The Changing Value of Hard Work

I received a very thought-provoking email from Elizabeth recently:

I think you’re spot on about hard work, and it’s too often overlooked. But I also think about the changing value of hard work, too. Is hard work worth less now than it used to be? The amount of work we ‘have’ to do to get by or do well is always fascinating to me. On one hand I feel that people don’t look at their ‘needs’ in a realistic way, but at the same time there seem to be many more pitfalls associated with the basics (housing and health care, primarily).

This started off as a long email back to Elizabeth, but there are enough points in here worth sharing that I thought it might make for an interesting post. Beware that I get rather philosophical here, and if you’re just looking for advice, you might want to skip to the bottom.

First of all, there has never been a society on Earth that hasn’t rewarded hard work in some way or another. From farmers in Mesopotamia who would get ahead by having larger farms that required more work to individuals striving to build their own businesses or succeed in their career path today. Simply put, the more hard work you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.

Of course, at the same time, the exact nature of hard work has changed over time. Physical labor was once highly valued, but has dropped somewhat in value in recent years simply because many physical jobs are now completed by machinery. Today, intellectual work is much more highly valued, particularly in the first world, because there is incredible value in figuring out innovative uses of resources.

Whenever I see the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder,” I cringe. I agree with the first part – working smarter is certainly worthwhile. However, if you merely work smarter to accomplish what you were already doing, you’re going to eventually fall behind those who actually work harder, too. The key to success is to work smart and work hard.

So, whenever I see someone working two jobs to make ends meet, I respect them for working hard, but I wonder if they’re actually working smart. A smarter route might be to take out some student loans and go back to school for a while or focus intensely on advancement at one job or the other.

On the other hand, when I see someone with a job that they’ve made so efficient that they have time to surf the internet most of the day, I see someone who works smart but not hard. If their job is really that efficient, why wouldn’t a boss combine two jobs that involve someone working smart in that regard, and why would a boss promote someone who seems to be just sitting around a lot?

Success involves hard work, but it also involves working smart, too.

Another interesting point that Elizabeth brings up is pitfalls associated with basic needs. Whenever I see statements like this, I almost always think of the standard hierarchy of needs as stated by Abraham Maslow:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top.

The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. With the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) needs, if these “deficiency needs” are not met, the body gives no physical indication but the individual feels anxious and tense. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. Maslow also coined the term Metamotivation to describe the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for constant betterment. Metamotivated people are driven by B-needs (Being Needs), instead of deficiency needs (D-Needs).

For almost all of us in the first world, our basic physiological needs are met almost all of the time. We have food to eat, water to drink, adequate clothes to wear, and available shelter. Most of our stresses in life come from things like esteem, morality, security, friendship, love, and other such things.

In essence, the better the foundation of our life is, the more our worries focus on other things. If our basic physiological needs are met (breathing, food, wather, the ability to go to the bathroom), we worry about basic safety (health, our family, our property, our employment). If those are largely met, we focus on things such as love and belonging, including friends and family. When those are in good shape, our concerns are often esteem-related, including self-confidence, respect, and achievement. Beyond that, we begin to worry about social concerns, education, problem solving, and other things – called self-actualization as a whole. This is the level when you begin to worry about external things.

In our day-to-day life, we often just assume that many lower levels of our needs are taken care of, even if they’re not. If we feel good, we largely don’t worry about our health. If we have food and a house, we don’t worry about it too much on a day-to-day basis. Instead, we focus on relationships and self-esteem and things like politics.

The problem is – and it’s something that’s always existed for humans – that reality can often knock out the things we rely on. Our health can fail. We can lose our job and potentially our shelter and food and water sources.

My impression is that there are three groups of people with regards to this fragile base. There are people, mostly in the third world, who focus most of their energy on shoring up basic things such as food, water, shelter, and health. There are other people who focus on establishing areas of esteem and love and belonging, which is where I think a significant part of the first world finds themselves. There are yet others who feel fairly established in those areas, look at issues of self-actualization, and realize that their control in some of the base areas are pretty limited.

In other words, I think personal finance is the result of a realization that the things you view as secure really aren’t all that secure. It’s a realization that some people haven’t reached because they don’t feel that their state of love and belonging and of esteem and respect are where they want to be. They dump their time and money and energy into keeping up with the Joneses in order to secure family relationships and friendships and self-esteem and respect from others.

When does that realization happen? I think, for some people, it never happens, because they never reach a point where they’re satisfied with their internal world. Some are hedonistic, meaning their main focus is to seek pleasure for themselves. Others lack confidence and so they focus on earning the respect of others. We’re all wired differently.

I think that the people who worry about their finances are the people who feel generally confident about the state of their lives, from basic things like food and water to their level of self-esteem and their relationships. At that point, they feel good about what they have, but they see it as fragile. Bringing it back to Elizabeth’s point, they begin to really see the pitfalls out there, both for themselves and for others.

Most of the people reading this site, I think, have reached that point. If you’re worried about your debt load, you’ve probably reached that point. If you’re worried about securing health care for the future, you’ve probably reached that point.

This brings us to a very fundamental political question. If you know that basic elements of the lives of most people in your society are fragile, does society need to shore up those elements? Do we need to make sure everyone has food and water? Do we need to make sure everyone has health care? Do we need to ensure that everyone has employment? Does society have a responsibility to take care of these basic needs for all members of that society?

I don’t have an answer to that, and we could debate all day about it. My feeling is that we should ultimately be able to cover these things as a species, but we’re simply not there yet. Our society isn’t efficient enough to be able to do it quite yet. So, is it the right thing to do to try to cover these things as best we can for now, or should we focus on building up innovations so that we can actually reach that level sooner rather than later?

To me, that really is the fundamental political question of our times. It’s one that underlines almost every public debate we have, from national health care to the death penalty to fiscal issues like bank bailouts. It all comes back to that basic question of society’s responsiblity for its members.

So, how does this tie back into hard work? It is only through hard work – and smart work – that we’re going to be able to shore up our own basic needs, let alone anyone else’s. Ensuring that you’ll have health care in the future requires hard work – and smart work. Ensuring that you’ll be able to survive a period without a steady income requires hard work – and smart work.

In other words, the more secure you are, the less you have to rely on a relatively unstable set of society’s resources to help you out. Beyond that, the more secure you are, the more ability you have to use your energy and time and resources to secure the safety of those you care about and, eventually, those of the greater society, whether it be through charity or political action or something else.

If you want a better world, one with fewer basic traps for yourself and your loved ones to fall into, the best thing you can do is work harder and work smarter. What are you going to do about it, starting today?

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