The Doubter’s Companion: Hard Work

“Hard Work: The work ethic remains a popular explanation for the success of the West. This doubtful argument relies heavily on comparing humans to insects such as ants. Above all, the work ethic has a feel about it of low-level morality aimed at the poorer end of society.

There are lots of poor in the world who work all the time. On the other hand, large deposit banks, although non-productive, have been among the most profitable institutions over the last half-century. Their executives continue to work relatively short hours. The executives of large, publicly traded corporations work longer hours than the poor. And they compete with each other—not with other corporations—to work ever harder; by spending more of each day at their desks processing paper and developing relationships. This benefits their reputations and their careers. There is no proof that it has an effect on productivity or profits or the corporation.

Entrepreneurs are quite different. They usually have to work very hard in order to create their enterprise in order not to have to work hard later on in their lives. In other words, they create in order not to work.

To the extent that the west has succeeded, it is probably the result not of work but of innovation—not just technological, but social, intellectual, political, verbal, visual, acoustical, even emotional. In order to innovate some have spent a great deal of time thinking and experimenting, perhaps more than any other civilization in history.

Technological innovation in particular continues as if we were on an unstoppable roll. Yet our structures do not as a rule reward physical hard work. What they do favor is a narrowly defined type of intense labor that is best described as white-collar slogging.”

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

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