Bring Back the Protestant Work Ethic
As a society we need to bring back the protestant work ethic. What is it, exactly? I know it’s a made up thing from Max Weber, who wrote a book on it, a book which I haven’t read, but I get the gist of what the work ethic is. Definitions are easy to google, but my understanding of it is this: working for the pleasure of work itself.
Why am I in love with that idea? Our current day work ethic is the hustle culture, the grind. It’s teleologically based, meaning its whole purpose is to make money, so that… you don’t have to work anymore? Early retirement? Mini-retirements as Ferriss talks about in 4-hour workweek. Or the money is to impress people while also putting them down on social media as you brag about your success and scold others how they aren’t grinding enough. There’s a gymbro sense to it all, like the now famous admonishment: do you even lift?
Enough. I reject the current day sense of work ethic. I also reject it because it has never worked for me. What if I wrote 100s of Medium articles to never make more than a few dollars from it all? I would feel like a total failure according to hustle culture. But to the Protestant Work Ethic culture of old, creating 100s of articles would be its own reward. And I have indeed found out that work itself can be its own reward.
About a month ago I bought a game off of Steam called House Flipper. In the game you do handyman tasks, like installing radiators, fixing outlets, tearing down walls, painting, cleaning up trash and dirt, installing sinks, etc. I was never a handyman, my father never taught me how to do stuff, and I never had a construction job. But when I played House Flipper I got a lot of pleasure out of doing these jobs. I also learned a little bit about doing tasks and it almost made me want to become a handyman in real life. I started to get stuff done around the house, putting together furniture I still had in boxes, replacing bulbs, using my tools to fix things and piece things together, wirebrushing the gas stem in my old van to fix its evap engine code. I started to dream about owning various tools, I dreamt about refurbishing furniture.
I got a lot of pleasure out of doing things at home and I kept seeking out new things to do. My mind didn’t fight it, I was fascinated and started watching videos on how to fix holes in drywall, how to hang pictures, how to make a deck, how to troubleshoot various household issues. This was a whole new world for me. When I sit at home and cycle between social media platforms, play a bit of video games, watch some Youtube or shows, cycle back to social media, and more or less spend as much of my freetime as possible wasting time on various devices, I feel miserable, I feel depressed, I feel like a waste of a person who is wasting away, a prisoner to my own lazy self. But when I spend the day fixing stuff around the house, organizing, getting rid of old stuff I no longer need, write, study coding, practice drawing, teach my kid school subjects, workout, read with purpose, when I do all of that I feel accomplishment, I feel much better about myself, more confident, I look forward to the future and see the future as something bright, not as a depressing burden of meaninglessness.
Somehow during my childhood I learned to despise work. All I wanted to do as a kid was play and my mom would constantly remind me that life was about work, but she made it seem distasteful to me, like chores. I always fought doing chores and I never became confident in doing them because I would get yelled at and make my parents very angry if I messed things up or didn’t know what I was doing. This made me not want to do anything unless I already knew how to do it, a self-defeating value because there are so many things you have to do and try over and over before you get it right. My parents didn’t care about that, they wanted it done right and couldn’t understand how I didn’t know stuff. Sometimes I’d be out fixing a fence with my dad and he’d ask me to go get some tool from the barn. I didn’t know what tool he was asking for and I was too afraid of him to clarify, so I would go to the barn and come back with the wrong tool and then get yelled at. This created a fear in me that turned my mind off of work, because with play I wasn’t interacting with my parents, there was no fear of failure, I could do what I want.
And then, later in life when friends, family, schoolmates, teachers, and other adults and persons would brag about their knowledge, or simply talk confidently of things about homes and work, and I became of afraid of showing my ignorance and wasn’t willing to appear incompetent or stupid or lazy to them.
All right that’s enough about me, I know I learned to hate work early on in life. I never learned about the pleasure you can get from working, and because of that I never hustled, I never grinded. I know why today’s work ethic culture wants you to hustle and grind, because the reward of money is sweet. But if the amount of work you have to do before you get the reward is too much, you won’t start, you won’t stick with it, and you’ll eventually settle for less and find ways to maximize your pleasure seeking. The work itself has to be a reward. Goals and a money-based endgame are fine, after all, the Protestant Work Ethic involves thrift, but they cannot be the only reason. It’s like working out so you can have a six-pack. What if you never get a six-pack? Instead, you need to work out because the work out itself is rewarding.
So how do we get to this point? How does one learn to like work as a reward unto itself? It’s a difficult task because of the following:
- Many coworkers daily spew negativity about their job and customers.
- You may have learned to hate work as a child and it’s ingrained in you.
- You may subconsciously rebel against work because you are rebelling against your parents or other authority figures in your life.
- Your culture doesn’t like to work and only does it for the money.
- Your culture fantasizes about getting rich quick with as little work as possible, the ultimate culmination of this is winning the lottery.
- Working smarter, not harder, is often an excuse to hardly work.
- Minimum wage, minimum effort is a common attitude.
- You may have learned to despise work at school, because it would often feel thankless and pointless.
Obviously there are many reasons to hate work. It’s not an easy thing to enjoy, after all, many of us don’t work out because we don’t like to exert our bodies, we don’t like to feel tired, we don’t like the feeling of sweat, we don’t like being out of breath, we don’t like tasting blood and feeling our heart pounding. It’s uncomfortable. You don’t want to be so thirsty you pound a quart of water in one go. You don’t want to feel weary and shaky, to feel sore and stiff. You don’t want to come home with your feet killing you. You don’t want your mind to feel like mush, to have your eyes sore and blurry. And yet hard work is necessary for most people to have acceptable lives. Even if you choose to slack, your job might end up being harder than others, which is why many people envy the boss who seems to do nothing all day.
It’s not easy to switch your mindset on work, but the Protestant Work Ethic gives us a glimpse of some of the benefits to doing this. For one thing, there’s no guarantee any of your hard work in life will pay off. If your hard work has to pay off, then it becomes a gamble. But neither can there be a pay off if no hard work is done. Or, to lessen the blow, no pay off is possible without work, so long as you aren’t born with a silver spoon. I know the phrase “hard work” can be off putting.
The hustle culture is arrogant and fickle. Arrogant in that many of the proselytizers are young men who barely know what they are doing and haven’t even had a real job or family responsibilities. Fickle in that there is a constant push to produce new content or find new ways to get ahead through life hacks or finding markets that are untapped. This gives it a scammy feeling. Just the other day I saw a term I hadn’t seen before, WiFi Money. WiFi Money is a rebrand of the same old stuff, affiliate marketing, selling ebooks and courses, ad revenue, and so on. Never is this stuff about serious jobs one can do, or how to perform better at your current job so you can actually move up the chain or make a jump to a new company.
For example, I have never once seen a person demonstrate how to make a good resume if the client doesn’t have any appropriate work experience or education. Every sample resume I’ve come across has a bunch of fake experience and education that is 100% tailored to some fake job. That’s not helpful to anyone who has struggled to find meaningful jobs. Hustle culture and the grind seem to never address real life scenarios. I don’t want to create a course or ebook or dropship some item or create a niche blog, I just want to know how I can work better, be recognized for it, and start upgrading my life in the realist way possible. Hustle culture is little different than college, in that both promise riches but don’t actually show you how to get there.
The Protestant Work Ethic isn’t concerned with any of that. If you learn to find reward in work itself you will continue to seek better jobs that satisfy your desire to work. I have a nephew who has a good work ethic, he learned how to do some basic woodworking and now sells pieces to clients for hundreds of dollars. He likes to make the pieces, it wasn’t about the money, but he is also not afraid of learning how to make a business and he is okay making things others want, not what he wants. During the pandemic this same nephew used a 3D printer to make head attachments for plastic shields that medical personnel could wear. Every other kid was probably playing video games and whining about schoolwork.
And now for my conclusion, I think the only way to get to this superior work ethic mindset is through repetition, through habit, and through tricking your subconscious self into thinking it enjoys work. You have to remind yourself constantly that what you are doing is satisfying, that you like getting things done, that you like to see the end result, that you don’t mind repetition, and that you enjoy using your mind and body to accomplish a task. Because our society won’t aid you in learning to enjoy work for work’s sake, you must do it all on your own and ignore the negative influences in your life. Tell yourself that your coworkers don’t get it, that they’re spoiled and won’t find what they’re seeking with that attitude. Tell yourself you don’t mind work, you love to work, you live to work, until you believe it. Once you develop the ability to enjoy work you will find yourself enjoying your free time more. Hard work spills over into other areas of life. You’ll find yourself making the meals you know you want to make, you’ll actually workout, you’ll spend the time it takes to draw a good portrait, you’ll learn an instrument, you’ll sign up for that class and attend it, you’ll participate in things that you know you should do. Hustling for money and nothing else is a dead-end road. It’s full of shortcuts that go nowhere or put you back at the beginning. People often say it takes hard work to get somewhere in life, and for most of us, that is still true. You have to accept that work is going to be a part of your life, your life isn’t going to be one long unending summer vacation.