Learning How to Work

A child trying to work on her laptop, looking confused

Portions of this post appeared in my humorous memoir Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations.

Hard work is a skill.

All throughout high school, my brother worked very hard. Nick spent long hours doing homework, rather than rushing through it, as I did. He studied for tests – something that was completely foreign to me. All his efforts were because he wanted to get straight A’s, finish high school with a 4.0 GPA, and be the valedictorian of his class.

I guess I should say a valedictorian, not the valedictorian, since there were three the year he graduated from Issaquah High School. And since one of the two others was his girlfriend and future wife, it’s possible some of his motivation to be a good student was born out of friendly competition.

In any case, I thought my brother was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong – he is very smart. I mean, we are talking about someone who took honors and AP classes and got straight A’s. But while he was working his butt off to get a 4.0, I was barely working at all, taking equally difficult classes, and earning a 3.8 GPA. While he was grinding at his desk, I was watching TV, playing video games, and hanging out with friends. And what did all that hard work get him? A measly 0.2 margin on his GPA.

(I should mention that my mother was quite concerned when, during my freshman year, it became clear that I wasn’t working nearly as hard as my brother had. Mom kept nagging me about homework, insisting that I must have more work to do. But then I brought home a report card with 5 A’s and one A-, and she left me alone, though I think she was deeply confused about the apparent mismatch between my results and my efforts. I had my own way of studying.)

What I didn’t understand at the time was that the purpose of high school is not merely to learn content and earn grades in order to attend university; you’re also supposed to be learning how to work. And while our grades were nearly identical, Nick left high school knowing very well how to do things he didn’t want to do, and I did not. I suppose it takes a special kind of arrogance to look at a valedictorian and think to yourself, Geez, what an idiot.

Nick went on to launch an online shoe business right out of college while working full time for Ford. The income from this venture eventually allowed him to quit Ford and begin building his current suite of income streams: blogging, podcasting, online courses, and ebooks. All of this has been very successful, and all of it was built on sweat equity.

So while my “stupid” brother was grinding away at his desk in high school, he was actually learning how to work, and that paid off enormously, whereas I didn’t learn how to work until my 30’s.

Learning how to work is one of the hidden purposes of school.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the twin pillars of school: grades and content knowledge. So much of a student’s day-to-day effort is focused on earning points, earning letter grades, and otherwise playing the game of school. Ostensibly, this is all done in the name of learning subjects like math, science, and history – all in preparation for a university education and a future career.

But checking all the boxes and learning all the content is also meant to teach young people how to work hard and do things they don’t feel like doing. Usually, when people talk about this, they’re referring to the fact that our school systems were designed to create industrial-age laborers: people who could be counted on to arrive on time, follow instructions, and do boring, repetitive work day after day. But that’s not what I’m talking about at all.

I’m talking about learning how to do the work that you really care about. I’m talking about learning how to overcome procrastination and finish what you start. I’m talking about learning how to do work that matters in the modern world.

Now you might be thinking, But Chris, if it’s work that I care about, I’ll be intrinsically motivated to do it, so doing the work will be easy. I hear you, but unfortunately, that’s not how life works. Every pursuit, no matter how passionate you are about it, will entail drudgery. Even the most exciting projects involve a surprising amount of tedious tasks. There’s no getting around it. You need to know how to self-start and sustain forward momentum.

Workforce Training

Several children learning how to do practical work - cooking.

One purpose of school is to train people for the workforce. In some cases, this means acquiring the knowledge and skills you’ll need in your career (e.g., nursing or teaching or engineering). But this also applies much more broadly. School teaches you how to follow directions, how to meet deadlines, how to be part of a team, how to do things you don’t feel like doing – in other words, how to work.

You might think that, as an academic coach working for a company whose stated mission is “Learn how to learn,” I would be indifferent to the “learning how to work” side of school, but I’m not. Learning nearly always requires effort, often tedious, so if you don’t know how to work, you’ll find serious learning all but impossible. And the reason we’re passionate about helping kids learn is that we care deeply about helping kids become successful, contributing members of our interdependent society. Knowing how to work is essential.

Let’s say you’re a student in a chemistry class. During a unit on ionic bonding, you complete three of the four assignments. On the three assignments you do complete, you demonstrate a decent, B-level understanding. But since you didn’t do the fourth assignment, you earn a zero on it. At this point, your grade for the unit is a D. And you might complain, saying that you proved you understand ionic bonds on the first three assignments, so you should have a higher grade. And if the only purpose of school was learning, you might be justified in that argument, especially if you subsequently confirmed your understanding on a unit test.* But if we think about school as workforce training, the grade actually seems appropriate. If you’re decent at your job, but you only show up three days out of four, you’re not getting a D; you’re getting fired.

*For most students, demonstrating understanding once or even a few times isn’t enough. To create a long-term memory and true mastery of the content, spaced repetition is usually required.

Willpower is a muscle.

Two children working hard to push a hay roll

“‘Perhaps the most valuable result of all education,’ it was said by Professor Huxley, ‘is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson which ought to be learned, and, however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson which he learns thoroughly.’” –Orison Swett Marden1

Willpower may be a brain function, but it’s a lot like a muscle: It gets stronger when you use it, and it atrophies when you don’t. I managed to skate through high school barely ever exerting willpower. I never had to learn willpower-optimization strategies or practice self-discipline. And in the long run, this didn’t serve me well.

In college, I floundered because I didn’t know how to work, and in my 20’s, I succumbed to numerous bad habits because my willpower muscle was underdeveloped. I led a profoundly unhealthy lifestyle for many years and fell into a downward spiral of injuries, addiction, and depression. I didn’t dig myself out of that pit until my early 30’s. It would have been far better if I’d used my high school years learning how to work.

So let me be seen as a good example of a bad example. Treat school as a training ground for your brain. Learn the content and earn the grades, sure, but when there are opportunities to go above and beyond, take them. Don’t just do the bare minimum, even if the results look good on paper, because it’s what’s going on inside your skull that counts.

.1 Marden, Orison Swett. An Iron Will. Wilder Publications, 2007.

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