The Romanticization of Work vs. Peace; a preview

I cannot count the number of articles I have read over the last few months on the topic of productivity, habits, “self-improvement”. Many of which espouse the undebatable merits of working at all costs, of sacrificing all joy and pleasure in life for the sake of producing meaningful work. They seem to all have taken as gospel John Steinbeck’s dictum to himself: “Work is the only good thing.”

But I agree with Steinbeck, to a point. Work is a good thing, a necessary and fundamental thing, but it is not the only good thing. Likewise, we must avoid blind adherence to the counter argument, which can be summed up in the words of Victor Frankenstein: “Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition.” This oppositional ideology seeks to eschew that work-focused worldview, to find joy only the simple matter of existence. But, as with all things in life, there is more nuance than all that.

I have struggled between these two ideologies for a while now, containing both within my mind, but not allowing them to reconcile. In one moment I believe A is the better and right way to live, and in the next moment switch to B. This is exhausting, and exactly the wrong way to go about things.

It is so easy to romanticize either of these ideals: the martyr of work vs. the untroubled free-spirit of transcendence. In reality, it is nigh impossible to achieve satisfaction in either of these, and in the end that’s what we really want, isn’t it? Satisfaction, fulfillment, purpose. These are the lifeblood of humanity, of our “higher” functioning. They cannot be had through work alone, and they cannot be had through tranquility alone. At least, not for most of us.

In modern economy-driven culture, it is best, nay essential, to find balance. But balance is tricky to come by, and it’s different for everyone. For me, it’s spending my day mostly at work, while letting my evenings be free for tranquility and positive pleasures. This is how I stay sane and healthy enough to be productive when I am working, rather than losing myself in stress and misery, or complete hedonism and lethargy.

Find what matters most to you in terms of work, what you are willing to suffer for, and commit to it. But not unyieldingly, at least not to the point of total sacrifice of those things that bring balance, health, and joy, things that you likewise need to discover. Be intentional about how balance your work, as not all pleasures are created equal. Live by principle, but know your limits, and be flexible. And don’t neglect the important people in your life.