I’m a first-generation American. My mother was born in Hong Kong and she came to America with my grandparents when she was just seven years old. Like many immigrants, my family came in search of a better life and they were willing to work very hard to make it happen.
And work hard they did.
By the time I was born, my grandparents had opened a small Chinese restaurant, where they worked from open to close every day, 365 days a year. Almost every childhood memory I have of my grandparents is of them in the restaurant, my grandfather cooking in the back and my grandmother serving in the dining room.
There were no vacations and no holidays for my grandparents. They would even work on Christmas Day; I remember watching them get up from our family dinner to cook and serve the paying customers seated nearby. To this day, I’ve never known anyone to work as hard as my grandparents—except perhaps my mother, who raised three children while going to school and juggling two jobs.
With these role models, it’s probably no surprise that I learned the value of hard work early. By age 10, I was spending most of my free time at my grandparent’s restaurant, and by age 16, I’d picked up a second job while studying full time (a trend that continued throughout my college years).
I was proud of myself and being a hard worker became an important part of my identity. I was always the first to volunteer for extra work and the last to leave the office each night, and I lived this way for most of my adult life.
I’m sharing all of this because I want it to be clear: I know what hard work looks and feels like.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve started to question the way our society values hard work. Too often, it’s not viewed as a means to an end. Instead, it’s considered a virtue in and of itself. Those who work hard are “good” and those who don’t are not.
Many of us, myself included, have prioritised “hard work” over our relationships or even over our own health and as a new mum, these beliefs don’t feel right anymore. My daughter is only seven months old, but of course, I’ve already started to think about her future.
Here are four things I won’t teach my daughter about hard work and what I want her to know instead.
I won’t teach my daughter to always “give it your all.”
There was a time when I would write “I’m a hard worker and I put 100% into everything I do” on all my job applications. I thought it was an admirable quality and from the positive nods I used to get from recruiters, I’d say I wasn’t alone in thinking so.
But a lot has changed and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that always “giving it your all” is not sustainable. We have limits to our time and energy and we must be intentional about how we invest ourselves, or we risk unintentionally sacrificing the things that matter most.
Instead of teaching my daughter to put 100% into everything she does, I’ll tell her that everything in life comes with tradeoffs. (As the saying goes, you can do anything you want but you can’t do everything.) She’ll need to learn to prioritise and make mindful decisions about what’s really worth the investment of her time and energy, and not blindly devote herself to every task or project in the name of being a hard worker.
I won’t teach my daughter that being busy and exhausted is normal.
Growing up, all the adults I knew were busy and exhausted, so I thought this was simply part of being a successful adult. I actually couldn’t wait to be “busy” and once I started working two jobs at 16, I’d tell people how tired I was with a smile on my face because I thought it was something to be admired.
Of course, the novelty wore off pretty quickly, but I continued to take on as much as possible and push myself to the brink of exhaustion. (I remember driving home at 1 am, after working two long waitressing shifts back to back, and physically holding my eyes open with my fingers to stay awake.)
As ridiculous as this sounds to me now, I had normalised this lifestyle. I truly thought it was the only option (when in reality, I was a victim of lifestyle inflation and could have easily worked less by reducing my cost of living).
Unfortunately, working less never crossed my mind because, as an impressionable young adult, this isn’t what I saw others doing. No one I knew was choosing to intentionally slow down but I’ll make sure my daughter knows this is always an option.
I won’t teach my daughter to “work hard, play hard.”
One of my biggest gripes with how our culture views hard work is the implied message that more is always better. The expression might be “work hard, play hard” but let’s face it — the underlying message might as well be “work hard, so you can afford to spend more.”
I’m not anti-spending and if my daughter wants to own or do nice things, that’s up to her, but I’m going to teach her to be a mindful consumer. I don’t want her to be an emotional or reactionary spender as I once was, buying expensive shoes after a long day because “I deserved it” or splurging on expensive holidays because I was desperate to escape my life.
Instead, I’ll tell her it’s ok to prioritise rest and self-care when (or even before) she needs it. She doesn’t need to push herself to her limits before she deserves a break.
And finally, I won’t teach my daughter that hard work leads to success WITHOUT also having a conversation about defining “enough” and what it means to be successful.
I know this post might lead you to believe that I’m against hard work, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I truly believe hard work is necessary for success, but I take issue with the way we spread this message.
You can’t have a discussion about hard work leading to success without also talking about defining “enough” and what it means to be successful. Without this balance, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of discontent.
I’ve been there myself; in my twenties, I had a good job, I owned my own townhome, and I lived a comfortable life—but I never felt satisfied. A voice inside of me kept telling me to work harder and whenever I stopped to rest, I felt guilty.
Looking back now, I can see I’d set myself up for failure. I’d never defined what success meant to me, so it didn’t matter how hard I worked, I was never going to achieve it and this is the problem with how we discuss hard work. I want my daughter to know that hard work is a means to achieve something that matters to you, not a constant state of being.
On a final note, I couldn’t end this without acknowledging how grateful I am for how hard my grandparents and mum have worked to give me a better life. Of course, it’s a privilege to be able to consider the role hard work plays in our lives and for some, it’s a case of survival, not choice.
Just make sure you’re not giving away your choice when you don’t need to.