The Pathology of “Hard Work”

In praise of not working like a fool.

Of all the ideologies that pervade the present moment, the ideology of “hard work” — the “grind” — is among the most pathological. Not because it’s the most perverse, on its face, but because it’s so pernicious. It takes what is, on some level, a bona fide virtue — that is, doing what needs to be done — and twists into something psychotic: doing as much of anything — for it really doesn’t matter so long as it’s something, so long as you can tell people you did it and how hard it was — as humanly possible. It’s a most subtle malady that plagues the modern condition. A malady that masquerades as a sign of health. A malady in disguise.

There are two strands to this pathology, as I see it. There is the “I’m good so long as I’m doing lots of work” piece, and then there’s the “I’m only working hard if it hurts” piece. While they’re related, for sure, it pays — I suggest — to treat them separately. So let’s

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.

As with all behaviour, it helps to look at this phenomenon through the evolutionary prism. Through this lens, Protestantism — and the ethic of work it endorses— can be viewed as a clever adaptive strategy to what was once our evolutionary niche — our set of environmental circumstances. It served an obvious function: it ensured we got shit done — when we had lots of shit to be done — so that we stayed alive. So that we didn’t perish. And here we still are.

However, things have evolved — as they do. We no longer occupy the same niche as our great grandparents or theirs before them. Indeed we inhabit a rather different set of circumstances. No doubt, there’s still plenty of genuine work to be done — work necessary in order to sustain our lives and advance the common cause — but the necessity of work is, for a growing percentage of us, no longer the primary driver of our working. Most of us — a privileged set, to be sure — will have a roof over our heads — our basic needs tended to — whether we work 30 or 100 hours a week. And yet curious few of us are satisfied with the former.

“The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life.”

Bertrand Russell

In large part, we now work because we’ve been told that working is inherently valuable, inherently virtuous. We’ve been indoctrinated into the ideology of “hard work”. Many of us by our parents — bless their sweet souls — who embodied this ideology themselves. Work is Good, we’re told, and the opposite of work is laziness — which is Bad. Thus in order to win the adoration of those around us, and the broader culture, we orient towards the Good — towards work. Whatever that is.

Beyond the moral element, and above all, we view work as our ticket to improving our lot in life. Our material wealth, our social standing, and the rest of it. Although we’re told that work is inherently valuable — and perhaps some of us even buy the notion on some level — we’re driven, in practice, rather more by the promised or perceived ends of work — that is, the things we hope it will give us, so long as we sacrifice enough. “Work is an end in itself,” the soft voice of our inner Protestant whispers, but “GET THAT MONEY!,” the powerful voice of desire commands.

Good honest toil!

Work, it seems, is the modern vehicle by which we express our craving— our yearning for more. More success, more friends, more things, more wealth, more — and this is really It— love. You can also think of it, if you like, as the contemporary means by which we seek to return to wholeness, and, on the darker side of things — if it’s more your style — the means by which we seek to reconcile — and by reconcile I mean ignore entirely — the fact of our inevitable death. It’s an existential tool, in other words. Something we wield in order to cope with our cosmic plight. Be that as it may, however, it’s a blunt tool — and generally wielded to ill-effect.

The real value that working represents, the potential virtue underneath the pathology, is simply striving — a manifestation of the impulse towards life that courses through all our veins. Striving is akin to life itself, however, in that it can be used for an infinite array of ends — both Good & Bad. Should we wield it to the genuine betterment of ourselves, and the world around us, ‘tis a virtue. However, should we wield it towards the amplification of our neuroses, a means of feeding our desire/insecurity, ‘tis a most dangerous weapon. A sharp axe in a child’s hand.

“Work” is the culturally embodied interpretation of this impulse — this primal energy. It’s the default opinion as to what we ought to do with it. That is, what we ought to do with our lives. “Live to work,” has thus become the default, embedded philosophy. “Just Do It” an institutional expression of the “don’t question, don’t wonder, just work” industrial ethos. “Shut up and work” the mantra we mumble to ourselves, as we meander through our days.

To be sure, work isn’t evil. It can in fact be satisfying, inspiring, redemptive — indeed, virtuous. But most often it’s not. Most often our orientation towards work represents our lack of imagination, our lack of having found anything better to do with our time, our deferral to the norms of the present moment, our imitation impulse.

Again it’s not that work can’t be good, even. Indeed, some of us will be lucky, in these lives of ours, to find work we find deeply meaningful in and of itself. Work that suffuses our lives with purpose. Work that aids in our evolution. We might even enjoy it. But it is not the work that makes our lives meaningful — our lives are equally meaningful prior to our picking up a shovel. Our worth as Beings, our value as expressions of the infinite — if you’ll allow the indulgence — isn’t contingent; it’s not predicated on anything. Indeed our lives are inherently valuable, they’re made of meaning. Meaning is what we are.

Finding meaning or self-worth in work is thus akin to digging soil in order to find dirt — the dirt is what you’re digging! The dirt is all around you, should you only look.

As good as work can be, in the end, it’s not the answer to man’s search for meaning any more than sex is the answer to man’s search for satisfaction. There is just as much meaning in a cup of tea, in its stillness, than there is any amount of labour — physical, intellectual or otherwise. Meaning is the air we breathe, meaning is the sun rising, meaning is the tides changing. Meaning is this — and everything else.

But what about the state of the world?! you demand. As in kids starving, planet warming, plagues festering — existential threats as far as the eye can see! What, we’re supposed to just sit around and watch!? Drink a cup of tea? Enjoy the stillness, perhaps?

Well, no. Chill. That’s not what I’m saying — not quite. If you happen to be working on things that really matter — as in things that will ultimately ensure the world keeps spinning on its right axis — keep working, please. Keep working lots, even. The world needs lots of people working lots on important things. The world needs good people doing good work. But remember, if this is you, that you are valuable and you do good work. You are not valuable because you do good work.

Most of us, if we strike a candid moment with ourselves, aren’t doing particularly good work, though. We might be doing the best we can, sure, but that doesn’t mean the fait of the world hangs in the balance of our every move — our every email. See, it’s one thing to convince oneself that one is doing important work that will make an existential difference, another thing to actually do important work that will make an existential difference. Having the self-awareness to appreciate where we are, where our own work lies, is helpful here — lest we spend our lives running on the hamster wheel under the deluded pretence of “making a difference”. Simply, it pays to know the difference — between reality and illusion — especially if you plan on making a difference for real.

“Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying: ‘Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.’ But I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”

Bertrand Russell

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.

The idolatry of pain and suffering is likely another Christian thing. As in Jesus and the cross and dying for our sins and how nice and noble that is and all the rest of it. It probably runs deeper, too — who knows, I’m not Jesus. But let’s say it is. Let’s say it’s another Christian hang-up, like sex. It’s stupid. Suffering is a fact of human life. We will all experience some amount of it — and likely some amount more than is necessary — pretty well no matter what. And though it provides scope for the development of virtue — it can serve as the grindstone against which we sharpen our spirit — it’s not a virtue in itself. It’s not something to be worshipped or glorified. Rather it’s something to be overcome — transcended, in the best case, entirely. Be a Buddha, in other words, not a Jesus — the former spent his days in Bliss, while the latter died on a fucking cross, and for what? Our sins? A public holiday?

Contrary to popular opinion, the “hardness” of our work has no bearing on its value; its aesthetic and moral quality in no way proportionate to its difficulty — that is, how much it exacts of us. Despite the romantic allure of the tortured artist archetype — a subtle allure, but it’s there — a work of art is made no better by the artist’s kicking and screaming along the way. And so it is with the rest of human labour. Though the suffering we endure through work may fortuitously gift us, the suffering itself is very rarely the point. The point, if there is one, is not suffering but what suffering reveals. For sometimes it takes darkness to realise there is light to be found — that light is worth being found. Make no mistake, though, it’s the light — not the darkness — we’re after.

“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.”

Bertrand Russell

If we find our work truly painful and yet persist, it tells us more — on average — about the level of our stupidity than it does our moral character. Either we’re doing work we have no business doing — “shit work,” I believe is the technical term — or we’re simply oriented towards it in such a way that it causes unnecessary suffering. In neither case is the appropriate directive ‘put your head down and keep grinding’. The more prudent advice, it would seem, is something more like “well, do something about it”. Stop suffering. Work on something else, perhaps, or reframe the relationship. For work doesn’t have to be a bitch. On the contrary, it should a be a pleasure, something to be cherished.

So write your great novel, if you must, but treat every sentence as a gift — an offering from the divine. And leave the pretensions of torture aside. You are no martyr — nor should you aspire to be. One Jesus is enough.

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.

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.

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.

The real Work is simple (though not always easy): tending to our ourselves and our fellow Beings, becoming fully human. If we ever come to occupy anything even approximating utopia, it will be, rest assured, because we finally realised that the real game is the internal one — the infinite game — not because we pursued the economic imperative to the extreme or, I’m sorry to say, adopted Bitcoin as our default currency. Indeed, until we fully appreciate that the “below” inevitably becomes the “above” — that “without” can’t help but mirror “within” — we shall remain forever treading water, playing finite games with finite resources with infinitesimal success.

The real Work is within — the rest is child’s play.

Alright, now that’s enough work for one day…