Best Advice – Work Harder by Kevin

The Best Advice I Ever Received: Work Harder

March 4, 2014 by Kevin S.

When I was in graduate school I would meet weekly with my PhD advisor to review progress on my research. At the end of each meeting, no matter how much progress I’d made that week, he always said to me “work harder.”


Now, there are a bunch of ways to interpret such an admonition. I could have been inconsolable because I was looking for a pat on the back after putting in a huge amount of effort. I could have been confused, not understanding how you could find more hours in the day to work. I could have been in denial, trying to convince myself that I was indeed working hard enough.

But I didn’t think any of these things. I was in a discipline full of extremely bright, hard working people who were competing for a scant few tenure-track jobs in academia or research gigs at top industry labs. Everyone was managing their time efficiently. Everyone was working smart. Everyone still standing after a point was having their ideas and work vetted by qualifying exam committees, dissertation committees, and peer reviewers at the conferences and journals to which they were submitting papers. To me, “work harder” was a stark reminder every week to clearly understand what it was that I was trying to accomplish, and to make sure that I was objectively prioritizing the effort it was going to take to accomplish those goals.

What about work-life balance? There’s a time and place for that. And there’s a time and place where it isn’t going to help you accomplish your objectives. My wife and I met in graduate school, and neither of us understood the notion until we were out of academia and through the first several years of our careers.

What about enjoying the journey? Not that I haven’t enjoyed my journey, but I for one want my kids to recall what good their Dad managed to do in his finite time on Earth, not how much he enjoyed his journey. So, when it’s either-or, and sometimes it is, I do what’s necessary to accomplish my objectives even if I’m not walking around full of journey-induced joy.

Everyone’s objectives in life are different, and those objectives more than anything are going to dictate the nature of your work and how much of it you do. My advice to all of you is to understand what you’re trying to accomplish, and moreover, to be honest with yourself about the effort required to achieve your goals. If you have trouble remembering all of that, just think “work harder.”