I wish someone had explained this to me when I was younger. It would have saved me time and aggravation. Then again, I was such a know-it-all, I probably wouldn’t have listened. I had to do things my way. Which way was that? The hard way, of course. I thought that anything worthwhile required a ton of elbow grease. You know, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. Not only that, but I could tell how worthwhile something was by the amount of work required to achieve it.
“Give me something to measure myself against!” I declared.
If I did not exactly say this, I certainly believed it. When you are twenty, it makes sense, but then so does socialism. The absolute belief in difficulty has a certain appeal, which is why the truth would have been so hard for me to swallow at the time. The truth is this. If you spend your time chasing things that are hard because they are hard, you will miss the easy things in life that you love doing and help you transcend “the boundaries of the workaday world,” as Josef Pieper wrote in Leisure, the Basis of Culture.
This is not to say that the easy life is easy. Far from it. According to Pieper, it involves contemplation, self-awareness, and authentic, personal freedom, all of which take their pound of flesh and jot of blood. So people avoid it at all costs. How? By shunning leisure and embracing work. But not just any work. Pieper, writing more than half a century ago, had in mind what he called “total work.”
Like total war, total work involves not so much what we do as how we do it. The new work ethic of unlimited availability, increased productivity, and a schedule in which workers never leave their high-tech “campuses,” permeates everything. Leisure time no longer exists, and much of current marketing goads us into working just as hard at play as at the office. The motto could be, work hard, play hard, die hard! But leisure time–“idleness”–forms the basis of freedom, because we do not have to justify who we are by what we produce. Instead, we exist for the sake of existence. You might say we pass the time being rather than doing, which differentiates us from machines, at least for the time being.
Another reason the easy life isn’t easy is that symphonies do not write themselves, doctoral dissertations do not conduct their own research, and enigmatic smiles do not just show up on paintings of sixteenth-century, Florentine women. These things require work, but notice that the work differs from the frenetic pace of what Pieper called the “functionary.” Today, we might call him or her a cog in the wheel of production, not exactly a machine, but not entirely human, either.
I do not want to be a cog in a totalitarian work state, especially one headed by the ideologues at the major high-tech companies. You know who they are. I don’t want a hard life, one made even harder by people who force me to support them in their all-consuming drive for power in politics, culture, entrepreneurship (social and otherwise), education, and technology. I want to be left alone to pursue a life of leisure–an “over-easy” life rather than a “hard-boiled” one–in ways that will have me expend just as much blood and sweat if not exactly tears. But they will be my blood and sweat, not somebody else’s.
I suppose this means I haven’t changed that much after all. I still want to do things my way. When classes start this week, I intend to impart this attitude to my business school students. That’s not very business like, is it? We will study Aristotle, who believed that the purpose of life is happiness and that you achieve it through virtue. As Pieper said, quoting Aquinas, “virtue consists of the good rather than the difficult.” Just because something is hard, that doesn’t make it good. So, I’ll try to give them the advice I never heeded.
I’ll show them how to be good, which God knows ain’t easy.
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