Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Working hard doesn't mean you're doing a good job

Our culture emphasizes effort, and the Torah does likewise. We are taught in the Talmud, "Whether you do a lot or a little, the key is that your heart should be for heaven," "Gd desires the heart," and so on.

This is religious truth, certainly. We would never want to reward laziness, and we believe in the value of the heart. Nonetheless, a culture that honors effort runs the risk of accidentally encouraging mediocrity.

Case in point: Some time back, I had my WebShas website critiqued by someone who told me, "The front end stinks." It stung - getting slapped in the face hurts - but he was right. (And he remains right; I don't have the time to work on improving it.)

More recently, I had another on-line project of mine ridiculed by an observer. Granted, the observer didn’t really understand the goal and emphasis of the project, and his version of mussar was so vintage technogeek kaltkeit that I couldn't take it seriously, but his remarks, combined with the remarks about WebShas, reminded me of a basic principle: The fact that you worked hard on something doesn't mean you did a good job.

Another example of this lesson: I loaded my schedule with shiurim and programs during Elul, including a five-day stretch from September 20-24 when I completely overloaded. I worked hard and made it through - but to be frank, by the end the shiurim were not my best, and I felt terrible for letting people down.

The fact that you worked hard on something doesn't mean you did a good job.

I'm reminded of that now as I work through my pre-Yom Kippur cheshbon hanefesh, my accounting of what I have done and what I have not done, of what I have accomplished and what I have failed to accomplish. I work hard. By the standards of effort, I'm doing all right. But effort is not the same as achievement.

Take the slap in the face. The fact that you worked hard on something doesn't mean you did a good job.


  1. There are diverse attitudes and backgrounds among people in the audience, so even something valuable overall may rub some the wrong way.

  2. I think you raise a point that is a valuable lesson, one that many people don't seem to see. Working hard does not equate to being 100% successful. As an instructor I many times hear from students, unhappy with a grade on an assignment or for the term, that they worked hard, attended all classes etc.. Some are truly puzzled when I tell them that the effort expended on something does not always mean 100% attainment of what is being worked for. It's not just the strength of the work but the quality of the work that will make the difference. And working hard is not a synonym for high quality in any dictionary, except our personal ones on occasion.

  3. Ye, but as we say in the velt, "HKB"H grades on a curve" (which is very scary to some folks)
    Joel Rich

  4. Working hard doesn't mean that you did a good job and good intentions don't always lead to a good outcome.

    The question is what do we do to try to avoid/prevent these situations from occurring.

    I often talk to the children about this being the reason to study and practice hard so that the results translate as we want them to.

  5. Anonymous 9:12 AM-
    Can always hope!

    Some years back I saw an article by a college professor complaining about just this point - that students are raised on a diet of effort-praise, and they have a hard time adjusting to the realities of achievement-based grading.



  6. Davka limud Torah is the one pursuit where whar matters most is the effort, not the accomplishment. As My Rebbe Rav Yechezkel Daum once told us a shoemaker who tois all day but noone can wear his shoes has accomplished nothing. On the other hand a Jew who toils in the learning of Torah, even if he learned nothing has insured his pace in the world to come.

  7. You've probably heard this one, a "demotivator" variant on the She'iltos story:

    A fellow came to a gadol and said: "my family was pressuring me to go into their furniture-making business, but I was convinced staying in learning was the right thing for me. So now I've toiled and toiled, and here's this fantastic sefer of chiddushim I've produced!"

    The gadol took a look through the sefer and was nonplussed, to say the least.

    "After 120, they're going to ask you: R' Yid, where are all the chairs you made?"

  8. David-
    I'd say Yes and No. Yes, he has engaged in talmud Torah, and so he has accomplished. But No, that's not the same as understanding the sugya.

    Any clue where that story (the positive version) appears? I've heard it re-told re: the Netziv, but it doesn't fit his biography.

  9. A lot of people seem to think it's the Netziv (usually claiming he told the story at a siyum he made on producing העמק שאלה). Don't know much about him - why doesn't it fit his bio?

    Liked this post a lot, by the way.

  10. Anonymous 2:23 AM-
    Thanks. My problem with identifying this as the Netziv comes from Rav Zevin's bio of same in Ishim v'Shitos. The Netziv is described there as a recognized star from a very young age.

  11. Oh. Good to know; thank you!

    Do you happen to know how the Netziv got such a widespread reputation as a relatively weak learner in his youth? (I've seen him in this "Almost was a shoemaker->book dream" story in jewish magazines, and in a "Maggid" book, and heard it casually referenced by many people, so I kind of wonder where the story started.)

  12. Anon from 2:23-
    Don't know, but I found אישים ושיטות on-line, so readers can see it themselves here. As the article notes, he was 13 1/2 when Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin took him as a son-in-law...