Labor versus work

I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World for that last couple of weeks.  It is providing context and depth to my intuitive understanding of generosity and gift-giving, helping me to appreciate the rich history of gift-giving, which, I had forgotten, forms the social underpinning of most societies throughout history (except for today, of course).

Hyde is very specific with his language, and in his chapter on The Labor of Gratitude he is quick to clarify the difference between “labor” and “work.”  There’s enough great stuff here that the right approach seems to be to quote liberally:

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will.  A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor.   Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.  Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them.  Paul Goodman wrote in a journal once, “I have recently written a few good poems.  But I have no feeling that I wrote them.”  That is the declaration of a laborer…

…One of the first problems the modern world faced with the rise of industrialism was the exclusion of labor by the expansion of work.”

Labor isn’t better than work, but it is characteristically different, its product is different, the conditions for creating it are different.

The simple question for reflection is: will your success (short and long-term) and happiness require you to labor or just to work?  And if labor is part of the equation, do you create the conditions in your life that will allow you to labor?  Are you not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor?”  Has your work grown so much that it has essentially crowded out every last moment you had to labor?

This is one of the big fights of the modern era.  Email, meetings, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, jokes from your buddies, news and TV and, of course, all the actual work you have to do….these mountains are big and growing, and we’ll never finish scaling them.

I for one feel like I’m in the trenches every day, fighting to labor.  Some days I win, a lot of days I lose.  But I’m positive that I have to keep on fighting.


2 thoughts on “Labor versus work

  1. All this talk of labor vs. work. Happiness and success. Happiness and success are defined entirely by whom you talk to. In my opinion, labor and work are a requirement for both.

    Say on the one hand you have a banker who labors relentlessly and utilizes their skills to make as much money as possible, because in the end they believe this will enable him or her to best pay their bills, take great care of their family, provide shelter, security, food, cars, vacations, education, and opportunity.

    On the other hand is the teacher who also labors relentlessly to pass along vital information to their students, because that teacher knows that by imparting their knowledge they are helping shape the capacity of future generations.

    Neither way is the right way. In fact they are both the right way to approach work, with passion, determination, and tenacity. Labor is a darn good thing. Doing all that you can to outperform your own expectations and the expectations of others is exhausting, and requires labor.

    But imagine the individual who is neither the banker nor the teacher, but is indifferent towards their profession…which seems to be a common tale. Even with an exceptional work ethic that individual’s professional needs aren’t being met, and all of their labor and work is just a means to an end. Living in this manner (to me personally) is unacceptable.

    However, it’s not that simple right? Some are luckier than others to discover their passion early on, and from the get-go are able to create conditions for themselves under which they labor. But as you noted, the complexity and swiftness of the world we live in today makes pursuing your “macguffin” significantly more challenging…

    I guess the last thing I would say is that there is NO denying the challenge that ensues during one’s own quest for self-actualization, which is a near impossible quest…

    That last line you wrote is interesting, about how you feel like you’re in the trenches fighting to labor, but I’m not so sure that’s the case….

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