“My Work Done My Way”
I’ve got a new piece up at Discourse in defense of “workism.” It is a bit of a pejorative term—a less tendentious form of “workaholic”—meant to target the idea that work is not merely a regrettable necessity of life but is actually a source of personal meaning and aspiration.
I quote The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who defines “workism” as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose, and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
You’ll notice that he is already loading the dice a bit by implying that in this view work is the only possible source of identity and purpose, as well as with that “always.” But the point is worth taking head-on, because of course work is a central source of meaning and personal fulfillment in life, and most of us treat it as such. And who better to offer a defense of this than Objectivists?
I present my case by describing how this also answers some recent chatter about a “meaning crisis.”
The wider complaint is that we may have greater prosperity and be building and making more things—in other words, we may enjoy material progress—but we face a growing “meaning crisis,” in which we have no clue what gives value and direction to our lives or what can produce a sense of personal fulfillment and happiness. There are various people you can find on YouTube who will tell us how to fill this void with Buddhism or psychedelics or Stoic philosophy. The fact that none of these solutions is particularly new—the hippies tried two of the three a half century ago—might cast a little doubt on whether this “meaning crisis” is really anything new or whether it is just the human condition.
To state the dilemma: How can we continue to create new wealth, invent new technology, and advance human material progress, while also finding something that gives purpose, direction, and meaning to our lives?
Put that way, the question kind of answers itself—and “workism” is the answer. Creating new wealth, inventing new technology, and advancing human progress is something that gives purpose, direction, and meaning to our lives.
Naturally, I then go on to refer to some things Ayn Rand had to say about work, and particularly to what she had Howard Roark say in The Fountainhead. In that respect, this is a follow-up to my recent Quillette piece about a “culture of achievement” as the answer to our woke era. Howard Roark seems particularly relevant because the value and meaning of work is so central to his character, but on a level that is moral and psychological rather than political or economic.
(It doesn’t hurt, of course, that I am currently re-reading The Fountainhead for Shrikant Rangnekar’s Meetups. In the process, I’m coming up with a lot of new ideas about the novel, which may eventually manifest in a few new articles, similar to what I did for Atlas Shrugged. Would anybody be interested in that?)
Back in my Discourse article, I also draw in a few other literary references, from Star Trek back to Hesiod.
The role of work in human life is an issue that has drawn our attention since the dawn of civilization, particularly in an ancient Greek legend about the contest between Homer and Hesiod, the two greatest poets of their era. Homer composed great epics about war and adventure, while Hesiod’s most famous poem, “Works and Days,” is a kind of ancient “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” full of advice about how to run a farm—a mixture of practical tips and hard-earned life wisdom.
In the legend, Homer and Hesiod end up in the same city and are summoned for a contest. Homer clearly emerges as the better poet, but the king gives the prize to Hesiod anyway, “declaring that it was right that he who called upon men to follow peace and husbandry should have the prize rather than one who dwelt on war and slaughter.”
I’ve written about the legend of Homer and Hesiod before, and you’ll probably hear about it again, because I am fascinated with how it shows that this is a dilemma we’ve been dealing with literally since the dawn of civilization: the gulf between heroism and work—and the need to connect and integrate the two, lest we end up “dwelling on war and slaughter” or some other form of destructive conflict.