What Is a Good Work Ethic?


I’ve been complimented by several people recently about my work ethic, and while I appreciate those compliments, I’m still trying to figure out whether that work ethic is a blessing or a curse.

Really, what is a good work ethic?

I’ve heard a lot over the years that younger generations don’t understand the value of hard work, so if we don’t understand it, how would we know what constitutes hard work these days?

In my own life and business, I’m simply searching for the right balance — not being a workaholic, but also not being lazy or afraid to get my hands dirty, break a sweat, or pay my dues. Where is the happy medium between those two extremes?

I’ve heard many times that “overnight success” takes a long time and a lot of effort to achieve. There are times when I think, “Will I ever get there?” (wherever there is), and I usually follow that question with, “Am I just expecting too much too quickly? Have I really worked long enough and hard enough to deserve success?”

There are many times when I know that I work very hard for long hours, but then the internal debate becomes, “Am I a workaholic?”

I know I have the strength to bring seemingly huge projects to completion in short amounts of time with very concentrated effort, but what does that mean? Does it mean I have a “feast or famine” work ethic, or does it mean I’m hard-wired to work intensely for a certain length of time and then be completely off for a certain length of time to recoup? I don’t know the answer.

Maybe it’s a crazy debate, but I think it’s easy for web workers especially to become workaholics and not have a healthy mix of work, physical health and relaxation and fulfilling relationships.

What are your thoughts? What do you think constitutes a good work ethic?

Image from Flickr by Pixel Addict


James Chen

Hi Amber,

I just discovered your article today, in my search to find a way to install a good work ethic.

I think a good work ethic is installed in you as you’re growing up, in areas like hard work and discipline and knowing that if you work, you can build a life. My parents were Chinese immigrants and worked all hours of the day for my brother and me. Unfortunately, that work ethic wasn’t taught to us — they instead wanted us to be lawyers or doctors, and constantly belittled me for not being good enough. This isn’t about blaming them, though, it’s just backstory.

I’m now in my 30s, have worked in meaningless jobs just for the money and been underappreciated all along, and really feel an absence of a work drive. I really envy those who trained in an artistic field early, as I secretly wished this for me when I was growing up. Now I feel at a dead end, really really reluctant to work for somebody else, and yet have no alternative.

Best wishes,



A key part of the work ethic is submission. The early Protestants knew this and capitalized on it. Submission to God can best be achieved by submitting to man, in this case, the boss. If you don’t do everything the boss says, how, and when he says, you have no work ethic worth mentioning.

I think this is a major failing of the work ethic.


A good work ethic is ploughing as much energy and passion into what you love as possible. The wrong work ethic is going along with everyone else’s ideas about what makes work virtuous. What makes it valuable, and why we should do it.

Never just settle for mediocrity because that’s what the world ordered. The real work ethic that you want to cultivate is a view whereby you love to ‘work’. That point where work becomes play. This is a point at which you will never have to worry about having the right work ethic ever again.

I’ve recently written a blog post on why the western work ethic is wrong, which is highly relevant to this discussion, and I think you’ll find it interesting;


Karen Cleveland

Sometimes thinking about the opposite can help define something.

I visualized someone who did NOT have a good work ethic and the first thing I noticed was that person’s attitude. The body was there but the heart wasn’t. Even if the “work” got done well and timely, I wouldn’t say the person had a good work ethic.

A person with a good work ethic doesn’t complain or resent that the work needs to be done; they just dig in and do it. Maybe diligently, day after day. Maybe full out till the task is complete. Either way; their attitude is the same – Let’s get the job done!

Just my take…


Accountability, accountability, accoutability. I may work on a very small minute detail or mistake for a client, and I get vocal and harried (yes, harried) by coworkers about “why all the fuss?” or “it’s no big deal” but it’s because I still know it’s MY work, and MY name and I want the reward, not the punishment. Clients love the attention, bosses (good ones) like when they don’t have to micro manage you to death. Danny Bonaduce said to a guy on his radio show “don’t go back to selling drugs. I know your minimum wage job may suck but the only way to make it bearable and turn it into anything is to do the best damn job you can!”

Danny Bonaduce. Go figure.

Amber Riviere

Hello, everyone, and thanks for commenting! You all make great points.

For me, I know I’m able to get down to the work and get things done without a problem. Mostly, my issue is figuring out a good rhythm of working and taking time off to recharge. I’m a churner. If you give me something to do, I won’t stop until it’s done, which is the way I work best, but at the end of all that churning, I have to recharge (have to), or I end up feeling spent and losing my enthusiasm for the work. I love what I do and wouldn’t want to do anything else, but figuring out the right “blend,” as Katy’s friend says, calls for a lot of experimentation and taste-testing!

Great conversation, everyone! I’m glad you all chimed in to comment.


Hi Amber – great post to make us all think about how we work and how hard we work. I try to work on things that energize and excite me (thereby adding to my life vs. taking away from it). It’s not always possible – sometime you have to slog through some drudge work – but if I find that my work is draining my life away I make a change. I agree with J.T. though – our generation holds different values than others and part of my balance includes working flexible hours so I can be there when my son comes home from school. To me a person with a good work ethic is someone who is passionate about their work AND their home life and finds ways to integrate both things successfully. A friend of mine once said that he doesn’t have a work/life balance anymore, he has a work/life blend.

Eugene Kan

If you take into consideration “work ethic” and sports, I think it’s something a little easier to envision. Somebody who works tirelessly at their trade and puts in the work that is often not glamorous or fun but ultimately necessary.

You can have the greatest work ethic but personal incompetence, narrow mindedness and the inability to learn from your mistakes will all work against you. Yet I still feel that work ethic is by and large the greatest precursor to success, more so than talent cause it’s doing the necessary but “un-fun” work that contributes the most to overall success.

Tyler WebCPA

What’s wrong with being a workaholic? If you have a passion and drive for your business or profession than perhaps you don’t need “balance” and distractions. Of course, keep the priorities first. Making time for loved ones is essential, what’s the point of success if you can share it with the people you love?

J.T. O'Donnell

Hi Amber,

I think your observation about how more seasoned workers (from older generations) are complimenting you is very interesting.

Generational differences are a bigger deal that most people realize these days in the workplace. Definitions of terms like “professional,” “loyalty” and “work ethic” actually vary widely between age groups.

I think I would respond like you if someone from an older generation complimented my work ethic. Many of us from younger generations (I’m an Xer)don’t agree with Boomers or GI generations definitions. (i.e work long hours, sacrifice your family, health, etc.) So, to your point, the compliment could cause someone worry.

I don’t see myself as a work-o-holic, but like you, I’m able to ‘kick it in gear’ when needed. Also, I feel grateful to have a career that I love so much that I don’t mind working long hours.

Do I struggle with the balance? Yep. I’ve come to accept that it will always be something I have to work on. But, at the end of the day, I think I’d take my situation over someone who has no drive, ambition or excitement for their work.

How about you?

Angela May

I think being able to ask (and someday answer) those questions is part of having a good work ethic!

I think this is a topic that deserves more consideration, certainly, but at the end of the day I’d say that a person with good work ethic:
1) Knows how to figure out WHAT needs to be done
2) Gets things done consistently and
3) Knows how to take breaks and unwind… because you can’t keep up your “good work ethic” if you’ve had a nervous breakdown!

Great post, good luck with your work!


This is a good post. I think it is important to have good work ethic, but not to forget that a smart work ethic goes just as far. You’re right about web workers too. I know a few people who work on web ventures from home and they end up working an additional 5 hours after their day job. Unfortunately, none of which are very successful and their hourly pay comes out to about $4.00…

I’m not sure that is smart work ethic :)


Barbara Saunders

I think what’s important is getting things done. Period. If one can get things done with a “bad work ethic,” no need to change it!


amber – i think it’s the actual definition of “work ethic” and the actual work being done that causes the generational rift. my grandfather doesn’t see a computer as a facilitator of output. at the end of the day, there’s no tangible product for him to evaluate. therefore, me cranking out 14 hours at my desk working on multiple projects doesn’t resonate with him. so for us web folk, your work ethic as viewed by your peers/colleagues is what’s important. it’s not what’s solely “important” in life, but if we want to set any sort of scale for “work ethic,” we should define it according to the audience.


Simon Mackie

That’s a good point, Dave — older generations don’t understand a lot of the work that’s done today to be “work.”

Phillip Flores

Personally, I think good work ethic is simply doing your main job (whatever that is e.g. being a gardener or ceo of a large organisation) in the best manner possible (some even say ‘professionally done’); working intensely, not giving in to useless distraction, being available to provide assistance at work, happy to take and give suggestions, etc. It also means that your work has its place in your entire life i.e. family life, social life, and other obligations also have to be attended to.

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