The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Hard work is for suckers

Mike Elgan claims that we’ve moved away from the ‘hard work’ ethic of the industrial age and moving to something he snarkly calls ‘work ethic 2.0’, probably because his editor was paying him by the buzzword.  While I believe there’s an ounce of truth in this, there’s a few misconceptions in the article I’d like to deal with first.

I’m  no historian, but I highly doubt that the Protestant Work Ethic had anything to do with the industrial revolution, it just happened to appear at the same time.  Certainly, the myths it perpetuates, namely that with hard work you can achieve anything, had more to do with the birth and evolution of modern Capitalism than the industrial revolution.  This is because hard work tells a person to just pick cotton faster, rather than telling him to invent the cotton gin.  Hard work frowns on innovation to make work easier – after all, if you make work easier, then you’re really just acting out of laziness!

Secondly, while Edison did say something along the lines of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, that 1% inspiration was the most important part.  The flash of genius, the realization that there is a better way of doing things, is not substitutable.  Replacing that 1% inspiration with even a doubling of perspiration, or working twice as hard, won’t get you anywhere but on a factory assembly line.  As a counter to Edison’s famous quote, is Robert Frost’s, which I’m sure to butcher: “If you work hard eight ours every day, one day you’ll get to be the boss and work hard twelve hours every day.”

Indeed, most of the perspiration that goes along with our inspiration, in the case that our inspiration amounts to anything, is in convincing others that we truly have found a better way!  A better mouse trap is traditionally disdained by any established mouse trap makers since novelty requires them to try new marketing schemes, new sales pitches, new manufacturing floors, and on and on and on.  It’s overcoming the static friction of your current environment that saps most of that perspiration.  Anaesthesia was, for a time, thought of by surgeons as ‘cheating’, after all.  Anything that makes our lives easier must somehow cost us something else.  This is the real lesson of the ‘Protestant’ Work Ethic, the same ‘Protestants’ who gave us feeling guilty after sex or eating good food.  It’s no wonder we have been taught to feel guilty for not putting in as much effort as others in doing this job or that, given the theme of the Protestant Work Ethic.

Hard work has always been a bit of a bait-and-switch with the Entitled Class to the Working Class.  Now, don’t think I’m getting all Marxist on you here, but it’s a fact that most of the bankers and auto execs getting bailed out right now really have no skill, talent or ability that separates them from others.  Either they were lucky, born into good families, or cheated.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t good, talented people out there that are in positions of high responsibility – after all, I did say most.  And, to confirm my Libertarian leanings, it is solely because of our free market that even those few got into the positions they did.  A more Victorian age would have ensured that in fact ALL people in responsibility were idiots. 🙂

In the article, the author mentions how we instill the love and appreciation of  ‘hard work’ in our children, as we value it so much.  Perhaps this is a clue as to where we should attack.  The epitome of modern education takes place at the University.  While I very much appreciated my University, and hardly consider it ‘schooling’ compared to ‘education’, I’ve now had a good run through some state run public schools and am having second thoughts.  My University was very much about education, about each person pursing their interests and self-fulfilment.  I guess I was lucky.  After a spat taking a few courses at a local State University, I have to say it reminded me a lot more of high school than real College.  The professor was, in fact, simply reading out of the book (which we all had), and then put such little efforts into the tests he created for us as for them to lack any real statistical validity at all.

All to get a little piece of paper at the end of it that basically allows me to have a job.  Well, not really, as I  already have that little piece of paper from another University, but you get what I’m saying.  People put their nose to the grindstone and put up with instructors waiting out their tenure just to get a paper that lets them  have a good paying job.  When you start thinking about this racket as applied to Ivy Leagues, it really starts to incense you.  Just because they went to a more prestigious university, they are basically taken care of for the rest of their lives, even though the quality of our education was the same?(I’d argue mine was better, in fact.)  It’s an entitlement program for the born rich – and the pinnacle of our education process that so lauds ‘hard work’.  A bit of an irony that the top of such a program doesn’t seem to establish hard work at all as a thing of value?

Now that we’ve established hard work and it’s proponents are for suckers, at least, hard work for hard works sake anyway, how does the Information age change this?

Any Linux fan is about to be greatly offended, but one of the best poster children of the new way to work is Bill Gates.  A college drop out, he lost all interest in simply getting entitlements.  Instead, he had that 1% inspiration and filled in the rest with perspiration.  Did he work hard?  Of course he did – but was that the REASON for his success?  Not at all.  He was successful because he was inspired to see a better way of doing things and worked hard to change the world to fit that better way.(As a olive branch to the Linux fans out there, I don’t know Linus’s particular views on formal education, however his own inspiration and persperation after the fact are also great examples of the real new work ethic).

How can we better formulate this?  If you were to go back in time and catch Bill working in his garage on some new piece of software, would you ask “Are you working really hard?”  He’d probably say no.  You see, culturally, hard work is not just putting in a lot of effort – it is putting in a lot of effort that, in other circumstances, you normally wouldn’t.  Another education example – if a student is failing a course and simply doesn’t ‘get it’, but then really puts their nose to the grindstone and pulls out a passing grade, they were working hard.  If another student is simply interested in the subject material, and ‘got it’, but still put in effort, they were not ‘working hard’.  Work, in other words, is commonly thought of as something we don’t want to do for its own sake.  We only work to get the things work brings us, namely compensation.  If we enjoy what we’re doing, then it’s not work.

Bill enjoyed what he was doing.  Therefor, even if he was putting in crazy hours on his own projects, it was not work.  It couldn’t be.  And if it’s not work, then it couldn’t be hard work either.  In other words, nothing in life that’s worth anything comes without effort.  But effort for its own sake is just called work.  If someone tries to tell you that effort, and only effort, will get you where you want to go, they’re trying to convince you to put in effort for them.

The article goes on to explain that the new ‘hard work’ is really ‘focus’.  But, really, isn’t that just another way to say hard work?  After all, if I have all these distractions, then isn’t all it takes to ignore them effort to do so?  I’m not working hard to do some job any more, I’m working hard to ignore the distractions.  It’s still hard work!  It still rewards discipline for discipline’s sake!  It’s still industrial age thinking.  If you honestly believe that discipline, goalless, directionless discipline, will get what you want, then Sisyphus has a boulder he wants to talk to you about.

This reminds me of an online discussion on different work styles.  It was a question posed to potential managers.  If you were interviewing Bob, who had a stellar resume, references, and a whole portfolio of open source code he’s shown you, and he said “I want to be paid full time, but only work half time”, what would you do?  To elaborate, you know his twenty hours will be worth your average developer’s 60.  You know this is a good deal rationally, it mathematically makes sense.  Of course, we’re glazing over the difficulties of actually deciding whether Bob or not is lying and really has his skills.  We’re assuming he has the skills, but he’s demanding, basically, to be paid twice as much as your other developers.

Any reasonable person, any real business oriented person, would take this guy on at the drop of a hat.  Why not? What is there to lose?  But that’s not what our potential managers thought.

The responses went from bad:

“Well, if Bob could do all that production in 20 hours, imagine what he’d do in 40 hours!  I wouldn’t hire him unless he was willing to put in those 40 hours.  It’d be my job to make sure everyone reached their full potential.”

To worse:

“How dare any developer think they could skirt around what the rest of us have to do.  I’d show him the door that instant!”

You see, their job, or so they thought, was to make sure Bob worked hard, not to make sure the business was getting a good deal from working with him.  We all know for a fact that Bob’s 40th hour is going to be a lot less productive than his first, and moreover, that letting him go after 20 will allow him to recuperate that much faster.  But damnit, what a punk!  Who does he think he is?  I don’t care if Bob is tired and worthless at 40 hours, I care that he does what I say.  I’m his manager, for Christ’s sake!

Bob is the epitome of the new economy.  Bob puts in effort, but that’s not why he’s so productive.  Why then, is he so productive?  Why are there Bobs out there that still seem to be so much more useful than all the Jims and Berrys?  Because Bob enjoys what he does.  He enjoys design and development.  And if he enjoys it, he’s automatically self-optimizing.  He will only work so far as he’s getting things productively done, because as soon as he isn’t, he isn’t having fun any more.

Unlike the factory floor, the Cubicle farm is generally littered with people who, given the problem, and no pay check, and the resources, would try and solve it anyway!  They’d get a kick out of it.  The fact that you’re willing to pay them is just that much better.  But the problem is, in our Protestant Ethic economy, we believe that if someone looks like they’re enjoying what they’re doing, then they aren’t working, and thus are a bad worker.  So we pile on the hours, we make conditions terrible, and we become assholes as people to show them ‘who’s boss’.

The new work ethic isn’t a work ethic at all.  It’s the idea that someone can love what they do, and thus not need to be pushed into doing it.  In software this is a double whammy, because if you love what you do you also do it better – code and design from people who enjoy it are done quicker, with fewer resources, and fewer defects than entire teams of people working like slaves on a slave ship.  Hard work is not enjoyable, by definition.  Work is something we only do for the consequences.  But we can do things that are enjoyable AND help out our businesses and the bottom line.  This is the new breakthrough in the ‘new’ creative economy.  It’s the realization that when it comes to being inspired, no amount of perspiration will ever get you that flash of genius.


December 21, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Hard work:duped

    Comment by Tammi | April 20, 2013 | Reply

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