Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

The Virtues of Work

05 February 2013 by Jim

I’ve been sitting in a car having a discussion with a good friend who has been going through some hard times lately and our discussion suddenly veered off into the swamplands of misery and the inextricable unfairness of destiny. What follows are some thoughts provoked by that discussion.

Are we who we’re born to be?

Or in other words: Does the place and time of our birth predetermine our life? Is our parents’ social class inextricably linked to our fruition or our demise in a ruthless, globalised world?

I don’t think so.

Of course it is not easy to live in our age of insecurity, instability and general unrest. When we’re confronted with events like economic or financial crises, wars and dangerous changes in climate and pollution levels, it is understandable that many people do not look at the future in the most optimistic of ways. And yet, instability is a constant occurrence in human history. How many wars have there been? Our entire known history is practically a succession of violent confrontation between populations of different territories, be it on a physical (as in violence and war) or a cultural, economic or scientific level. We’ve lived through countless wars and at least five ice ages, and many more of these changes are yet to come. Since our history is so deeply intertwined with what many would call chaotic change, why do we succumb to the fallacious present feeling of security or constance?

Change is the only constant in life and nature. Nothing remains as it has been for long.

Why do we insist on not seeing this? The need for security, while obvious and deeply human, seems to be a bit overprotective when it pushes people to refuse any change in the world around them. We shouldn’t refuse change but embrace it, since we cannot stop it. In many parts of the world, humanity has become the most intense factor of change through its huge environmental impact.

What, then, is the correct approach to life, since nothing is ever constant?

There are no eternally true rules to follow to live a good life. What worked for our parents or grand-parents may be bad for us, and even what works for our neighbour may be bad for us. We’re all different. Some general approaches do prove to be positive for our individual development, though. Some advice is useful to any kind of person, no matter what her goals or needs are.

1. Do not take the easy way. Why? It’s not really that easy! First, you’ll have a hard time succeeding the easy way because, guess what, of all the people looking to find their way, most start by looking at the low-hanging fruit, which means, the easy way is the way with the most competition. Don’t believe me? It’s easy to see. In Luxembourg, when you’re looking for a job and you apply to be an ‘fonctionnaire d’Etat’, an employee of the central administration, you’ll reap all kinds of benefits: big and ever increasing salary, a huge pension and not much in terms of work. However, and that’s the big problem here, lots of people who do not have a real passion for something go down that route every year, so when there are two places to be filled, about 20 people, if not more, apply for it and write exams. The two with the best exam results will be picked. What are your chances of getting the job if you’re in direct competition with 18 other people? Not all that good if you’re not an expert in acing exams. Now compare this situation to being a highly specialised worker in some area. Take graphic designers, for example, or translators in rare languages. Of course it’s difficult to find work if you work as a freelancer, and of course there are more jobs as simple employees then there is work for freelancers, but a freelancer faces – at least at first – no competition whatsoever. You have to carve your niche in the world to live in, and if you don’t succeed, try looking at a different spot if the ground there is softer to carve into more easily. Furthermore, if you don’t take the easy way, it’s a more enjoyable ride for you with more surprises and you’ll feel like your own person at the end of the day and not like one of a gazillion identical hamsters running in their wheels everyday.

2. Work, even though and especially if you’re not feeling like it. It’s tough to work. If it were easy, we’d all do it 24/24 and 7/7. Unfortunately it is not, and that’s why it’s so valuable, to the point where we pay people to do it. Work is valuable, and even though we all prefer to work when we’re in a great mood, being in a great mood is, for many people, not how they would describe their most common state of mind. Life is not about what you feel while you work, it’s just about how much (and how intelligently) you’ve worked. Nobody cares whether you had to stay up until 2 AM to study for an exam. All the world cares for is your exam result. Not even you care for that kind of information. Two years later you’ll know you passed, but you’ll probably not remember exactly how much you’ve studied. Just do what it takes to reach your goals. If you’re in the habit of waiting for the right mood to work, you’ll never even start. A courageous person doesn’t wait for courage to do something. A courageous person is a fearful person who refuses to listen to their fear, and a hardworking person is a person who refuses to pay attention to her laziness. Everybody who shares 99.999% of your DNA cannot be completely different from you. We’re all the same. We just react differently to external or internal impulses, and reacting correctly is something we can learn.

Imagine all I just said is totally wrong. It could be. For some people, what I’ve just said is utterly wrong. One fact that remains, though, is that looking at life optimistically is the only way to believe that you stand a chance of succeeding in it. If you’re a pessimist, whether you’re right or wrong with that approach, you ensure that you’ll never achieve greatness. It’s not about being right with these things, it’s about being effective, and efficacy-wise, optimism trumps pessimism hands down. In the end, once we’re dead, nobody will care what we said or thought. The only things that remain are our actions.

So act instead of just thinking.

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