In a recent article titled “Virtually Exhausted” William Deresiewicz, editor at The American Scholar, suggested that believing hard work is a way to achieve is “one of those notions that is so stupid it has to embody a deeply held belief“.
In this notion he refers to the Protestant religious system that has elevated hard work to the status of virtue which, Deresiewicz argues, has infiltrated the work ethics of America with presumably with some terrible consequences, one of them being wide spread exhaustion. According to him, working hard to reach a dream couldn’t be farther from the truth, according to Deresiewicz, because distribution of talent is “undemocratic” and hard work is futile, just an illusion of choice for the naïve masses.
This elitist view calmly dismisses any hopes that one has for changing less fortunate circumstances. It begs the question of what is talent. It must be something you are born with, something that takes you to through an Ivy League college and gives you secure employment for life. It’s a privilege that cannot be acquired through hard work.
Just last week, whilst on the other side of the planet, Gina Reinhart, the Australian mining magnate, caused a furore when she said that if you want to get wealthy “spend less time drinking, or smoking, or socialising, and more time working”. This may sound like a good tip to the wasteful, but it is nothing more unsettling than having a person that inherited a fortune of billions of dollars to give this kind of advice to the populace in general. The thousands of people, who work hard deep in the mines owned by her scratching the guts of the planet in search for minerals, don’t make themselves wealthy. They make her wealthy. In this context, the message has the opposite meaning, because the reality in the mine can be used to prove the point that hard work doesn’t make you rich, luck does.
So far, this idea of hard work does seem trivial. Who would want to labour when in the end there is nothing to celebrate, there is no change, but just more struggle when the genes won’t let you have it?
And yet, there are many who have no doubt that hard work is necessary to make it in life. Research studies show that if you concentrate your efforts through hard work you can master almost any skills. It is estimated that you need to invest ten years to achieve mastery in your chosen domain, if you put in the long hours. People who were born without such talent can succeed when initial evidence suggests otherwise. The legendary Wayne Gretzky comes to mind as a brilliant example. Against all odds, he became the best of all those who were deemed to be ‘talented’.
There is a common element of caution that we can learn from what Deresiewicz and Reinhart said: hard work without creation does not pay well.
If Deresiewicz remembers well, the core philosophy of The American Scholar is based the eponymous speech delivered almost 200 years ago. In that speech, Ralph Waldo Emerson talks brilliantly about the need for each of us to aspire to become One Man, as someone that is not subjugated to routine of his craft. For a scholar, that is to become a Man Thinking, not just “a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking”. He goes on to say “History and exact science must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create”.
We suffer for too much hard work as a drill, not as a creation. We should question the mindless long work hours, but not the hard work driven by passion and desire to create something better. Replace the industrial factories with creative studios, repetition with innovation, and slavery with freedom.
Hard work is encouraged in schools. It is one of the character traits that are most valued as a prerequisite for individual and social improvement. Try to tell a teacher that talent is to be praised and not the effort! If we raise our children with the belief that hard work is an illusionary key to success, then our future is bleak.
One of the most magnificent aspects of a man’s character is his ability to overcome difficulties in the face of adversity, uncertainty and great disadvantage. Overcoming one’s condition is one of the most remarkable achievements in life. When I say “overcoming condition” I am not thinking of great acts of heroism, although they are part of this category of acts, but of those situations where normally the path of life’s episodes would lead to an outcome predicted by the collective past in a linear fashion, but somehow the actions take a sudden upward turn. I asked myself the question if this qualitative jump is something that an individual could make a claim in the name of personal free will or is it something that became reality because that trait is in his DNA?
The mind is like a Star Wars opening screen: a dark space in which slowly thoughts come forward with clarity. You see what you have now, but you don’t see what is to come. Who or what creates those thoughts? Are they the result of quasi-random sequences of DNA programming, or are they created by something that we call consciousness which somehow has this magical property of self-organisation?
It is tempting to say we are and we do as the result of soul-less deterministic laws. It is a clean logic, difficult to argue with. In the same time, here we are, bursting with self-awareness, producing these marvellous creations that come out on that black screen of projected consciousness. Can a fragile system produce rock-solid logic about itself? Because we haven’t solved completely this mystery of the black screen we could never prove completely with perfect clarity that free will doesn’t exist. The doubters will always be there.
So, going back to the original question: is it possible to overcome personal condition through the virtue of free will? If you consider the opposite view in which our DNA and the environment determine entirely how we think, then human aspiration is a fake and a curse. It is a fake because no matter what you do, you never achieve a higher condition and it is a curse because your life will be a string of failures as you attempt to achieve the impossible. You are trapped. Is it better to accept personal limitations and find satisfaction in a job as it comes? It should be easy. No effort is required because the condition will not improve anyway beyond what you get from life by default.
What we have is this dark space in which a deterministic Darth Vader is pulling the strings and the colourful, lively and capricious consciousness that we were introduced to soon after our birth and which lures us into believing our will matters.
We live like a fish in a fish tank. The fish tank boundary is a fine, sensitive field separating the enclosed space of free will (or the illusion of it) from the unmovable, stern deterministic universe. As depressing as it may be, if indeed this boundary exist, the best option is to be optimistic. If the wall exists, keep the aspirations alive and kicking because even if your potential is limited you never know what that limit is and you have to test it to make sure you get the best version of your destiny. If the wall doesn’t exist, that is the best news you can get: the opportunities are limitless.