I Will Teach You to Work

Go to any bookstore or check the millions of blogs out there and you’ll find a significant percentage that claim to help you reset your life, find success, or become a superhero. Invariably, they’ll start with a long spiel about the author’s CV which ends with them finding their passion and making money by telling other people how they found their passion. This post is not about finding your passion.

Everyone’s situation is so different, their mindsets vary so widely, and the resources available to each person are not equal, to say the least. Plus, passions are not created equally. Having a passion for machine learning will give you vastly different results than having a passion for Civil War reenactments. And if a book does have any specific advice for finding your passion, it involves writing a college-length essay on looking deep into your psyche. No, what I want to focus on is the second component to success that few seem to pay attention to: working extremely hard to achieve your goals.

First, I’ll start with a mindset that you should be cultivating. I won’t order you to take it. It’s hard enough for me to keep this up, but I think if we head in this direction, our lives will be much healthier. Knowing why you’re doing something will make it much easier for you to do it. Then, I’ll give practical tips on being the best you can be at your work. Note that the problem with practical advice is that knowledge is wind. Ptolemy becomes Copernicus becomes Newton becomes Einstein. What may work today may not work tomorrow. What is important now is to have the right attitude.

So what is the right attitude? The Stoics would say that you should do everything you can to be excellent in your role, be it emperor or slave. Yeah, that last part is a bit controversial. The ancients did think differently than we did and the specific advice for some situations is… odd, sometimes. Hopefully, most people out there aren’t slaves. You may have heard the saying: “Hard work is its own reward.” How I interpret it is that you are satisfied in providing value for someone. If you feel that your work is meaningless, then of course all that advice about making checklists, meditating, or sleeping more will be useless. So think about the best way you can provide value. Who are you helping? How will your work be used?

It doesn’t have to involve saving the universe. One of my passions is writing, in which finding success seems less likely than winning at roulette. However, if one of my blog posts or short stories entertain or inform someone, then I consider myself satisfied (That does mean, however, that I’m not going to quit my career anytime soon, I rather enjoy food and shelter, thank you very much!).

“Wait a minute,” you say. “That sounds awfully like you want to make a difference in the world. Isn’t that the same as finding your passion?”

My response to that would be: “You’re right. I think it’s a mistake for most people to try to find that magical thing that will fire them up. That inner fire needs to be cultivated. And that is done by taking the right mindset.” But I get it, it is hard to feel good when all your hard work seems to end up just as a footnote in a PowerPoint slide.

So why are you at that desk job? If you hate it, of course you should look for the reason, then correct it, or find a better job. But someone out there took a chance on you, and you owe it to them to show the best side of yourself. If your boss still hates you even if you work hard, then realize that it is outside your control and waste no more of your energy on it.

Now I will write about the second part: practical tips. I admit that this applies mostly to those who work at desk jobs and spend much of their job alone. See, that’s why it’s so hard to give practical advice! But I digress.

  1. Turn off your phone. Or at least put it in airplane mode. These things are such time-wasters and will sap your will. Do you really need to check social media every hour? How often do you really need to text someone?
  2. Same thing with the Internet. Only go to sites that are directly applicable to your job. And no, reading random blogs is not research. Not even mine! Use website blockers or don’t even touch that browser.
  3. Make a list of your tasks and rank them in importance. Do your most important task as soon as you finish the list. Do not check email, do “research”, or talk about the Super Bowl with a co-worker until you finish it. Then do the next task. Break them up into smaller tasks if you need to.
  4. Keep notes on what you’re doing. Some tasks can get long, arduous, and convoluted. Take notes in a notebook or notepad to keep track of where you are. Yes, it looks like extra work. But your future self will thank you.
  5. If you need to take a break, take a walk. Or exercise. Remember that part about will sappers? Don’t do them. It might be informative and entertaining to read that New York Times article, but will it really help you provide value? You don’t need to check your finances either, well, unless your net worth depends on day trading, which I hope it doesn’t. But exercise is always helpful. It’ll at least improve your mood.
  6. If there is nothing else to do, then work on marketable skills. So you run your hours-long SAS program, or your place of work was the victim of an EMP attack. Now, I think it’s safe to do research. However, still be careful and make sure it’s directly applicable to you. Read some papers in your field. Try out a fancy new program. Try out some classes in Coursera.
  7. At the end of the day, make a note of what you need to do on the next workday. Trust me, your future self will thank you for it.
  8. Eat healthy, exercise, and sleep more. Just good advice in general.

So, what do you all think? Am I totally off my rocker here? Am I ripping off Ramit Sethi too much with that title? Is this encouraging people to be wage slaves?

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