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.
The problem with our times is that it doesn’t give us any clear clues about what will happen or what will need to happen so that all of us can finally relax and go to the beach. But when was the last time it did? Most probably never. I asked a friend of mine who has worked for the same company for over twenty-three years what he thinks about changes in his organisation and industry in general and after a thoughtful pause he said “I prefer the old times”. Always for people who lived long enough to be able to claim they reached the controversial middle age, the old times have an irresistible appeal.
If things don’t look good now, some of us may suspect this is just plain winging. If you really dig into the issues, the good ol’ times, aren’t that good and actually the present is as bright as it can be. It is in our nature, some would say, that we like the old times because we were young then and the experiences as we remember them are thrilling, surprising and full-on. And yet, our history hasn’t been a linear script. It is easy to look in the past and say “oh, those times were terrible because so and so” and even feel a bit baffled thinking why those people could not figure out the issues from the beginning, but when you are in the middle of that time, it is difficult to recognise the type of period you are in. However, the history it giving us clues and some of them are telling us that the present may be one of those grinding, nerve-racking, and turbulent periods.
Bill Gross, the PIMCO investment manager who oversees the world largest bond fund, describes the economic outlook as the “new normal” when growth is sluggish and spectacular returns are a thing of the past. Last week he went even further and declared that stocks are dead. People will have to work much longer to maintain their standard of living.
When times are tougher the contrast between the left and right sides of the political spectrum becomes sharper. This is could be an indicator that we are entering into turbulence. Deresiewicz wrote in his column at The American Scholar (“In League”) about a similar period preceding the New Deal marred by vicious confrontation between political sides supported by bankers, industrialists and businessmen promoting a Darwinian system and liberal politics represented by Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson Woodrow. The bad news is that great ideas and daring reforms do not come quickly and they are not designed by the mind of one hero. It takes time and public impetus to drive the change. Progressive steps are taken under the socio-economic pressures and they may look random and imperfect, but then over many years of public exhausting debates, loss of hope, arguments and confusion, a moment will come when everybody throws the towel into the ring and declare ready for a big change. Thus, the New Deal came at the right time only after many years of preparation.
Deresiewicz concludes that we are only beginning the grinding progressive period. We are comparatively in the year of 1882 which was the start of a process that culminated with the New Deal.
Will it take the same time to arrive at a new beginning for prosperous times? The chilling detail in the grinding period that gave birth to the New Deal is that we had to go through two worldwide wars before we settled.
Today, the political landscape is different. US political culture and socio-economic institutions are only a part of the global scene which all of us are part of now. Europe needs time to settle, Asian countries have to come to terms with new trading conditions that dampen their traditional export enthusiasm. The demographic forces are in full swing worldwide. Will migration patterns remain the same? This is a key question because when migration stops, a new order needs to be installed, and when that happens everything is on the table for negotiation.
We are in for a long soul-searching period. As Deresiewicz put it “for now, there is only blood, toil, tears and sweat.”