Wednesday, 31 March 2010

is hard work bad or good?

It seems to me that as a society we are very confused about how we regard our physicality. In the past we had the Protestant work ethic which made hard work a moral and spiritual duty whether you liked it or not. William Morris in his Utopian novel News from Nowhere argued that there should be pleasure in hard work, his townsfolk take joy in heading out to the countryside to join in the physical graft of hay making. His fellow socialists suggested that whilst hard work may not always be pleasurable it should be done with pride for the good of the community.

It seems industrialisation has led to the increasing feeling that work is bad and hard hand labour is something to be minimised. Intellectual labour is more highly regarded and rewarded. There are other views though. I like this little traditional story so much I included it in my book about wooden bowl turning.

The Industrialist and the fisherman

A rich industrialist was horrified to find a fisherman lying comfortably beside his smoking his pipe.

“Why aren’t you out fishing?” asked the industrialist.
“I’ve caught enough fish for the day,” said the fisherman.
”Why don’t you catch some more?”
”What would I do with them?”
”Earn more money. Then you could have a motor fixed to your boat and go into deeper waters to catch more fish. That would bring you money to buy nylon nets, so more fish, more money. Soon you would have enough to buy two boats, even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me!”
“What would I do then?” The fisherman asked.
”Then you could sit back and enjoy life!”

”What do you think I’m doing right now?”

All this thought about hard work came about whilst breaking rocks for a new path today. A passer by told me it looked like slave labour, I told him I was getting paid and enjoying it but I don't think he was convinced.
Folk regularly stop and watch me turning bowls on my foot powered lathe. "That looks hard work" they say and it is always said in the tone of voice that implies that hard work is undesirable. Yet I enjoy the physicality of my work and presumably these folk enjoy a physical challenge too since the path past my workshop leads steeply up hill and over Kinder Scout. But here is the difference. Physical graft it seems is a good think during our leisure hours and a bad thing in our work hours. How many people these days pay hefty gym fees and sweat for hours a week on machines but still think physical work is in some way degrading?

Dr Howard Garner's theory of multiple intelligences has gained wide acceptance for the idea that the view of intelligence based on IQ tests  was far too narrow, that in fact we have many ways of being intelligent. 

bulletLinguistic intelligence ("word smart"):
bulletLogical-mathematical intelligence ("number/reasoning smart")
bulletSpatial intelligence ("picture smart")
bulletBodily-Kinesthetic intelligence ("body smart")
bulletMusical intelligence ("music smart")
bulletInterpersonal intelligence ("people smart")
bulletIntrapersonal intelligence ("self smart")
bulletNaturalist intelligence ("nature smart")      

The Education world has taken this up in a big way but primarily as a narrowly focused teaching tool ie, this child is a kinesthetic learner so we must teach in a way that recognises that. What I would like to see is a more widespread recognition that there is no hierarchy and that being linguistically or numerically bright is not more intelligent than being musically or kinesthetically adept although it may mean you will earn more money.

In my own life I like to try to achieve a balance of physical and mental work. I get frustrated when I see one man walk along a road spraying circles around pot holes and another coming along and filling them. I feel the pot hole filler may benefit from being given the trust and training to make value judgments and the spray can man may benefit from a bit of graft. The work of a self employed craftsperson is one of those sadly rare jobs that allow use of mind body and soul, it's more about making a life than making a living.


  1. Interesting and timely subject. I approached a retail outlet a few days ago about the possibility of taking on some of my work (I am a blacksmith). The outcome was rejection- she already had her product line in place, which of course included some imported very cheap metalwork. She didn't even bother to look at my portfolio, anyway, you win some you lose some.

    It was her comment to me as I left the shop that was interesting. She said "but oh, I respect what you do, all that hard lifting and stuff, you must be in good shape, good for you!"

    I had to reply, "yes, it can be hard work, but it also requires technique and skill."

    I don't think she believed me. Left me wondering about these kind of perceptions.

  2. Well chosen topic to write on..

  3. Here, here...
    I'm from an educated background - overly educated probably - yet, I've chosen to create my own work much to everyone else's shock and horror. The life of an entrepreneur particularly these days is very hard with little financial rewards in the short term. My daily though though is full of interesting surprises as I take in as much as life as possible and enjoy my surroundings regardless of the quick buck that most others work for and have little understanding of what and why they do it.

  4. Excellant post.
    To really appreciate the benefits of 'hard work' you have to actually do some. A great many people equate pushing keyboards and shuffeling paper as 'hard work' and have not experienced anything else!
    thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  5. Great post, I was inspired:

    Rudolf Steiner put this into the notion of "Thinking, Feeling and Willing," and that in order [for children] to learn, they should have the opportunity to learn through ALL these ways. These are usually referred to as 'Cognitive, Affective and Kinesthetic' in modern educational terms.

    Steiner, amongst others (Confucious first I believe), also promoted the folliwing:

    "I hear, I forget.
    I see, I remember.
    I do, I understand."

    This approach is utilised in Steiner/Waldorf schools, where forgetting is seen as a key element of learning, but also that learning through doing - will activities - is considered very important, and the inclusion af a wide range of crafts are taught, along with drama, singing, bothma gym, eurythmy, and more, even into the first year of A-level education.

    Camphill too, not only has a healthy regard for hard work; it is central to our ethos and philosophy - my work; creating through woodwork, is matched by the farmers and gardeners providing food, the bakers making bread, the estate group maintaining the grounds, and even the office staff managing the admin - however they will also come and help with the potato harvest when invited!

    The phrase "I will" can be translated to mean "I do." Using one's will in the kinesthetic sense, is using one's body to work, and is far less prominent in today's lines of work. But we all need this: as Robin said, how many people take up physical hobbies, often times stating a need for this to undo, or release the workload from the mind.

    I feel very fortunate to be able to experience my work as life, rather than a job: I live where I work, and with my fellow community members, some of whom I teach, I am involved in seasonal festivals and cultural activities, we aim to live ethically - an aspect of Camphill present since its inception 70 years ago - we are not waged, nor are our financial returns related to the amount of work we undertake.

    Thanks for an inspiring quote Robin.

  6. I couldn't agree more. We evolved combining our minds and hands in creating everything we required for survival, warmth, shelter etc. Now those things may be attained with relatively ltle effort and the remaining hours must be spent in what are, in reality, merely 'surrogate activities' - for most people things that, if they were honest, give little real satisfaction.

    Slightly tangentially, I live near the Olympic site and despite the organiser's pronouncements that it would be the greenest ever, aren't using the rivers or canals for freight and all the thousands of tons of materiel are mainly going by road.

    Surely using the waterways for their intended purpose would make perfect sense environmentally and for the sense of well-being of the barge crews and would attract people who wouldn't dream of driving a lorry or, for that matter, a desk.

    What's more the entire site is built from concrete, steel and glass and will have (sigh) a shopping mall in the centre. Why not have a little imagination and use techniques such as those used in the Weald and Downland 'Gridshell' for example. Sustainability, anyone?

  7. Great article. My college lecturers were rather disappointed that I enjoyed ceramics more than the theory, they already had me labelled as an intellectual giant, but I simply could not sit there and do nothing with the hands nature saw fit to bless me with except type on a keyboard.
    I paint, I write, but there is NOTHING I like better than getting my hands all covered in clay and manipulating it into something interesting!
    I also grow my own veg. We need to understand it is in our nature to burn energy instead of letting it manifest itself into stress.