The Pathology of “Hard Work”

In praise of not working like a fool.

“I’m good so long as I’m doing lots of work”

This first piece is typically explicated in terms of a lingering Protestant ethic, an artefact from a time when work was surely more necessary — and thus more virtuous — than it is today. What we’re currently experiencing, on this view, is something like a philosophical hangover from a bygone era.

Good honest toil!

“I’m only working hard if it hurts”

We haven’t only been programmed to conflate work with virtue, we’ve also been programmed to glorify “hard” work in particular — as in painful work, work that hurts. Evidently, the perceived virtue of work isn’t just in working to serve ourselves, our families or the public good — in doing what needs to be done — it’s in suffering all the while. That’s why we’re so inclined to indulge in complaint. Why we take pride in the “grind,” fetishise our hardship. We wear our suffering as a badge of honour, a symbol of our strength and courage. We’re idiots, in other words.

On work-life balance

It is curious — but not surprising given the background — that we tend to think of our lives in dichotomous terms, as consisting of two parts: work and life. Balance, we’re told, is key to negotiating this dichotomy. As in work-life balance. Work some, live some — die some. While it’s a practical prescription, and a reasonable enough one on its face, it also captures something of our fundamental ignorance. For there is only life and what we do with it. And our willingness to cede at least half of this precious experience — and generally much more than half — to what we ultimately consider some sort of noble sacrifice — that is, work — represents a tragic failure of vision. Ultimately, the enlightened goal couldn’t possibly be to strike a balance between these two apparent dimensions of the human experience. Surely, it must be to render the very distinction absurd — to create an existence where the boundaries between work and life are porous to the point of invisible. Work should bleed freely and unforgivingly into life, and life into work. For in the end they are one and the same. It’s all Life. And our responsibility, should you believe in such a quaint notion, is to spend it wisely — not industriously. Let the machines work. Let us Live.

On capitalism and the economic imperative

Should you happen to be attuned to the affairs of the ethereal, you shall have noticed a specter looming in the background here — the specter of capitalism. For whatever role Protestantism and the Christian idolatry of suffering plays in this pathology of ours, it pales in comparison to the broader phenomenon of capitalism and its economic imperative. We work lots and we work hard, above all, because we’re embedded in a system that encourages it — indeed that appears to depend upon it. We are economic actors in an economic system, primed to pursue economic incentives. This, I figured, should go without saying — yet here I am saying it. However, it should also be noted that neither our working lots nor our working hard is necessarily best aligned with even our economic incentives. More important, from a purely economic perspective, than the quantity of work we endure (and its resultant pain) is the quality — that is, the substance — of the work we do. Not all work is equally economically valuable, of course. The particular vector we work along — the type of work we do — is more important than how hard or fast we travel along any given one. In a world of ultimate leverage — unfathomable leverage — the game is to find the points of, well, ultimate — unfathomable — leverage. Work that no-one else is doing. Work that needs doing. Work that’s the worthwhile doing. Work that — perhaps — only you can do. But only if you like.

The real Work

Most perverse of all, the pursuit of productivity — our sadomasochistic obsession with grinding and hustling and #winning — distracts us from what is, in the end, the only real Work. In our mindless race towards more, we neglect the one thing that really matters: our humanity. See, the implicit premise of all our striving is that, so long as we just secure enough stuff — enough capital, enough accolades, enough friends, enough objects — we’ll be Whole again. But in chasing the world “out there,” we forget to tend to the world “in here,” — our inner world, our hearts and minds.

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