Hard Work Is Not Inherently Virtuous
On why we feel the need to be productive in the first place
For the last day or two, I’ve been thinking about this excellent Vox essay by Beatrice Forman titled, “The soothing, slightly sinister world of productivity hacks,” partly because while it’s nominally about the new generation of air-quote, Influencers (some of whom are not legally old enough to drink), who are doling out productivity advice on TikTok, it’s also about venerating work for its own sake.
I share Forman’s repulsion to the surface idea of it. I think work can be deeply gratifying but it is not inherently**, and I know this because I’ve worked the customer service desk at a Walmart in rural Alabama where my job was primarily to be a human buffer between angry people and management. It was a job where I was routinely gaslit by dudes who brought in broken things they brought at a different store, and when I took a deep breath and said, sir, this tag on your broken thing says Kmart, not Walmart, I failed as a buffer because they invariably demanded to speak to my manager. The only gratifying thing about that job was that I was paid some money to do it. When people talk about the joy of rising and grinding, it’s only in the context of jobs they want to do, or find some purpose in, or exist to fulfill some larger ambition. Pleasure in work is not something everyone has access to.
I have a job (or several jobs) that I want to do, most of which I find fulfilling, and several of which exist to fulfill a larger ambition, so I fit that privileged demographic, but even then, my attempts to be productive and interest in getting better at it aren’t particularly directed at maximizing my work output or ambitions to overachieve.
I have some sympathy for the Lifehacker TicTok-ers (lifeTok-ers? TicHackers?), though, because I remember having some ambitions to overachieve when I was 18 and thinking this was The Most Important Thing. I did well academically and spent much of my high school and college years being told that this meant I had promise and could do anything I “set my mind to,” which now seems like a watered down version of the slightly creepier idea that you can just “manifest” your future. And then when I got into a fancy college, I went to a mandatory new student orientation where…