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Diligence vs. Ability: Rethinking What Impresses Employers

Note: I’m leaving tomorrow for a one-week California vacation. With that in mind, I give my normal warnings about being slow to moderate comments, reply to e-mails, and post new articles until I return.

Graduation WisdomGraduation

With graduation season winding down, job hunting is on many students’ minds. Because of this, I have a habit of sharing career advice around this time. Last year, I pitched the idea of lifestyle-centric planning. This year, I want to briefly discuss a crucial distinction that can shape the character of your college experience: the difference between diligence and ability.

The Diligence Hypothesis

Over the years, I’ve advised hundreds of stressed college students. The reason for their stress is almost always the same: time famine. The student are taking more than the normal course load and often have an absurd number of extracurriculars commitments.

This leads to an interesting question: why are they doing this?

When you dig deeper, the answers often turns on some vague belief that the more hard things they do, the more impressive they’ll be to potential employers. I call this the diligence hypothesis. At its core is the idea that proving you can handle difficult workloads is a desirable trait.

Here’s the problem, I’ve never met someone in a position to making hiring decisions who is particularly interested in this trait. Almost without exception, they say they are most concerned with:

  • Where you went to school.
  • Your grades.
  • Your relevant work experience.

Employers don’t see your academic schedule and aren’t particularly interested in your extracurricular activities. With this in mind, the bulk of the pain suffered by students with absurd course loads, three majors, and ten club memberships, is unnecessary.

The Ability Hypothesis

This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do outside of your grades and summer internships to help your employment chances. It’s just that surviving a large volume of commitments is not a particular effective choice to help you stand out. I want to propose a different approach for adding distinction to your resume: becoming exceptionally good at something.

Here’s the important part: what you become exceptionally good at does not have to be directly related to your desired job. People are impressed by a general capacity to be exceptional. We’re drawn to stars. We admire stars. We believe they can replicate this feat in other areas.

I call this the ability hypothesis. It tells us, for example, that being a star in your major, and winning tons of awards and grants, can really help your job prospects, even if your major is unrelated to the job. Likewise, if you’ve written a book or built up a large organization, people will respond positively. This makes you seem like the type of person who can make big things happen once employed.

Surviving a tough double major, or taking chemistry, bio, and calculus in the same semester, on the other hand, just confirms that you’re a hard worker. This is less rare. And the reward to effort ratio is probably not worth it.

The good news, of course, is that putting in an A* effort is much more rewarding and much less stressful than difficulty-centric achievement. You’ve heard this message time and again here at Study Hacks. I’m just hoping to more directly connect this crucial concept to your prospects beyond college graduation.

16 thoughts on “Diligence vs. Ability: Rethinking What Impresses Employers”

    • All successful people work hard, regardless of talent. The difference is that their hard work is more focused and their practice and goals are more clear and meaningful than someone who just works hard doing a bunch of things but mot mastering any of them.

  1. Since the moderator is on vacation and I’ve read through most of the archives, I will attempt an answer. Talent is another misconception. You still need a strong work ethic. But the key to switching from diligence to ability is deep focus.

    Sure there are natural abilities, but they only become true talents with refinement and practice. Becoming exceptional at one thing still takes time, but you have more time to work on that one thing by ditching all the other stuff cluttering up your schedule/life.

    That’s the A* method in a nutshell, as I understand it.

  2. I had my own ‘diligence hypothesis’ epiphany in the middle of my first degree. I found it odd when I’d ask how people were doing and they would always respond negatively. “Oh and have this and this and this and THIS to do!”

    Many of my friends got frustrated with me when I wouldn’t join their pity party. I came to the conclusion that being stressed out and busy was for some reason a sought after way of being in western society. Once I understood the roots of this philosophy (read your Weber) everything made sense and I now understand their weird fetish to be incredibly busy (which I pity them for).

    Great post Cal!

  3. @Eric R.

    The talented people that don’t have a hard work ethic don’t always go as far as u think. Hard work is what makes a talented employee in my opinion. Although this person may not learn as “quickly” with hard work they can learn it just as well as a “talented” person if not better.

  4. I find that being exceptional truly is what people psychologically go for and respond to. People want to be impressed and fascinated.

    What I’d like to add, though, is that I find that even colleges are drawn to applicants in this way. Gone are the guaranteed successes of valedictorians who are also captains of everything. Nowadays, you’re more likely to get into Harvard if you were in a movie or if you wrote a book then if you had a perfect SAT.

    The trend (and most ideal option for life in general) is to be focused on one area and excel rather than try to be jack of all trades and be mediocre!

  5. Unfortunately all this is bunk. I went to Swarthmore and graduated;however, since that time I have a had a succession of clerical type jobs. I worked in the accounting field for a major news network, and now work in a school doing clerical accounting work. I go to recruiters who say that without a CPA I can expect to go nowhere. So my Swarthmore education was useless, and I am trapped

    • But that’s the point. By becoming a CPA you are showing that are willing to build on your accounting skills to become the BEST and most knowledgeable accountant you can be. If you’re competing for high profile accounting jobs with people who went the extra mile to study the craft of accounting well enough to pass that CPA exam, who do you think is gonna get the job?

  6. I differ in definition, mostly. I think diligence is mis-defined if it is characterized by busy-ness. People who are genuinely diligent understand that to truly be diligent one must be able to finish what one starts, or at least to be consistent in the effort. Busy people usually have so much going on that they barely finish and rarely create quality. True diligence cannot be half-hearted and those who seek to achieve diligence quickly learn to count the cost of any project they undertake. So yes, succeeding at keeping oneself ultra-busy during school is not an admired quality among employers. Employers like myself want to see the ability to balance, focus and make reasonable choices. The way I see it, to have practiced and proven ability, one must have diligence (by its proper definition). Talent without diligence of character is over-rated. Skill developed through perseverence is admirable.


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