When Working Harder Doesn’t Work

By Armand Moini, MTI Contributor

“SNO (Said Named Officer) believes that the harder choice is the correct one because it is difficult. He needs to realize that this is not always the case.” 

It took 5 years for this criticism about me from a military peer evaluation to sink in.  

In 2020, I was working a job using chainsaws to cut root wads off of almond trees during the off season from firefighting. Progress came through stubbornness –  forcing the bar through dirty wood, ignoring the dull teeth which prevented the saw from cutting straight and the white smoke that billowed from the blade tip every time I cut through a stump. 

It’s impressive how far stubbornness will get you. Until it doesn’t. 

The piston seized. Next I was standing sheepishly in the corner of a farm supply store, admitting my shitty equipment maintenance to a chainsaw mechanic. Work and progress stopped.

The chainsaw debacle was the most recent example of my approach to life. I defaulted to relentless effort, doubling down on that effort when met with resistance. The end result was costly. 

The peer evaluation made sense for the first time, and I would love to report about the swift and decisive changes I made after, but I am a slow learner.

I was taught from a young age that I did not want to be thought of as lazy or weak. Lacking natural talent? Sure. But never lazy or weak. 

When the Marine Corps stressed choosing the “hard right over the easy wrong,” I mistook this to mean that the hard way was best. Plus, I wanted to appear tough and hard working, and appearing tough and industrious became more important than objective completion. 

Training harder and longer than others on my collegiate triathlon team meant I improved quickly and had early success. But skipping rest days, sleep and meals, led to inevitable overtraining and burnout, and ultimately decreased performance. 

During my second attempt at the infantry officer course, persistence and determination helped me overcome fatigue and injury in order to graduate. However, I had to make a second attempt because I got trench foot and rhabdomyolysis during the first one. The trench foot happens when you keep wet boots on for days in order to look tough. But I did not look very tough struggling to walk, or unable to do a single pullup because of rhabdo. It did not feel badass watching friends graduate while waiting to start over with the next course. 

In one of my relationships, working hard and showing effort allowed me to exhibit care and devotion. Not wanting to look like a quitter drove me to keep throwing effort into a failing relationship where I was being disrespected and cheated on, instead of walking away. 

While sparring in the boxing ring, effort and determination helped me push through fatigue and pain. However, determination to appear tough led me to walk into punches unnecessarily and to waste effort on punches that didn’t land. The goal in boxing is to take as few punches as possible, while landing as many as possible. Being tough and able to take a punch is a useful element to achieving this goal, but it is not the goal itself. I looked tough sparring with cracked ribs, but receiving that injury by walking into the same combination of punches four times in a row was plain stupid. 

If you’re going to be dumb, you better be tough. There is some validity to this statement, but there is no requirement to be both dumb and tough. 

As the peer evaluation had pointed out in 2015, I had taken choosing  “the hard right over the easy wrong,” to mean that difficult was always better. But there was more. I needed to always prove that I was tough. 

Working hard was easy. Finesse and adaptability were hard. When struggling to succeed, I threw power at the problem instead of stepping back, re-evaluating and adapting technique. Resorting to what I find easy indicates a lack of courage. When uncomfortable, it is easy to focus on putting in more effort into the same flawed technique. It is much scarier to step back, be analytical, and try something new and unfamiliar. Especially if this new and unfamiliar technique leads to less sweating, grunting, and straining, making it evident that I’m not straining as hard. 

Still, “Smarter, not harder,” can be a misleading statement. It can lead us to think that working smarter means not working hard. This is not true. A mentor in firefighting taught me this. 

Take swimming. Ninety-seven percent of the average swimmer’s energy goes into overcoming drag. The other three percent translates to forward motion. Therefore the most improvement may come from reducing drag, not flailing harder. However, reducing drag does not require the swimmer to also reduce their energy expenditure. Rather, it means that a greater percentage of that effort translates to forward motion. A poor swimmer with terrible form works very hard. That hard work is put into flailing and splashing. An olympic swimmer, however, works “smarter” through better technique. The Olympian is far more economical with movement – but he/she is still working hard. The Olympian is working hard and smart. 

Yet being able to direct effort in a more productive way only solves part of the problem. The crux of the problem is the obsession with maintaining the image of being someone who works hard. This is similar to the fitness arguments about aesthetics and performance. While looking fit can be fun, being fit is much more useful, especially in the community of military and tactical athletes. If one makes it a goal to look fit, they may achieve it, and may make some fitness gains. If they focus on performance goals, however, the aesthetic perks are likely to materialize as a byproduct of the performance increase. Eliud Kipchoge doesn’t train to look lean. He trains to break a two hour marathon, and is lean as a result of that training. The same can be said in the military about a focus on looking disciplined vice a focus on being disciplined. A unit that focuses on how good their uniforms look will look sharp in uniform. A unit that focuses on discipline in mission essential tasks will likely be fit, take care of their weapons and equipment, and be skillful in their employment. They are likely to look good in uniform, but more importantly, they will be an asset when it matters. 

There have been times where I exhausted myself physically and mentally, focusing on looking like a hard worker. There were many hours spent at the office, in the field, at work on days off, away from friends and family. At times, I have been resentful of others who did not seem to work as hard, that weren’t as burnt out, as if the fact that they didn’t live at work discounts the fact that they may have been more productive during their hours at work. Or that they focused their energy on more important matters, rather than getting stuck in the weeds of day to day operations.  

My peer’s criticism in 2015, as I understand it today, is that I focused on the hard choice, mistakenly believing that it is always the right choice. As I reflect on it, it is more important to focus on making the right choice, understanding that at times, but not always, the right choice may be the harder one. Strong work ethic is inherent to being a good sawyer on a fire crew. By focusing on cutting well, rather than on working hard, I will build work ethic as a byproduct. Toughness is inherent to being a good boxer. By focusing on boxing well, rather than looking tough, I will build toughness as a byproduct. 

I still fail regularly at applying this concept. One day, it may come naturally to me to be more analytical and if throwing effort at a problem, to ensure that it is a well directed effort. Until then, I can accept decreasing the frequency of failures and increasing the time between them.  

Armand is a USMC Vet, former Wildland Firefighter and current full time student. 

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