The Limits of Work Ethic

Allen Faulton
Jan 17, 2020 · 9 min read

The Modern Survival Guide #103

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This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I am concerned about the state of the work ethic in America. Specifically, I think we’re taking it waaaay too seriously, and I think that comes partly from not understanding what it means to have a “good” work ethic.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of work ethic — the idea that hard work is virtuous, and therefore that if you are working you should be working hard. It’s very much ingrained in our culture. America has always loved the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps success story, and part and parcel of any discussion of American life is the concept that we are (or should be) hard workers. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

I’m not here to dispute any of that. But I do think that it’s important to draw a line, because there is a balance between a healthy work ethic and engaging in gratuitous work. So today we’ll take a look at work ethic, its limits, and the balance we need to strike between work and everything else.

Let’s start with what makes a work ethic “healthy.” What is the point of saying that hard work is virtuous? Well, that should be fairly obvious: just about everything in life that’s worth doing requires hard work. Doing well at your job? Hard work. Keeping your friendships alive? Hard work. Maintaining a happy marriage? Hard work. Changing directions in your life? Hard work. And so on, and so forth. It’s easy to realize that hard work is virtuous because all virtuous things require work, tautological though that may be.

It’s equally easy to draw a boundary around the work ethic, if you think about it in these terms. A healthy work ethic is one that enables you to keep working long enough to accomplish a goal. Then you stop, and do something else to release stress.

Now, it’s arguable that many of the things in life that require work do not necessarily have an end point. A happy marriage, for example, probably does not end at 5 PM on Friday and pick up at 8 AM Monday morning. It’s tempting to think that this means it requires constant work, and therefore that there’s no point in ever putting down the burden of hard work, but that’s not exactly accurate. Most things that look like constant work are really just a series of tasks in sequence. Breaking those tasks apart can be a helpful tool to carve out some space for non-work activities.

Hard work and a good work ethic when applied to your job means going into the office or work site, being on time, and doing your job to the best of your ability. Hard work and a good work ethic at home means doing your chores, maintaining your space, and paying your bills. Hard work and a good work ethic in a relationship means paying attention to the other person, working to understand their point of view, spending time with them, having fun with them, and doing things to help them and protect the relationship.

But a work ethic does not and should not mean that you never, ever take time for yourself. All work and no play makes Jack a stressed-out and sometimes psychotic boy, and it is therefore important to have down time. Stress is not good for us; prolonged stress is really bad for us. Work generates stress; if it didn’t we’d call it “play.” And work does not give you the full experience of life; it’s hard to see the Grand Canyon if you never leave an office in Cleveland.

This is the logic that has sparked a whole generation of work-life balance discussions, and it’s important to keep in mind. Otherwise you get into…

“Gratuitous work” is a glorification and over-emphasis on working hard, all the time. It also fetishizes failure, particularly repeated failure, as an exercise in gaining experience. This is a phenomenon that mostly affects the entrepreneurial and consulting communities, but strikes in other areas of the workforce too.

It’s the idea that excessive work is the only true path to success, and it validates work practices like pulling 80-hour weeks and staying up all night, every night to finish projects. It validates repeated, crushing failures as the mark of a good entrepreneur. It validates poor decision-making and sacrificing key parts of your life on the altar of the American Dream. It’s bad, m’kay?

The odd thing is, this is a very attractive worldview for a lot of people.

Particularly for young people, it’s easy to confuse working hard with having purpose. Lots of college grads get a little high off of being “an adult” and “part of the team” and forget to ask what the team does. And it’s easy to gel with a group when you are all experiencing a bad situation — anecdotally, a lot of the consultants I know look at me with googly eyes whenever I express surprise that they put up with 70- and 80-hour work weeks, because they made such good friends with their work group after pulling eight months’ worth of all-nighters.²

Particularly for failed entrepreneurs, gratuitous work validates their experiences. If you work your ass off and fail, it feels good to think that no, you’re actually even further down the path to success because you worked so hard and failed so thoroughly. And there’s an element of truth to this. We gain experience through failure, sure. But experience alone doesn’t guarantee success; I can have all the experience in the world, and if I’m not learning from it I’ll still make the same mistakes over and over again.

The problem is that this idea of gratuitous work is just bad for you. It leads to all kinds of horrible consequences.

For young people in particular, it justifies companies taking advantage of your time. Particularly if you are on salary, gratuitous work may be a tactic that your company uses to try to extract extra work (and accordingly, extra profit) from you. Just because you are on salary does not mean that you owe the company infinite work. And just because your company is telling you “Oh, this is the corporate culture,” that doesn’t mean you should help normalize it. Notice that your older coworkers are leaving the company — that means something. They’re tired of putting up with that bullshit.³

The other thing to keep in mind if your company is promoting gratuitous work is to remember that just because you’re working hard, that doesn’t mean your career is advancing. Corporations love hard-working low-level employees, because good help is hard to find. But that doesn’t mean that they have plans to advance you to where you want to be (in fact they are incentivized not to), and it doesn’t even mean they’re paying you well. Always remember to calculate your pay based on how many hours you are working. If you’re earning $70,000 a year on salary but getting paid at an equivalent hourly rate of someone earning $40,000 a year for a 40-hour week, it’s time to change jobs.

For everyone, drinking the gratuitous work Kool-Aid is an excuse to put yourself under tremendous stress. And not just from the job — stress is generated any time one piece of your life comes into conflict with another. If you’re working 80-hour weeks and your significant other is getting tired of never seeing you, that is going to generate non-work stress because you’re working too hard. If you can’t make grandma’s funeral because you can’t get away from your project, that is going to generate non-work stress because you’re working too hard.

Stress like this will cause problems. You will lose friends. You will lose romantic partners. You will alienate members of your family. These things will happen because these people will realize that you value working more than you value them. And you will lose your health, because, again, stress is bad for your body.⁴

Last but not least, gratuitous work is bad because it leads to bad decision-making. It glorifies failure, for one thing. You get people who are proudly advertising that they ran eight businesses into the ground, and therefore are qualified to run your business because they gained so much experience.

No. They’ve demonstrated a pattern of poor decision-making and probably need to change industries. Just because you fucked up doesn’t mean you learned something from it, it just means you fucked up.

This gets worse if you’re an entrepreneur. It gets very easy to convince yourself to take out a third home loan, or spend more time away from your kids, or invest just a little more into a dubious venture if you’re an adherent of gratuitous work. Most of the time, you’re better off remembering the Sunk Cost Fallacy, and not falling prey to 80-hour weeks and bank loans. It’ll save you time, money, and disappointment.

Yes, there is a chance that you will be the next Bill Gates by putting in just another year of 80-hour weeks. That’s always a chance. But the catch, the real catch, is that if you’re going to walk that path you will at some point need to actually see some success in your product or idea. That point needs to be before you put your lifestyle and relationships in danger. Otherwise, it’s time to do something else. Sure, you may just be before your time, or your consumer base may just not get it, but your bank account does not care, and your spouse probably would like to see more of you (depending, perhaps, on the status of your bank account).

We are, almost of all us, going to be working for at least 50 years of our lives. Maybe even 60 the way things are going in the US. So it’s not like we’re going to be hurting for time to do work; we’re pretty much guaranteed to be working for most of our time on Earth. Being a hard worker is a good thing, no doubt about it. It raises the odds of your success in any venture. But it is not, by itself, a sufficient quality to ensure success, much less a good life.

I’m not here to tell you what your version of a good life is. But I will say that unless it prominently features spending all day, every day, at your work site, you need work/life balance. Be a hard worker, not a gratuitous worker.

We need balance. That means that after you pull a series of all-nighters, you take a vacation (or even a staycation). It means that if you work a 60-hour week, you make sure the next week is a 40-hour (or less) week. It means that if you have to pour all of your energy into your work one day, you take the next day to spend time with friends and family, or just to play video games and release stress. Work is necessary, but not sufficient for a good life.

And again, I can’t tell you precisely what your best version of work/life balance is. Sometimes we really do have to put in the 80-hour weeks if we want to succeed, or for that matter survive in our jobs and endeavors. But the key point is to not tolerate that kind of demand for very long.

Because it’ll kill you, after it kills all the parts of your life worth living.

¹There are a lot of terms floating around for this concept, because it seems relatively new. I went with “gratuitous work,” but I’ve also heard “struggle porn,” “effort porn,” and just plain “lies to get people to work harder.” Let’s go with gratuitous work, it seems to have less baggage.

²Going through the trenches with someone isn’t just a phrase applicable to soldiers, but the key point to remember is that this isn’t a good concept. Fighting a battle in order to make friends is (to borrow the old joke) like buying a 747 for free peanuts. If all you want is peanuts, there’s easier ways to get them.

³Don’t get me wrong, there’s also an argument out there for making your money while you’re young, childless, and single by working long hours. It’s just that this argument is very easy to take to the extreme, and that seems like the direction that companies tend to go with it. In general, my advice would be: if you’re not making overtime, someone is taking advantage of you. If you’re good at something, never do it for free.

⁴And let’s be clear, there is a difference between gratuitous work and survival work. If you have to work three jobs because that’s your only option, then that’s your only option. You will likely not lose as much from your non-work relationships because the important people will understand and cut you slack, at least for a while. Gratuitous work cuts in when you have the option of working less, but don’t, and instead rationalize working to an excessive degree.

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