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Working for its own sake has become a virtue for many people, the idea being that if you do not pull your weight you are a slacker and since success comes from hard work those who have money are morally superior by definition.  We get lots of pontification on the subject, ranging from Larry Summers' statement that women (especially those with children) did not have what it takes to be successful as professionals because they were not prepared to work the minimum of 80 hours a week on their careers, to the Tea Party's view that those who don't have money don't deserve aid (and they include the working poor, even if they put in 80 hours a week, because if they REALLY worked hard they would be rich!)  The Protestant Work Ethic is heavily drummed into the American psyche. Since I have worked on a project with a director who believed work was everything, no matter what the result (he bragged that he often worked 20-hour days), I have realized that extra work is not the same thing as productivity, and wealth does not necessarily come from hard labor.  In fact unnecessary work may in the end stifle innovation and ruin a project that should have been altered to fit the reality, rather than continued to its ultimate failure.  Efficiency, proper planning, and right livelihood (a Buddhist and perhaps Kantian concept - working on something that is not a detriment to society) are more important to me.

On the door of one of my colleagues at the university there was a sign: "If you don't find me busy it's because I did it right the first time."  I've always liked that and another I found at the 4-H office: "Never try to teach a pig to whistle; it wastes your time and annoys the pig."  Both point to problems with the worship of work for work's sake.  Actually accomplishing something worthwhile is better than working for work's sake.  Not all work is worth doing. Building atomic bombs, developing banking derivatives that destroy other people's money,  or obstructing democracy by manufacturing barriers to voting, are cases in point.  We would be better off to pay some people not to work.

But let's say that you have a task that is worthwhile, such as working in an ER ward. Obviously many people put in long hours of necessity in such places, but they also cannot work beyond their ability to do so (they become less effective when worn out), and accuracy and efficiency should be the watchwords.  I told the director who worked 20-hour days, "Maybe you can do this, but I am not worth much after 12 hours and I will not pretend otherwise."  The entire work crew felt the same way and he was about as well liked as a case of the plague. My co-workers considered me exceedingly tolerant because I did not openly gripe about him. His management skills were terrible so we spent long hours for two summers with no publishable results. I finally tried to redesign or abandon the project after it became obvious that it would go nowhere, and was overruled by his boss as well as him, though he could not easily fire me as I had expertise that he needed.

There is something to be said for "laziness." Everybody needs to recharge, and relaxation can often be a fertile ground for innovative thought. According to George Gamow in his book "Thirty Years that Shook Physics," Niels Bohr ran a rather loose ship with students working at all hours of the day or night, but often not coming in until late in the morning and often taking a break in the afternoon to accompany Bohr to go to a movie, usually a Western! Yet he and his students laid the foundation of quantum mechanics.  The physicist Richard Feynman, originator of QED (Quantum Electrodynamics), also believed in making work fun and in intellectual curiosity. He did not think that work by itself was sufficient or that unproductive work was good.

Non-productive or counter-productive work for work's sake, often coming from inadequate analysis, is one of the curses of modern Capitalism. It results in lost opportunities and the destruction of resources. Some complex projects should begin with a short term pilot project to test out the feasibility of the design, yet on the project I mentioned earlier, my superiors skipped that step, thinking it unnecessary.  To me it would have been more efficient than jumping into the proposed work with both feet at the start, which of course resulted in failure.

But such non-productive work concepts are often rewarded, as CEOs who run the company into the ground get bonuses even as they leave the firm a smoldering pile of wreckage (See: http://billmoyers.com/....)  We had a local utility with a monopoly that managed to go bankrupt by throwing a bunch of cash into the junk bond market.  Did anyone get punished? Hardly, the people in the leadership were given bonuses! Meanwhile firefighters who do work long hours protecting us get the shaft, and fast food workers are getting poverty wages as their managers buy extra houses and cars with their huge bonuses, or invest the extra money to make even more. Labor is shortchanged at the same time we extoll the virtues of the Protestant work ethic. Something is clearly out of whack!  

Once you have enough money to live a relatively decent life (probably no more than $100,000 at most - actually estimated at $75,000/year recently See: http://www.forbes.com/...) you should really live instead of trying to add to your fortune (other than prudently setting up savings for education, retirement and emergencies) and buying toys.  This does not mean that you should be idle all the time, but that you should be employed, as much as possible, in enriching your life and those of others. Including actually taking real vacations to recharge. Our current love of work for work's sake leads only to misery, social Darwinism, and a lack of productive results.

To leave this essay on a more cheerful note I suggest you look at Bill Watterson's (the creator of Calvin and Hobbes) words from a commencement speech he gave in 1995, recently illustrated in Calvin and Hobbes style by Gavin Aung Than at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/...


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Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sat Aug 31, 2013 at 10:29 AM PDT.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing and Community Spotlight.

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