I Blame The Protestant Work Ethic

Abandoned wooden house


I blame the Protestant Work Ethic.

You know, that idea that work is a weighty obligation, full of hardship. And the only success that matters is the kind that comes after a prolonged, protracted fight against the odds.

That’s the ethic which, over time, has created a generation of people who don’t know how to handle work that comes easier.

Now, I’m sure that when the first settlers broke ground in 1727 to farm the Shenandoah Valley it was very hard work. They had what we would consider rudimentary tools, unsophisticated knowledge and limited resources.

It was back-breaking work. Man, woman or child, sun up to sun down, there was always something to do.

And relief came not after the planting, nor after the harvest, but after a lifetime of self-reliant, hardscrabble toil.

It probably would have been astonishing to those early farmers to consider that the best place to plant first was the easiest field to clear. Isn’t it so much more efficient to plow a fertile meadow than a rocky plain?

But efficiency is not a part of the Protestant Work Ethic.

Sweat is.

Today, though, so few of us make our living with our muscles. Today, we live in a fast-paced world with lightning-fast resources at our fingertips. Twenty-five years ago, I would have written this piece after visiting the library or consulting newspaper archives. I would have used several different books to look up when the Shenandoah Valley was settled, and when Cyrus McCormick sold his first mechanical reaper (it was 1840, by the way). I would have looked at the encyclopedia to read up on the Protestant Work Ethic, and then would have moved on to the writing of Max Weber.

That could have taken the better part of several days.

And then, I’d have to put paper into the typewriter and bang out the piece.  I’d have used a lot of White-Out and pieces of paper due to my inevitable typing errors or new brainstorms.

There’s at least another day or two added to the process.

Then, I’d have to find a place to publish the piece – a newspaper or a magazine. And it’s very likely that no one would ever see it, because publishing wasn’t really open to people like me writing things like this.

Today, however, thanks to all the tools at my fingertips via new media, I am guaranteed to be published. And I can do the entire thing in a couple of hours. I’m talking about a couple of hours of focused work. A couple of hours of efficient production. A couple of hours of creation.

And thousands of people will read what I write.

Feels rather effortless, to tell you the truth. Much like a naturally arable field.

So, honestly, which do you value more? The five days or more it would have taken me in the past to compose and publish these 600 words, or the same effort compressed into an easy couple of hours?

Today, evidence of how much we’ve changed has never been so stark – you’ve got the old hard way, or you’ve got the new easy way.

You can stay connected to the idea your great-great-great grandparents had that everything that counts has to be a struggle, and takes lots of time, and that life inherently means hardship – and keep wondering why you feel so frustrated. Or, you can use modern approaches and technology to plow the most fertile field in the most efficient way possible, using every resource at your disposal. And your work will feel effortless.

Just change your mind on the idea of what work means. Simply shift your mindset. 

Ditch the outdated ethic, my friends, and choose what comes easy.




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  1. says

    Hi, just found your blog! This post definitely hits home for me. I’m the first college graduate from my blue collar family, and even though I’m over 40, I still hear a little voice in my head telling me that work isn’t supposed to be fun or satisfying, it’s supposed to be WORK. It’s a means to an end so you can pay your bills, and if you’re employed, you shouldn’t be complaining that your job isn’t fulfilling, you should just be glad to have it. Mind you, no one’s ever said this to me in so many words, but it was a message I clearly picked up on when I heard my relatives talk about work.

  2. says

    Awesome article! If you look at BLS productivity statistics since the 1990’s, it’s amazing to think of how much more we can accomplish in the same amount of time. (Of course, that’s assuming that one “shows up” in the first place.) But that’s one reason The Center for Work Ethic Development defines work ethic as not only working harder, but working with purpose! It’s a set of trainable set of values and behaviors that when aligned drive sustained performance – http://www.workethic.org.

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