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The Dichotomy of Labor

The truth is that virtually all of us work because we no longer know how to just be. As wonderful as the American work ethic is, something important is lost when we lack the capacity to be idle.


Yesterday, the U.S. celebrated Labor Day, a national holiday dating back to the late 1800s. The day originated amidst a climate of protests and debate concerning the intolerable conditions of industrial workers, not just in the U.S., but worldwide (over eighty countries celebrate International Workers Day held on May 1, or May Day). Labor Day was meant to celebrate and honor the contributions of workers. Today, it mostly marks the end of summer and the return to school for many children across the country.

Labor Day this year gave me an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of work. On average, Americans spend more time working than doing anything else. This is true whether you work in or out of the home. Like many, your very identity may be tied to the work that you do.

Yet most Americans aren’t happy or fulfilled with their work and its role in their lives. Although employee engagement has been rising over the past two decades (per Gallup’s annual poll), almost two-thirds of workers still report being disengaged. So why do we work? Why do we spend an average of forty-seven hours per week (a measure considerably higher than most other developed countries) working?

Most of us work for money. Enough so that we can provide for ourselves and our families. Some of us work because we love what we do. We’re fortunate enough to have found a vocation that aligns with what we’re most passionate about in life. Most importantly, we work because the value of labor is deeply embedded in our culture – the beliefs, values, and assumptions (oftentimes subconscious) that drive our behavior. In The Values Americans Live By, L. Robert Kohls, then Executive Director for the Washington International Center, lists thirteen core American values. The value of hard work runs throughout the report, but is most directly captured in the ninth value, Action/Work Orientation:

“Don’t just stand there,” goes a typical bit of American advice, “do something!” This expression is normally used in a crisis situation, yet, in a sense, it describes most Americans’ entire waking life, where action-- any action -- is seen to be superior to inaction.

Americans routinely plan and schedule an extremely active day. Any relaxation must be limited in time, pre-planned, and aimed at “recreating” their ability to work harder and more productively once the recreation is over. Americans believe leisure activities should assume a relatively small portion of one’s total life. People think that it is “sinful” to “waste one’s time,” “to sit around doing nothing,” or just to “daydream.”

Such a “no nonsense” attitude toward life has created many people who have come to be known as “workaholics,” or people who are addicted to their work, who think constantly about their jobs and who are frustrated if they are kept away from them, even during their evening hours and weekends.

The workaholic syndrome, in turn, causes Americans to identify themselves wholly with their professions. The first question one American will ask another American when meeting for the first time is related to his or her work: “What do you do?,” “Where do you work?,” or “Who (what company) are you with?”

And when such a person finally goes on vacation, even the vacation will be carefully planned, very busy and active.

The truth is that virtually all of us work because we no longer know how to just be. Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French mathematician and religious philosopher, famously proclaimed, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” As wonderful as the American work ethic is, something important is lost when we lack the capacity to be idle. Authors John Fitch and Max Frenzel, in their recently published book, Time Off: A Practical Guide to Building Your Rest Ethic and Finding Success Without the Stress, make a case for building a "rest ethic" as a critical complement to your "work ethic". The book continues a long line of reflections by some of the greatest minds on the importance of simply being (e.g., Bertrand Russel’s In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays), a message that seems to fall largely on deaf ears.

I am among the many who have struggled with this core dichotomy. Work and Rest. Doing and Being. Like most Americans, I have valued work to the neglect of rest, preferred doing at the expense of simply being. Of the many gifts that the last six months have offered, the one that has been most valuable to me has been the opportunity to slow down. To spend more time being idle. To simply be. I have found that being and doing are not mutually exclusive. That I can do deep, meaningful work while also spending time completely disconnected from my labor. That, in fact, my best work is done when it is complemented with an equal measure of rest. The integration of this polarity – Being and Doing – may be the most important life skill. And the most challenging. It is still early days for me, but the preliminary results are extremely promising.  

Tuesday Tips

  1. The origins of Labor Day have generated a bit of controversy and confusion over the years. Here’s an interesting article on the dispute over who founded Labor Day.

  2. I love Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. Here are a couple of pieces on the value of leisure and idleness, one focused on Bertrand Russell and the other on the German philosopher Josef Pieper.

  3. Thank you to my friend Mike for sending me this hopeful opinion piece, “The Best Reason to Go to College,” by Pico Iyer. My favorite part: “Emotional disarmament might prove even more feasible than the nuclear type, insofar as most of us can reform our minds more easily than we can move a huge and intractable government. By opening our minds, we begin to change the world."

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