Reflection on the “Division of Labor”

For my class on the Enlightenment period, I am responsible for writing a weekly response to the readings assigned. The following is the first that I found myself outpouring thought, as opposed to having to dig deep to draw connections and relevancy. It leads me to wonder about how important it is to identify whether my actions are grounded in selfishness or giving.

In the Origin of Division of Labour chapter of The Wealth of Nations, one of Adam Smith’s points made me very reflective of how cooperative relationships — like teamwork — occur. Smith writes that in civilized society, man is “in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes”. In relating to others, he continues that “we address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages”.

While reading this, I thought back to a meeting that I had today with the other officers of an organization that I am in. I realized how fascinating it is that we were each willing and eager to take on a variety of roles and tasks in order to organize meetings, spread the news of our subject to members, and communicate with corporate and academic sponsors. To me, this doesn’t seem fully self-serving, as Smith seems to view as the norm.

I know that I have some selfish motivation in my leadership — I was recruited by a faculty member to serve as an officer and my intention to accept was partly motivated by a desire to please (as often happens when invited to an opportunity by a mentor or leader). I am eager to share ideas for new initiatives not only to create cool opportunities for others but also because I think that they will be really fun and inspiring to take part in myself. So there is clearly some selfish motivation on my part.

But I still feel like my intentions are not fully self-serving, because if they were, I’d burn out and no longer want to participate. But maybe when I feel burn out creeping in, it is accompanied by a guilt for letting down the team that eventually hits me, motivating me to continue. Is my response to this guilt selfish, focused on any way to alleviate it and allow myself to feel better? Or is it a form of empathy, and a desire to serve others and sacrificially pursue the purpose of the organization (at the expense of time and effort), that motivates me?

I feel like relationships and commitments like these can’t be easily quantified — nor do they contribute to an obvious path of advantages (like money or recognition) for myself — yet they constitute a large amount of my leisure time. And I am unsure of how this fits into the “division of labor”, as these activities are not my main profession, but rather, extracurriculars.

Finally, while it’s interesting to muse, I feel like it can be dangerous to rashly decide that I am either selfishly or sacrificially motivated, because I think it can be very easy to form debilitating amounts of either guilt or pride. These could lead to either over-correction or stubbornness, respectively, in my path forward. This would prevent humble, yet confident, reflection that could lead to true improvement and growth.

Originally published at Melissa Hall.

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I am a student at the University of Texas studying Electrical and Computer Engineering and Plan II.

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