Unfulfilling Work Dulls Our Senses and Stuns Our Minds

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Enough with convention and pleasing our parents. Even in this 1949 compendium, our culture was putting too much emphasis on what we ought to do, and not enough on what we want to do.

"There is an ugliness in being paid for work one does not like," Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. Indeed, finding a sense of purpose and doing what makes the heart sing is one of the greatest human aspirations -- and yet too many people remain caught in the hamster wheel of unfulfilling work. In 1949, career counselor William J. Reilly penned How To Avoid Work -- a short guide to finding your purpose and doing what you love. Despite the occasional vintage self-helpism of the tone, the book is remarkable for many reasons -- written at the dawn of the American corporate era and the golden age of the housewife, it not only encouraged people of all ages to pursue their passions over conventional, safe occupations, but it also spoke to both men and women with equal regard.

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Reilly begins by exploring the mythologies of work and play, something Lewis Hyde has written of beautifully, with an uncomfortable but wonderfully apt metaphor:

Most [people] have the ridiculous notion that anything they do which produces an income is work -- and that anything they do outside 'working' hours is play. There is no logic to that.

[...]

Your life is too short and too valuable to fritter away in work.

If you don't get out now, you may end up like the frog that is placed in a pot of fresh water on the stove. As the temperature is gradually increased, the frog feels restless and uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable enough to jump out. Without being aware that a chance is taking place, he is gradually lulled into unconsciousness.

Much the same thing happens when you take a person and put him in a job which he does not like. He gets irritable in his groove. His duties soon become a monotonous routine that slowly dulls his senses. As I walk into offices, through factories and stores, I often find myself looking into the expressionless faces of people going through mechanical motions. They are people whose minds are stunned and slowly dying.

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To illustrate the idea that "life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want," Reilly quotes Amelia Earhart, a woman of strong and refreshing liberal for their time opinions:

I flew the Atlantic because I wanted to. If that be what they call 'a woman's reason,' make the most of it. It isn't, I think, a reason to be apologized for by man or woman. . . .

Whether you are flying the Atlantic or selling sausages or building a skyscraper or driving a truck, your greatest power comes from the fact that you want tremendously to do that very thing, and do it well.

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He admonishes against the toxic "should"-culture we live in, arguably all the more pronounced today:

Actually, there is only one way in this world to achieve true happiness, and that is to express yourself with all your skill and enthusiasm in a career that appeals to you more than any other. In such a career, you feel a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement. You feel you are making a contribution. It is not work.

[...]

To my mind, the world would be a much pleasanter and more civilized place to live in, if everyone resolved to pursue whatever is closest to his heart's desire. We would be more creative and our productivity would be vastly increased.

Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do.

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When a young art student recently asked author Neil Gaiman what to make of people advising her against doing what she loves, his brilliant answer paralleled what Reilly so passionately argued some sixty-three years ago:

The greatest satisfaction you can obtain from life is your pleasure in producing, in your own individual way, something of value to your fellowmen. That is creative living!

When we consider that each of us has only one life to live, isn't it rather tragic to find men and women, with brains capable of comprehending the stars and the planets, talking about the weather; men and women, with hands capable of creating works of art, using those hands only for routine tasks; men and women, capable of independent thought, using their minds as a bowling-alley for popular ideas; men and women, capable of greatness, wallowing in mediocrity; men and women, capable of self-expression, slowly dying a mental death while they babble the confused monotone of the mob?

For you, life can be a succession of glorious adventures. Or it can be a monotonous bore.

Take your choice!

Echoing Alan Watts's litmus test of what you would do if money were no object, Reilly suggests:

No matter what your age or condition or experience, the sooner you find out what you really want to do and do it better, for that's the only way anyone can avoid work.

[...]

Try this approach. Suppose you were financially independent and were perfectly free to do anything you wanted, what would you do, if anything?

If your inclinations are at all definite, the answer to this simple question provides at least a general definition of the field which you would enjoy most.

He outlines a general division of labor for any field:

In every business, art, trade or profession, there are four major jobs to be done:

  1. Creative -- inventing, discovering, or developing new ideas
  2. Administrative -- making plans and policies for the conduct and supervision of the entire business or project
  3. Executive -- directing the work of others in actually carrying out plans and policies in one or more departments or sections
  4. Line -- performing some individual routine task involving no responsibility for the work of others

If you have creative ability, you know it without anyone telling you. Your creative talents have demanded expression in your early youth. If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether you have the ability to invent or to discover or to develop new ideas, you probably do not have this ability.

[...]

If you are a thoughtful person, slow to act, who enjoys analyzing, interpreting, and patiently summarizing the results of the activities of others; if you're the kind of person who likes to pry into every single phase of an operation and to vie a business as a whole; if you get a big kick out of cautiously defining long-range plans and policies; if you're strong on logic, you have the most important earmarks of an able administrator.

But if you like plenty of action, if you love to organize and direct other people as they carry out plans and policies, and if you're perfectly content to confine your activities to one department of a business, you'd probably make a first-rate executive.

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Reilly stresses the importance of the human factor:

Often, success or failure turns on this question of human relations. ...Any time you do not enjoy the human relations involved in any job, sooner or later that job's bound to be work, not fun.

In the third chapter, he turns to the three most common excuses preventing us from pursuing what we want to do:

Whenever a person is not doing what he says he wants to do, he always has what sounds like a good excuse. And it's always one or more of three:

  1. 'I haven't the time.'
  2. 'I haven't the money.'
  3. 'My folks don't want me to.'

He then goes on to examine -- and debunk -- each of the three excuses, showing that "each of them melts away as an imaginary obstacle when we shine the light of intelligence upon it." As an enormous believer in making time, rather than finding time, for what matters, I find his meditation on time, reminiscent of Montaigne's on death and the art of living, particularly important:

Without Time nothing is possible. Everything requires Time. Time is the only permanent and absolute ruler in the universe. But she is a scrupulously fair ruler. She treats eery living person exactly alike every day. No matter how much of the world's goods you have managed to accumulate, you cannot successfully plead for a single moment more than the pauper receives without ever asking for it. Time is the one great leveler. Everyone has the same amount to spend every day.

The next time you feel that you 'haven't the time' to do what you really want to do, it may be worth-while for you to remember that you have as much time as anyone else -- twenty-four hours a day. How you spend that twenty-four hours is really up to you.

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Indeed, to Reilly success is very much a product of deliberate time investment and discipline -- something great writers can attest to. To illustrate "the remarkable achievements possible for anyone who will consistently devote even as little as one hour a day to one single purpose," Reilly cites an anecdote in which a friend of Thomas Edison's marveled at the great inventor's extreme productivity and the stringency of his 18-hour-workdays dedication to success. Edison retorts:

You do something all day long, don't you? Everyone does. If you get up at seven o'clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put sixteen good hours, and it is certain that you have been doing something all that time. The only difference is that you do a great many things and I do one. If you took the time in question and applied it in one direction, you would succeed. Success is sure to follows such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have one thing to stick to, letting all else go.

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Reilly observes:

But a person cannot apply himself to anything incessantly without growing weary unless he loves it == unless it's not work. And that's the real explanation of Edison's full use of his time.

If you were to spend an hour alone with the loud tick of a clock, or better yet, if you could spend an hour completely alone with an hour-glass, watching the sands of Time quickly slip through that vessel, and realize that 100 years from now you and i will both be gone, then you would begin to appreciate that TIME is the ONLY thing you really DO HAVE and that you alone can do anything you wish with the Time that is yours.

He then moves on to the second excuse, money, noting -- as I myself can gratefully attest to -- that purpose should come before making a living financially, but can be followed by it:

Money never comes first in self-expression of any kind. Study the biographies of those who have built great fortunes, and you will learn that money came to them after they had produced or discovered something.

[...]

In a world marked by constant change, where the rich of today are often the poor of tomorrow, due to circumstances beyond their control, the only security is your ability to produce something of value for your fellow man, and your only guarantee of happiness is your joy in producing it.

True happiness lies in the pursuit of your goal, achievement in your chosen field. This must always remain primary. Whenever money becomes primary, you are on treacherous ground.

Lastly, he zooms in on the third excuse, what your parents -- or, in a broader sense, the cohort of "others" -- think you should be doing, articulating something Paul Graham captured beautifully decades later in talking about the dangers of prestige and adding an admonition about knowing when to and when not to take advice. Reilly writes:

'What our friends and associates think' influences us more than we realize. We like to live the life and stay in the role which others expect of us.

[...]

Each of us is somewhat like an electric light bulb, deriving its power from some central force. Just as the bulb accumulates dust and soot from the air around it until it is darkened, then blackened, so our individuality becomes dulled at first and then entirely blotted out from the accumulation of advice and interference which is superimposed upon us by family and friends. If you examine their advice, you will find that they are continually offering counsel based on their own experience in connection with a situation that is quite different from the one you are facing.

[...]

You will neither venture anything nor achieve anything if you permit yourself to be unduly influenced by others...Remember this. Only one sound mind is needed to create an idea.

[...]

There is no more colorless than the self-conscious, vacillating person who is neither hot nor cold, wet nor dry, because he is always wondering what others will think of him and is always trying to please everybody.

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In a chapter titled "If You're Under 35," Reilly makes a case for cultivating creativity as a "way of operating," to borrow John Cleese's phrase:

If you're under 35 years of age, your primary and immediate objective in your chosen field is to build a salable background. How much money you make during this period is not nearly so important as whether you are gaining salable education and experience.

[...]

You can't build a salable background in any field by just taking on a job and following directions and being punctual and faithful and a hard-working employee.

That's a lot of horsefeathers.

You've got to do something unusual to get favorable attention. And one of the simplest ways for anyone to gain recognition and advancement in any job is to develop a reputation for being a person who has 'good ideas.'

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He then turns to the notion of creativity as problem-solving and the question of how to produce ideas:

Whether you get ideas or not, depends entirely on your attitude towards problems.

No matter where you go, you find that men and women divide themselves into two main groups:

  1. Those who, when confronted with a problem, immediately run to the boss with it.
  2. Those who look upon a problem as something to be solved and who go ahead and solve it.

Those in the second group get a lot of good ideas; those in the first group do not.

[...]

No matter where you work, you'll get a lot of good ideas if you'll:

  1. Start with the little everyday problems. When something goes wrong on the job, see if you can figure out what to do about it.
  2. Get into the habit of going to the boss with your suggested solution to a problem, instead of just dumping the problem into his lap.
  3. If your solution is no good, find out what's wrong with it, so you can do better the next time.

He ends the section with a note on what I call combinatorial creativity, the notion that groundbreaking ideas are simply powerful new combinations of existing ideas. Reilly writes:

Anyone who gets enough practice solving the little problems, will, sooner, or later, be able to solve the big ones. Big ideas are usually a lot of little ideas rolled into one.

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Though cultural shifts in the six decades since its publication have rendered How To Avoid Work somewhat less relevant as a practical guide to career success, it remains a timeless and ever-timely reminder of the broader essence of creative satisfaction and the life of purpose, a vocational counterpart to the wonderful The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here .

Public domain images courtesy of Library of Congress


This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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