The Nature Of Work

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Which is more difficult—mental or physical work?

In many ways, both have their difficulties, their hardships. Physical exertion is hard on the body, it makes you sweat and your body ache from fatigue, whereas mental exertion, if very strenuous, makes one feel as though one’s brain is being pulled through a ringer.

The thing is, mental and physical exertion are intertwined. Take an Olympic swimmer, for instance, who has to train for long and hard hours, pushing their body to its limits every day, hand slapping into the wall at the end of pool again and again and again. It takes mental exertion, stamina, the ability to keep on going, even when your entire body is protesting, which is arguably even more difficult than the physical exertion itself.

Writers, on the other hand, who operate entirely in the realm of their minds while working—typing or writing words, unfortunately, does not count as physical exertion—from the outside, seem to have a pretty cushy job. All they do is sit in a chair, and fiddle with a pencil or a typewriter, making words appear on the screen or page. Compared to backbreaking work in mines, or as builders, it frankly seems a piece of cake. Yet there is a reason Hemingway famously said that to write, all you have to do is “sit down at a typewriter and bleed”. Because that is honestly sometimes what writing feels like: you’re sitting down, all by yourself, squeezing out the words like cement, all while juggling characterisation and pacing and plot and setting and descriptions.

And, like the Olympic swimmer, there is mental agony involved—not only do you have to motivate yourself to sit in the chair and get down to work every day, for years on end, and maintain such rigorous discipline without slacking off or procrastinating, you also have to endure the silent, howling agony of writing down unsatisfactory sentence after sentence.

What’s more, for the swimmer, or the weight-lifter, or the builder, at the end of the day, they can look back at a day’s work, and be proud of what they accomplished. A new wall is erected, fifty or so laps completed. They have something to show for their efforts. But for the writer, after a day spent at the computer, or the page, hammering out words, sometimes there is no sense of accomplishment, let alone satisfaction, because what you wrote that day was mostly rubbish, and will almost definitely have to be scrapped and re-written; and this is can be more disheartening than can possibly be imagined. Sometimes, writing feels like you’re spending a day digging a hole, only to find it filled in the next morning so you have to excavate the space again. 

Then again, writing, difficult as it is to do well, certainly isn’t  rocket science, and unlike surgery or say, building a plane which then goes on to carry thousands of passengers, you can go back and redo it as many times as you like if it doesn’t turn out right the first time.  However, if you the perform surgery on the wrong vein, or design a plane incorrectly, the consequences can be enormous. If you write some very bad stuff, well, nothing happens except that you wrote some very bad stuff and will probably loathe yourself until the end of time. With writing, unlike other occupations, the only person you can really harm is yourself.

Everyone in this world works hard, I think. Usually. Usually hard work and long hours precede any success, and sometimes hard work and long hours are necessary just to survive. Behind every work of art, every invention, every object you see around you, from roads to computers to films, exist hundreds and thousands of hours of effort, years of practice and study. If you need motivation in life, look no further than the world around you, and all the millions of man-made wonders it contains. Everything starts with a single step: the first word has to be put down, the first stone, the first number, the first blueprint, the first lap. After the first step, to succeed, you must take another step, and another, walking doggedly towards your goal, month after month, year after year, no matter how tired you are, or how sick, or whether it’s rainy or sunny, until you reach it.

Of course, as with people, not all occupations are made equal. Some of us on this planet have to work harder than others, choose to work harder than others, or are forced to work harder than others. Some people are reliant on welfare, or choose to rely on welfare, living a simple life funded by people who do work, and there really is nothing to stop them from doing so. Some exploit people and earn millions. Other people sit in offices, receiving a good, solid salary each year for doing little more than fiddling with spreadsheets, browsing the Internet, and drinking copious amounts of coffee. Then there are the people in war-torn countries, bringing supplies to people who need it, tending to those who cannot afford medical care, who operate on living bodies and save lives, put out fires, help change the world. Still more are forced to sit at desks in factories for hours on end fitting together computer parts or stitching clothes to be sold to rich men and women who live on lands across the seas.

Work is the ultimate unequal institution. Work is necessary to keep the world going (though there are many unnecessary forms of work; I don’t think soft drinks, for instance, are exactly essential products, yet it’s a billion-dollar industry) but some people do more of their share than others, and proper compensation for the value one provides is never a guarantee. Is a doctor is more important than an author? One treats a cold, small ailments, tends to the body; the other might heal the soul using words; but in a life and death situation, the writer would be useless, the doctor invaluable. At the same time, the world churns out quite a lot of doctors, who all perform similar tasks, while you can always have more original artists and writers to bring delight and beauty to life. Is an actress more important than a nurse? In our society we tend to idolise and reward more generously those who provide entertainment for a living rather essential products for life, worshiping pop artists and actresses rather than farmers or waste disposal engineers. CEOs are rewarded a hundred times more than their employees who generate the true value for businesses. A bestselling book, written by a well-known author, can earn millions, while a man who sells his own handcrafted bone ornaments, each one exquisitely detailed and created with just as much passion and care as the books, might barely scrape by a living. Demand determines supply in a capitalist society, and we must be useful, wanted, appreciated, in order to survive.

So really, like everything in life, the business of work is unequal and often unfair—and the work one does often comes down to an individual’s personality and talents, where they were born, their looks, their passion and drive, their discipline, their resources, and often a bit of luck, too.

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