Paul L. Caron

Sunday, September 8, 2019

A Philosopher Asks: Should Work Be Our Passion, Or Our Duty?

New York Times op-ed:  Should Work Be Passion, or Duty?, by Firmin DeBrabander (Professor of Philosophy, Maryland Institute College of Art):

Too many of us expect our jobs to give meaning to our lives. There is a better way.

Americans are uniquely obsessed with work. Could any other nation come up with a product like Soylent, a meal substitute, not for the elderly, the poor or the malnourished, but for software engineers, Wall Street brokers, tech entrepreneurs and others who don’t want to be diverted from their work by the time consuming intricacies of a meal? Could you imagine the French conceiving such a thing?

While other wealthy nations have shortened the workweek, given their citizens more free time and schemed to make their lives more pleasant, stress-free and enjoyable, the United States offers a curious paradox: Though the standard of living has risen, and creature comforts are more readily and easily available — and though technological innovations have made it easier to work efficiently — people work more, not less.

Why is this?

One theory is that Americans have come to expect work to be a source of meaning in their lives. Our “conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers, to callings,” explains Derek Thompson, in a recent article in The Atlantic. There is a growing expectation, if not insistence, that work is to be your passion, your obsession — a veritable religion that Thompson dubs “Workism.” This is especially pronounced among the upper classes — precisely those people who do not need to obsess over work, at least for material concerns.

A recent study of priorities among young people found that achieving one’s career passion ranks highest of all — more than making money or getting married. Finding a fulfilling job is almost three times more important than having a family, teenagers in the study reported.

It is daunting to contemplate. Most people are certainly guaranteed to fail in this pursuit. Even people who love their jobs will report they must do thankless tasks from time to time. Few, if any, experience nonstop bliss, where sheer passion sustains them through long hours on the job.

Whether or not you accept the work as worship analogy — perhaps “meaning” and “fulfillment” in this context are really just the usual raw ambition disguised as virtue — there is plenty of evidence that our high-octane work culture has serious consequences. It is at least partly responsible for high levels of burnout among millennials. Many young people report having lost the ability to enjoy free time; they have fewer hobbies. Americans overall today engage in fewer extracurricular social activities than they did in previous generations. More time spent on the job or at the office means less time with family — and with children who crave our attention. There are also links between long work hours and increased consumption, and a larger carbon footprint.

It seems clear that we need a new approach to work, a different motivation for selecting and performing one’s job, and making space for it in life. We might begin by rejecting the notion that work should consume our lives, define and give meaning to them, and seeing it rather as an opportunity to fulfill something larger, namely our duty. ...

Life is a game, or a play, the Stoics contend, where we have roles to act out. These are our duties. I, for example, am a professor, sometimes a writer; but also a father, a husband, and son; a colleague, citizen, neighbor and friend. There are certain things I must do in these roles. There are expectations of me and duties to perform beyond my career, as stipulated by my nature and place in society, and they require my attention. And my duties will change with time and age.

Play the role you are given, Seneca urges. Play it seriously, and diligently. But recognize that it is only a role, one among many — and not of your design or choice. When you see your duties as various roles you must play, and your life as a collection of these roles, this will alleviate the urgency and anxiety that burden any given task — including, or especially, your career.

Work can be therapeutic, Seneca contends, when we take our will and wants out of the equation, and devote ourselves instead to the job at hand — and recognize that we have many callings. There is not only one path to fulfillment, but many.

In America, we fancy ourselves eminently free. We tell our children they can be anything they want, that they can achieve their grandest dreams. We mean this as encouragement, but Seneca would say it is secretly oppressive. In truth, we can’t be anything we want, nor should we try, because dreams are imprecise, and wants are insatiable. It is far better to focus on what we can do, where we can help. Our duties are a surer guide in life — and we are happier for embracing them.

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I welcome Professor DeBrabander's thesis as a refreshing rebuttal to the current noxious zeitgeist. Although duty and its relation to work are under-appreciated today, not long ago men understood that the chief purpose of their work is to support their families, and good men did so without much concern for self-fulfillment. There was, and is, honor in that. Philosophy means love of wisdom, and wise men have always known that it is self-denial that produces happiness, not self-indulgence.

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Sep 10, 2019 5:55:21 PM

Perhaps philosophers should quit trying to tell us that it is one or the other, and go find something useful and productive to spend their time on.

Posted by: ruralcounsel | Sep 10, 2019 3:32:21 AM

One secret is to find what you enjoy doing and find a way to make money at it. An old friend as a teenager loved playing with fireworks and blew off the tip of a finger by holding an M-80 too long. He went into the dynamiting business. Another childhood friend was obsessed with girls. He became an OBGYN. :-( One of my childhood Christmas gifts was a toy cash register.

Posted by: Woody | Sep 9, 2019 8:06:32 AM