Diligence is Not a Dirty Word

Benjamin Franklin's Gravestone
Benjamin Franklin’s Gravestone

I’m in the middle of reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which I bought while visiting Philadelphia earlier this year with a close friend. We walked through the old town, soaking in the history. We saw the Independence Hall, where the US Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, the wonderful Rodin museum, and the bustling Reading terminal market. We walked from the Liberty Bell and followed the street signs that pointed us to Franklin’s grave, which is where I acquired my copy of his autobiography, a slim volume with tiny font, sold all for a $1.99, in a world that has long forgotten that era.

As I immersed myself in reading about his life, I was struck by Franklin’s tenacity and diligence. In the paragraph below, he describes how he sought to improve his writing and his ability to frame an argument. He hadn’t done a lot of writing before, though he had dabbled in poetry, and was an avid reader.

About this time I met an old volume of Spectator. It was the third. I had never been seen of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view, I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then without looking at the book, try’d to complete the papers again, by expressing each hint at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of my thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extreamly ambitious.”

As a diligent person myself (though certainly not at Franklin’s level of dedication), I was immediately struck by his diligence. Going through my LinkedIn profile a few days back, I reflected on the unifying thread across all the recommendations I’d received: diligence.

I should have been happy, but I wondered if diligence is even considered a virtue in today’s world where “working hard” has given way to “working smart,” and the quality of networks seems to matter more than the work itself. In this environment, being diligent seems solid, but unremarkable. It feels like being diligent is like being the dependable but boring guy that girls want as a friend but not as a significant other.

So, what do you do with this “gift” in today’s times?

1. Choose environments where diligence is an asset, not a liability: A friend recently shifted from a job that required him to do lots of basic analytics to one that requires deep, advanced analytics work. In this new environment, his diligence and attention to detail is recognized and rewarded. Certain environments are simply better for people who are conscientious. In my experience, diligent people do better in environments that care about quality than environments that care about speed.

2. Overcome the worker bee perception: If you find yourself being perceived as worker bee,  it may mean that you need to use your diligence to achieve different objectives. Maybe you’re being very diligent about your routine work, which leaves you with little time for higher-level thinking. Maybe you think that your work will speak for itself, which it may, or may not. Whatever the problem is, remember that your diligence is a valuable tool in your arsenal to make the changes you need to make.

3. Be hard-working and generous, but not to your detriment : Many people love the diligent folks on their teams. These are people they can depend on to do high-quality work and go the extra mile. Yet, there are times you may be stuck working with a peer or a superior who’s a “taker,” happy to take the credit for your hard work. So, what do you do? The wise Adam Grant advises people of a hard-working, giving disposition to use “sincerity screening.” So, if you don’t find your sincerity reciprocated by takers, it might make sense to match your contributions to what you’re getting back from them. Feel free to be your generous, hard working self with all others.

4. Enjoy the process: If you’re a conscientious person, I bet being so is a source of joy for YOU. The working, the striving, the mastery. There’s a thrill to it that you wouldn’t want to trade.A feeling of satisfaction for a job well done. A sound night of sleep that will follow the work.

So, revel in your good, old fashioned industry, keep doing the hard work, the practice, and maintain those high standards, you!

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2 thoughts on “Diligence is Not a Dirty Word

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