Thursday, March 22, 2020
Does it have to taste bad to do you good?
Many of the choices people make about work are based on that set of conventional values collectively termed the Puritan Work Ethic. I have explained before that I believe this group of beliefs is outmoded and counterproductive. Yet, even if you accept the Work Ethic at face value, it contains some notable oddities, especially the idea that effort confers value by itself.
According to popular belief, derived from the Puritan Work Ethic, a major part of the value of any action comes from the effort it takes to achieve. Something that demands a long period of extreme effort and determination will be worth more than whatever comes to you easily.
This may—possibly—have contained some small truth when applied to activities that required either the skill that comes from years and years of experience or manual dexterity. However, it makes little sense when you apply it to knowledge work.
If knowledge-work activity takes great effort and determination, that must mean one or more of these descriptions apply:
- It’s something you have never done before, you are not competent in doing it, or you lack the know-how and training required. Basically, you are out of your depth.
- It’s something you haven’t done for a long time, so you are extremely rusty. Once again, this means you are not competent.
- You hate doing whatever it is, you have no interest or aptitude for it, and you are only involved because you have no choice. As a result, you are likely to be unmotivated as well as incompetent.
The major confusion is between the determination and effort needed to do something difficult and what it takes to learn how to do it.Part of the nonsense that what is hard work is also valuable is based on the childish view that to be good for you “medicine” must taste bad. You can almost hear the worried parent saying: “I know that it tastes awful, but it’ll do you good, I promise.” But the major confusion is between the determination and effort needed to do something difficult and what it takes to learn how to do it. Many worthwhile things take a good deal of effort to learn, but that doesn’t mean they should also be very laborious to do once you have learned how to do them.
It’s worth the effort to learn something well precisely because it makes doing it easy, once you have learned enough. If you follow the reasoning of the Puritan Work Ethic, learning to do something easily devalues it. To stay with high-value work, you would always need to be doing whatever you do with least ease: things you are poor at and do badly.
Part of the perverted thinking behind the Puritan Work Ethic is the idea that “mortifying the flesh” is a good thing: that the joys and pleasures of this world are temptations that take your mind away from heavenly things. If you think this way, you almost have to see ease and pleasure as somehow evil. I believe that very few people truly believe that this is the case, but some of this thinking still hangs around in the opposite belief that what costs you pain is somehow better. Americans, in particular, suffer from a residue of puritanical values from their past, which is probably why they see Europeans as likely to be lazy and prone to a lack of serious morals.
What is work? Surely it’s mostly what people do to earn a living. There’s no logical reason why it should be hard work. Work that hurts is in no way better than work that is fun. The English language contains many words with multiple meanings and “work” is one of them. In the sense of gainful employment, there’s every reason to aim for a state where work contains little or no “work” (in the sense of effort and striving) at all.
Don’t fall for the nonsense of the Puritan Work Ethic. Those puritans believed everything about this world was evil, especially if it happened to be fun and enjoyable. If something is hard work for you, even after you’ve spent time practicing and learning how to do it properly, give it up. Focus on doing what comes easily. You’ll get better results and have a happier life.
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