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. 

bullet Linguistic intelligence (“word smart”):
bullet Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)
bullet Spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)
bullet Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)
bullet Musical intelligence (“music smart”)
bullet Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)
bullet Intrapersonal intelligence (“self smart”)
bullet Naturalist 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.

29 Responses to is hard work bad or good?

  1. Matt March 31, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    Dear Robin,I appreciate your post here and think that you are spot on. The answers for many of the worlds problems are actually very simple-more people doing more physical work and developing more LOCAL knowledge and diversity. This would directly affect the worlds food, poverty, and pollution problems, as well as many others. Thanks for your post. Best,Matt

  2. The Village Carpenter March 31, 2010 at 4:12 pm #

    This is one of the best blog posts I've ever read, anywhere.

  3. forestoffood March 31, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    Hi RobinGood post, it is something that is in my mind too. I like hard work getting my hands dirty, I like an intellectual challenge. And I would like to keep the equilibrium in both. Both I have a in my daytime job but it getting less and less. Because of regulations, re-organizations and the invention of the horror called standardized work processes.Erik

  4. flyhoof March 31, 2010 at 8:05 pm #

    Hi Robin!This is a very interesting post. It seems a shame to me that people often have a negative attitude to those working in physical jobs. My boyfriend builds pitched footpaths and drystone walls in the Langdales and regularly comes up against people saying 'that looks like hard work' in the tone of voice you mentioned (as they walk up a very high and steep mountain!). People have even presumed that he and his team are offenders doing some kind of community service (it might be good for offenders to get the chance to do that kind of work but that's a whole other topic…). I think people also presume that very physical work is mindless, easy and even a bit boring. However, I've found from my own experience and from talking to others that this is usually not the case. Many physical jobs, particularly crafts, require a huge amount of skill and ability, plus high levels of concentration. That kind of focused, skilled concentration (a kind of zen-like 'flow') is immensely satisfying and often very hard to find in modern day-to-day life. I know my boyfriend regularly experiences it in his work and I'm sure you do too.Anyway, great post! 🙂

  5. Mu March 31, 2010 at 10:54 pm #

    Dear RobinAn interesting post; it brought to mind a conversation I had with my father many years ago. When he was 14 he left school and became a farm hand, his main work was looking after and working with one of the last Shire horse teams in Lincolnshire. I was going on about how interesting, engaged, and connected even beautiful this must have been.His comment was brief and direct; “what staring up the arse of a horse for 8 hours a day”, it was back breaking work, and he could not have been happier when they replaced the team with a tractor. He felt there was nothing intrinsically noble about hard physical work, particularly if one has no choice. I think that for William Morris and his followers, the majority of there engagement with physical work was theoretical rather than practical.I’m not sure what my feeling is on this, but this is what your post brought up for meIan

  6. Robin Wood March 31, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    Matt, yes don't get me started on food production. Tell who wins and who looses when we get rid of traditional small fishing boats with lots of small family businesses and have monstrous factory ships hoovering and depleting fish stocks? Kari what a kind thing to say, thanks.Eric hope you manage to keep your balance.Flyhoof, Zen like flow is a good way of putting it. I love the Langdales, I did a post 10 august 09 about the bridges up there.Mu I agree that choice is important and forced labour no fun. I suspect your father was still rather active by todays standards working on a farm with tractors. I don't hanker after any golden age that never happened I want good fulfilling work for people today.

  7. pfollansbee April 1, 2010 at 12:28 am #

    Bravo, RobinI hear the "that looks like hard work" stuff a lot as well. They are always glad to see me working, but not eager to leave their tablesaws, planers, etc. Their loss…thanks for writing this post. It's great, great stuff. You nailed it.

  8. lochlainn April 1, 2010 at 1:41 am #

    Better to sweat doing what you love than do what you love, leave it, and go to the gym.Nate

  9. miss rika April 1, 2010 at 5:16 am #

    Amen! I am bookmarking this post. As an old-fashioned-home-maker I agree thoroughly with this: mine is not only a job with some mindless and sometimes disgusting tasks (cleaning bathrooms, washing dishes, taking out ashes from the wood stove) but also one with great creativity: I cook just about anything I want to almost every night of the week and knit clothing for my family and am able to have my own herb garden. It is all hard work, all of it, but it exercises my mind and my body and is ultimately rewarding–especially when it opens the eyes of people who live by modern technological conveniences. It is a pity my job isn't better thought of in this day and age.I've told the story about the industrialist and the fisherman to several sets of people to gauge their reactions (I believe this is in your book, as well) and as it turns out my grandfathers both reacted to it strongly and positively–both farmers.

  10. Richard Law April 1, 2010 at 7:29 am #

    Couldn't agree more! It seems to be a matter of perception. My father, a stone mason, used to say, "A bit of hard work never hurt anybody." This must have been the protestant work ethic stuff – certainly hurt him when he fell through the first floor of a building they were decking and broke umpteen ribs! He said working outdoor was no life and made sure I went off to university. He was a great talker, my dad was, he also used to say he could call for a cup of tea in any village in the Dales as he had worked, and left something to show for it, in so many places round here.So clever old me ended up in an office for years shuffling figures and supposedly making money out of nothing (fairly easy when the nothing is tax!). Escaped that in the end though and I am now much more fulfilled working outdoors all year (even though it does take its toll on the body somewhat).Another thing passers-by say is, "You must get cold." Well sweating over a bowl lathe when it's minus 2 is not exactly cold. They seem to forget that working produces heat – but again they are usually out on a walk that keeps them warm in the cold. I agree we seem to have some divorce between the perception and reality of work.

  11. Sylvanlou April 1, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    Hi RobinThis is a really interesting question. I believe hard work is good for the body and mind and, like flyhoof said in her post, not all hard physical work is mindless as many people believe. This winter I recently completed a 6 month coppicing and woodland skills course in Wales – working two days in the woods and three days in my 'proper' job. Using only hand tools to fell, cut and carve, I was more exhausted, more creative, more engaged with my surroundings, more stimulated and fascinated and far, far warmer than I was sat behind my desk indoors. It made me think hard about why I was working and what I was working for and so, last month, I quit my job to look for more work experience in the woods. I never found the physical work mindless – every piece of wood is different, every decision in important, every cut is permanent.Great blog by the way,Lou

  12. Jeff April 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm #

    There is a recently published book on this subject that you might find of interest. Shopcraft as Soulcraft:An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford.

  13. Robin Wood April 1, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

    pf, glad you enjoyed it and I am sure you are an inspiration to many.Rika, Homemaking is indeed undervalued and somehow it is the lack of social status that hurts more than the lack of money.Richard and Lou I see I am preaching to the converted. ;0) Good that we can all rant about it together and get it out of the system.Jeff, someone else mentioned that to me so I ordered it yesterday, not published in the UK yet so coming across the water.

  14. BobP April 1, 2010 at 7:40 pm #

    Indeed. Well said. I've often noticed how good I feel when I'm tired from physical work.

  15. georgewalkerdesign April 1, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    You bring up some valid points. I've done some long professional stints that involved physical labor Machinist and machine rebuilder), and largely mental (factory manager). In terms of fullfillment, the physical job was better, hands down. Although the mental position paid more, it came at a much higher cost in terms of how much it owned me.

  16. Will Simpson April 1, 2010 at 10:07 pm #

    Robin, thanks for the eloquent post on the value of physical work. I remember a story of Zen master Baizhang who admonished his students that a day without work was a day without food. He lived like this and as he advanced in age his student took to hiding his gardening tools. They had to relent as he stopped eating.A balanced life contains physical work and physical smarts along with some measure of all the other "smarts" you and Garner point out. Problems come in when we privilege one type of work or smarts over another. I know surgeons who are dumbfounded by computers and geeks who couldn't tell the difference between a Ponderosa Pine and a Western Larch in the middle of winter. We all know artists that abhor technology. One smarter than the other, no way. One more valued than another, no way.Sure we all have both preferences and predispositions for individual "smarts". A bohemian is interest in all "smarts"; "word smarts", "number/reasoning smarts", "picture smarts", "body smart", "music smarts", "people smarts", "self smarts", "nature smarts". (What is the feminine of bohemian?)ps. love the story of the industrialist and the fisherman. Let's enjoy life now!

  17. Karin Corbin April 2, 2010 at 8:31 pm #

    Work gives meaning and purpose to our lives, that sense of accomplishment. A case could be made for the harder the task the more meaningful. But hard work is defined in many ways, it could be physically hard, or mentally hard or something so unpleasant it is hard to make oneself do it.

  18. Briarwood Miniatures April 2, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

    Excellent post. I'm happy to have found your blog. :)Cia

  19. Rick McKee April 2, 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    Thanks for the post, Robin. Peter Follansbee shared the link on his blog. There are so many nuances of physical labor, work, and craft, that it is easy to dismiss it either as mindless and repetitive (which, of course, it can sometimes be) or to romanticize it. Many of us are very fortunate to be able to use both our heads and our bodies while making a living. It is an opportunity that I am daily thankful for. Rick

  20. Doug Stowe April 2, 2010 at 10:13 pm #

    Robin, great post. One point I'll make, however, is that I don't think educators really do very much about Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences. Yep, they talk about multiple intelligences, and they seem to agree with that the concept is valid, but as far as doing anything to integrate a multiple intelligences approach, it doesn't seem to be happening, at least in the US.The problem it seems is that people teach in the method that is most comfortable to them. The university system advances those from a narrow range of intelligences to become teachers and administrators who are unprepared to teach outside their comfort zones.The interesting thing about teaching crafts is that they make room for all the intelligences to be utilized and demonstrated. Number smarts, word smarts, kinesthetic, etc. and even music smarts. Have you noticed that every human effort involves rhythm?

  21. JRC April 3, 2010 at 2:42 am #

    A superb post, Robin. I wish I had written it! In this country, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and other places, there is a group — a religious sect — called the Amish. They believe in hard physical work. They are farmers who will not use tractors — horses are the thing. No power tools. I have been reading a book by Gene Logsdon, At Nature's Pace, ca. 1985 (Gene himself, the contrary farmer, is still at it; you can find him via Google). He has a chapter entitled "Amish Economics." It turns out that when the big ag guys go broke because fuel, fertilizer and pesticides (to say nothing about the interest rates) go too high, the Amish are getting by very well indeed with their "old-fashioned" methods. And yes, it is hard work. And maybe the Amish know something that we have forgotten.I spent almost all my working life in high-tech pursuits. Enough. Like the fisherman, enjoy life. Spade your garden, split your wood. Turn a bowl or two.

  22. Robin Wood April 3, 2010 at 10:19 am #

    Thanks again for all the comments, it is clearly a topic a lot of people care about. I should say I don't think there is anything wrong with having a desk job especially if you manage to balance that by physical activity in your off time, I guess I am balancing my physical with a bit of mental when blogging about my work.Doug, the US may be different but in the UK multiple intelligence has been marketed mainstream, educationalists are not unanimous in its benefits. My wife has a PhD in how folk learn tacit skills so I hear a lot about it, because I have a tendency toward kinesthetic learning does not necessarily mean that I am best taught only that way. It may be good for me to be helped to develop my other attributes so that I can enjoy life in a world full of a variety of stimuli. I mention Garner's work primarily to question the preconception that there is a hierarchy. Richard Sennet's "The Craftsman" has done a lot also to raise the status of skilled work.

  23. pegsandtails April 4, 2010 at 2:15 am #

    An excellent post Robin; one that I'm sure will be topical for some time.It seems many of us have heard the disdain and pity of misguided on-lookers.

  24. Ethan April 4, 2010 at 4:35 am #

    Wonderful blog entry, Robin.Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on the subject!

  25. Dave April 5, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    Possibly because it it Easter, or maybe not, but when I read your blog post, this came to mind:"What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. –Eccl. 3:9-12(emphasis mine)I think the ancient writers understood this as well, that there is a time to work, and enjoy your work. But there is also a time to enjoy whatever rewards we get from that work. How often do we go home and really enjoy our supper after work? Or do we hastily prepare something palatable and eat while fretting about tomorrow's work. There is a time for everything, but I think all too often we skip the enjoyment part far too often.How much better would the world be if we all could just enjoy our toil and enjoy our food?

  26. Representative April 7, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    I always enjoy your blog, but that was one of the best blogs I've ever read. I hope it's okay that I linked to it from my blog. Be blessed.

  27. Charles April 11, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    Indeed very interesting. Sadly at private school we were also taught to look down on the crafts and manual labour as for thick people only which has sent many of us off in the wrong direction. It is also the reason why there are not enough apprenticeships/apprentices and why everyone wants to do a degree, often in a useless subject (and why so many are offered) that do not equip us at all for the future. I am now a field biologist although hated the sciences at school becuase of the way they were taught, and manage to mix the mental and the physical fairly well. See Masanobu Fukuoka's excellent book "One straw revolution" for more on the subject.

  28. ChuckT May 3, 2010 at 7:20 pm #

    I LOVE hard work. I could watch it all day! 😉 I've loved your blog Robin since stumbling on it awhile back and this post was certainly one of your best. I've also greatly admired those modern day artisans and craftspersons who've managed to create a modern living doing what they love and preserving these types of crafts. I aspired at one point to join their ranks – but along the way I've seen just how difficult and challenging that is. More power to you! Me? I've sadly discovered that I am far too lazy to succeed at making a living this way. But boy do I admire those who do. Well done!

  29. toctomerius February 16, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    Very interesting article. Also, when I was student I think a lot at this subject. So much that I did a thesis of bachelor which to reach also this subject.Western culture is influenced by two great civilizations. Greek culture which gave us system of thought and the Jewish and civilization that gave us sistem of faith (Christian).I dare say that Greek influence was stronger … that at least on our discussion.The Greeks despised manual labor. This was for slaves and peasants.For exemple hierarchical ideal system was seen to be compsed froom : 1.(low level) feet – slave, 2. torso – peasant 3. arms – military 4. and highest level,head-philosopher. The parallels for today is tahat people which work at office are the philosopher (who used mind and spirit and was seen high in Greek dichotomy meat-spirit). I write o lot , and I must to finish, just want to say something about the problem of gym :-)… is another issue that comes also from the Greek. Gymnopedia was a period of training of young Athenians (in Greek "gymnos" signify nakedly). What people do today, the young Athenians were doing daily at the stadium also 🙂 The history is repeted :-)))