Hard work: an appreciation

approaching the topic through a circuitous route

It’s funny how you get thinking about a topic sometimes. I lay awake very late last night thinking about hard work, but how I got to that point was a long, circuitous route. Remarkably, I remember that route quite well. It began earlier in the evening when Kelly decided to watch Men In Black OnDemand. I was planning on reading more of Stephen King’s It, but I sat there watching the opening credits. It had been ten years or more since I last saw the picture and I was surprised to learn that Danny Elfman did the score.

“Oh wow, Danny Elfman did the score,” I said. “I had no idea.”

“Who is Danny Elfman?” Kelly asked.

I looked at her for a second to see if she was joking. When it was clear she wasn’t, I said, “You know, the lead singer of Oingo Boingo.”

She just stared at me at shook her head.

“Oingo Boingo,” I said, “the band.”

Still nothing.

“It’s a dead man’s party,” I sang.

“Have they done something I’d know?”

Weird Science!”

“Oh, yeah, I know that one1.”

By that point, however, I’d been sucked into Men In Black, in part because The Little Man was also watching it an he seemed to find it fascinating. Later that night, however, after everyone had gone to bed and I’d finished my reading for the evening, I grew curious about Danny Elfman. I knew a fair amount about him, but since it was quiet I took advantage of the quiet and pulled up his entry on Wikipedia. I read the whole thing with interest.

with lots of hyperlinks comes lots of browsing

One thing I learned about Danny Elfman that I didn’t know was that he is married to Bridget Fonda. Reading his Wikipedia entry, therefore, naturally made me curious about hers. And after reading hers, I jumped to her grandfather’s entry, Henry Fonda. There, I learned that Henry Fonda was life long friends with Jimmy Stewart. Naturally, I had to read his Wikipedia entry. It seemed to me that I’d read it once before, especially the section on his military career. From there, I was tempting to jump to Bing Crosby’s Wikipedia entry, which I’ve read a dozen times, I’d imagine, but instead, I looked up George Burns’ entry. I’d read a few of George Burns books over the year, and I found his life fascinating, but also sad. He lost Gracie so early.

All of these folks were entertainers and I noticed a common thread through all of them. They were all hard workers. I mean hard workers. And it seemed to me they were hard workers even before they were entertainers and they became even harder workers once they became entertainers. Hard workers have always made a strong impression on me. Perhaps part of this comes from my grandpa, who always seemed to be a hard worker and who, by simply sitting still for a moment, could make me feel lazy in comparison.

But I noticed something else, too. All of these folks seemed to be hard workers in some fundamentally different way from the “hard workers” I see today.

whistle while you work

Even some of the science fiction writers I most admire were hard workers. Isaac Asimov was a machine. It may not seem to non-writers that writing could possibly be a “hard job.” But Asimov was known not only as being a prolific writer and speaker, but doing it all himself. He had no assistants, no typists, no secretaries. He had no agent and only used an agent on rare occasions when he absolutely had to. He managed his own “business”, dealt directly with publisher, read and responded to all of his mail, answered his own phone, booked his engagements himself. All of this in addition to writing 500 books and thousands of essays and stories. People seemed to find this incredible, but Asimov would explain that the workload increased at a slow, steady pace over the course of 50 years that he never really noticed.

What’s more, it seems to me that many of these hard workers share another unusual trait. They, like Asimov, don’t make a big deal of the hard work. They might expect others around them to work just as hard. They might expect others around them to be prepared. But I don’t often hear them complaining about the hard work. Of course, this could just be the public face of a public/private life and when the cameras are off, they are whining and complaining, but I don’t think that is the case. I think that the entire notion of hard work was very different in the first half of the twentieth century than it is today. Back then, hard work was expected and it reflected positively on one’s character. Today, hard work is scorned with quips like, “Work smart, not hard.” Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost something.

The hardest workers, it seems to me, are often the happiest. They are the ones you’ll find whistling while they work. The job–whether it’s sitting behind a desk or pulling rocks out of a quarry–provides some kind of inner satisfaction. But it seems that has somehow changed in a way that I can’t quite place my finger on.

confessions of a workaholic

There is a danger to this type of hard work. You can sometimes lose yourself in the work. There was a time when I felt this was happening to me. I suspect that many of the people I mentioned ran into trouble because of their efforts. The satisfaction that one can derive from hard work can act like a drug. It can be addictive. You have to work harder to keep that satisfied feeling going. And at the levels that some of these folks worked, all kinds of bad things can result, from heart attacks to family problems.

I used to think of myself as a hard worker, but I feel like I’ve lost some of that, especially when I compare myself to others out there. Sometimes, I just want to do nothing. And at those times, I do feel guilty. I think of James Stewart or George Burns or Isaac Asimov with their noses to the grindstone and I feel downright lazy.

But then others will say to me: “I don’t know how you do it: two little kids, a full-time job, and yet there you are blogging everyday, writing stories, doing guest posts, reading tons of stuff.” I suppose in that sense, it all crept up on my slowly (except the kids) and the workload built up steadily, as it did for Asimov. And indeed, my days do feel full and I often mourn the fact that the days are not 30 hours long.

And yet, I don’t consider what I do hard work–not in the pre-1950s sense anyway. I do think that writing a story is harder than the work that I do in my day job. But there is also a different type of satisfaction. In my day job, there isn’t really one thing I can put my hand on and say, hey look, I worked for month and months and made this thing right here. But when I finish a story, whether I sell it or not, I can hold that story in my hand, rifle through the (virtual) pages and think back to the hours I sat in front of the keyboard pounding it out, shaping it, trying to get it just right. I have a finished product. I made something, created something, and there is a great deal of satisfaction in that.

the value of hard work

Somewhere along the way, the value of hard work changed. Maybe it never really changed. Maybe it’s always been the same and my romantic notions are just grass-is-greener fantasies of what it was like when my grandpa was not much more than a kid, washing dishes all day long in a ship as it made its way through rough seas. But it seems to me that there was a time when someone worked hard all day long–I mean hard–they rose with the sun and didn’t stop until the last bit of sunlight drained from the sky and the stars flickered overhead. And there was nothing special about that. It was just what was expected. Maybe there wasn’t even much of a reward for that kind of hard work. Or maybe there was the absolute best reward of all: a good night’s sleep.

These days, it seems to me, hard work is what people try to avoid. We’ve somehow lowered our standards. Work smart, not hard. Why not both? I suspect it is because these days, there is no benefit to being a hard worker. A hard worker accomplishes no more than the smart worker. (Or the sly worker.) And in this lies the seed of what has changed. Work has become about what we get out of it, instead of what we put in to it.

i should have been a farmer

Like Pop says in Bernard Malmud’s wonderful novel, The Natural, “I should have been a farmer.” I envy that lifestyle, waking up before the sun. Working out in the fields all day long, maybe a break somewhere around noon for sandwich, and then back to it. Work until the sun has set, muscles sore and aching, clothes drenched in sweat, but feeling good about what you got done and sleeping well because of it.

  1. I have this theory that Oingo Boingo, while very popular on the West Coast, is virtually unknown to people who grew up on the East Coast. I am going to assume this is true and that is why Kelly didn’t know who Oingo Boingo was.


  1. Like Pop says in Bernard Malmud’s wonderful novel, The Natural, “I should have been a farmer.”

    I can tell, even if I knew nothing else about you, that lived in the Northeast. Other parts of the country don’t seem to read Malmud or even know who he is 🙂

  2. Jamie, you need to dig up your copy of RAH’s TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE. Read the chapter, “The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail”. A 24-page Lazarus Long reminiscence of a colleague from 2000 years ago. It can be read independently from the rest of the book- And even includes references to farming.


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