In a recent article, I shared my enthusiasm for some of the confidence and hacking-the-system approaches covered in the Tim Ferriss book. In the reader comments that followed, there was lots of agreement but also some Tim-bashing, suggesting that he advocates taking unethical shortcuts and shunning real work.
While it’s easy to misunderstand what Tim was getting at (he’s actually a ridiculously hard worker and I later got to know him a bit better through an appearance on his podcast), these readers still had a good point. And this has reminded me to write this article, on a topic I have long wanted to cover: Working Really Hard.
Sometimes on this blog, you’ll hear me celebrating the idea of leisure. In the very first post, I talked about hanging out at home on a sunny Thursday morning while everyone else is at work, sweeping a few leaves off of the driveway in my pajamas. Other times I’ll talk about kicking back with a deluxe home-brewed beer or catching giant fish and snowboarding in exotic locations.
It would be easy for an impressionable youth to see these decadent displays and latch onto them as the end goal.
“How can I take a shortcut to get what Mr. Money Mustache has?”, they would say. “I want that end result, and I’m willing to do any sneaky hacks I need to, to get it.”
So today I’m going to shatter the illusion I have built up about my easy life. But don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a piece of even better news:
You too can have the lifestyle of your dreams. And to get it, you will need to do an absolute shitload of insanely intense, ball-busting work. And here’s the best part: the insane work will bring you just as much happiness as the leisure time!
So you get to achieve whatever you want, and you get to work really hard for it. Isn’t that great news?
Despite the fact that I sometimes talk about not working, I have actually grown to really love hard work. But it was only in the last few years that I realized this.
Ever since I hit first grade and was fortunate enough to be placed in the top reading group, I have been hooked into hard work. Not realizing there was any other option in school than to get all “A”s on the report card, I naturally did whatever amount of stupid busywork and coloring, repetitive addition and subtraction, and putting up with irrational rules, to get the perfect grades. Growing up through high school, I attended all the classes and did the necessary ass-busting to get the grades that would grant me university admission and eventually graduation. At the time, I thought I was enduring a wasteful hardship, but really there was something else going on in the background.
On the side of all this school work, I signed myself up for a second line of work in the pursuit of cash. With frugal parents that didn’t believe in giving their kids a free ride, I was forced to work for any money I wanted for myself. Starting at age 10, I cut the grass and washed cars. At age 12, I started working on their old Victorian house, stripping old paint from the massive front porch* and doing other projects which culminated into building my own bedroom in the attic at age fifteen.
Eventually, I advanced to a cushy minimum-wage job at the busiest gas station in town, pumping about 4,000 gallons of gas into rusty old Chevrolet Caprices every day, then moved up to a less chaotic gas station, then a hardware store, then a convenience store. Then engineering jobs between school terms (even over the Christmas holidays once), then full-time engineering work including many weekends and evenings, then even the construction and blog-typing work I’m doing to this day.
There have been many times during this history of work, where I have thought that I had it pretty hard. When I had to spend entire days on the university campus in the dead of a freezing winter, trudging through the snow with inadequate food and non-waterproof boots from the 8:30AM calculus class, to the 9:30AM chemistry class, on and on right through to the 8:00PM physics mid-term exam, all while being surrounded by a class of Engineering students with far too many nerdy and quiet dudes who never made jokes, and far too few beautiful girls, that was pretty tough.
Whenever I’m upside down with my head and one scratched and filthy arm stuffed into a floor cavity, holding a grinder which is spinning an abrasive blade cutting off old nails and plaster so I can remove a wall or a ceiling, and the whole scene is a dark din of Vietnam-style dust, sparks, and shouted expletives, I sometimes think that work can get a little unpleasant as well.
But as I’ve gotten older and made the connection between the hard work, and the results, and the constant learning and deep base of happiness it seems to provide in ever-increasing quantities, I have come to realize something I wish I could go back and tell myself at age fifteen:
Every single second of hard work you perform in your life, will come back and benefit you many times over for the rest of your life – in often unexpected ways.
In other words, no hard work is ever wasted. It sounds ridiculous, but I find it to be ridiculous how often this proves to be true.
One time I hit a serious roadblock when building my first house. Because of the architect missing some obscure rules about fire codes and roof venting, my house was not going to pass the “framing” stage of the building inspection. There was a workaround, which involved paying an extra $5000 to have an insulation company install a special kind of spray-in insulation. My business partner Dean wanted to take the shortcut and just hire the company. The other option was for me personally to spend the entire weekend meticulously cutting and gluing up strips of rigid foam-board insulation to every square inch of a high vaulted ceiling.
“Fuck the $5000 expense”, I said, “that’s not in the budget. We can crank out the fix this weekend, and only spend $300 in foam board instead of five grand for the spray”.
Dean opted out of this task, since he always liked to take weekends off to relax. But luckily I had another hardworking friend who helped me out and we got the work done, saving over $4000 even after paying ourselves well for our labor.
The work sucked at the time. It was dark and cold working in that house shell in late November, I missed my wife and newborn baby, and I got coated in filthy powder from the insulation. I questioned my own wisdom for taking on the extra task. It was only money after all.
But it wasn’t only money. Over the subsequent years, the information I was forced to learn about roof venting, foam board insulation, fire codes, building inspections, and a dozen other things from doing that work, have enabled me to solve countless other problems in home construction and energy-efficient design. Solving these other problems has brought in even more knowledge, and opened up a whole new section in my mental toolbox that I get to use for figuring things out in many areas of life.
And the shared experience of completing the shitty work together helped to build a longer-term friendship with Mike, the rockstar friend who helped me with the work. This guy is still out there succeeding, and probably even reading this alongside you since he is a practicing Mustachian. And when I look around at other friends who survived the Great Recession while keeping their businesses alive and their base of friends intact, it is always the ones who were willing to sacrifice a weekend to, figuratively speaking, glue up their own damned foamboard to solve life’s little emergencies. Meanwhile, Dean ended up crashing himself into bankruptcy, mostly because of his aversion to hard work.
And that brings me to my next point: Shortcutters like my old business partner were often excited by the idea of making money without doing work. I have always been more interested in the idea of doing work, and making money from it if possible. He always talked about how our business profit sharing should not be based on how many hours we contributed. I felt that it should be, since with hard work comes accomplishment. It led me to create this Mustachian Maxim:
In the long run, in the Game of Life, we all get Paid by the Hour.
There are a few lucky exceptions, like the kid who gets a trust fund or inherits his family’s business, the early employees in a company that eventually goes public, or the guy who gets famous for doing something stupid on YouTube. But when you’re starting from scratch, you need to think of every hour of work you do as planting a seed that will bloom at some unpredictable time in your future life. Sometimes it looks like successful people never do any work. Most of the time, it is because they have respected hard work all of their lives.
Tim Ferriss often praises the idea of minimal working hours. But if you look at how he arrived at the Four Hour Workweek, it was through years of extremely hard work, research and testing, and 80-hour workweeks. During those 80 hour weeks, he thought he was just wasting his time and answering customer and supplier emails and phone calls. But really in the background he was learning very quickly about how businesses and people work, and being forced to devise a system to take himself out of the loop. Without the 80 hour workweeks, he never would have been pushed to innovate, and we never would have heard of him.
Bringing all this back to the Mustachian way of life, this is why I am always advising you to work hard in your day job, but then also come home and take care of your own kids, clean your own house, cut your own grass, and spend the remaining time reading books or websites – to research things that are of interest to you. With no passive television watching allowed.
By doing all of these things, you’re actually working and learning all the time, without realizing it. Your mind is making unexpected connections between things you did during the day, things your kids said, things you read at night, and they are forming into new ways to make yourself happy, or to start your own business and earn more money, or to save money on some aspect of living, or get life in general figured out.
Hard work can be painful, but it should always be viewed as a good kind of pain, just as you celebrate a good burn in your biceps and forearms when doing a record-breaking set of concentration curls. When you find really enjoyable work, you can get many of the same benefits without as much pain. But both kinds are to be welcomed. It is the source of growth in your life.
So get back to work!
*which, looking back, I now realize was surely lead-based paint. Nowadays we don’t let our kids play with that stuff and we make painters wear plastic space suits and ventilators just to handle it. Ahh the naive ways of the 1980s.