A New Definition of Work Ethic

When I was in college I was proud of how hard I worked.

I started at 6 AM just as the coffeeshop opened, spending most of the day studying, then attending class before working a part-time job until late at night. People told me I had a great “work ethic” when I got into the workforce, which I took as a compliment. In hindsight, what they meant was “that new person is here a lot and looks busy as hell”. In school when I was told I had a good work ethic it simply meant that I studied for long hours in the library and took a long time making my papers just so.

Now I am a professional “knowledge worker” in software development, a field in which you can work hard for 10 hours and then figure out a better solution ten minutes after waking up from a nap. Working as a manager is similar: not doing something smart now can cause months of work later. The rules have changed: how I work matters more now than how much I work. What matters is getting the right answers, not the total of questions answered.

Working long hours is not always a bad sign, earlier in your career it can be a great boost to spend extra time learning and building professional experiences. And when you are starting something you have to work harder to build momentum.

But I don’t want to work with people that will burn themselves out or paint themselves into corner after corner by just grinding away without changing tactics. Not everybody feels this way. I used to work with someone who asked this question near the end of every job interview:

If you were asked to estimate some work and you concluded that it would take between a week and two weeks, and were then told it needed to be done three days from now or the world would end, what would you do?

The first time I heard it I remember thinking that it probably created the impression that they were interviewing at a company that required long hours. The tone of the question, to me, sounded like how many punches to the face can you take?. But once I started hearing the answers I realized that you can learn a lot by how people respond to this question. It is an unexpected maturity reading.

I’ve heard the standard not great answers:

Here are some better responses:

My version of this question is basically: Do you default to thinking first then working or working first then thinking? Do you understand the downsides of just working a lot of hours under pressure?

When I hear the term work ethic now it means something completely different:

Work ethic is much more results-focused in my mind now, and means working smart and not just working hard. It speaks to long-term efficiency and effectiveness and not to anything else like how-much-you-want-it and how-much-you-will-give-up. You care enough about the work to give some of your best energy to it, want to get better at it, care about waste during it, work hard when required, and think-then-work smart by default.