Opinion

Myth of hard work needs to be busted. Luck and privilege are usually behind success

We can all work hard but, more often than not you also need a huge amount of luck and privilege to succeed

A man having a nap on a bench

Guilt-free naps are something we should all embrace. Image: wal_172619 from Pixabay

What with all the bent politicians and shit-filled rivers, it’s getting ever harder to feel proud of Britain. But there is one thing that we Brits seem to be excelling at in the post-Brexit era: idleness. Our level of productivity (the amount we actually produce per hours worked) is way behind that of workforces in other developed societies such as Germany, France and America.

I don’t know about you, but this makes my heart swell. I think it’s wonderful that we are a nation of feckless feet-draggers who refuse to conform to the demented and futile work ethic that governs more conformist societies. 

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It seems we put the hours in at work but don’t really do much with them. And why should we? Hard work offers very few assurances any more. The only thing that motivates any of us to put extra hours in for the boss is the avoidance of unemployment and starvation. Those of us who stay late don’t do so because we think it will lead to a promotion, a pay rise and a bigger house. We do it because we are desperate not to get made redundant and left at the mercy of a welfare state that, these days, looks less like a safety net and more like a gigantic shredder of the human soul. 

I saw a newspaper column recently by a smiling woman with a posh name who complained about workshy youngsters. She compared her younger self very favourably, boasting about the amount she ‘hustled’ to get where she wanted to be. Maybe she did hustle. Maybe she put in more hours than she was being paid for, neglecting her health and her relationships in the process. And maybe she thinks it was all worth it because she ended up getting to write self-regarding columns about what a success story she is.

But she is overlooking the role that luck plays in any success story.

Like her, I worked too hard in my 20s and 30s. I burnt out several times, landing myself in hospital on numerous occasions. I damaged my physical and mental health. I damaged important relationships. I eventually developed a drink and drug problem because I couldn’t cope with the lifestyle I had cultivated. 

Yes, I also found a great deal of professional success along the way: I landed exciting jobs that were great fun and paid good money. Was that all down to talent and hard work? No, much of it was a fluke. I stumbled into opportunities. I found myself in the right place at the right time. I was lucky in a ton of ways – not least the fact that I happened to be born and bred in London, which allowed me to get a foot in the door at the sort of media companies I wanted to work for while living at home rent free with my mum.

My mum worked much harder than me her whole life – as a secretary mostly – but never had the same luck. It’s an insult to people like her to suggest that ‘hard work’ is all it takes to succeed. It’s far more complex.

I’m sure there were a ton of people far more talented and worthy than me living in other parts of the country who just couldn’t have found a practical way of doing six months on next to no wages in a magazine office in Central London, like I did when I left university. Had they been able to do so, they might have had all the opportunities I had.

We can all work hard but, more often than not, you also need a huge amount of luck and privilege to succeed. Those who tell themselves otherwise are deluded egotists living in their own juvenile hero fantasy.

Working hard is not, in itself, anything to be particularly proud of. The protestant work ethic, that hoodwinks its followers into thinking that God himself is keeping an eye on our clocking in and out habits, is a ruse designed by the crafty bosses of yesteryear who gaslit peasants into helping them get rich. There used to be a legitimate quid pro quo at least. Now there are few guarantees of reward. You might just as well slack off as much as you can, you’ll live longer and be happier. 

Learning to like yourself is the best antidote to workaholism. It stops you from feeling bad about enjoying life. It stops you giving away your time and energy just to help others make money. Best of all, it allows you to take regular daytime naps without feeling an ounce of guilt. Try it.

Read more from Sam Delaney here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this topic? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

Sort Your Head Out book cover

Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All the Bollocks by Sam Delaney is out now (Constable £18.99)You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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