Why working hard matters
An idea from bedbugs, Paul Graham, and Steph Smith (Stew's Letter #109)
Today, I woke up and chose violence. I decided to write about working hard.
As I wrote today’s email, though, I came to a slightly different conclusion than I thought I would (spoiler: I still think working hard is important!).
I hope something in here feels new to you too.
Please enjoy, and pray for my replies.
Before he founded Hyundai and became the richest man in Korea, Chung Ju-yung was dealt a shit hand in the game of life.
After spending the first three decades of his life trying to claw his way out of poverty, his business collapsed. He returned to doing manual labor to survive. To make things worse, the laborer bunkhouse where he slept was “teeming with so many bedbugs that it was almost impossible to fall asleep.”
One night, he and his bunkmate came up with an idea. They put steel pots filled with water underneath each leg of his “bed” (technically, he was sleeping on a dining room table).
It worked. For the first time ever, he and his bunkmate slept through the night. The same thing happened the next night.
But on the third night, they woke up to a familiar itch. How is this even possible, they wondered? How could these bedbugs survive the water and crawl up the table legs to bite them?
One night, they decided to figure it out. They stayed up late and flipped on the light.
What they saw made their skin crawl. From Chung Ju-yung’s autobiography:
“The bedbugs were climbing the walls and dropping from the ceiling onto our bodies.
To this day, I cannot forget the shiver down my spine that I felt back then.”
“These bedbugs,” he later wrote, “can surely teach a man a few lessons.”
Paul Graham once wrote an essay on why humans routinely overlook great ideas.
His theory was simple: humans don’t notice great ideas that will require a bunch of tedious, unpleasant work (“schlep”) to bring to life. He coined the term “schlep blindness” to explain the phenomenon. I have coined the term “lazy vision.”
Schlep blindness is what created an opportunity for the $29B payments behemoth Stripe:
“For over a decade, every hacker who'd ever had to process payments online knew how painful the experience was. Thousands of people must have known about this problem. And yet when they started startups, they decided to build recipe sites, or aggregators for local events.
Why? Why work on problems few care much about and no one will pay for, when you could fix one of the most important components of the world's infrastructure?
Because schlep blindness prevented people from even considering the idea of fixing payments.”
This idea rhymes with the (apocryphal) Edison quote about how opportunity usually shows up dressed in overalls looking like hard work.
a16z’s Steph Smith once tweeted something so straightforward that I almost assumed it would be impossible to disagree with:
“The idea that you likely need to work harder than the average person to be more successful than the average person (in whatever domain — business, exercise, etc) should not be controversial.”
But on the Internet, everyone has a voice… and that includes productivity gurus with 13 followers. They swarmed Steph’s replies to remind all who’d listen of a profound truth: working smarter is more important than working harder.
These real-life Yodas are technically correct, but they completely missed the point. Steph replied to one of them:
“It takes working hard to learn how to work smart.”
Can you name a single pursuit where you know how to best allocate your time right off the bat? Other than falling down a hill, I can’t.
In most disciplines, you have to try stuff out. Some things will work, others won’t. As long as you’re paying attention, you’ll get a little bit smarter every time you try something out.
As a rule of thumb, working harder accelerates this process. You get more cycles in than the version of you who’s working less.
Tying it together
Imagine two parallel universes. They're identical except for one thing: in one universe, you work harder than you do in the other.
I don’t think it’s the same thing that happens if two cars have different-sized gas tanks. I.e. one goes further down the same road.
I think it’s more like having two machines that start off as cars but, over time, one becomes a transformer that can do fundamentally different and new things.
Benjamin Franklin’s reputation for being a hard-working printer landed him contracts printing paper currencies for the American colonies. Those contracts landed him in the circles of politicians, laying the foundation for his later career as a statesman.
Working hard creates opportunities that are fundamentally different.
Sources: The Founders podcast episode #117, Schlep Blindness by Paul Graham, Steph Smith’s Twitter, various books on Benjamin Franklin.
See you next week,
P.s. I wanted to plug a couple of other newsletters I’ve been digging lately:
The Startupy newsletter by Sari Azout. Sari is an expert curator and I always find something excellent and evergreen in her newsletter for her startup Startupy. The tagline is “a laid back newsletter about very serious ideas,” which I’m pissed I didn’t come up with for myself. (here’s a sample issue)
Business Brainstorms by Jakob Greenfeld. I’ve been following Jakob for a while now & think of him (alongside my friend Dru Riley) as a trend whisperer. He writes a newsletter filled with a bunch of open metrics, trends, and business ideas that I swear I’ll get around to starting one day. Big fan.
I'm sooooo good at falling down a hill.
> opportunity usually shows up dressed in overalls looking like hard work
> It takes working hard to learn how to work smart
A counter-point to these rules to advise youngsters: (a) the only people who engage in "life long learning" has never learned in life, they are either pretending to learn, or learning to pretend, (b) most self-help products are valued by their theatric value, not utility distinct from free sources, and definitely not accountability akin to therapy. (c) the more posture one does, the more likely it is a con, where grunt work knowledge is trivial, the strategy is opaque and implied to be a win-win, but really it is really to benefit the guru first.
Reference from Venkatesh Rao of Ribbonfarm: https://archive.ph/QZd4c https://archive.ph/hkurX https://archive.ph/cIXxD https://archive.ph/juUOx