Posted by Jay Livingston
The Protestant ethic had a pretty good run in America, where it was also known sometimes as “the work ethic.” But the huge reaction to Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal essay is a sign that “hard work” has become a matter of considerable ambivalence. Some of Chua’s critics were sure that her all-work-and-no-playdates regime would render children socially inept. Her supporters saw her article as a reminder of how far American parents have strayed from their proper roles. (My recent post on the article is here.)
The idea that hard work is in itself a good thing has been in decline in the US for at least a half century. At the same time, a new value has been rising – the value on self-fulfillment. That’s what drives conservatives up the wall, and they see a clear connection between the two. Our tolerance and respect for drudgery has declined because of the sixties-liberal-hippie idea that work should be intrinsically rewarding.
But it’s not just self-fulfillment that’s causing problems for the old value. Hard work for hard work’s sake also conflicts with other long-standing American values: rationality, utilitarianism, pragmatism, self-interest – the idea that behavior is all about attaining specific goals. If hard work doesn’t seem to be achieving the goals, sinking ever more effort into it just isn’t very practical.
Chua’s article, with its anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of hard work, offers some comfort for traditional American beliefs and values. More so than most advanced countries, we believe that work pays off.
In the Brookings international survey, the US was nearly at the top in agreeing that “People get rewarded for their effort.” Over 60% agreed, compared with a median of about 35% for the 27 countries in the sample.
The belief also gets a push from Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule.” Outliers like the Beatles and Bill Gates weren’t just talented. They, and others who eventually wound up at the top of their fields, all spent thousands of hours working to develop their craft. We are familiar with the fictional version of this scenario – the hero who, at all costs, pursues his dream. Others scoff and try to discourage him, but he perseveres, often at great sacrifice. He remains true to his vision, and in the end, he triumphs.
The trouble is that we don’t know about all the similarly single-minded dream-pursuers who didn’t make it. How many other bands and other programmers put in their 10,000 hours and wound up where they started, in obscurity?
The radio show “This American Life” often gives the other side of our most beloved stories. Last month, it aired the story of Duke Fightmaster, a one-time mortgage broker who decided that he was going to be the replacement for Conan O’Brien when Conan replaced Jay Leno (NBC’s plan at the time).
I had this idea that if I just follow my passion or find something that I'm passionate about, something that uses my creativity, and if I just am able to find that and throw myself into it I'll be successful.He started doing his own talk show from his own bedroom. Eventually, he quit his day job in order to pursue his dream of replacing Conan. He moved the show out of his house first to a VA hall, then a small nightclub. He maxed out his credit cards, went bankrupt, lost a house, lost a car, and had a sort of breakdown. Still, he didn’t give up on his dream. He stopped after three years, but only when he could no longer find a place to do the show.
Here is what he says in response to NPR producer Sarah Koenig’s what-have-you-learned-Dorothy question.*
Going out and saying I'm going to be the replacement for Conan O'Brien, it turns out that that's a lot easier said than done. It's not as easy to start a talk show and replace Conan O'Brien as I thought it might have been.Koenig laughs and says,
I could have told you that three years ago. I mean, nobody gets to be Conan O'Brien. Only Conan O'Brien gets to be Conan O'Brien; that's why it's so hard to be Conan O'Brien.* A podcast of the show is here. The above segment begins at about 34:30. A transcript is here.