The Virtue of Hard Work

I came across this post by Andreas Avester commenting on the “supposed” virtue of hard work.  The post thus, in general, tries to defend laziness against the charge that working hard is the better way to go.  Since it relies heavily on the idea that hard work isn’t necessarily better for you, let me start with that idea.  Basically, people encourage people to work hard because if they work hard they can succeed.  Avester has a German story in there where a tourist looking at what seems to be a loafing fisherman tries to convince him to go out and fish in the second part of the day after taking in a good haul in the first part of the day, and does so on the basis that it will eventually lead the fisherman to become a success.  Avester comments this about it:

Of course, there is a problem with this German short story—it is too optimistic. It assumes that with hard work it is possible to earn a lot of money. More often than not that is not how capitalism works.

It’s true that many people argue that if you work hard you will be a success, but that can’t be guaranteed.  There could be a bunch of other factors that will impact that, like luck, opportunities, and even your skills (if you don’t have a really marketable skill using it is not likely to produce success.  But what is important about hard work is that at least the willingness to work hard when it makes sense to will result in better outcomes no matter what those factors say.  A hard working person without marketable skills will still be able to work hard and perhaps at multiple things to produce a better income for themselves.  A poor person who is willing to work hard can, at a minimum, often substitute hard work for money to get things they want or need (offering, for example, to do something for someone else in trade for something they want).  Even those who are striving to be successful can find that opportunities are easier to take advantage of when you are willing to work hard, as you would be willing to go all in on the work to put the pieces in place to take advantage of them.  If you aren’t willing to work hard, then in general things will go worse for you than someone who is indeed willing to work hard.

This doesn’t mean that working hard should be seen as a virtue in and of itself.  You shouldn’t work hard just to work hard.  So the important thing, perhaps, is not working hard but instead being willing to work hard.  If you are willing to work hard when it makes sense to, then obviously things will work out better for you than if you aren’t.  But you do need to be able to determine when the hard work will be worth it, if for no other reason than that working hard on something that isn’t worth will accrue an opportunity cost, as you could be working hard on something else that provides more benefit if you weren’t working hard on the thing that you are working on.  Also, you don’t want to work hard when you don’t need to because we are all physically limited and so if you work hard on something that isn’t worth the effort you might not have the energy to later work on something that is worth it.  Especially if it’s a new opportunity.  So you need to know when to rest as well.

So part of the virtue of hard work is knowing when hard work is indeed virtuous, or when it’s vicious — when it’s hard work for the sake of hard work — or when it’s pointless or erroneous.  You don’t work hard when it provides no benefit to work hard.

Which cycles back to the fisherman story.  The tourist basically said that if the fisherman worked harder, they could eventually create a full-fledged business out of it and so, from there, be able to actually sit and watch the sea.  The fisherman replied that that was what they were already doing, so it didn’t seem like there would be a benefit to putting in all that hard work to get there.  But they’d had one good day.  What if the next few days were worse?  What if the next few days had terrible weather so they couldn’t get out?  What if their boat or nets were damaged and they couldn’t go out until they were repaired?  Yes, they had enough fish for a couple of days, but if they put in the extra work when they could and even managed to create the business that the tourist talked about then they could sit in the harbor and watch the sea and not have to worry about what was going to happen the next week.  They’d be secure enough that they could enjoy it without having to worry that taking that afternoon off was going to leave them in trouble in the future if things didn’t go so well.

That’s why the benefits of hard work are less “get more things” but are more “be secure in getting things” if the people are smart.  While lots of people do take what they earn with hard work and use that to buy things and in fact spend all that they earn from hard work on such things — leaving them nothing in reserve — those aren’t the people who are using their hard work wisely.  The main benefit from hard work is to secure your future, and spending your money on things you don’t need isn’t doing that.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use it to buy things that you want, or save it to buy things that you might want later.  Avester comments about not needing things and so not needing to work to get those useless things, but in general people always want some things, and there are always some things that will make your life better.  The virtue of hard work and excessive materialism need not be joined at the hip, but having more resources for things you need or want is better than not having it, and the best way to secure that for yourself it to at least be willing to work hard to get it when the opportunity to turn work into resources comes up.

So what we can see about laziness is that it isn’t merely not working, but is instead putting a priority on not working, making not working too important a consideration in what they do.  Which fits in with Avester’s view of the world:

Since I am lazy, I have optimized my lifestyle so as to work as little as possible. For me free time for my hobbies brings more joy than owning the latest smartphone model and having lots of stuff.

That is laziness, where someone goes to great pains to minimize their work.  The problem isn’t that they work as little as possible, in the sense that they only do the work that it benefits them to do.  Again, intelligent hard workers don’t waste their time doing work for no reason or benefit.  No, the problem is that Avester puts “not working” as their top priority, and organizes their life around that.  But work is a means to an end, and should be thought of as such.  It sounds like Avester would give up other things in order to avoid working, and would need to be doing that to be truly considered lazy.  But, again, if working will get you something that you want and will make your life better, then one should not be afraid to do that work.  There should not be an internal debate over whether you want that thing or to not work more.  No, the consideration should only be if the work is worth it to get the thing you want.  If you make not working the thing you value most, however, you really can’t properly make that assessment, and as such you may well end up far worse off than you would if you weren’t lazy.

So, to tie it back to my Stoicism, laziness really means that someone values not working too much, and thus treats laziness as a virtue, and hard work as a vice.  But hard work is neither a virtue nor a vice.  The willingness to work hard is a virtue, but we should indeed only work when the benefits we get from that work are sufficient to justify the effort.  Yes, people who work hard simply to work hard are wrong, but so are people who try to avoid working as much as they possibly can.  Ultimately, at the end of day, treating avoiding work like a virtue is the heart of laziness, and explains all of the problems that laziness causes for a person.

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