As a bit of preamble: I’m not entirely sure what I intended this post to be, or quite how it wound up. I suppose it’s probably something of a confessional or a testimonial, at this point; maybe a reflection upon the history of my work ethic. Whatever else it is or isn’t, I hope it’s useful to you.
For a long time, I thought I had what people sometimes call “an addictive personality”. And, maybe there’s some truth to it, but I think there’s a lot more truth elsewhere. The “addictive personality” article on Wikipedia describes ”addictive personality” as “a psychological setback that makes a person more susceptible to addictions.” That’s a pretty broad description, but for a long time, I figured that’s what was going on with me. In college, I played MMORPGs at the expense of my grades. First I played Dark Age of Camelot, then I played World of Warcraft, and at the end of five years I still wound up one course shy of an actual degree. Looking back on that, I had a lot of reasons for wanting to slow down the effort I had been pouring into educational endeavors and I do think some of them remain valid, but in general I was just glad for an opportunity to be lazy, and those games gave me some pleasure that was lacking elsewhere.
Eight years later, my life has turned out pretty well anyway, but a positive work ethic is something that I’ve struggled to cultivate.
So, “addictive personality”. Here’s what I think I actually meant about myself all this time: I am a habitual person. I don’t like changing things; I like to do basically the same thing every day; I like to feel happy about it. Now, I do think that I have, at some points and maybe in general, lacked some discernment about the line between “enjoying the pleasure of a good thing” and “indulging in too much of a good thing”, but it’s hardly a psychological setback — more likely, it’s a stubbornness to stop what I’m doing long enough to do a little self evaluation. I am going to assert here that a “positive work ethic” is, in general, the cure to this “stubborn habituation” that is, in general, born of sloth, stubbornness, and self-indulgence.
When I was a child, I really enjoyed school. I don’t think it’s fair to say that I was “addicted” to school, or that I enjoyed school too much, or even that I participated in schooling to the detriment of other parts of my life — maybe I did, but the “what if” game is a dangerous one and as I said, I’m pretty content with my life today. Regardless, I really enjoyed it. Also, I was really, really good at it. To this day, I remain very good at test-taking. My capacity for semantic retention is almost certainly above average, and the Western educational system — in any implementation I have ever even heard talked about — rewards semantic retention in an absolute sense. So, of course I liked school! School is “the important thing” for children in America, and children who garner favorable assessments in their education are broadly praised in all the “serious” venues that life brings. Family members beam with pride or brag to their friends (usually behind your back), teachers give special commendations, and moral coaches (church youth leaders, after-school activity directors, etc.) provide the underwriting encouragement along the lines of “stay in school”, and “do well in school to get a good job later on!”
This all sounds good, except I’m pretty sure that, looking back, most of these things are fundamentally wrong.
Yes, learning is important, and yes, many of the semantic ideals that modern education seeks to communicate are very valuable. But, in general, it’s all pretty useless if you don’t know how to use it well. I said I was very good at school, and I hope I’m not bragging, but I also want you to know that I’m not lying. I was given nothing but “A” grades throughout my entire secondary education. I was taught at home, I was taught at home-school co-op classes by teachers and other parents, and I was taught at a local community college, and at no point in my entire secondary education did I get anything less than an “A” grade. But — and I say this to my great shame — I rarely, if ever, actually worked for it.
Once again, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. Certainly I did apply some effort, and while excellence in the Western education system did come easily to me, it did not come without some investment of time. And what is work if not effort applied over time? So, perhaps I did work for it. But I never worked hard.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to define “working hard” as “investing a considerable effort towards the completion of a task even when you’d rather be doing something else.” People invest considerable efforts into things all the time, but when this is something that doesn’t result in being paid money (or, in the case of a child, receiving positive educational marks), we typically — if somewhat unjustly — call this “play”. And when we say that we work “hard”, we typically further mean that this work caused us some discomfort, or was done at the sacrifice of some other, more pleasurable activity. So, while it must be fair to call my educational efforts “work”, it is not fair to call them “hard work”, simply because it rarely if ever caused me discomfort, and was perhaps never done at the expense of pleasure. My whole society was structured to teach me that getting “A” grades was a sign that I was doing something right with my life. But I was so good at it, and in fact, generally enjoyed the opportunity to absorb new data and algorithms, that I feel like the praise was generally misplaced. My winning marks in secondary education came at essentially no personal cost. I was working for pleasure — we’d call it playing if there were no grades attached — and for approval, and it was very easy for me, leaving me with plenty of time to pursue other interests, make friends, and enjoy life.
When I went to University, the misjudgement of my secondary education started to become evident. I went through a very cynical phase: I realized (and not without justification) that undergraduate “grades” are not important. Very few employers, even first employers, in any profession at the journeyman level will even ask for a transcript, so they won’t know how well I did. Even if they do, they won’t care: there are computer programs already that can do every algorithm and know every data point that a bachelor’s degree in engineering (at least) purports a person to know. Also, many of my classes became very inconvenient. There were lengthy homework assignments that, in my own judgement, had little to teach me about concepts that I had already fully grasped from the lectures, but if I didn’t see them through to completion, my grade would suffer. I felt this was unjust: I have learned the thing, let me test for it and be done! Sometimes, I would still suggest, I was right about this. Others, I was prideful, boastful, and slothful. I also now had new venues for approval and pleasure that were completely detached from my educational performance. ”Dorm floor living” often provided an atmosphere full of rebellious approval of anything but hard work at one’s education. I had a girlfriend back home with whom I spoke often, and the fruits of our budding romance were pleasant in entirely novel ways. I also found computer games where I could apply some of the things I am best at –semantic retention and process optimization — to a pleasurable end, the satisfactory “ding” of the level-up achievement that assures you that your efforts have not been in vain.
All this to say, I think, that I was pretty foolish as a child, and also that, in my estimation and to my own discredit, my childhood lasted into my twenties. I did what I liked and I liked what I did. When that coincided with what others felt was “hard work”, I “worked hard”, and when it didn’t, I didn’t.
Fast forward a few years. I’m married now (to that same “girlfriend back home” from a few paragraphs back), and have a steady paying job. Once again I’m “working hard”, garnering the approval and monetary rewards of my employer and enjoying a happy relationship with my wife and budding family. But very quickly, I began to hate my job. There’s no logical reason for this: the work I’m doing is hardly strenuous, and I am paid well! However, my job lacks much of the mental challenge to which I had become accustomed. Still cynical, I felt that my job was essentially worthless – I was there as a go-between separating people who want buildings and people who make buildings, serving to satisfy the monsters of frivolous litigation, bureaucratic red tape, and private, personal greed.
Then, one day in church, we read Eccelsiastes 9:9.
Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.
I don’t remember the context of the lesson specifically (that — episodic retention — is something at which I perform rather poorly), but I recall it being something about the hopelessness of temporality and the importance of an eternal perspective of God’s kingdom. But what I got from it that day was entirely the opposite. While it’s true that, in writing Ecclesiastes, Solomon does expose much hopelessness in our lives here on Earth, this verse cannot be taken as hopelessness by a real cynic. Here, God gave me the answer to contentment! He’s telling us the purpose of our toil, of “whatever our hands find to do.” He’s showing us the literal, temporal reward for hard work (“toil” can only mean “hard work”, I think), which so many people just ignore and completely divorce from their work. If I may be so bold as to draw a corollary: if enjoying the wife of my youth is my reward for hard work, then the harder I work, the more I will enjoy my wife. And I love my wife, and want to enjoy life with her more and more! This provides a direct, temporal motivation for hard work.
So, be encouraged! If you find yourself falling into a pattern of indulgence at the expense of things you like, work hard. Work hard at your occupation, work hard at your hobbies, work hard at your family — whatever you do, do it with all your might. This is the answer to cynicism, and this comes with great reward. If you don’t have a wife (or spouse; this advice probably works for both men and women), and find your work unsatisfying either find new work where you can revel in your occupation, or find a spouse, so you can toil under the sun and return home to revel in the pleasure of your life together.
I still struggle sometimes to invest an appropriate amount of effort into the work my hands have found, because a lifetime of ease and pleasure have spoiled my taste for toil. But this direct, immediate reward cannot be ignored, and I can testify to you that it is true:
When I work harder — even if this work seems meaningless or goes unrewarded monetarily — life at home is better.