Just a few months ago I wrote about how I thought my attitude towards work was more like that of a member of the upper class in the Edwardian era than that of a modern American.

Just this past week two similar articles peaked my interest and offered some insight. William Deresiewicz writes of the American obsession with work:

To every age its virtue. For the Greeks, courage; the Romans, duty; the Middle Ages, piety. Our virtue is industriousness, in the industrial age. (It is one that would have been incomprehensible to other times. The Greeks had a word for people who worked harder than anyone else: slaves.) It is the Protestant ethic, in other words, made general by the Victorians as the factories rose. That it is a virtue, not merely a value, is proved by the aura of righteousness that surrounds it. A virtue is not just a personal excellence, it is something that is felt to call down blessings upon the community, that wins the gods’ approval, that possesses not just practical but metaphysical worth.

It’s this belief that I was trying to get at, unique to the modern era, that work is good, without question, the harder the better. And the more you can endure, the better a person you are. It seems to just be repeated over and over, and rarely questioned.

Deresiewicz goes on, ” If you don’t work as hard as people think you should, you’re not just morally inferior, you’re committing a kind of spiritual treason. And if you deny the value of work as a matter of principle, you’re treated like a heretic.”

And Leah Libresco, riffing off an article about the hook-up culture among young professionals, laments that people are putting off meaningful relationships in their personal lives for the sake of their professional lives, “A life that has no room for serious romantic partners can’t have much space for deep friendships either. This should be the one culture war fight where we can all be on the same side: if careers preclude real relationships, something’s gone deeply wrong.”

Both authors are calling for systemic awareness and change. That would be nice if academic and corporate expectations allowed for a less hurried life. Even though a lot of the hopes to be promoted ever higher actually come from pressure among peers who constantly compare themselves to their friends (who post filtered, idealistic visions of their lives on social media) in an ever-amplifying feedback loop. But it’s powerful to know that systemic change isn’t needed for the individual to forgoe the temptation to endlessly compete and make her life look like a magazine ad for something showy and expensive. The choice is in everyone’s own hands. Are you going to let your work dictate what your life will be like, or do you decide to have your life dictate what your work will be like? I think all it takes is a little curiosity to figure out what other options are out there, and a little courage to step outside the system that’s coddled you since Kindergarten. You get to choose your values and figure out what is virtuous, you don’t just have to hang your head and go along with the popular refrains of the day.

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  1. Posted September 4, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    Great insights. However, I have to disagree that the author of the Atlantic article “Boys on the Side” is calling for systematic change. It seems like she’s celebrating the shift:

    “Does this mean that in the interim years, women are living a depraved, libertine existence, contributing to the breakdown of social order? Hardly. In fact, women have vastly more control over their actions and appetites than we have been led to believe.”

    I see this as a good change – women now have the ability to delay family life if they so choose, but like you, I don’t think careerism is the right choice. Even though I believe it’s the wrong choice, I think it’s a step forward that women are in a position to at least make a choice.

  2. Alejandro
    Posted September 5, 2012 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    Hello heretic ;)

    Sometimes I think the problem you mention with work is only partially about the quantity of work. Maybe the type of work plays an important role. As I see it, the problem with the “industrial” virtue you mention is that it is hard work for the sake of buying fancy or comfortable things and not having to do that hard work again (vacation, retirement).

    What about hard work for something one is genuinely interested in? Or hard work for the sake of pleasing one’s curiosity? Or just hard work for the pleasure of solving hard problems? Or helping a fellow? Or contributing? Or growing?

    And I don’t see how this type of hard work has is only recently considered a virtue. Did the spartans not do hard work? Although yes, they did have slaves to feed them, their daily life was very hard work. And what about the greek idea of arete, of working to fulfill one’s potential? Don’t you think hard work is an integral part of that ? What about the stoics? Marcus Aurelius is a good example:

    “And you’re over the limit [in sleep]. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat.”


    That’s why I think it’s important to distinguish the type of work. In my mind, it would be great if I could retire tomorrow. Not so that I wouldn’t do hard work. But so that I’m not distracted by having to work to sustain myself financially. That way I can focus on harder work; be that finding a solution to a hard problem, experimenting and improving my kombucha brewing, or anything else I have an inclination for.

    What do you think?

  3. Posted September 5, 2012 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    @progresstrap I think you’re right about the article and I agree with you.

    @Alejandro I think it can be hard work to attain other virtues, but I don’t think hard work by itself is a virtue. It may be hard work to be a great Spartan, but the culture celebrated the results of the work, whereas modern Americans are apt to celebrate the work itself, regardless of the actual outcome of that work (you don’t really read celebrations of how hard warriors trained, you read celebrations of the glory they achieved. Yet any montage of a successful athlete, businessman, academic, etc. in the modern U.S. is incomplete without telling us of the endless hours and personal sacrifices the individual endured for their work. The work is held above the actual achievement). And students are rewarded for effort, or think they ought to be, despite the results of the effort. Talent and innate abilities are played down and effort and hard work are put on a pedestal.

    No doubt being able to endure unpleasantries for the sake of a greater goal is a character trait necessary for a good life.

    But I want to differentiate repetitive, unpleasant hard work from the hard work that’s required to hone brewing skills, or learn a musical instrument or a language. Though I wonder if I can honestly do that without just being arbitrary. One work is good, yet the other isn’t, why?

    I think it has something to do with the idea that you work on your brewing craft because you want to be a good brewer and produce good drinks. But when you go to work at a job, you work because you want something else, like a car, a product, or certain lifestyle (maybe there’s some innate satisfaction in some jobs, but ultimately the vast majority of people wouldn’t go to work everyday if they weren’t being paid for it).

    But again, maybe I’m just being arbitrary, I haven’t nailed down exactly what it is that makes one good and the other just something to be endured.

    And what about the greek idea of arete, of working to fulfill one’s potential? Don’t you think hard work is an integral part of that?

    Well it’s been a few years since I’ve picked up the Greek philosophy but I’ll give this a shot.

    I think my personal ethics are at the point where I’m simply in disagreement with Aristotle. As I understand Arete, the highest human potential is to have knowledge, and the highest knowledge is knowledge of knowledge, I don’t mean epistemology but more like, as Aristotle called the highest human good, “contemplation”. While contemplation may be mindfully active, or perhaps reflective is a better term, it certainly doesn’t look like someone is working when they’re contemplating in an Aristotelian sense. So the ultimate end of Arete, while it may take work to achieve, ultimately looks like the opposite of work.

    As an alternative, I’ve pretty much adopted a sort of nihilistic hedonism as my personal ethical system. I simply strive to maximize pleasure throughout my life (while balancing short-term/long-term pleasure to maximize the pleasure experienced throughout my lifetime). I don’t aim to be virtuous, or pious, or great, because I truly don’t believe those things will lead to the greatest amount of happiness. I do aim to be healthy, (because being sick would not be pleasurable) and well thought of (because to be considered a thief, liar, or disloyal would make it harder to have the pleasant relationships I enjoy with friends and neighbors), and frugal (because working too hard for excess stuff takes away from pleasure rather than adding to it), and educated (so I can be sure I’m not missing out on some better way to live and because acquiring knowledge is inherently pleasurable for me), and lots of other traits that people would likely consider virtuous. So it may look like I’m trying to be virtuous at times, but that’s only because I care about maximizing my overall lifetime pleasure, not because I care about mastering virtue. I don’t aim to contemplate or achieve greatness, I just aim to enjoy as much as I can.

    It’s taken me a while to get to the point where I’m ok with not doing something. There’s still an impulse that pops up now and then to become recognized for some well honed talent, or to help create social change, or to build a great business, but I reign it in. Those types of goals often lead to having to endure forgoing pleasure and I’ve found their ultimate achievement to be less fulfilling than I usually imagine (Perhaps there are people out there for whom that ultimate fulfillment does make up for the difficult effort to get there, that would be great).

    My position was mostly reached by way of default. I can’t be sure there’s a god who will reward my piety. I can’t be sure that really mastering a virtue will actually make me happy. And I can’t be sure that it’s really a moral imperative that I make the world a better place for others. But I do know with absolute certainty that I enjoy pleasure, and I probably only have one life to get as much of it as I can. I almost feel like I’m playing the most conservative, safest way that I can. To forgo pleasure for years or decades for the sake of being pious or virtuous would be taking a big gamble that I will actually be rewarded for those sacrifices with something great. I don’t want to take that bet.

    Fortunately, maximizing pleasure often aligns well and winds up with behaviors that look a lot like virtues since things we consider virtuous tend to maximize long-term pleasure. So the ultimate results aren’t quite as radical as the thinking that got me there.

    The differences in ethical approach really are mostly seen in thought experiments. If there was a pill you could take or a machine you could enter that would send you into an orgasmic state of pleasure that never gets tiring and always gets better, would you take it? I would. But the person who thinks that happiness is achieved through perfecting himself, or serving god, or finding truth probably wouldn’t.

  4. Alejandro
    Posted September 6, 2012 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    That’s a hell of a pill! ;)

    I think it has something to do with the idea that you work on your brewing craft because you want to be a good brewer and produce good drinks. But when you go to work at a job, you work because you want something else, like a car, a product, or certain lifestyle.

    That’s exactly what I mean! A main difference I see is that one is done for its intrinsic value (e.g., being good at something, pleasing a curiosity), while the other is “endured” for its extrinsic value (e.g., buying a car).

    I think you know yourself much better than I do myself; I cannot figure out a concrete “personal ethical system,” which you already have. I have these two parts of me wrestling. At some level I feel much as you do; only caring about maximizing life-long pleasure. But at the same time, what if I have a bit more “happy chemicals” in my head? Who cares? I am somewhat confident I can be happy living under many different conditions, and that fact steers me away from living a life where being happy is the main point. Why seek after it if I can find it practically anywhere? And I cannot but love that intrinsically rich hard work. “Blessed is he who has found his work.” Sometimes I think without it I would not feel at ease with myself.

    These two sides is something I gotta figure out.

    P.S. Have you come across a book titled Marius the Epicurean? If not, I think you may enjoy it.

  5. lurker
    Posted September 8, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    this is very good stuff…just wish I had my mortgage paid off….back to the sweatshop for me….wonderful posts, comments and blog.