 by Currency. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.