The subject of “hard work” keeps coming up in my life. Not in appropriate places, such as the job site, but on the periphery of life as a concept, something to think about in the abstract, something to casually dissect to see if immutable truth can be separated from folk talkes and nonsense. Something to subject to analysis, not because I want to prove it wrong, but because I want to find the parts of the concept that are going to help me live a better life.
Hard Work, as it is generally presented to young people in need of advice, tends to be sold as a magical act. If you work hard, everything will work out. Hard work is the key to success. It takes no talent to hustle. If you want to make it look easy, you’ve got to work hard.
Hard work is lauded with regularity, and I wonder if it is this routine celebration of something that is seldom defined that has caused hard work to take on a kind of mystic halo that obscures the real thing that sits at the core.
I feel an urge to deconstruct these ideas that we have about hard work, but unfortunately even after the stretches of time that I have thought about the subject, I still can’t seem to put my finger on hard work as a mythology. Maybe I should leave that kind of stuff to cultural anthropologists. Lots has been said on the subject. A favorite book of mine is Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America by Tom Lutz. If I remember correctly, he dismantled the American work ethic and the mythology of hard work pretty well.
So instead of pissing around with useless interpretation that will be done in eventual time, if it hasn’t been done already, I think it would be more useful to detail some of the things that I know for sure about hard work.
1. Hard work good and hard work fine, but not always. All work is not equal. Some work is more important that other work. And here I don’t mean that cleaning the latrine is less important than being president of the USA. Instead I mean that it’s less important to hose the latrine out if you haven’t dumped the sanitage yet. First things first. You’ve got to think. You’ve got to plan. The power of hard work is neutralized when you jump in and get going before you even know what you’re doing.
2. Hard work is for you, not for them. On a job, you work as hard as you can at the task you’re assigned. Even if you know that the task is unnecessary. (Yes, it’s recommended to try to point out inefficiencies when possible, but often enough the “problem” will be fixed by eliminating the guy that’s making it visible. The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.) But as you kill yourself to acheive nothing, remember that you are not doing this for the boss, the company, your colleagues or anyone else. You are working hard for your own purposes. You took the job for a reason, whether it be the money, the benefits, the resume entry or to stay out of prison. Always re-evaluate your work situation, but when you’re there work hard to the point that it’s necessary in order to be a good employee. Still, don’t waste your time working hard if no one knows about it. Despite any propaganda that might say otherwise, there is no team. You work for you. For several reasons, being a team player will make your life easier at work. But ultimately your motives are still selfish, aren’t they? Less grief, less stress. Maybe the best way to say it is that when you’re working at a “job” (ie something you wouldn’t do if you weren’t getting money for it) you want to get as much money as you can at the least cost of effort and spirt to yourself.
Off the job is different. You may have a family, and that requires work. You may be single. That also requires work. You have a yard, or a pet or a hobby or any of a thousand other things that are important to you just because they’re important to you. You put effort into these things and no one tells you twice to work hard. And that’s all for you. Nothing could be simpler.
Simultaneously, there is that aggravating crap that comes up in life that promises no financial gain or personal satisfaction, but still must be conquered because the result of ignoring it would result in disaster. These things are called problems. They must be eliminated with all haste.
It’s normal to grumble about the work that problems require. You shouldn’t have to be doing this, you say. Why do you have to go downtown on your day off? Why do you have to spend hours on the phone hassling with the insurance company? Why do you have to pick the neighbors dog crap up off the lawn every morning? Etcetera etcetera.
The fact is, though, if you didn’t have the specific problems you have, you would have other problems. The world is problematic and always falling apart. In nature, the floors are always dirty. Nothing is ever exactly how we would like it to be, because as human beings we have an unalterable need for things to be other than they are. So much suffering goes away when you accept the fact that maintenance is inevitable. Fix it and move on.
3. Hard work now makes easy work later. Stamina is measured by our upper limit of exertion. The higher that upper limit, the easier the average things become. The classic illustration of this fact is the man-on-deck in a baseball game swinging two or three bats to make swinging one feel all the more easy. And since the harder you work now the easier your work will feel later no hard work is ever completely pointless. At the very least you are contributing to your stamina. So why not push a little further every time? Go the extra inch in everything you do and by the end of every day you will have gone the extra mile.
4. Hard work impresses people. Usually it’s not the boss. Bosses, for some reason, never give enough credit where credit is due. Maybe it’s part of their job. (And also, incidentally, maybe it is why we are always our worst critics, because in reality we all work for ourselves.) But your coworker, your customer, your friend or family member may be watching closely enough to see that you are busting your ass. Maybe. Often times not. So much work goes unnoticed. But still, you never know. It’s not rare for someone to admire hard work and say absolutely nothing about it. The point, fortunately, is not to garner compliments, but to improve your image. Yes, image is important because perception has such an effect on everything. If you are seen as a hard worker, that perception will prevail even when you aren’t putting your whole self into the project. There is a thing called “confirmation bias”. If you aren’t aware of this phenominon, Google it now. I will define it quickly for you in any case: Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to find evidence for things they already believe. Whether that thing be right or wrong, the human mind has a way of supporting what has already been decided. Once you are aware of this psychological phenominon, you should start seeing it all around you. (… though this itself may be an instance of the phenominon, which leads to some paradoxes. That is another subject.)
5. What else are you going to do? You’ve got things to do. They aren’t going to go away. There’s no way around it, you’ve got to do your work. So why not make the most of it and do your best job? Of course, this goes beyond working hard. To do your best requires attention and care. But working hard is a good start. Roll up your sleeves, remind your body who’s in charge and dive right in. It’ll be over soon enough.