You've heard the phrase "hard work pays off" before. The surface meaning of it is that the hard work one does today will eventually result in happiness and success in the future.
Yet when you're deep in your work, it's hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel. There's so much to do before you can reach the end, it seems so daunting. Then doubt slips in, distracting you from your goals. It's hard to stay focused.
The problem with just saying "hard work pays off" is that it's too vague. We need a better reason to work hard than just saying it pays off some far away time in the future. We want to know how it's going to pay off so that we can understand why it's worth it.
The best way to explain how is with a story, a legendary one called The Choice of Hercules, told in Xenophon’s Memorabilia.
Most of us know Hercules as the Greek hero, son of Zeus. As the legend goes, he was an ancient warrior with superhuman strength and courage, like a modern-day Captain America. But the most interesting part of Hercules's story is how he chose the path of hard work to build himself a great life.
The Choice of Hercules
When Hercules was a young man, he came to a point where he was really deciding how he wanted to live his life. This must have been no different than the contemplation many of us undertake throughout our 20s, what people call “finding yourself.”
As he was walking one day, he came to an isolated fork in the road. He sat down on a comfy-looking rock near the fork to contemplate his life and ponder which path he should take. Soon after, he saw two goddesses approaching him, each one coming from a different path of the fork.
The goddess of immediate pleasure
One of the goddesses quickly overtook the other, rushing over to greet Hercules first. She was very beautiful and had an alluring, seductive demeanour. She told Hercules that if he would but follow her down her path in the road, he would avoid hard work for the rest of his life. All his days would be filled with luxury and pleasures beyond his wildest dreams, and all of it would be provided by the labour of other, lesser men.
Hercules, upon hearing the goddess make such an intriguing offer, asked for her name. The goddess replied: “My friends, and those who are well acquainted with me, call me Happiness; but my enemies, and those who would injure my reputation, have given me the name of Pleasure.”
The goddess of hard work
The second goddess then came to him from the second path. She was dressed far more modestly, though she still had a natural beauty. She approached Hercules humbly and with a soft smile.
She told Hercules that should he follow her, then the path would be long and difficult. There would be plenty of hard work for him to do. He would be tested by great hardships and face challenges no other man had ever faced. “I will be open and sincere with you, and must lay down this, as an established truth, that there is nothing truly valuable which can be purchased without pains and labour” she told him.
“There is nothing truly valuable which can be purchased without pains and labour. If you would have fruits and flowers, you must plant them and care for them; if you would gain the love of your fellow men, you must love them and suffer for them; if you would enjoy the favour of Heaven, you must make yourself worthy of that favour; if you would have eternal fame, you must not scorn the hard road that leads to it.”
The right choice
Hercules would go on to follow the path of the second goddess. He faced constant persecution throughout his life and was forced to undertake the legendary Twelve Labours, including slaying the famous Hydra. Zeus was impressed by the virtue and courage of his son. He elevated Hercules to be an immortal God, saving him from a horrific death.
Hercules chose the much harder path, the path of hard work. He was told directly by the second goddess that it would be hard, long, and difficult. He was forced to face challenges and hardships with courage, wisdom, and unwavering grit. But he chose it anyway because he knew that nothing truly worth having could be had without sacrifice.
The real lesson of hard work
Hercules's greatest achievement was not his superior strength, fame, or status as the son of Zeus. His greatest achievement was his effort.
By facing terrifying monsters, he was able to build up his courage and win the love of his people. By facing criticism and scrutiny from those around him he developed his mental fortitude. By facing unimaginable hardships, he was able to train himself to self-mastery and learned to appreciate the small happy moments of life.
If Hercules had chosen the path of ease and pleasure he would never have achieved those great things. He may have had a smile on his face on the outside, but on the inside, he would know who he truly was. Taking the path of hard work gave Hercules the opportunity to build himself into the great man he eventually became. Those who choose the easy road never get that opportunity. As Seneca once said:
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent — no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
Hercules is Hercules because he went through those challenges and moulded himself into the man he became known to be. It was his hard work that made him, not his name or the rewards he received. A hero is a hero because of their actions, not because they won or lost.
The truly valuable things in life cannot be bought, traded, stolen, or granted as a gift – they must be earned. Hark work pays off because the personal rewards that it earns can never be taken away from you.