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When Hard Work isn't Working

“You’ve used hard work to get to where you are today. But, ironically, hard work is not always the solution for greater success.”

Grit and effort and a willingness to embrace the grind have helped you achieve great things in life. So more hard work, more grit, and more effort must be the solution to future challenges as well, right?  

It turns out that what got you the success you have today might not get you greater success in the future.


  • Why working harder is not the key to your success
  • The Law of Diminishing Returns and what you should know about it
  • A mental trap you must avoid if you don’t want to burn out
  • How harder work can sabotage your success as a student
  • Two powerful questions you can ask yourself to shift your mindset

     And so much more.


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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

I admit that it is tempting to respond to challenges with a resilient I will work harder approach. You may have been using this approach for so long that it's become second nature to you now. And let's be honest, hard work and being willing to do the hard work is an attribute that has gotten you really far.

If you're listening to this podcast, you're probably not afraid of working hard, and it's probably gotten you some amazing things in life. You've learned instruments or new languages. You've succeeded where others have failed, and it has done wonderful things for you.

Unfortunately, that same work ethic that has granted you the success that is responsible for so much of the wonderful things in your life, that same work ethic can also drag you right back down. And that's kind of strange, right? It's even hard to make sense of it. Because if hard work is so great, then being busy and working even harder must be even better, right? And if working harder is even better than working hard, then working to the point of exhaustion every day must be the best of all, right? And look, this is something that I understand really, really well.

How many times has someone asked me how I'm doing? And I reply with some version of great. I'm so busy. And I even find myself feeling proud that I outworked everyone in the classroom or everyone in the office.

One of the perspectives and the habits that I really hope is in my past now is this tendency that I've had to wear my busyness and wear my unusual work ethic as a badge of honor. But hopefully, like I said, that is in the past. And I want you to understand that is an really ineffective approach to success.

Think about it. When you're in this mindset and you confront a challenge, what is your first thought? If you're honest with yourself, your first thought is probably something like, how am I going to work harder so that I can overcome this challenge? Or how am I going to do more? Or how am I going to fit this in? Or how am I going to do everything? Well, when you ask the question, your subconscious mind is immediately going to go to work finding answers. And if you're like me and everyone else that I know that follows this mantra, follows this mindset, you're going to come up with answers that sound like, I could stay up a little bit later tonight.

I could focus harder, I could work through lunch, I could cancel that date or miss that party, or I could work harder on all of my other projects so I get them done faster. And those answers sound reasonable. I know in hindsight that they felt really good to me because I felt like I was being an even higher performer, an even more effective student or worker.

So it feels true, doesn't it? But here's the deal. At some point your extra work begins to have diminishing returns. In economics, there's this idea of the law of diminishing returns and it goes a little bit like this.

Let's say, for example, that you have a test coming up in biology, and if you study for 1 hour, the returns on that 1 hour of studying are going to be very, very high. You're going to do far better on the test because you took an hour to study than if you didn't take an hour to study. And if you take 2 hours to study, you will probably do even better than if you take 1 hour to study.

And that might continue for some time. But eventually, let's say maybe hour four or five or six, whatever it is for you at some point, studying for an extra hour is only going to help you a tiny bit. And eventually, studying for an extra hour means that you've lost sleep.

It means that your mind gets confused. It means one issue or another. And studying an extra hour actually makes you do worse on your test than having not studied that extra hour.

That's the idea behind the economics principle called the law of diminishing returns. It says that we can work really, really hard towards something, and when we do, we're going to get amazing results. But eventually, adding even more hard work is not going to give us greater returns.

And at some point, adding extra work is going to make things worse. For ambitious teenagers, this can often happen. When you realize that you're not getting enough out of your extra work and you might be tempted to double down even further.

You realize that now you're not getting quite the same payback that you used to get from an hour's worth of work. And so you just double down even harder and you work 2 hours or 3 hours. You just don't quit.

Because for you the solution has always been I can work harder. Until one day your body or your mind breaks down. You drive yourself sick or mad or both.

And the law of diminishing returns has caught up to you. Almost certainly you are getting negative returns before that breakdown, but you are too busy to realize it. Now.

Think about that at a given point. You begin getting worse results with more effort. The harder you work, the less you get.

I see too many ambitious teens suffer from this. And I've seen too many students drive themselves to bed rest in the middle of peak application season, during junior year, or just days or weeks before critical tests. I've tragically seen a student earn four A stars on his rigorous A levels curriculum.

That's good enough to get into Oxford University, and after he had already earned the marks, he was ready to go. He snapped. Instead of moving on and attending what so many students consider their dream university.

One of the top schools in the world, he dropped out of high school only a few months before graduation. Long before that point, however, he was getting smaller and smaller returns on his extra effort until he was also getting negative returns. Now, it's an easy trap to fall into.

I don't want you to be afraid of the grind. And certainly don't shy away from work, even hard work. But don't fool yourself into believing that work itself is the reward.

If you're not getting the results, don't just automatically assume that the answer is to work harder, especially if that requires that you give up sleep, that you sacrifice friends or other relationships, or you just find yourself starting to despise life. If you find yourself resenting your schoolwork or resenting the day ahead of you, then it is time to shift your mindset. It's time to ask yourself two questions.

The first, how could this be easy? Really think about it. How could this be easy? So many times for ambitious students, we get an assignment or we get a responsibility given to us. And we assume that because we always do things with gusto and we always go the extra mile, we assume that that's what's necessary for this project and that's what we're going to do.

Sometimes we assume that wrongly. Instead of asking, how can I fit this in? Or how can I make this work? Ask a different question. Ask, how could this be easy? The second question, how can this be fun? Or how can I make this fun? Right? Often we don't look for easier solutions because we've already programmed our minds to look for the hard work.

We think, well, that's always worked for us. Why not do more of that extra effort stuff? Well, if the project or task cannot be made easier, how can you make it fun? Do you have a favorite snack? Can you make a rule that you can only eat the snack while doing this task that needs to be done? Can you involve friends? Can you make it a competition? Can you add dance or music somehow? Like, if you can make it easy and or fun to do, not only will you get better work done, you'll maintain your health and sanity along the way, and you'll begin to feel what the true high performers call flow. Next week, I want to dive into detail about how this is the correct approach to college admissions as well.

If the answer to your college admissions challenges is, I'll just work harder, I'll fit it all in, I'll do everything, and I'll just sleep when I'm dead, right? If that's your approach, I want you to know that there is a better way. There's a much better way. And so we'll talk about that in great detail next week.

Meanwhile, don't wait for the next podcast to begin. Changing your life. You've used hard work to get where you're at, but you need to realize that hard work is not always the solution.

Especially if you think that working harder than you already are is necessary to get the results that you're looking for. If you're starting to experience those diminishing returns on your hard work and you're tempted to think, well, I'm not getting the same returns I used to be getting, I'll just work even harder. I'll double down on this and go even more crazy towards my goal, and I'll work even harder.

Stop before you make yourself sick, before you shut your body down, before you make yourself break psychologically, stop and ask yourself, how can this be easy? Find ways to simplify and find ways to make it easier. And if it can't be easier, how can it be fun? Find ways to inject fun into the activity. Look, I know sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do.

But other times, you've just got to be smarter. Rather than working harder, you've got to start working smarter. And I know you can do this.