We are told that hard work is to be respected, admired even – a good work-ethic is considered a good character trait and one that should be instilled in children. But why is this the case?
Evolutionarily, it seems to make sense that hard work led to survival and laziness led to danger – a prehistoric human who was diligent about his evening shelter and stayed on the lookout for predators would likely have fared much better than one that didn’t. It is also true that in the modern day it is much nicer to work or live alongside someone who is hard-working and does what they say they are going to; simply being alive means that there are things to be done, and when those things get done it makes life easier for everyone. However, it is not the case that hard work, especially when taken to excess, is inherently a good thing – think about the man who works long hours at the expense of his family and children, or the woman who stresses herself into a corner because of overwork. An equally dangerous trap to fall into is to forget the ‘why?’ behind the work, and view hard work as an end in itself rather than a means to something else that has actual value.
I can’t comment on everybody’s experience, but my own experience has been that the narrative of hard work is often disseminated in masochistic terms. There is a belief that overcoming the pain barrier required to work hard is where the value is, because pushing through the mental barrier is useful in and of itself – it helps us perform better in the future and helps us overcome our limitations. This is a ‘drill sergeant’ form of hard work; a “Fix you face, Soldier!”, “We were not built to be average!”, “15 more seconds!” form of hard work. It involves pushing through the moment where you cannot go further and making it to the other side. It is an industrialized version of hard work – conflating what is admirable in a person with what is valuable in a machine. Machines can run non-stop without getting tired. Humans cannot, nor should they try to.
I contend that the masochistic attitude towards hard work is not just incorrect, but that it approaches work from the wrong angle, one that is devoid of moralistic language. It is a form of hard work rooted in talk of efficiency, optimization, and results, rather than values and virtues.
A more mature attitude is to frame hard work in moral terms – where hard work is seen as an act of courage. The mature hard-worker is not driven by some hollow desire to ‘be better’ or to have admiration thrown upon him – it is not hard work motivated by ego. Similarly, he is not a “Zen” hard-worker, able to anesthetize himself to the pain of the work, which arguably is what the act of instilling good discipline and work-ethic in children tries to do. It is not that he blindly does what is asked of him while ignoring the toll it takes on his mind and body.
Instead, his motivation for working hard comes from an honest appreciation of the difficulty of the task ahead, perhaps also of his own shortcomings, and yet he opts to still take on the challenge. Courage comes from being able to look at the size of the mountain to be climbed, and continue to the summit despite being scared, daunted, and wanting to turn back. The two components are: first, a sincere assessment of the size of the impending hardship, and second, a conscious decision to walk towards the hardship rather than away from it, because of what is on the other side. Hard work is valuable because it involves an element of self-sacrifice for something that is greater than the self.
The naïve approach is to work hard and ‘do whatever it takes’ long before the ‘whatever it takes’ is known. I contend that there is no courage in this approach, it is simply a kind of indoctrination. Instead, the real value in work comes when someone is able to formulate a vision of the world they want to live in – maybe that means buying their own house, or living a particular lifestyle, or getting a bill passed, or stopping a bill from being passed, or making a change in the way education works, or helping people with mental illness – and once this vision has been formed, then being able to entertain and comprehend the amount of work necessary to achieve the outcome, and being daunted by the size of the task but holding strong enough to the original vision to go ahead and ‘do whatever it takes’.
The reason hard work, when viewed in this way, is courageous is because more often that not the size of the mountain is terrifically frightening. Most of the time, when we have some ambitious challenge placed before us, it requires an enormous amount of perseverance, dedication, and exertion to achieve, and for someone to be able to look honestly and clearly at what is to be done, and still go ahead with doing it – that is admirable. It is like standing up for a weaker child against a bully, or going into battle as a soldier. Hard work when formalized in this way is valuable because it is a choice of the difficult over the easy.