Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

The Ethics and Principles of Work

14 August 2012 by Jim

#Update 26 August 2012: Since this post seems to be the first on this blog to have generated regular visits (and thus, I suppose, inclusion in search engines), it is clear that of all topics that I could have written about, the nature of work, and tips on how to see it and deal with it, are desperately needed on the Internet, or at least felt to be desperately needed. To address this, let me, before you read on about any philosophical approach to work, say this: instead of reading about work, you should do it. You don’t do yourself a favour by procrastinating, and believe me, I know what it feels like. I’ve scoured Lifehacker for productivity hacks. Most of them are completely unnecessary, and the most essential one, the “JUST DO IT” trick, is hopelessly underrated and not written about frequently enough. Let this be a reminder that you should work if you’re thinking about working. The fact that you read this if you have to work (if that is indeed the case) is one of the examples of why self-improvement is not effective. Now you may go on your merry way…

Working is something we all have to do, or at least the 99.9% of us, and I stopped long ago seeing it as a curse. It’s actually a blessing. Why? Because without work, man would not know what to do with his time. There’s nothing more pathetic than a man or woman who does not advance in life.


Working for future greatness

To realise our nature to the fullest, that is what each of us is here for, and that can only be achieved through work, because work – at least as I define it – is one of the inherently human traits that no other beings share with us. Work is human, in the sense that work is an activity that we do either for deferred pleasure or simply because we know it needs to be done, and that second reason is a sign that we humans have the power to work for the greater good, that we can see past our momentary unwillingness to work, our momentary laziness, to work towards future greatness. That is our true power, the power of deferring gratification.

Meditative work

But work is more than just work for future greatness. It is not only the big things that we do. Simple, manual work is also important, because it allows us to meditate and take pleasure in doing things well, even though they’re not important. I don’t know in how far this view resembles Zen Buddhism, but thinking about meditation, it does resemble that a lot. Ironing for an hour and a half can be very peaceful work, even though many people see it as something menial. If we know that we have to do some work, we may as well do it with pleasure. Furthermore, it is completely beyond me why some people would refuse to do any kind of physical labour during the day and then spend the equivalent of 7 dinners for a membership at their local gym just to sweat pointlessly on machines when they didn’t want to sweat meaningfully before.

Deliberate practice

I’ve recently read a really well-written and encouraging book, “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” by Geoff Colvin, and its key message is precisely what I felt to be true for a long time in my own life: there is no such thing as talent, there is only work and, by extension, practice, which is nothing else than repeated rehearsal (= work) in order to improve in some way. It is only through deliberate practice that we get better, and only thus have humans been able to push the limits of their nature further and further, becoming super-runners like Usain Bolt, giving the gift of life to sick people with a simple pill like medical research allows us to do, and even becoming virtuous musicians or writers that advance the arts. Nothing comes easily, and nothing is impossible. Virtuosity and success grow on trees, and they’re just waiting for us to pick them. Even though I didn’t have any particular reason to do so, I just started learning Java programming with a free Stanford course on iTunes U, and I enjoy practicing, even if I have a lot of difficulties to complete all the exercises. It feels good to improve, and that can only be done through deliberate practice. Another example is my current 100K running challenge. I was never really good at sports, because I never really took the time to enjoy them. Recently, about a hear and a half ago, I seriously got into running as an easy, no-equipment and complete approach to improving bodily health (along with most of my family) and I haven’t looked back since. It’s not easy to run 5 km, it really isn’t. Currently, for me, it equals 25 minutes of thinking “When will I be done?” every 10 seconds, and pushing myself to run just a little bit faster even though my feet are starting to feel heavy and hot. And it’s not even the little push of satisfaction that I feel when I arrive at the end. It’s looking at a spreadsheet full of currently over 50 entries of runs I did, with a running total of 271 km run, and seeing that I improved my average running speed from around 8 km/h to over 11 km/h with only 250 km of practice! That’s a 37% improvement of a basic sports metric with a total of 28 hours spent running.

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