The passion of work

Dr Saima Rana

Dr Saima Rana, CEO/Principal at Gems World Academy, and Chief Education Ambassador at Varkey Foundation shares her thoughts on what it means to be passionate about what you do in the workplace.

When Alexis de Toqueville (1689-1755) left his native ancient regime France and visited America and England he was struck by many contrasts. One of the significant ones was the attitude towards work. There was a new spirit animating the individuals in these places. America was a new brash civilization and the other a gnarled and old one. Yet both exhibited a wholly different mind-set to the one de Toqueville was familiar with and which actually was the norm across the whole world. The new attitude towards work he identified is one I value highly.

Yet it is easily misunderstood. If one just looks at the surface, crucial features underpinning that surface are likely to be missed. On the surface, our worlds of work are worlds of agitation, of restless passion and a constant striving to find better ways of securing success. They’re worlds of innovation and invention, competition and team building aiming to constantly improve and surpass previous achievements. There’s a hunger for profit – financial, cognitive, social, pleasure, whatever – and the restlessness at the heart of it is fierce and endless. De Toqueville in his writing on America noticed this immediately: ‘‘No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult; a confused clamour rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once, each expressing some social requirements. All around you everything is on the move.’

Well, anyone who has watched the workings of any of our contemporary modern hives of industriousness and business, be they in Beijing, Mumbai, London, Tokyo or here, in Dubai, you see exactly that sense competitive clamour and drive. Everyone is doing something, going somewhere, and there’s a restless, dynamic hunger and passion in all these exchanges. It really doesn’t matter what you’re doing, setting up a hedge fund or a charity for girls education, whatever you’re doing, you’ll find this spirit.

De Toqueville continued: ‘‘Restlessness of character seems to be one of the distinctive traits of this people. The American is devoured by the longing to make his fortune; it is the unique passion of his life; he has no memory that attaches him to one place more than another, no inveterate habits, no spirit of routine; he is the daily witness of the swiftest changes of fortune.” It’s no longer just Americans. The great epicenters of this spirit are now China and India, but it’s everywhere.

The honorableness of work is the fascinating oddness of this modern spirit.  The norm in de Toqueville’s day was that work was dishonourable and without dignity. In Europe, India, China and Africa, elite castes conspicuously flaunted idleness as their signature virtue. As Theodore Veblen showed, these elites made ‘conspicuous consumption’ their thing: they dressed in the most impracticable dandy costumes and every part of their lives was constructed around activities, people and objects – vast feasts, huge mansions, ridiculously convoluted etiquettes, cultish celebrities – all designed as visible markers of their elite status. The new spirit of work reversed this.

‘Not only is no dishonour associated with work, but among such peoples it is regarded as positively honourable; the prejudice is for, not against it,’ commented de Tocqueville. As modern historian Alan Macfarlane puts it, in modernity; “… Honour, which lies in idleness in most societies, has been overturned.”

This is something that I recognize in myself. It is part of my own make-up to not just find work honourable and dignified but to find idleness dishonourable. I have no time for the idle rich, but rather admire the passionate working type, be they a rich business entrepreneur or a struggling poet, and feel a hungry imperative to do all that can be done to not enforce the indignity of idleness on others. Part of a school’s mission is to fulfill this imperative.

Of course, all civilizations have had people that worked, and worked hard. It’s been for many the difference between life and death. But our modern attitude towards work is not about working hard to survive; rather, we work because to work feels good in and of itself. Much of who we take ourselves to be is tied up in our work. The modern worker is someone who thinks about nothing but ways of changing their lot and bettering it, and then of doing it again. And again. The compulsion is one that demands a constant creativity and imagination, a diligence and indefatigable energy. When focused on bettering the world, of righting its many evils, be they climate change, war, pestilence or poverty, this indomitable work ethic is what is required. All shoulders to the wheel. Don’t shirk. When William Burroughs was asked why he wrote, he answered: “To make something happen.” That’s the work ethic in a nutshell. It runs like an ethical thread through our best schools and enterprises. But it can’t be satisfied. That also is its unique signature.

Consequently, what seems like a grasping and greedy spirit on the surface (greedy for more money, more knowledge, more pleasure, more whatever) is much more than just greed. Greed isn’t good. To think so is to look merely at the surface and not see what else this modern work ethic involved.  What de Toqueville remarked on again and again was how the tumult and competitiveness came with respect for laws and rules, honesty, orderliness, politeness, compromise, the avoidance of anger, a spirit of playfulness, a delight in comforts, a constant asking, “what’s next?”, and a formal acceptance of equality.  Consequently, through this spirit everything becomes stimulated and accelerated; ideas circulate freely; vast intellectual centers are built concentrating all the rays of thought in one bright glow, contributing more and faster to the increase of knowledge and the general progress of civilization than elsewhere. And with this come the constant tensions of a modern life de Toqueville identified; namely our constantly looking for guidance to regulate us whilst longing to stay free; our ‘finding life at once agitated and monotonous,’ our feeling pride in our nation or family or work and in our  equality with others, whilst yet being ravaged by a sense of our own loneliness and insignificance – and, out of that sense, those attempts to assuage loneliness by huddling with others, and curing feelings of insignificance by joining some majority. All these tensions and contradictions are built into the equation of modern life and modern work. There are complications in everything, and we should be suspicious of anyone who tells us differently.

So, when we talk about careers and work, we need to be clear about what this spirit entails. Work confers dignity and is honourable. Its why schools spend so much of their time inducting students into a work ethic. The tumult and energy of a thriving classroom is one that is preparing the young people for the constantly changing and challenging realties of adult work. But it also must give them resources for facing the tensions that come with such work. Hence, we focus as much on educating hearts, spirits and bodies as much as minds.

Of course, there’s much talk of the rise of leisure time as technologies replace many jobs. Leisure, not work, is not what people need to prepare for now. There’s a truth in there somewhere, but I believe it exaggerates the situation. The places where this peculiar work ethic is prominent have always developed technologies to replace drudgery. As far back as the Anglo Saxons, England was using animals to do the heavy lifting that elsewhere humans were still doing. The Industrial Revolution was all about this. New activities come with new devices. Work survived!

And, the compulsiveness of this spirit has always been applicable everywhere – it’s no accident that hobbies and sports were largely invented within societies imbued with this modern spirit. A game of soccer, rugby or netball perfectly embody the qualities of its spirit: competitive, skillful, playful and rule bound. Understand these games and you understand the contours of modern work and its spirit. When Dr Johnson praised idleness, he wasn’t talking about the idleness of the elite castes and classes, but rather talking about the need to have time to reflect, ruminate, strategise and dream in order to produce the next big thing. In this respect, modern idleness is but an aspect of the modern work ethic, a feature of the never-ending, never satisfied drive to improve and change things for the better. Take time to watch a movie on Netflix, have a meal with a friend, go to the gym and so on. Why? To recharge the batteries so you can continue to do what you really enjoy, and where dignity and honour lie, work.

Like Charles Dickens, we think we’re living in the best of times and the worst of times. We share incredible innovations and vast improvements with unbelievably horrible existential threats on a global scale. What’s to be done? It seems to me that we all need to get to work, and do so compulsively, passionately and with the indomitable spirit that has marked out our modern world so that we figure out everything that needs to be done and then do it. And then do it again only better than before. On and on.

Samuel Beckett captures this sense of compulsive, never-ending dissatisfaction that, paradoxically, is our greatest delight and passionate joy, when he wrote: ”Try, fail: try again, fail better.”

Why do we have careers? To fail better. Ditto life. Onwards.