Why I Stopped Teaching My Kids the Wrong Lesson About Hard Work

If you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything. It sounds like great advice. But in the end, it’s a total disaster…

working too hard

Photo Credit: skippyjon via Compfight cc

Last week, I was packing my family for a twelve-hour spring break car trip from Chicago to Atlanta. We had anticipated the trip for months. In Atlanta, my kids would reconnect with a cousin, I would see a childhood friend after seven years apart, and my wife would be recognized at a conference for the publication of her first textbook—a celebration of three years of painstaking work.

Days earlier, my daughter had spilled yogurt all over her car seat. I was in the kitchen, scrubbing at the seat with rags, when my oldest son remarked, “Dad, I don’t think you can get it clean.” I looked at him, gritted my jaw, and announced, “Buddy, if you work hard enough, you can do anything.”

I was running a high fever at the time.

In fact, I had been running a high fever for several days. I had the flu. And not a run-of-the-mill kind of bug—I was infected with a ferocious beast that had me aching and chilled and exhausted. My wife was sick, too. Yet, insisting hard work would win the day, I continued packing for our vacation.

Forty-eight hours later, I would be telling my son something entirely different…

What Hard Work Can Accomplish

I think work is a very good thing. In my experience, people are happiest when work is a part of their lives, particularly if the work feels rewarding and promotes a sense of dignity. And hard work is often the place we learn determination and perseverance.

But teaching your son, “If you work hard, you can do anything,” is a problem. Not because it isn’t true, but because it is. If you work too hard, you can do a lot of unhealthy things:

you can ignore your body and all of its needs,

you can run yourself right into the ground,

you can forget that work is good but play is sacred,

you can get obsessed with extraordinary things and forget all about lovely, ordinary things—like rest and laughter and wasting time,

and you can refuse to quit your plans even while a virus refuses to quit your body.

In a word, you can refuse to be limited. And in doing so, you can refuse to accept something fundamental about your humanity.

I don’t like to accept I’m limited because, somewhere along the way, I started to condition my worthiness upon being able to do it all. I started to believe my value was contingent upon doing everything for everyone, and being everything to everyone. I guess feeling like we are not enough on the inside compels us to prove we are more than enough on the outside.

One overworked day at a time.

What Giving Up Can Accomplish

Forty-eight hours after I told my son hard work could accomplish anything, my family and I sat next to a highway in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ten hours from home and two hours from Atlanta—two hours from a long-missed cousin, two hours from a childhood friend, and two hours from a dinner banquet honoring my wife.

My daughter’s car seat was clean, but our blood remained dirty with the virus. Our symptoms raged on unabated. We had pushed and worked our way to the edge of Atlanta—we had gas in the car, but our bodies were running on empty.

I could no longer deny my limitations—no amount of hard work was going to beat this bug. I couldn’t get my kids to their cousin. I couldn’t get to my friend. And I couldn’t get my wife to her banquet. It was time to turn around and go home.

My son couldn’t understand why we were “giving up.” He was angry. I couldn’t blame him. Just two days earlier I had told him a person can do anything if they work hard enough. So, I looked in the rearview mirror, and I told him I’d been wrong. I told him it wasn’t about giving up—it was about being human and honoring the reality of our limitations.

And then we turned the car around and headed for home—for a quiet house and a comfortable bed and rest and restoration and healing. We turned away from some extraordinary experiences and headed home for some very normal, very limited things.

The Blessing of Being Limited

It’s good—perhaps even holy—to be faced with our limitations and our finitude. We need to stare right into the conditions of worth we place upon ourselves and ask ourselves all over again: am I worthy, even when I’m broken and limited and so very, very human?

Because we are limited creatures. Microscopic bugs can level us, our bodies can break without warning, and our minds can betray us. We are limited in our ability to earn the love and approval of others. We have limited control of the world and of the future. We can’t slow time down and we can’t rewind it. While love itself is limitless, our ability to live lovingly is often woefully limited.

And yet.

There is always one thing within our power: to embrace ourselves, right in the midst of our limitations. To rest in the truth of our worthiness. To dwell in the peace of it. To be restored by the reality of our sufficiency.

This coming week, I’m going to “put my money where my mouth is,” and for the first time since I began UnTangled, I’m not going to publish a blog post next Wednesday. I’m going to spend my time recovering from this bug, I’m going to try to get a little rest, and I’m going to trust that will be enough.

I hope you’ll take a break, too, Dear Reader, to rest awhile in your worthiness.

Question: Is the quality or quantity of your work one of your conditions of worthiness? What else do you condition your worth upon? How has being confronted with your limitations led to greater self-acceptance? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


P.S. My next post on April 23rd will talk about the meaning of the blog title, UnTangled, and why it is the key to reinventingor uninventingourselves. Also, beginning with that post, blog post emails will arrive at 5:30am CST, instead of 5am.


Audio: Audio will resume with the next post.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

41 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Teaching My Kids the Wrong Lesson About Hard Work

  1. This post resonated deeply with me. I definitely struggle with feelings of only being worthy AFTER I’ve completed every task, worked hard enough (what is that?!), etc. but I challenge you with this question: raising children who are in touch with their needs while at the same time being driven to accomplish. My daughter is much more in touch with her needs as a person and better at setting limits than I am but I worry quite a bit whether she is studying hard enough at college. This is just one example. There are times in life when you must work harder than you should have to in order to reach your goals.

    • Michelle, you’re right, there is a tension to live in about work. As I alluded to in the post, I think work and hard work are good things. I owe a lot to good, hard work. But we also have to be aware when we are trying to accomplish simply for the sake of accomplishment, and so on. I think the key is to live in that tension and be aware of it and responsive to it on a fluid and on-going basis.

  2. As always, your authenticity is refreshing in a world of make belive/preformance orientation.

  3. Great message. I always remind people you can’t give what you haven’t got; especially as parents we have to take care of ourselves sometimes and that doesn’t come naturally. Be well.

  4. A few years ago my husband was nominated for a very prestigious award. We were flying to Houston where he would receive the award. The day before we were to leave he told me he was not feeling well. Next morning he was worse, but insisted on taking the trip, despite my pleas that we stay home. When we returned home two days later my husband could hardly move he felt so bad. He had pneumonia and a 105 fever. It had gotten so bad it scared his heart. Now he has to take heart medication every day to control atrial fibrillation. It took him almost dying to figure out how important taking care of yourself is, and that drive and determination is not always the answer. I’m glad you turned around and took care of yourself. If someone does not take care of themselves first, they can never take care of or help anyone else. Just like the oxygen masks on an air plane, you first then the baby….

    • I’m really sorry to hear about your husband. It puts my illness in perspective and makes me grateful to be reminded of some of these lessons in a relatively easy way. I hope your husband is using his “oxygen mask” regularly these days. : )

  5. Sorry you are under the weather in Chi-town. Atlanta will still be there for next time. Thinking healing thoughts your way.

  6. Kelly – thanks so much for sharing this. And for taking next week off.
    Sometime after I lost my health and medical career from working myself almost to death overseas, I asked my parents if they had ever met someone whom they both respected as working hard and with excellence and who also knew how to rest and respect their limitations. Their answer was no. I’m blessed now to know at least a few people who I’d put in that category but, sadly, they’re still rare. One of my desires in life is to live the truth that this is possible in a way that helps free others to do likewise. So thanks for taking this opportunity to model it!

    • Carolyn, thank you for this. Such people are rare. And may we become more and more like them!

  7. Hope everyone is well now. Congratulations to your wife in her book. I just happened to talk to someone last night who had decided to take one term off from nursing school. She also owns an educational childcare center and has two daughters, and she said she wanted to get it done quick but had realized she really needed a small break. I reminded her that it isn’t like she has nothing going on now so postponing that degree date isn’t so bad and that I have been stressing over not having a master’s or equivalent degree yet. I haven’t managed to figure out which degree it should be, and I feel pressure to get one even though no one is requiring me to rush to get one. I am trying to balance everything.

    • Catherine, may you find the balance and some understanding about what that internal sense of pressure is about for you.

  8. Take care of yourself, Dr. Flanagan, and your family! Your Health & Well Being are Always #1 !!! Feel Better!

  9. Great article and echoing others, I hope you and your family are feeling much better physically and emotionally.
    I certainly grew up with this mindset and it has led me to push myself beyond my limits on a regular basis. Inevitably I will crash and end up exhausted and angry at myself for my perfectly human limitations.
    I think the other problem with instilling the mantra that hard work can get you anywhere is that it doesn’t always. You can work hard and not get the grade or into the course or career you want. You can be a good kind person to others but it doesn’t mean that will be reciprocated. There is only so much influence we have and I think taken too far, an individual can end up with a control fallacy that will lead to deep disappointment. Its tricky to balance putting in your best effort while ensuring your own needs and health aren’t compromised in the process. It’s a hard one for parents to model well in our busy world when we are expected to be caregivers, income generators, community contributors, spouses, siblings and care for aging parents. It’s so brave to be someone who is comfortable in their limitations and not pushing beyond them to attain some sort of external or internal praise and sense of worth. Being as we are is enough.

    • Exactly, Natalie, you can run yourself into the ground, and there is still no guarantee everything will work out as we want it to. We just don’t have that much control over the world, and that is a good thing to accept!

  10. One more comment, to thank everyone for your well wishes. I feel blessed to be a part of such a kind and supportive community here at UnTangled. We are feeling better slowly, though still fatigued and dealing with residual coughs and such. We will continue to go easy on ourselves and I expect by my next post in two weeks, we’ll be close to full strength. Thank you again, everyone!

  11. After three days of pushing myself to the limit professionally, my body, my boyfriend and your blog today have finally told me enough. Thank you for sharing your experience and for renewing within me the truth that sometimes it is what you chose not to do that is really a calling of worth. It has been quite difficult of late to balance the demands of work and my personal life but I know that I need to step back, analyze and appreciate the fact that somethings can just wait until tomorrow. I hope you and your family are better, and thank you for sharing such renewing insight. It has definitely made an impression.

    • Ashley, I’m so glad I could contribute to the chorus of voices calling you to rest. I hope it has been a restorative week!

  12. I have been struggling recently with self confidence, self worth, self -belief. And as I reflect on the many things that I tell myself that “I do not do well enough”..my work is one of them. I have two young boys who are busy ( like mum and dad) and I have this imprint in my brain from growing up in the world where “woman can have it all” – hard work and persistence and we can be as good as…. Like you I believe in the value of hard work but have certainly underestimated the impact of not being able to complete things as I have in the past simply because there is not enough time. Sacrificing sleep and time with children and husband has a high price as well as being untenable in the long term… even in the short. I think the idea of embracing my limitations will go along way for my mental health and likely productivity because I may be better able to align my expectations with reality rather than with some ‘ideal’. An ‘Ideal’ which at this point in my life may not be attainable because I have a more important role in the lives of my boys. I remember listening to an interview with a very successful female scientist and her advice was ‘ Woman (and men) can ‘have it all’ over a lifetime but perhaps not all at one time. Thank you Kelly!

    • This reminds me of how Brene Brown talks about the pressure on women to do it all and “never let them see you sweat.” It often comes at the cost of health and well-being. I hope you can strike that balance!

  13. It is a shame that the phrase “good enough” has acquired a rather negative connotation… somehow implying that a job or effort could be better. Why? Good is… good. Enough is… enough. If ‘perfect’ is the enemy of ‘good’, and we yearn for contmentment, perhaps we should recognise that ‘good enough’ really is exactly that.

  14. Dear Dr. Flanagan,
    Here’s a virtual pot of chicken soup! Rest well. Take a lot of naps. Watch some comedy. Breathe.
    With much respect,

    • Abby, the comedy recommendation is right on. One of my favorite past times. Nothing more healing than a good laugh. : )

  15. Dear Kelly,
    I, like Carolyn Watts would like to thank you. Especially for teaching your children that accepting limitations does not mean lazy. I also worked myself into chronic ill health and have been unable to work for many years.
    We all tend to pride ourselves on our abilities and even if we do not count them as accomplishments of great worth (depending, I find, upon our own sense of self worth or lack thereof) we know what we are capable of if we push ourselves. We all tend to define ourselves by our profession and worse still, to do the same to others. So we push and push ourselves, damning others for coming to work ill and infecting us but priding ourselves on pushing through our illness and our bodies betrayal. Until one day you just can’t. And because of all that we have absorbed and made our truth, we condemn ourselves or others as “shirkers” or “lazy”, tell ourselves we need to suck it up and get on.
    The most blissful time I had was after a shoulder operation a few years back when, after pushing waaay too hard with my physio, I was told that for 2 weeks I could not drive or carry anything heavier than a teacup. All work was forbidden and I was told pain isn’t actually always gain. For two weeks I went for gentle walks, sat with the dog and read, allowed others to help me. I stopped and smelled the roses and life was good.
    Alas, I have not learnt the art even now of giving myself permission to rest.
    If we all learn to listen to our bodies and take time to be gentle with ourselves, maybe we could stop the burnout epidemic.

    • Exactly, Judy. It would be so good to learn, once and for all, to take rests before the body requires us to do so!

  16. SO Good!! Truly hit a nerve! Thank you once again for your insight and approach to topics that hit home! Much needed message at this time in my life!

  17. Kelly, I’m sorry you and your family were feeling so rotten. I’m glad you were able to find your own right decision in your circumstances, that you could find the lesson you wanted for your kids and separate it from the one they would get if you clung to what you’d planned and pushed for, and that you are taking time for recovery and rest together.

    I used to assume that I could push through anything — completed my Ph.D. while I had regularly recurring migraines and after moving hundreds of miles away from my committee mid-dissertation while working at another university — but learned that the School of Hard Knocks will find a way to drive home hard lessons when you think you have things lined up straight. Four years ago I had a severe concussion with several minutes loss of consciousness that required lengthy rehab and months of recovery during which very simple tasks were challenging. It was — and continues to be — very humbling.

    There are absolutely things that we must honor, caretake, and slow down for. A virus will linger if you try to push through it, and a concussion will drag two steps back when you push a little beyond the boundaries of a good cognitive stretch in the recovery period. We are all tragically, wonderfully human. And that’ll do.

    • Shel, thanks as always for your reflection. Your brain clearly came through intact; I love your insights. : )

  18. Hi Kelly….I can tell you that prior to my spinal injury I would push my body to its limits by working long hours, exercising with the Marines, keeping an immaculate house (always paying attention to the littlest details…) being an energetic Mom, etc.

    My moment of realization came when I went to Walmart to purchase a simple Charbroil grill. I had my brace on (this was post injury, but pre-surgery) and Travis and I were checking out a simple, small put-it-together yourself propane gas grill that was on the top shelf in the outdoor stuff isle….Travis looked at me and I looked at him… we both were trying to figure out how I could get that box from the top shelf into our cart.

    This very moment had a huge impact on me because I realized that I no longer could expect to always be able to “fend for myself.” It was quite humbling because I’d always been so capable of just about anything. On this day I had to walk around the store to find someone who could get that box down for me and put it into my cart. Of course it didn’t take long and soon we were on our way back home.

    The catch 22 here is that by not being able to do something for myself, I learned that its OK to ask another for help. But, I also learned that when you always want to do for yourself because you want to control every aspect of your life, you actually close the door of opportunity for others to want to do for you. What I mean by this is that sometimes things seems to be about “us,” but in reality they can’t always be about us. When we allow ourselves to be needy, we create an opportunity for another to be helpful to others..

    The young man who helped me get that grill off the top shelf and into my cart was so pleased with himself..he even followed us out to the car and put the box into the trunk..So at the end of the day, we have to not think of our limitations as limitations, but as opportunities for others to help us. With all the evil and selfish acts that humans commit everyday, its refreshing to give someone a reason to do something good.


    • Carolyn, this is a beautiful story and reflection, thank you for sharing it. It reminded me of the summer I herniated the disc in my back and had to sit by and watch your sister mow the lawn for me and do pretty much everything else that required any kind of physical strength. it was humbling. But it felt good to be cared for in that way. To learn that I was loved, even when I couldn’t contribute. Limitations as opportunities. That’s good stuff. Looking forward to the next time we get to come in your direction!

  19. Hi Kelly! Thank you so much for this article. It came perfectly timed in my life as I have also been battling on the edge of being sick but not wanting to rest because I have so much to do.
    I also publish a weekly blog post on my website. I have become very committed to this weekly publication, every Friday morning. Partly inspired by this post, yesterday I decided to take a week off publication. My body needed rest and I needed to give it permission to rest and recover. I also realized I needed to let myself focus on other aspects of my life to reach greater clarity. Thank you and wishing you a speedy and easy recovery. Enjoy the process and listening to your body and what it needs. With love, Emily

  20. It’s hard to admit that I’m limited. That working three jobs to take care of my family and pay the bills is too much for me to handle. I have been fighting this battle with accepting this idea, that I can’t handle how much I’m working right now, for a couple of months at least. I have prided myself on being strong for my family and doing whatever I have to to provide for them – do my part – but working 70 hours a week is wearing on my body and my spirit. I have so little energy to work on anything – any of my artistic and creative projects – at the end of the day.

    I can’t stop right now. There is no question that I have to be working as hard as I am right now to pay the bills and keep our house, but we’re working toward a smaller place with, hopefully, less bills. For now, I have to keep pushing myself forward but when the time comes I will admit that it’s too much and cut back on my hours. Probably even drop one of my jobs altogether.

    I just have to accept my human limitations and take care of myself. Take time for myself and to rest.

    • Absolutely, Seth, and I often work with people to start to organize the long-term plan around giving themselves more margin to work less. I hope you can find that, too!

  21. It is totally ok to take a week off from the reader. I understand it is such a ” not-to-do” thing in American marketing culture/ work enviroment. I love your blog, and it would be more than acceptable to accept that you skipped one week of blogging among all your wonderful articles ! 🙂 feel better. –Guang

  22. Pingback: The One Thing Worse Than Being Embarrassed (And How to Avoid It) | UnTangled
  23. Stumbled across this post while wandering around your wonderful site and had to comment even though I’m 2 months late to the party.

    I suffer from migraines which have got progressively worse over the last few years. My (admittedly, completely crazy) approach to them thus far has to been to battle through them as best I could; to try and make believe they’re not there and to try my very best not be slowed down by them.

    When I inevitably did get slowed down by them (because you know…debilitating neurological condition) instead of treating myself with any kind of compassion I mostly just got mad at them, and then often myself for having them. Genius!

    I refused to make any kind of concession to them, until the last one I had completely brought me to my knees. I was out in the countryside on my own working on a project, I felt a migraine coming but I ignored it as best I could and carried on truckin. 3 hours later I was in so much pain I seriously thought I was going to have to call for an ambulance. It was like nothing I’d ever felt. 2 days later I was still recovering. The muscles in my head and neck had been so tense it took me a good few days for them to stop aching.

    A day later my dog cut her leg badly, had to be put under anesthetic and consequently felt groggy and dreadful for a few days. The minute she felt crummy, she lay down and took care of herself. No fighting. No trying to run for the ball even though it hurt. Not a thought of it. No frustration. No anger. She just plopped herself down on the sofa and rested until her body said it was ok again.

    Full disclosure, many of my life lessons seem to come from my dog…but seeing the way that each of us had taken care of ourselves when our bodies had slowed us down was a real moment for me. I promised that I would take a leaf from her book and would never let push myself like that again.

    Later in the month I (finally) went to see a neurologist who told me that each and every time I had ‘battled on’, I was actually deepening the pain pathways in my brain. Each time I didn’t slow down, take care, be kind, I was not only creating a hell of a lot more suffering in the moment, but I was actually making it far more likely that I would experience more pain in the future.

    Mind blown. Lesson learnt.

    Hope you all got well soon!

    • Ali, better late than never. : ) Your comment is a blog post unto itself. We have a new puppy and he has a ton of energy, but, like you said, I’ve noticed that when he is tired, he just plops down and sleeps wherever he is. May we be so wise, right? I hope you are in the process of making new pathways in your brain. And, yes, we are finally feeling much better. Thank you!

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