Success is about Working Smarter Not Harder

work smarter not harderGrowing up Asian, we are told that hard work is always what is needed to achieve success.Like a good Chinese girl, I followed that advice and worked my butt off at McKinsey, my first job.Fortunately or unfortunately, I learned quickly that hard work is not enough, and sometimes does not even help.

This took place just about a year after college. I was on my 3rd project at McKinsey, and my manager was a junior EM. He wasn’t officially a manager, but he was up for promotion soon. Anyway, this project was his proving ground. I was naive and eager, so I tried my best to do a good job. I worked almost every weekend on this project. I distinctly remember him asking me to work one weekend to summarize a mountain of research into two slides. I was diligent, and I worked about 10 hours each day. I was able to do it all that weekend, and sent them to him by Sunday night.

I remember feeling relieved and accomplished that night.Well, long story short, he didn’t use those slides for four weeks. When the Senior Manager finally saw the slides four weeks later, they used them in the client presentation. And guess who got the credit for it? Well, it wasn’t me. A few months later, when the client was not happy with some part of the project, guess who received the blame? Well, it was not my manager.

How did this happen, you may ask? I wasn’t in many of the senior level meetings as an Analyst, so my manager could say whatever he wanted about my performance. That included blaming me for the client’s dissatisfaction, and taking credit for my work. I only received an Average rating for that project, but I learned about office politics and what it takes to be successful. Here were my mistakes:

  • I spent 150% of my energy on doing good work, and almost none on publicizing my good work to anyone but my manager. I could have easily done some subtle PR and copied those slides to the senior manager and partner, too, under the guide of getting feedback or in case they needed to use them. Either way, they would have known that it was I who made them — and 4 weeks earlier, too!
  • I didn’t take any time to build relationships with the partner, senior manager, or the client. Nor did I take any time to build a support network at the office with other senior folks. I followed my upbringing, kept my head down, and worked hard. So, when the manager blamed things on me, no one could question him about it. They didn’t have any other reference point.
  • I also assumed that my manager would represent me fairly – a bad assumption that I try not to make again. He was up for promotion, so any blemish on his performance could affect that. He didn’t really believe in developing others, so I was a good scapegoat. Not all managers are like him, but they are definitely out there.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot during my two years at McKinsey. Years later, the Partner on that project met up with me in San Francisco for coffee (I learned and had kept in touch with him). He actually apologized for that manager’s behavior, and asked if I was interested in re-joining McKinsey after business school. I wasn’t, but it was a nice gesture.

Moral of the story:

If you are committed to developing your soft skills, then sign up for a Soft Skills Gym membership today!

Your comments: Do you agree with this article?  Share your comments and questions below and let’s have a discussion.

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– Lei

12 thoughts on “Success is about Working Smarter Not Harder”

  1. How To Succeed

    Create a vision.
    Now that you know your objective, what is your vision? See the objective as your direction, and your vision as your destination. Knowing your objective lets you know where to travel in, while knowing your vision helps you charge forward.

    Take the 80/20 route.
    There are always many different ways to achieve the same outcome. 80/20 route refers to the route that takes the least effort but gives you the maximum results. What’s the most effective route that will get you from where you are to where you want to be? Take that path.

    Go for high impact items.
    There are endless number of things you can do to achieve a goal. Go for the most important tasks – the ones that cause the highest impact. For example in school, I would not attend lectures if I felt they would not make a difference to my learning. As I develop my blog, I concentrate on the key tasks that make the most difference such as writing high quality content for my readers and spreading the word about my articles.

    Create structures to maintain your flow.
    If you know how motivation works, you will know it comes in bursts and waves. It’s not possible to maintain a 100% full motivated state every single second. Hence, you need to create/leverage on your environment to maintain your flow. Examples are your physical environment, people you hang out with, your routine and communities you are a part of.

    Stop being a perfectionist.
    Being a perfectionist isn’t all that perfect if it prevents you from achieving more. Release the perfectionist mindset. Stop obsessing about the details and specifics; they often take care of themselves.

    Learn from others.
    There are great resources, smart people, direct opportunities and top books around you all the time. Learn to make use of them. When I started out in my personal development industry and with my blog, I read materials from the experts and consulted the top bloggers, which helped me gain important insights immediately. Even today, I continue to do so as I expand my work. There is never a stop to how much you can learn from others.

    If it works, stick to it.
    If there is already a success formula that’s working, then reapply that formula. There’s no need to innovate or reinvent the wheel for the sake of it. Innovate only if there’s value in doing so.

    Ask for help.
    Most of us prefer to do things by ourselves and not disturb others. That’s a great work ethic, but sometimes asking for help gets us further than just doing it alone. People love to help. Many readers often email me at The Personal Excellence Blog for advice/help and I make an effort to answer their questions, because I want to see them do well too. Ask and you might get an answer. If you don’t ask, you’ll never get.

    Cut out the fluff.
    Going for high impact items (#4) means you have to cut out the fluff. There are the things that need to be done, and then there are the nice-to-do things that don’t exactly contribute to anything in the long-run. Don’t do things unless they are absolutely needed.

    Is there anyway to automate your tasks, especially labor intensive ones? It can be the simplest things such as setting up filters in your emails and using more functional applications that get the job done better. With The Personal Excellence Blog, I’ve automated several processes such as filtering specific emails to respective labels, having my new articles automatically feed to Twitter/Facebook, and having automatic thumbnails for my articles. That saves a lot of time so I can get right to creating quality content for readers.

    For the lower impact items that need to get done (such as administrative activities), delegate them to someone else. If you are running a business, hire someone to take care of them.

    If something is not your area of expertise or it can be better done by someone else, then outsource it. You only have 24 hours a day; your limited time should be spent only in places where you can add the most value. If you are running a business, examine if there are any aspects of your work (such as accounting, designing, programming) that can be outsourced to others. There’s no need for you to learn and get hands-on on every single thing, especially if it’s not the core of your work.

    Sometimes, waiting may be the best solution. Things resolve themselves when you wait for a little while longer. I have experienced fixes that rectify themselves when I waited a while longer. If you are stuck in a dilemma, new solutions may pop in if you pause your steps.

    Pick your battles.
    We often face roadblocks in things we do. Go up against the roadblocks only if they are worth the time and effort. That means you need to consciously weigh out the pros and cons first. Don’t try to ram up against every barrier you face, especially if there’s nothing much on the other side.

    Always lookout for a better way.
    Don’t restrict yourself to a certain set rule of doing things just for the sake of status quo. Study others and learn from them (#7). Review your situation regularly (#18) and look for ways to improve what you are doing. Be flexible to usher in changes that can help you get more results.

    Stop when you are tired.
    I’ve realized from experience that trying to press on when you are tired only leads to slumps and ruts. Resting is paramount to accomplishing more. A tired person can’t do meaningful work. When you are well-rested, you work faster and better.

    Review regularly.
    Do a regular review of what you have done in the past week and the corresponding results. Then analyze the things that are working and the things that aren’t working. With the former, keep them; with the latter, remove them. Very soon you will have a very streamlined list of things that work.

    Working Hard Is not Enough.

  2. I accidently stumbled upon your blog and really felt so connected to you after reading this article.

    I am Chinese who immigranted to U.S. over a decade ago. The sentence you wrote,’Growing up Asian, we are told that hard work is always what is needed to achieve success’ is the motto I grew up with. Now being a mid-level manager at a higher education institution, I am starting to realize there is a lot more to it than just working hard. I used to believe that I would get noticed eventually by being able to deliver the best and greatest, but when I did get noticed, that actually cause some unexpectedly heart burns as well.

    Please keep your good articles coming.

  3. Lei,
    This is so true! Many of us were brought up to work hard and let that work speak for itself, but in today’s world, that is no longer enough.

    Even when you have a great manager, there is no guarantee they will still be with the company when it comes time for promotions, etc. We always need to be prepared to sell ourselves to a new manager, to upper level executives, or if need be, to a new company.

    David’s recommendation of “How to Toot Your Own Horn Without Blowing it” is a good one. I highly recommend that book as well. You may also want to check out the new tool we created at to help people capture their success stories over time and share them with their network. I’d love to hear any feedback you have.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story, Lei. I believe that we should be able to “sell” ourselves in order to be recognized by others, including our own managers.

    In my previous employment, we had daily morning huddle where we could share anything from motivational story, our experiences when we found something new, our ongoing projects, etc.

    So, do your job well and sell yourselves to others even better.

  5. Etwell, thanks for your comment. This is definitely true in some companies. It’s up to us to choose wisely and also interview the company about its culture and performance evaluation structure prior to joining, so we can select ones that invest on developing its people and train its managers

  6. Thanks guys for the comments. On reflection they are very true. The problem that we have is that appraisals of managers does not include anything on what they have done to develop subordinates. I think HR should include such issues in appraisals and concrete examples of what subordinates have done (projects done/ideas given/etc) must be availed. This will ‘encourage’ managers to publicise even more what their juniors are doing resulting in better teamwork and motivation.

  7. Guys, I recommend a book my mentor once mentioned to me. It’s called “The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It”. Let me know what you guys think. You can find it on Amazon. If you’re a woman who suffers from a natural tendency of taking a backseat at work, you should consider it.

  8. Lei – you are 100% correct! That's one of the big painful lessons I learned too.

    I was so busy working hard that I didn't even take the time to reflect to see what was holding me back. Now that I've walked away from my career for a while, I can see that it was my own focus on hard work & belief that hard work alone would get me ahead.

    I hope your article helps other heads down hard workers learn this lesson earlier in life!!!

    BTW – you worked REALLY hard at Deloitte too. I did so very much enjoy getting to work with you!


  9. Lei – I don't typically comment, but this is a point I constantly need to remind myself of. It's true no matter what industry you work in and what level you're at. Although I believe in hard work and being fair and generous with credit, it's equally important to manage your career as your manage your projects.

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