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In Praise of Work

Teachings_of_Jesus_30_of_40._parable_of_the_talents._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_BibleThis post is part of our Work Symposium. An introduction to the symposium can be found here; all of the posts written for the symposium can be found here.


This post will also be the last in my unemployment series started in July 2011.

Here is a list of other posts in the series:

1. Quick Introduction and Statement of Purpose – describes my goals for the series

2. Punctuated Equilibrium – a fictionalized but representative email exchange about cover letters

3. Dueling Conundrums: Existential, Institutional – on the spiritual state of the unemployed individual

4. Nickel and Dimed Ten Years Later – a powerful quote from Barbara Ehrenreich

5. Jobs and Other Wastes of Worldly Effort – questions the idea of jobs for jobs’ sake

6. The Solutions to Poverty and Unemployment Will Look Something Like This: An Interview with Rachel Cook – about microfinance

7. On Lowering or Eliminating the Minimum Wage – explores the idea that the minimum wage and unemployment may be directly proportional

8. The Scooby-Doo Ending – models scenarios for the resolution of the economy

9. Found Conversation – Vietnam War veterans comment on #occupy

10. How Finding a Job is Like Losing Your Keys – a criticism of the idea of unemployment as trivial experience or right-of-passage

11. Who Occupies the Occupiers? – an in-depth criticism of #occupy

12. The Mission – asks the question, does work serve people or ideals?

13. What Gives – discusses the impact of poverty on lifestyle, including health, friendship, and family

14. A Network of Support – on “homeless hot spots”

15. I am Dependent on the Government… – argues that welfare should be thought of as public investment

16. McUnion – on the fast food unions taking shape in New York City

17. Wage Mastery – explores the idea of a maximum wage

18. Les Misérables – on the widespread abuse and lack of charity for the unfortunate economic realities faced by immigrants

19. Frum Many, One – a sharp critique of David Frum’s views on immigration and employment

I believe that policy and culture drive or exacerbate unemployment and inequality and that this can be conquered. In order to make progress on these issues, we must put behind us the notion that we live in a meritocracy, or even that we should live in a meritocracy. Nothing in the labor market will ever be fair, even if those with the most power believe they acquired that power solely through their own exceptional abilities. That is not to say we can’t and shouldn’t make the system more fair than it currently is.

Nevertheless, only when we realize that the stations in which people find themselves are not fairly distributed can we truly foster more compassion and understanding for the situation at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Eventually, we should tailor policy to ameliorate the detrimental effects of people responding to incentives, especially at the bottom, where such effects can be even more pronounced. In many cases this can be best accomplished by simply getting out of the way – i.e. allowing immigrants to find work and make lives for themselves and their families in our country, allowing labor to organize as management is organized, allowing protests to make their case to the public without unfairly questioning the motives or socioeconomic background of the protesters, seeing recessions as opportunities for institutional and economic molting.

In other situations, such as with especially vulnerable segments of the population – i.e. the unemployed, recent immigrants – it is important to see public and private assistance as an investment that can pay off. The minimal assistance that my family and I have received will almost certainly pay off for society, as I have now been accepted to multiple United States MD programs, will matriculate in the fall, and am deep in the process of applying for full scholarship plus stipend in exchange for extensive future public service as a physician.

For my final post in this series, I’d like to focus then on a somewhat related topic, one which is appropriate for our current symposium and one which will help transition to my next project here at Ordinary Times. The topic I would like to write about is work as service.


Three years ago, I set out to chronicle my journey through unemployment inflicted by run-of-the-mill human stupidity though compounded by extraordinary natural disaster. In November of 2012, after twenty months of inconsistent and not-enough part-time work, hand-waiving reparations from offending entities, government and church welfare, and earnest worldly effort wasted treading water among the nation’s unemployed, I was finally offered a full-time job via personal referral: in exchange for ensuring that large, multinational corporations were compliant with certain quasi-efficacious regulations, I would receive 2X,XXX dollars a year, full medical and dental insurance coverage for my family, and the relevant experience that would eventually allow me to fire the metaphorical proton torpedoes of my application into the womp-rat sized thermal exhaust port that is United States allopathic medical school admission.

2X,XXX dollars a year is not enough to support a family of six, so we had to be very creative and very lucky. To increase inputs, I took on or continued an additional three part-time jobs, working more than eighty or ninety hours in a typical week, while simultaneously continuing to take classes to satisfy medical school prerequisites. To decrease outputs we moved into a winter rental, reduced food costs by decreasing meat consumption, purchasing local vegetables directly from farmers, pickling, fermenting, canning, and making stocks, and we did not travel. Most of the time we lived a solid, comfortable middle class lifestyle. My two biggest failings have been being unable to pay the fees required for my foreign-born family members to realize their full legal rights in this country and being unable to afford to send my oldest daughter to preschool.

Now I am looking back on the denouement of this period of my life, spent working several low-paying jobs for which I was staggeringly overqualified just to get by. Yet I consider this period to have been my life’s most valuable. The reason is because I have come to see work itself as central to the human experience, and that work is central to human experience is something to be celebrated.


Those of you who have read me know that I started out writing for the Internet from Fukushima, Japan, where I lived for five years and where I met my wife. Her family has worked the land there as farmers for generations, and I have never tasted a peach as delicious as those grown in the vicinity of my wife’s family’s home.

My wife’s cousin, Kazuhisa, recently graduated from high school. He will not attend college, and the economy in northern Japan is still very much ravaged by the disaster there three years ago. Like many other young men in Fukushima, Kazuhisa has obtained work cleaning up radiation.

As you can imagine, this has been big news in my wife’s family. My father-in-law has questioned Kazuhisa’s new job, saying that, if it takes them three years to clean up all the radiation he’ll officially be a radiation sanitation expert and what kind of job prospects will he have then?


The competent man is an idea most cogently espoused by Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.If currently you have a plague of insects at home Gecko Pest Controlhas the solution for you, it is also to learn how to kill bed bugs, those are extremely dangerous as well.

In an age obsessed with personal entertainment, the perpetual happiness of the individual, and the hope that we might all someday be able to sit around doing nothing, work is a return to the goal of self-betterment – a form of exercise for the spirit, and it is through this self-betterment that one can most effectively serve the greater society.

From my full-time job assisting research I have gained: in-depth knowledge of research methods and regulatory structures; remarkable facility and patience with paperwork; knowledge of how to push the scientific boundaries yet ethically; in-depth knowledge of several important and interesting subject areas; knowledge of how different institutional sizes and structures translate into particular outcomes and the corresponding effective methods for working well within such structures.

From my part-time job teaching chemistry I have gained: five times the familiarity with concepts as my peers having gone through the courses only once; a wide network for friends and colleagues; experience working within one of the world’s premier institutions; skills at communicating difficult concepts to those with little to no background knowledge; understanding of my own strengths, weaknesses, and limitations.

From my part-time job working at a restaurant I have gained: skill at waiting, bartending, valeting, and organizing functions; in-depth knowledge of food and several different varieties of cuisine; knowledge of what it really means to be a good worker, to be valued for my efforts and not just for my knowledge; an appreciation for the bottom line; an appreciation for how immigrants must work twice as hard for half as much; an appreciation for the fact that whether or not a customer is satisfied may be out of my control; the ability to deal with people, whether they are happy, sad, angry, or just plain weird.

More than the riches that a job gives us, and outside of its direct contribution, it should ultimately be about acquiring skills for personal betterment, to be used in service of the greater society. The skills listed above will all allow me to more effectively contribute in whatever form I may, and they are skills that I will take with me throughout my entire life, that will help me stand out among my peers and perhaps someday to contribute importantly in a situation where no one else can.

I’m definitely playing the long game now that I am employed.

(Image Source: Wikimedia Commons: Teachings of Jesus 30 of 40: Parable of the Talents. Etching by Jan Luyken from the Bowyer Bible)

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35 thoughts on “In Praise of Work

  1. Robert Heinlein’s quote on the competent man is really rich coming from a man seen as the patron saint of libertarian science fiction writers. Specialization isn’t for insects. Specialization is one reason why we are wealthy and have some many high-quality goods. If everybody had to be a jack of all trades than our society is much more primitive. Mastering a particular art or craft takes a life time of work and person trained only in the art of jewelry making is going to produce a superior ring or neckless than Heinlein’s competent man. In more modern terms, would you rather by a video game from a company devoted exclusively to games or would you buy from a company that also producers garden tools?

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  2. “In an age obsessed with personal entertainment, the perpetual happiness of the individual, and the hope that we might all someday be able to sit around doing nothing, work is a return to the goal of self-betterment

    I agree with this in principle but in practice it often seems like work is merely a means to someone else’s end. Part of this is a function of the capitalist system, which values profitable labor over other kinds of labor. Part of it is just human nature: the grasshopper’s desire to eat the ant’s winter stores.

    For example, before my Mom retired, she spent most of her time pouring over the books as an accountant. Now that she’s retired, she spends most of her time training her dog. Neither endeavor is exactly “idle.” It’s just that one form of labor has an economic value attached to it and the other does not.

    So, yes, “work is a return to the goal of self-betterment,” but the “self-betterment” work doesn’t always pay and the paid work doesn’t necessarily lead to “self-betterment.”

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    • +1

      I get the sense there is a lot of confusion between work in the sense of stuff that takes effort and stuff you get paid for. There’s a lot of overlap of course but it isn’t total and a lot of the work that also makes you a better person falls in the small set of unpaid work.

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  3. I admire the sentiments and the self actualization which come from work. At the risk of changing the focus of the post though, I think it bears reminding that the purpose of work in a modern world is to cooperatively solve problems for each other. We benefit ourselves by benefiting others. The focus of work is the consumer, and all of us, regardless of our role in production, are consumers.

    In a week of focusing on work, I think we need to remind ourselves that work is a means to an end aimed at consumption. Consumers are our ultimate bosses, which is another way of saying we are all the boss.

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    • “the focus of work is the consumer.”

      There are two ways of looking at this, aren’t there?

      One is that the purpose of work is to be able to consume- to earn or trade enough to consume things.
      Another is that the purpose is to engage in a relationship with the end user or our work. The consumer is directly affected by our work product, and their lives and the tone and tenor of all of society is changed as a result of our labor.

      The first one is certainly true, since we all need work in order to sustain our material being.

      But the second one takes a broader view- it implies that work has a context to a larger purpose beyond our material well being.

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      • I would agree that
        1). The purpose of work is production of that desired by consumers. We use division of labor and exchange in immense networks because it is so bloody efficient, allowing hundreds or thousands of times the productivity, variety and quality.

        2). Humans thrive on a life with purpose, meaning, camaraderie and activity. One way to get this is to combine one’s purpose and interaction with one’s occupation.

        It is not the only way to accomplish these things though. If we assume technology will eventually produce everything more efficiently than us (a worthwhile hypothetical) then we will either need to find our purpose and interaction in other activities or carve out intentional areas of productive inefficiency just for our well being.

        My wife spends much of her free time doing charity work for third world orphans. Sure it does some good for the girls. It is also to a great extent about her though. She gets meaning and purpose from her activity.

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  4. Again the key is balance and people don’t really seem to understand the importance of balance.

    We know that 50 hours of work a week is about as much as a person can do without losing productivity. 35-50 seems to be a good ideal to strive for. This is enough work to give leisure meaning while making sure that people are not burnt out cases who never get to enjoy life.

    There are times when more hours are necessary but I think a lot of overwork is the product of very poor project management and fear of delegation. There shouldn’t be a hazing aspect to work or some idiot macho contest of “I worked 100 hours a week for the last fifty weeks.”

    There is also the fact that a “idle hands are a devil’s plaything” is a theory of social control. There should be nothing morally or ethically wrong with blowing off steam or wanting to spend a day just laying about and doing nothing. Such activities can be very recharging.

    I know way to many workaholics who have seen their personal lives fall to nothing because of just working working working all the time.

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  5. Delurking to suggest a couple of ideas…per Matty.

    In some cases, leisure activity IS work. ..just fun work. Our subsistence garden provides better than 60% of our nutrition throughout the year, along with the protein coming from the venison and fish the hubster brings home. Gardening, hunting and fishing are both hobbies and productive work. (My little side culinary herb business is thriving.)

    And I think parents particularly do have to be “Jacks and Jills of all trades” apart from what they do professionally. Indeed, when Hubby was forced into retirement back in 2009, the skills he developed from his home hobbies with our sons landed him fairly secure subcontracting work with two Costco stores, allowing us to slowly recover from 3 no-good, very bad economic years.

    YMMV, of course, but in our household, multiple skills are rebuilding our retirement stash.

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  6. I think I agree with but perhaps I’d make it even stronger. I work at something I love, often for many more hours a day then if I were working for someone else. Same for my sweetie. His work — playing jazz and developing/teaching electronic music applications and projects — is, for many people, play. But it is, nonetheless, very serious work, he gets paid for it. More to the point, we don’t have a lot of ‘leisure’ time, but our work is a way of life, it’s what we do even when we’re not ‘working,’ because there’s always something about that inspires and informs our work, be it the form of a fern or the sound of water flowing and birds chirping. For us, work is art, and you don’t shut that process off, instead, it’s a way of being.

    I’ve struggled with the work symposium for this reason; I work all the time. But I want to work all the time, and I’m generally pretty unhappy when things happen that prevent me from working.

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    • This comment echoes my sentiments. I work at an increasingly demanding job while attempting to complete a graduate degree on the side. My work requires sacrifices that most people would balk at. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything, because I have attained a balance that I always sought but could never achieve before.

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  7. “More than the riches that a job gives us, and outside of its direct contribution, it should ultimately be about acquiring skills for personal betterment”

    Who is going to collect the garbage? Who is going to take your order at the restaurant? Who is going to pick the bananas? Who is going to pour you your $6 latte? Who is going to watch your two year old while you’re at work? Who is going answer the customer service calls for your phone and TV and electricity and health insurance and auto insurance? Who is going to change your diaper when you’re in the nursing home? Who is going to repave the highways in Phoenix in August?

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