In the Western world, the idea of “working hard” is usually treated as a virtue in its own right. Any time I thought to question this “virtue” I’d invariably find myself on the defensive, as though my questioning of hard work was an affirmation of its opposite, laziness.
Whatever worthy objectives you want to achieve in life, the chances are, you have to work hard to attain them. Many objectives justify such hard work, like wanting to set the world record in some athletic discipline or to become a virtuoso musician or dancer. The same could be said about wanting to write a book, circumnavigate the globe, or any number of such feats. But people inclined to such endeavors do not need to be taught the value of hard work, so its cultural affirmation as a virtue would be superfluous and silly.
A few years ago I sat through a conversation between my parents and some of their friends. One couple’s daughter was working for Lehman Brothers in New York and her parents spoke, half proud and half appalled, about how their daughter often stayed working at the office so late, at times she’d actually catch some sleep on the sofa at the office and continue working in the morning. Her parents felt pride about the vague idea that their daughter was working so hard at this big Wall Street bank, doing some business that was too important to delay… At the same time, they were appalled because their daughter was sacrificing her life to Lehman’s purposes: her own life, hobbies, marriage, children… those things wer all being delayed…
At that time Lehman Brothers still existed and seemed like a big, important institution. But only a few months later, the big bank collapsed and this young woman found herself not only without family and any social support, she also found herself without her job. All the big important reasons that delayed her life turned out to be utterly meaningless – or something even worse. It is this sort of hard work whose virtue I deem problematic: the coercive exertion that fails to question its own ultimate objectives.
Perhaps it is time we dispensed with the notion that hard work for the sake of hard work is any kind of virtue at all. We should admit to ourselves without guilt that things we truly value in life are connections and time with our family and friends, good food and drink, music, arts, sports and leisure time. Rather than defaulting to mindless busywork and rigid scheduling we should seek a balance between necessary exertions and enjoyable things of life that charge up our emotional and spiritual batteries. As they say, nobody on their deathbeds regrets not having worked harder.
These musings don’t flow from a place of laziness; I may well be among the hardest working people I know. However, I can also say that much of what I do does not feel like work to me. It is perhaps the same kind of work as my son does when left in a room full of Legos… It may well qualify as play – another thing all living beings love to spend time on.
Alex Krainer is an author and hedge fund manager based in Monaco. In 2016 he published the book “Mastering Uncertainty in Commodities Trading.” Most recently he also published “The Killing of William Browder: Deconstructing Bill Browder’s Dangerous Deception.”