Tuesday, July 04, 2006

is working hard a necessary evil?

As the Korean electronics industry rapidly developed in the 80s and 90s, executives began to realize that, in order to catch up to the best in the business (like Sony), they needed a competitive edge to help them overcome the disadvantages they have in the technology development process. What they came up with was the philosophy of working harder and longer till you get it right. It's hard to argue that it has not been successful, especially when you look at how much companies like Samsung and LG have grown. However, the deeper question I ask myself is whether such an idealogy, of working hard and going at it till you get it right, a necessary evil to be successful in life?

Samsung is now considered one of the world-leaders in the memory chip and cell-phone industries and has a market capitalization exceeding 100 billion dollars, which is roughly 24.3% of the Korea's total market capitalization and twice that of Sony's. However, it can be argued that both the level of productivity and the quality of life for Samsung employees have been on a rapid decline. If long hours are the norm, there is simply no incentive to push for increased productivity and when things don't get done on time it simply means that it's time to add more employees.

The Korean national soccer team provides yet another example of this philosphy. In terms of pure footballing ability the Koreans lag significantly behind the europeans, latin americans and the africans. After years of getting pushed around by the better teams in the international arena, we decided that to have to have any kind of success we needed to play soccer differently. If you've noticed the Korean team play in the recent World Cup, you'll know what I mean. Our philosphy for the first 70 minutes is to run, run and then run some more. (The famous Dutch coach Guus Hiddink came up with this strategy while watching a re-run of Forrest Gump in his hotel room after signing on with the Korean team.)

If you get the ball you run and even if you don't have the ball you run, pretending to make an incisive run although the player with the ball is likely incapable of making an accurate through pass. By the 70th minute the other team will hopefully get so tired that they stop challenging for balls as much and start backing off, allowing the best Korean strikers like Ahn Jung Hwan (who usually come on late in the 2nd half to exploit this) some room to start putting some attempts on goal.

During the last World Cup, Korea had the home advantange and the European teams were not well prepared for fitness battles lasting a full 90 minutes plus extra time (in some cases with an extra-man down which makes it so much tougher). This time, the French were ready and the Swiss were ready and it's hard to win games consistently when luck+running is all you have.
Many Koreans have lamented that we're a few Park Ji Sungs short of doing well in the World Cup. But is that the way football is meant to be played or are we encouraging a new breed of alien soccer where the aim is to outlast the opponent in running around the pitch?

It is the same within the workplace environment of Samsung as it is with the national football team. There is something deeply unmotivating about such a work philosophy that only tries to achieve quick results. Nobody follows a boxer, that always trys to win by decision, for long. Likewise, admitting from the get-go that your employees or your players are technically second-rate and trying to outlast the opposition is never going to put you on the path towards becoming one of the world's best.

Undoubtedly, it takes a phenomenal amount of effort to become truly successful in whatever you do. However, the lesson often comes with a price; the subtle message that we need to work hard only because we are not as smart, capable, or physically gifted. In order to truly become great, there's got to be a stronger sense of self-belief, coupled with motivation and dedication towards each of our daily tasks.

You really have to enjoy the soccer more than the running or winning.


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