True Grit: How Strong is Your Work Ethic?

True Grit: How Strong is Your Work Ethic?
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To get ahead in the office, and in life, the easiest (in a manner of speaking) is the simplest – work hard.  No secret tricks or nasty shortcuts, just determination.  Does your work ethic make the cut?

By Jonathan Mraunac

What do you think of when you hear the words “work ethic?” A lot of ideas associate with the concept of work ethic-determination, efficiency, procrastination, focus. The idea of work ethic is often thought of in two specific contexts, the office and academics. While both of these contexts are extremely important, I urge that work ethic should not be confined to these alone. The concept of work ethic should be viewed as a way of life, an ideology that transcends the classroom or the office. Thinking about work ethic as an ongoing goal of self improvement, rather than compartmentalizing it as something you forget about when you leave the classroom or office, will ultimately make your ideas of success more easily attainable.


In order to realize improvement, you must become more productive. This requires that you make sacrifices. You need to identify things you do that don't help you achieve your goals and eliminate them. To clarify, I by no means advocate doing away with all entertainment and recreational activities in your schedule. Everyone needs time to relax and have fun. However, you'll have to more strictly define the limits of those activities and truly evaluate how much of those you need to get by and what quality of entertainment you desire. My primary form of entertainment is socializing with friends. Social interaction has formidable benefits, including increasing your comfort level around groups, improving your conversational skills (in the office or purely socially), and socializing is in and of itself enjoyable. On the other hand, I watch virtually no TV. Outside of the occasional basketball or hockey game and a small sample of national news (usually while I'm eating), I've completely cut it from my agenda.

You really don't need to know what happened on Family Guy last night. Life will go on without it. The overall theme is to choose activities that matter in your pursuit of success, and sacrifice the ones that cause stagnation.

Sacrifice is the first step to forming more productive habits. Once you've chosen the activities that will comprise your overall work ethic, you need to start exercising them. For anyone that has ever played a sport or musical instrument, it is very readily apparent what happens when you don't practice-your skill level, and ultimately the ability to be successful at it, decreases. The same thing can be said for school or work. If you don't study, you will fall behind, limiting the chances to succeed.

Again, think of this across the board-the same habit-forming behavior applies to exercising your work ethic. If you simply turn it off the minute you leave the classroom or office, it becomes that much more difficult to turn it back on the next time you arrive there. On the other hand, keeping it “on” in some capacity almost all the time will ease those transitions. If your work ethic is always turned on, you will be more successful at everything you do.

I'm sure you have some idea of success in your mind. If you can envision your ultimate goal, but are having trouble seeing the path, try breaking down success into specific, quantified tasks so your decision-making process regarding your goal is more manageable.

For example, when I decided I wanted to be an attorney, I knew I had to go to law school for three years to obtain a J.D. and then pass the bar exam. But I didn't know what three years of law school entailed. Three more years of school, all more intensive than college, seemed incredibly daunting. So, I sought out and talked to a college professor and a friend's father who is an attorney to get more detailed information. What I discovered was that I would have to take six semesters of five classes each. Every night of homework would consist of four or five hours of reading. For each of the five classes per semester, a three-hour written exam would comprise 90 to 100 percent of your grade. Further, I would have to go through internships with law offices or firms to learn professionalism, the everyday demands of law practice, and the kinds of tasks in which I would have to become proficient to successfully practice after graduation. Moreover, after graduation, I would have to study almost every day for nine weeks in order to pass a two-day, twelve hour written and multiple choice bar exam.

After discovering this set of required tasks it still seemed daunting, but the breakdown made it much easier to evaluate. After very extensive consideration, I was able to decide that I was willing to make the necessary sacrifices because I understood exactly what was going to be demanded of me and that this was something I wanted and was ready to do. I suggest you apply this approach to any long term goal in order to determine if it is what you really want and whether you are willing to make the necessary sacrifices.


This proposition of increasing your work ethic might cause some questions to arise. Why should I constantly try and work hard when it's so much easier to completely relax in my free time? How do I apply this idea of an expanded, improved work ethic? I believe the benefits to employing a strong work ethic are invaluable. To think about it in the specific contexts of work and school, there isn't a professor or boss out there that can say (independent of personality, of course) they hate the employee or student that works hard. That is quite obvious. The ancillary benefits, however, may not be so patently observable, but they are well worth the effort. They can be attained if you apply a continuous work ethic to the other areas of your life besides work/school. Moreover, they will help you further supplement your primary benefits.

Specifically, what I'm talking about is taking care of the aspects in your life that enable success in work, school, and dating. During your free time, you should make the best effort to take care of your tools for success: your mind, body, and personal relationships. It is very difficult to succeed today without having a sharp mind, healthy body, and a strong group of friends and personal contacts. More specifically, you should adopt habits (and surround yourself with people who do the same) consisting of any number of productive, stimulating activities that, through their completion, make you stronger, smarter, more energetic, and more well-rounded, ultimately making success that much easier to achieve.

But why go through all this? It all just seems like more work, right? The benefits will materialize if you make the commitment to work towards habitual effort. However, you shouldn't commit to a work ethic geared towards improving yourself to your fullest potential if that doesn't align with your goals. My advice is to envision your goals and use them as a powerful incentive to committing to a solid work ethic. When your report, paper, brief, project, or whatever it is may be due tomorrow and you're at the point where you just don't care anymore, remember that turning in quality work product is extremely important to your professional or academic success. Don't leave at 5:30, get stuck in rush-hour traffic, and then channel surf for two hours when you get home. Use that time productively. When you're breathing really hard on the bike or treadmill and you feel like 20 minutes is enough for today, remember that maintaining a healthy body will allow you to think, act, and perform at the highest level, so push through it. You can't advance if you continually stop when it starts to get hard.

Improving yourself takes time, focus, sacrifice, and discipline. It is not something that will happen over night. Identify the things that really aren't taking you towards your goals and eliminate them from your routine. Constantly push yourself to do more. There are no shortcuts to achieving the kinds of adult goals you likely have in mind-money, a promotion, a relationship. If these were easily attainable, they would have no value, and everyone would have them. You will have to lead a busy life to get there, and the only opponent to progression is yourself. Nineteenth century French author Jules Renard once wrote, “Laziness is nothing more than the habit of resting before you are tired.” If you follow this strategy, you will be giving yourself the best possible opportunity to get where you want to be.