The Greatest Lie Ever Told

March 12, 2024

“Work hard, and you’ll be successful.”

​We have heard this phrase since we were children, repeated over and over by well-meaning parents, teachers, and coaches. It is seared into our collective psyche; it exists at the very heart of the American dream.

And it’s the greatest lie ever told.

​If hard work were the sole factor of success, there would be 7 billion rich people on this planet.

​There is nothing more patronizing than hearing a wealthy person tell someone who is engaged in back-breaking labor that if they simply work harder, they will find the success that they desire.

​The problem is that successful people often perceive that it is solely hard work that got them there. The human mind has a notoriously hard time differentiating between correlation and causation. Identifying whether a relationship is causal or merely correlational is complex and often misunderstood. While correlation can suggest potential relationships between variables, it doesn’t prove causality.

​We fall prey to logical fallacies when we examine the relationship between hard work and success. Two such fallacies that often emerge are survivorship bias and “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” Understanding these fallacies can provide a more nuanced perspective on how success is achieved and the factors that contribute to it. Let’s break down each concept and see how they relate to the notion of hard work leading to success.

Survivorship Bias

​Survivorship bias refers to the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process while inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of visibility. This bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored.

​In the context of hard work and success, survivorship bias might lead us to focus only on the stories of people who worked hard and subsequently achieved significant success, ignoring the stories of those who worked equally hard (or harder) but did not achieve the same level of success. (Remember the distribution of outcomes?) This can create a misleading narrative that hard work always leads to success, overlooking the importance of other factors like luck, timing, social connections, and access to resources.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

​”Post hoc ergo propter hoc” is a Latin phrase meaning “after this, therefore because of this.” This fallacy occurs when it is assumed that because one thing followed another, the first thing must have caused the second. It’s a common mistake in reasoning where correlation is confused with causation.

​When applied to hard work and success, this fallacy might lead someone to conclude that just because success followed hard work, the hard work was the sole or primary cause of that success. This reasoning fails to account for other possible contributing factors that might have played a crucial role. For instance, a person might achieve success due to a combination of hard work, innovative ideas, market conditions, and networking, not just hard work alone.

I learned to question this relationship early in life.

​Growing up, we were a family of swimmers. As a child, my mom was a competitive swimmer, and my siblings and I followed in her footsteps. Swimming is a particularly grueling sport. We started two-a-day training regimens as early as 10 years old, often practicing up to 4 hours a day.

​The prevailing training philosophy at the time was popularized by Russian phenom Alexander Popov and his coach Gennadi Touretski. Popov won back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 50 and 100m freestyle events in the 1992 and 1996 games, the only swimmer to accomplish that feat. He broke world records in both of those events and was heralded as one of the greatest of all time.

​Despite training for the shortest-distance sprint races, Popov would often swim 5000m straight, relentlessly focused on perfect technique. Touretski pioneered the idea that sprinters should train for much greater distances than those they actually raced.

“The only way to win is non-stop perfection.” – Gennadi Touretski

​Age-group swimming coaches worldwide took note and adopted the approach, pushing competitive youths to swim longer and farther than ever before. Our coach cared deeply about our success, and the ideal of hard work was the cornerstone of his philosophy.

​My sister was a phenomenally talented swimmer. She won state championships as early as 10 and eventually competed on the national stage. She was deeply dedicated to her sport, and the long-yardage approach seemed to pay dividends.

​I watched as my parents showered her with praise and affection. She was the star of the family, and we dreamed that she might compete at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000.

​The thing is, I was working just as hard. I was there, just as she was, up before dawn with 5000 meters under my belt before breakfast.

Train like a champion.
Train like a champion.

But for me, hard work wasn’t working. I swam for years, including in high school, and never saw any notable success. The highest level I ever touched was as a middling also-ran at our regional meets.

​I didn’t understand why I wasn’t improving. Every season, I would double down and re-dedicate myself to working harder and committing even more.

​There’s no happy ending to this story. I graduated, went to college, tried out for a walk-on spot at The Naval Academy, and didn’t make the team. The end of my competitive career was as lackluster as the rest.

​Perhaps, though, this was the beginning of a new chapter in my approach to life. I began to fall into the habit of doing just enough to get by. I would always look for ways to make things more efficient and prioritize finding the fastest way to achieve my goals.

​This philosophy served me well during my time in the Navy, both in flight school and eventually in the fighter squadron. With a crushing amount of information to study, process, and integrate, being efficient with time was critical. Rather than simply doing enough to get by, efficiency became my superpower and propelled me to excellence in the ultra-high-performance environment of tactical naval aviation.

​After I got out of the Navy, I embraced my superpower when I started my first company. We were an oil & gas investment firm playing in the most competitive environment in the world: the Permian Basin of Texas.

​Winning meant staying ahead of the competition, and the key to success was being a first mover. My job was to determine where we would invest our precious resources in order to maximize our returns and secure the best properties.

​It was a gold rush in every sense of the word. When moving into a new area, even being days ahead of the competition meant the difference between millions of dollars in revenue or picking up the scraps.

​Years later, after the successful sale of our firm, people would often ask about the keys to our success. I talked about the necessity of speed, and trusting our intuition, and the spectacular luck of being in the right place at the right time.

​To my surprise, people would simply not accept those answers.

“But you must have worked hard…?”

​It was more of an insistence on their part than a question.

​The truth is, we really didn’t. I never put in 80-hour weeks. I never slept under my desk. I prioritized spending time with my family and enjoyed adventures with my friends. Looking back, we were firmly in the work-life balance camp.

Perhaps if we would have worked harder, we might have made more money. But even now, I’m not so sure. It was about working smart, selecting the best deals in a sea of bad ones, and maximizing returns.

​Our success can only be attributed to a myriad of factors: the fact that I grew up in oil country, the timing of starting our company in the biggest oil boom in decades, family connections that allowed me to get into the industry in the first place, and new technology that fueled the boom. While privilege can sometimes be weaponized, I must acknowledge that oil and gas is an old boys club. Being a white male, especially with a military background, allowed me to get meetings and into rooms that women and people of color simply did not have access to.

​And given all of those circumstances, I can both acknowledge the privilege I was afforded and simultaneously acknowledge that we made good decisions with the hand that we were dealt. I was opportunistic, and I was very good at being able to analyze the economics of deals. A mentor once called me a natural handicapper, a compliment that was well received.

But when examining the factors that contributed to our success, hard work doesn’t even crack the top 10.

​This doesn’t mean that hard work never contributes to success. I have countless examples of entrepreneurs who I would consider hard work as the biggest key to their success. Further, hard work is often a prerequisite to success – it’s simply not the only factor.

​When it comes to creating wealth, we so often fall into the trap of this lie. We believe that making money requires hard work, which keeps us tied to sacrificing our time in the pursuit of money.

If you were to divorce the idea that wealth must be tied to hard work, how might your relationship with money (and work) start to shift? Where could you work smarter, increasing your leverage instead of your hours?

​These are some of my favorite questions, ones that I continually ask myself. I hope that they unlock as much for you as they have for me.

​To my well-meaning parents, teachers, and coaches, thank you for doing your best. I appreciate all of your hard work.

​It doesn’t (always) have to be hard,


Did you enjoy this article? There’s more where that came from. Sign up for our newsletter to get these hard-earned insights and more delivered straight to your inbox.