In Praise of Work


Christopher Carr

Christopher Carr does stuff and writes about stuff.

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35 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Robert Heinlein’s quote on the competent man is really rich coming from a man seen as the patron saint of libertarian science fiction writers. Specialization isn’t for insects. Specialization is one reason why we are wealthy and have some many high-quality goods. If everybody had to be a jack of all trades than our society is much more primitive. Mastering a particular art or craft takes a life time of work and person trained only in the art of jewelry making is going to produce a superior ring or neckless than Heinlein’s competent man. In more modern terms, would you rather by a video game from a company devoted exclusively to games or would you buy from a company that also producers garden tools?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

      You mean like “would you rather buy a video game from Microsoft/Sony or one from Nintendo?”Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

      a man seen as the patron saint of libertarian science fiction writers.

      Mostly by people who haven’t read much of his stuff. He was a lot more interesting (and self-contradictory) than that. But he really was the kind of polymath that quote describes, having been a sailor and a politician before becoming a writer, and having an excellent grasp of basic science and engineering (judging from his work, he never did grok Relativity or QM), and enough practical skills to have built his own houses. Heinlein is the Derek Jeter of SF: a no-doubt hall-of-famer, but nothing like the towering god his acolytes describe.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to LeeEsq says:

      “Specialization is one reason why we are wealthy and have some many high-quality goods. If everybody had to be a jack of all trades then our society is much more primitive.”

      Plus one to this comment.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Roger says:

        Since I’m more productive as a software engineer than as a plumber, next time we have a dripping faucet I should call a professional and work the extra time needed to pay for him, rather than replace the washer myself. The alternative makes us all poorer.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:


        A. Are you taking time off from work to fix it?

        B. Do you value your free time at more than the cost of the plumber?Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Roger says:

        I can’t speak for Mr. Schilling, but I suspect that people’s answers to that may depend greatly on their age and geography. I myself suffer from overexposure to my small-town prairie grandparents — who lived through the Great Depression — as a youth. You owned a house, debt-free as soon as possible, because then the bankers/landlords couldn’t force you out; you repaired everything that you could yourself and called in the pros when it was beyond you; repairing the house always had higher value than leisure.Report

    • Avatar veronica d in reply to LeeEsq says:

      No to scold you, @leeesq , but the Heinlein quote is not about the competent man. He is specifically addressing the competent human being.

      Little things like that make a big difference.Report

  2. Avatar James Pearce says:

    “In an age obsessed with personal entertainment, the perpetual happiness of the individual, and the hope that we might all someday be able to sit around doing nothing, work is a return to the goal of self-betterment

    I agree with this in principle but in practice it often seems like work is merely a means to someone else’s end. Part of this is a function of the capitalist system, which values profitable labor over other kinds of labor. Part of it is just human nature: the grasshopper’s desire to eat the ant’s winter stores.

    For example, before my Mom retired, she spent most of her time pouring over the books as an accountant. Now that she’s retired, she spends most of her time training her dog. Neither endeavor is exactly “idle.” It’s just that one form of labor has an economic value attached to it and the other does not.

    So, yes, “work is a return to the goal of self-betterment,” but the “self-betterment” work doesn’t always pay and the paid work doesn’t necessarily lead to “self-betterment.”Report

    • Avatar Matty in reply to James Pearce says:


      I get the sense there is a lot of confusion between work in the sense of stuff that takes effort and stuff you get paid for. There’s a lot of overlap of course but it isn’t total and a lot of the work that also makes you a better person falls in the small set of unpaid work.Report

  3. Avatar Roger says:

    I admire the sentiments and the self actualization which come from work. At the risk of changing the focus of the post though, I think it bears reminding that the purpose of work in a modern world is to cooperatively solve problems for each other. We benefit ourselves by benefiting others. The focus of work is the consumer, and all of us, regardless of our role in production, are consumers.

    In a week of focusing on work, I think we need to remind ourselves that work is a means to an end aimed at consumption. Consumers are our ultimate bosses, which is another way of saying we are all the boss.Report

    • Avatar LWA in reply to Roger says:

      “the focus of work is the consumer.”

      There are two ways of looking at this, aren’t there?

      One is that the purpose of work is to be able to consume- to earn or trade enough to consume things.
      Another is that the purpose is to engage in a relationship with the end user or our work. The consumer is directly affected by our work product, and their lives and the tone and tenor of all of society is changed as a result of our labor.

      The first one is certainly true, since we all need work in order to sustain our material being.

      But the second one takes a broader view- it implies that work has a context to a larger purpose beyond our material well being.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to LWA says:

        I would agree that
        1). The purpose of work is production of that desired by consumers. We use division of labor and exchange in immense networks because it is so bloody efficient, allowing hundreds or thousands of times the productivity, variety and quality.

        2). Humans thrive on a life with purpose, meaning, camaraderie and activity. One way to get this is to combine one’s purpose and interaction with one’s occupation.

        It is not the only way to accomplish these things though. If we assume technology will eventually produce everything more efficiently than us (a worthwhile hypothetical) then we will either need to find our purpose and interaction in other activities or carve out intentional areas of productive inefficiency just for our well being.

        My wife spends much of her free time doing charity work for third world orphans. Sure it does some good for the girls. It is also to a great extent about her though. She gets meaning and purpose from her activity.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Again the key is balance and people don’t really seem to understand the importance of balance.

    We know that 50 hours of work a week is about as much as a person can do without losing productivity. 35-50 seems to be a good ideal to strive for. This is enough work to give leisure meaning while making sure that people are not burnt out cases who never get to enjoy life.

    There are times when more hours are necessary but I think a lot of overwork is the product of very poor project management and fear of delegation. There shouldn’t be a hazing aspect to work or some idiot macho contest of “I worked 100 hours a week for the last fifty weeks.”

    There is also the fact that a “idle hands are a devil’s plaything” is a theory of social control. There should be nothing morally or ethically wrong with blowing off steam or wanting to spend a day just laying about and doing nothing. Such activities can be very recharging.

    I know way to many workaholics who have seen their personal lives fall to nothing because of just working working working all the time.Report

  5. Avatar Ahunt says:

    Delurking to suggest a couple of ideas…per Matty.

    In some cases, leisure activity IS work. ..just fun work. Our subsistence garden provides better than 60% of our nutrition throughout the year, along with the protein coming from the venison and fish the hubster brings home. Gardening, hunting and fishing are both hobbies and productive work. (My little side culinary herb business is thriving.)

    And I think parents particularly do have to be “Jacks and Jills of all trades” apart from what they do professionally. Indeed, when Hubby was forced into retirement back in 2009, the skills he developed from his home hobbies with our sons landed him fairly secure subcontracting work with two Costco stores, allowing us to slowly recover from 3 no-good, very bad economic years.

    YMMV, of course, but in our household, multiple skills are rebuilding our retirement stash.Report

  6. Avatar zic says:

    I think I agree with @ahunt but perhaps I’d make it even stronger. I work at something I love, often for many more hours a day then if I were working for someone else. Same for my sweetie. His work — playing jazz and developing/teaching electronic music applications and projects — is, for many people, play. But it is, nonetheless, very serious work, he gets paid for it. More to the point, we don’t have a lot of ‘leisure’ time, but our work is a way of life, it’s what we do even when we’re not ‘working,’ because there’s always something about that inspires and informs our work, be it the form of a fern or the sound of water flowing and birds chirping. For us, work is art, and you don’t shut that process off, instead, it’s a way of being.

    I’ve struggled with the work symposium for this reason; I work all the time. But I want to work all the time, and I’m generally pretty unhappy when things happen that prevent me from working.Report

    • Avatar Nicholas Costo in reply to zic says:

      This comment echoes my sentiments. I work at an increasingly demanding job while attempting to complete a graduate degree on the side. My work requires sacrifices that most people would balk at. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything, because I have attained a balance that I always sought but could never achieve before.Report

  7. Congratulations on getting into the MD program!Report

  8. Avatar Heliopause says:

    “More than the riches that a job gives us, and outside of its direct contribution, it should ultimately be about acquiring skills for personal betterment”

    Who is going to collect the garbage? Who is going to take your order at the restaurant? Who is going to pick the bananas? Who is going to pour you your $6 latte? Who is going to watch your two year old while you’re at work? Who is going answer the customer service calls for your phone and TV and electricity and health insurance and auto insurance? Who is going to change your diaper when you’re in the nursing home? Who is going to repave the highways in Phoenix in August?Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Heliopause says:

      Could you kindly expand on how your series of rhetorical questions qualifies my words?Report

      • Avatar Heliopause in reply to Christopher Carr says:

        It’s easy to say that work should be for personal betterment if you have the remote prospect that work will be for your personal betterment. Of course, the vast majority of the work in the world has nothing to do with personal betterment, it’s simply shit that has to be done. How would you apportion it?Report