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Exploring the oddities of the work ethic

Many of the choices people make about work are based on a set of conventional values collectively termed the Puritan Work Ethic. I think this group of beliefs is false, outmoded, and generally counter-productive. Even if you accept the idea of the Work Ethic at face value, it contains some notable oddities. Looked at more closely, it has almost nothing to recommend it.

According to 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. Effort is in, taking life easily is definitely likely to lead to all kinds of moral ills.

Part of this nonsense that what is hard work is also valuable is based on the childish view that anything that tastes bad must be good for you. Another part comes from the (typically American) tendency to attach moral values to almost everything (more about that in a future posting). 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.

Putting a high value on sheer effort only makes sense in the learning phases. Surely the purpose of learning is to be able to do things with greater ease? If you mere value effort all the time, you devalue the idea of learning. The effortless actions of the expert are worth less than the stumblings and mis-steps of the most hopeless beginner.

What is it about hard work that is so meritorious in itself?

It’s hard to get away from the notion that struggling to achieve something increases its value. After all, doesn’t all that effort and striving count for anything?

From the individual’s point of view, the answer has to be “yes.” If I have to exert all my strength and determination to get to some goal, of course I’m going to feel triumph; and the volume of effort I had to expend to get there will increase my sense of joy and relief in arriving. Subjectively, what I had to work hardest to achieve is almost bound to feel most valuable to me. But that doesn’t mean that it is valuable at all, in any objective way.

Suppose I’m a criminal and the object of all that struggle and effort was to bring off a major robbery successfully? Does the undoubted hard work and effort expended make the criminal element somehow less important and the achievement more valuable? Should a hard-working, determined criminal get a lesser sentence than a lazy one?

Isn’t what I am seeking to achieve the true source of its objective value — not the effort it takes me to do it? We praise children when they produce something that, by purely objective standards, isn’t very good. After all, we want to encourage them and recognize what it takes, as a child, to do things most adults do easily. But why carry that attitude over to the adult world? Are there no objective standards of quality? Does everything have to be valued by how it feels, rather than what it is?

In adult life, effort is more likely to be a sign of incompetence

We recognize expertise in large part by the way the expert makes extremely difficult actions seem effortless. Where we would huff and puff, and grit our teeth, and produce a pitiful result, the expert smiles and brings off a brilliant outcome without visible effort. 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.

Effort and determination are needed to learn; but when learning has become expertise, the true sign of excellence is that even difficult things can be done effortlessly. 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.

Happiness is what comes easily

If you want to be happy, leave the Puritan Work Ethic way of thinking behind you. Work is mostly what people do to earn a living. There’s no logical reason why it should be hard work.

The English language contains many words with multiple meanings and “work” is one of them. In part, it means “effort;” but, in the sense of “gainful employment,” there’s every reason to aim for a state where what you do contains little or no work (in the sense of effort and striving) at all.

Don’t fall for the nonsense of a value system based on the Puritan Work Ethic. Those puritans believed everything about this world was evil, especially if it happened to be fun and enjoyable. They were only happy “mortifying the flesh,” like their extreme fundamentalist descendants.

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 to you and you’ll get better results — and have a happier life as a result.

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