Two Ways of Working Hard: Which One Makes More Sense?

Every so often, while visiting business projects in third-world countries, I’ll hear someone say something like, “People here don’t know the meaning of hard work.”

It’s not true. And if you understand how it’s not true, you’ll have the key to unlocking your mind and allowing yourself a great deal more freedom in how you work and how much leisure time you give yourself.

The people I’ve worked with in Africa and Latin America have been eager for work and willing to put in long hours to accomplish goals. Most of the 400-plus workers involved in our real estate development in Nicaragua are happy to work hard, and do – eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week.

I have noticed a difference, however, in the way many third-world people work hard. And I think that difference reflects the way these people look at the world.

Enrique, the young man who takes care of my house in Rancho Santana, is a good example. When we hired him several years ago, he had no discernable skills. He didn’t know how to clean the pool, paint the walls, wash the truck, or maintain the lawn. Lacking any exposure to these commonplace first-world things (pools, painted walls, motor vehicles, lawns), he had no idea how to take care of them.

But he was happy to learn and my partner Antonio was willing to teach him. Today, Enrique not only takes care of all of the above, but also replaces plumbing fixtures, repairs the roof, tunes up the diesel generator, and chauffeurs guests when needed. In two short years, he’s gone from being functionally retarded to impressively multi-skilled – and he does everything with enthusiasm and care.

Still, if you didn’t know any better, you might accuse Enrique of not working hard. Why? Because when he’s done with his chores, he will find himself a shady place to sit and idle his time away until the bus is ready to take him home. Enrique – like many of the Nicaraguans I know – sees work as something you do to achieve a purpose.

Enrique’s purpose in working is to get the job done. When he’s finished with that, he wants to take it easy. For Enrique, a good life is one filled with as much leisure as possible. His perspective tends to be both short-term and minimalist:

  • Finish the job you are working on and then rest until you have to do another one.
  • Work only hard enough to take care of your current needs.

Contrast that to my perspective, which I think is more typical of what has become known as the Protestant Work Ethic:

  • Finish your current job as quickly as you can so you can start your next job as soon as possible.
  • Work harder than you need to and make more than enough moneyto live on. Save the extra money.

Enrique’s working Weltanschauung is based on a more traditional, subsistence way of living. But both of us are willing to work hard to get our objectives accomplished.

Since Enrique’s main objective is more leisure every day, he’s happy to work fewer hours than I am. He will work as many – if that’s what it takes to survive – but once his very minimal living standards are met, he’d rather spend his extra time playing with his children or gossiping with a friend than bent over work to rack up some extra Cordobas.

Two ways of working, each based on a different idea about what makes for a good life:

1. Work as little as you have to. Enjoy life as much as possible. Seize the day, because you may die tomorrow.

2. Work as long and hard as you can and accumulate savings. There will be plenty of time for leisure later on, when you are retired.

Which way is better? That depends on your perspective.

If you are young and carefree, spending most of your time seizing the day might seem like the best way to live your life. But if you do so and then one day find yourself broke, out of a job, and without the skills to get a new one … then you’ll probably think, “I wish I had enjoyed myself less and worked more.”

On the other hand, if you work away the best years of your life for money only to discover one day that you have a terminal illness – what would your fortunes mean to you then?

What most of us want in life is to have it all:

  • To earn a good living.
  • To enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.
  • To save plenty of money to retire on.
  • And to have fun now, while we are still young enough to appreciate it.

I think it is entirely possible to achieve each one of these goals individually. But to have them all requires a great deal of discipline.

I’ve explained what it takes to earn an extraordinary income in “Automatic Wealth”. Briefly stated:

To make a six- or seven-figure income, you will have to spend a  number of years – three to seven seems to be the range – getting into work before anyone else does and learning wealth-building secrets that most of your colleagues will have no interest in. (For example, “How does my company really make its profits?”)

If you do that, you will almost certainly see your income skyrocket – either as a fast-rising corporate executive, as a consultant to your own industry, or as the CEO of a company you start in order to compete with (or complement) your current business.

Achieving a high income is really not that difficult, because at some point in the process of mastering your financially valued skills, you will turn yourself into an “automatic” wealth builder. As an automatic wealth builder, a super-high income and the luxurious lifestyle that goes with it will be easy. The difficulty will come when you want to turn off your automatic self.

Most super-charged wealth builders have this problem. That’s why so many work themselves into sickness, divorce, and depression. I spent 20 years short-shrifting my friends and family. And on more than one occasion, I almost lost them. Had I done so, all the nickels in my piggy bank would have provided little comfort. Lucky for me, I wised up before it was too late.

If you are a long-time reader of ETR, you know when I smartened up. It was near my 50th birthday. Walking over a bridge in Rome one morning, I realized that even if I lived till I was 100, half of my life had already passed.

About half of those 50 years had been devoted to immediate pleasure, and the other half to unhappy, driven work. Despite my youthful hopes to the contrary, I had become one of the cliches I made fun of as a young man – the A-personality drone who can’t remember his children’s birthdays.

Since that day of recognition, I’ve been trying to enjoy a balanced life. But to do so I’ve had to admit that the person I turned myself into – Protestant Work Ethic Man – was going to have a hard time slowing down and smelling the roses.

I have made progress, though. Here’s what I’m currently doing to make sure that I enjoy my life while I’m still in it:

1. I am learning to delegate much more than I ever did.

My new rule is to “delegate everything.” For me, this is a big challenge. I was never a control freak. I was always happy to select and train subordinates to take over the work I was doing. But I enjoyed the reputation of being the guy who could make things happen when systems failed – the marketer who came up with the breakthrough campaign, the product inventor who figured out the next big thing, etc. – and so I was always ready and willing to jump in and play the hero when a crisis arose. As my businesses grew larger, however, the crises became more frequent. That meant I was always solving problems – often for people who could find the solutions perfectly well themselves. Now, I see such challenges as counterproductive. They hold me back from accomplishing more and prevent younger, ambitious people from filling my shoes.

2. I am forcing myself to take breaks.

Three times a day, I stop working to exercise. From 6:30 to 7:00 each morning, I do Pilates or yoga. From 12:00 to 12:30, I do strength training. And from 5:30 to 6:00, I do Jiu Jitsu. Scheduling in these enjoyable breaks forces me to work more efficiently when I’m at my desk. And that has been good for business.

3. I make it a point to “never do anything that isn’t fun.”

I’m working on a full message about this that you’ll see on Monday. Charlie took a look at it this morning and said to me, “You can’t publish that. Our readers will be disgusted by it. I mean, it’s easy for you to say, Michael. You’ve already made your fortunes. But what about the rest of us who are still working our way up?”

Well, that’s exactly the point. Having fun can be an equal opportunity objective. You can have plenty of fun at work simply by changing the way you approach the jobs you are going to do anyway.

It is true that I have gotten to the point in my career where I could sell my businesses and stop working completely if I wanted to. But, for various reasons, I choose to spend a good number of hours each day working. And to be effective in my work, I still must pay attention to the most important things first – just as I always have. I must focus on sales, on marketing, and on new-product creation.

These are just three of the techniques that I have put to use in order to keep my work life balanced. I am also making progress after work by following these rules:

  • I no longer take work home. In fact, I leave my laptop and all work materials in the office.
  • I do at least one thing every day that moves me toward a personal goal (writing fiction, learning more about art and wine, etc.).
  • I ask my family and friends questions. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I was so wrapped up in my business goals for so many years that I barely heard people when they would tell me about their personal lives. I would nod as if I were listening but drift off into thoughts about some business problem that needed solving. Now I consciously ask questions about school exams, tennis lessons, and lunch conversations – and have discovered that I am often rewarded with very interesting stories.

I am a long way away from feeling like I have lived a balanced life. I still have a lot more learning to do about how to seize the day and live in the moment. But I’ve made progress. If I found out tomorrow that I had only a short time left to live, I’d feel a lot more sanguine about enjoying it in the company of loved ones than I would have before that day five years ago in Rome when I realized what a cliche I had become.

Where do you stand in the arc of this curve? Are you on the side of Enrique, my Nicaraguan jack-of-all trades who works as little as he has to in order to enjoy life as much as possible? Or are you more like I was – stressed out by work you don’t like so you will be safe and secure later?

Or are you somewhere in between?

I’d like to hear from you on this – where you are and what you are doing to achieve balance in your life. Please post your thoughts and ideas on Speak  Out. Charlie will pass them on to me.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]