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Hard work

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Lately I feel like I’ve been hearing people say “it’s hard work, but it’s rewarding” a lot. Or “it’s hard work, but it’s worth it”. Maybe it’s because I’m (for obvious reasons) talking to a lot of mums about mumming. But I’ve also heard it about writing, about sport or music, about craft and hobbies.

It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding.

But.

Does that say something about our culture, that we think hard work and reward are somehow mutually exclusive? Has anything ever been truly rewarding that wasn’t also hard work? I’ve enjoyed watching The Crown this week, but I wouldn’t describe myself as having been rewarded by it. Entertained, yes. Occasionally charmed or delighted. Even educated, on the occasions I felt compelled to look up what really happened and acquire myself some history. But I don’t feel like it could reward me, because I didn’t put in any effort.

It occupied me. I wasn’t occupied with it, or preoccupied by it — I was occupied, in the passive tense. My eyes consumed pretty dresses while my mouth drank tea.

Why don’t we say “it’s hard work, so it’s rewarding”? So it’s worth it?

Surely everything that’s worthwhile is hard? Takes work? Have we broken down somewhere, with this idea that leisure should be easy, and that hard work and responsibility outside of paid work are to be avoided at all costs, or prefaced with “but”?

Is it because so much of the paid work we do feels worthless?

Children are hard work, obviously. So are dogs. If you want to look at it that way, so is baking. Creating. Writing. Gardening. Exercising. Cooking. All things we’ve made easier with technology and outsourcing and money used to be hard work. (And that’s awesome, believe me. I’m eternally grateful that I can tell a machine to wash our clothes, instead of spending all day scrubbing at the side of the river.)

But without hard work, what’s left? What are we doing now with all the time we’re saving buying pesto in a jar and hiring people to mow our lawns? Watching more TV?

My buddy Brock and I were talking the other night about what our lives will look like once the robots take our jobs. Not about the UBI or how we’ll work (for those who will), but what our leisure time looks like. Do we take the opportunity to do uniquely human things — invent, explore, create — or do we keep barrelling down the track we seem to be on, consuming more and more stuff with less and less effort? Do we return to playing and making and building things for ourselves, or do we spend our time playing VR war games while the robots (or the very poor) clean our houses and make our processed food tubes?

Brock made the great point that the way we work now — exchanging our time for cash that we spend on things that save us time — is a blip in history. This model has only existed for a couple of hundred years, and far less for women and minorities. That’s not to say there was some golden age of meaningful work (except perhaps for white dudes who own land, but that’s been true throughout history), just that the system is new, and we’re not tied to it. We can reinvent it, like work and family have been reinvented countless times before.

I think a lot while out in my garden about the ridiculous inefficiency of spending my time trying to grow food. If, as I’ve read on the interwebs, we should take our billable value at work and apply it to chores at home in order to decide whether to outsource them, I’m baking bread and growing carrots at hundreds of times the cost of a trip to the supermarket.

But although my time is valuable, I don’t believe my time is money. That seems, to me, to be the most insidious end point of our everything-is-a-business culture. My life is my life. My time is my time. It has value, but that value should surely be in how I choose to spend it: in the effort and satisfaction of accomplishing things (work or personal) and in my relationships.

I can absolutely pay a supermarket for a loaf of bread and save myself the effort of making it myself, but in return I spend the time I would have spent kneading and mixing in thoughtful (or, more often, deliciously thoughtless) contemplation sitting in a metal box, and then walking through a bigger metal box, to give someone money I had to spend time earning in order to save myself the time I’m now wasting in the car and at the supermarket.

I worry that the world is trying to convince us that things that are not only simple but enjoyable are too hard to contemplate doing for ourselves, while anything that’s actually hard — no matter how worthwhile — is a drag or a burden on our lives, rather than the whole point of them.

Anyway. Goals for 2017: watch less TV, buy less stuff, and work harder at things that aren’t work.

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Writer of things. Annoyer of cats.

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