All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Very Dull Boy

A couple of weeks ago, my sister asked if I loved my job. I’m not sure if I give off some aura of total contentment or a sense of abject sadness, but people take an inordinate interest in my job satisfaction and I get this question quite often. She asked me this while I was slurping away at my first cup of coffee and I imagine my answer was a bit disjointed and, probably, incoherent. That happens the older I get. I’ve also found that questions like this are much easier to answer over a couple of beers. I’m usually smarter, better looking, and a good dancer after an hour at the bar.

I’ll state for the record that I do not love my job. I’m not even sure I like my job some days. As jobs go, it beats the heck out of digging ditches or artificially inseminating cows but, at the end of the day, it’s still a job.

Periodically, I’ll have students (and others) quote a little Confucius and tell me “you should choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Confucius, I’m sure, was a great guy, but as a career coach he left something to be desired.

Let’s start with the obvious notion that we can’t all choose jobs we love because 1) most of us aren’t qualified for the jobs we love (or think we would love) and 2) if we could all simply do the jobs we loved there would only be about 4 garbage men, 6 roofers, 3 people to slaughter pigs, 1 person teaching junior high math, 52,000 creative writers, and 5 million X-box professionals.

Certainly, there are people out there who work jobs they love (or learn to love their jobs) and can play junior Confucius at dinner parties.

But, let’s also note that Confucius’ argument sets up a philosophical conundrum where there is no distinction between work (something you do under the rules and guidance of others) and play (something you do for yourself). Importantly, the basic tenets of Confucianism center on character within accepted cultural norms, loyalty to one’s “true” nature, giving or reciprocity, and filial piety. (Hear that kids!) While I’m a fan of the humanism at the heart of Confucian thought, I think we would certainly agree that his advice about work lacks a certain practicality. We should also note that Confucius makes some pretty important assumptions about both culture and individuality. He assumes that accepted cultural norms are humanistic, pure, and fair. Just as importantly, he imagines we have some special insight into our own “true” nature.

To thine ownself be true, Confucius might say were he a Renaissance playwright. I have my doubts, though, about most of our abilities (or willingness) to recognize our true self. Importantly, Confucius assumes we have a true self that remains constant over the course of time. What we want at 51 should mirror our 21 year old self?

I suspect that Confucius’ idea was perfect for the time in which he spoke. Certainly, we want to avoid oversimplifying 550 BCE, but I do think we can say with some confidence that the job opportunities were not as robust as they might be today. You can see in most philosophies/religions emerging at the time a movement away from feudalism and toward emerging identities. In other words, people at the time had their identities, jobs, and lives defined by feudal lords. While Confucius maintains some of that loyalty to the larger culture, we also see an emerging idea about one’s independent self and a philosophical movement away from defined identities to a greater autonomy.

But when Plato (who lived about the same time) argued that the “unexamined life was not worth living,” he was offering a radical departure from the cultural norm. The “examined life” begins our ascent out of the cave of illusions into the reality of daylight. What we realize is our self is multi-faceted and we play many roles throughout our lives. While I wouldn’t dare trace the the work/play dichotomy to Plato, we might note that during this era work and play didn’t exist as two separate entities. There were no work place laws or regulations. In essence, what you did at sun up is what you did until sun down. Wise words from Confucius then but when we begin to examine that life, we begin to call into question the notion that our live is tied to simply producing that which we need for survival.

Notably, we exist in a vastly different economic system as well. As workers moved from barter economies to a monetary system, we stopped working to trade goods and services and became employees earning money in order to purchase goods and services. I’m no longer trading you a footstool for a chicken I can eat. I’m selling you a footstool so I can go buy a single piece of chicken from anywhere I want.

As the western world has changed so to has our relationship with work and play. Whereas in 550 BCE our day might last 12 hours (in the field, shop, or street), we have “progressed” into an economic system that values the 40 hour week. I’m no mathematician, but if there are a 168 hours in a week and we spend 40 at work, we spend 75% of our time on not-work. Even if I sleep 10 hours a day (70 hours) and go to work 40 hours, I still have more not-work, not-sleep time than I do work.

Why, then, should I be defined by my job and worry about loving my job?

Our job, then, should be a tool that allows us to pursue our “selves” during those other hours. It is not imperative, then, that I love my job. It is far more important, it seems to me, that I find a job that allows me to do the things I love with all my free time.

Boy, if I had just been drinking Irish Coffee, maybe that’s what I would have said.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

4 Responses to All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Very Dull Boy

  1. Eve says:

    I finally get a mention in your blog! And…if you had been drinking Irish coffee…I would have been having some too and the last thing on my mind would have been work!!! We should mention to mom next time she serves coffee to have a “little something” in the cupboard to put in the coffee. 😉

  2. Margaret says:

    I am just about to apply for a new position because my current position bores me a little. How middle class is that? Not only do I think that I should like my job, I think it should entertain me! I am feeling a little guilty now, but I’m still putting in my application. Keep up the great articles (I refuse to call them posts), I really enjoy your writing.

  3. AH says:

    Amazingly said!

  4. grannyK says:

    Very well stated!

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