Soft Work

For the last few days, I’ve been in Chiang Mai, where I’ve been having a short break whilst also sorting out a new visa for Myanmar. And whilst it has been in some ways a break, at the same time, I’ve been getting a lot of reading, thinking and writing done. It has felt both idle and productive. And this time away has given me a chance to think about something that has been on my mind for a while — and that is what might be called the cult of hard work.

In theory, I suppose, I’m coming here to Chiang Mai is ‘rest’, whilst what I have been doing in Yangon is ‘work’. In this view, over the past couple of months I have been working hard. Now I am having a few days break as compensation for this work. But when put like this, it doesn’t feel right. It does not feel right because over the last few days, it seems I’ve done quite a lot. It has not felt like rest. And conversely, for much of  the time in Yangon — in particular when teaching has been going well — it has not felt like hard work.

But also it doesn’t feel right because the view of life as something that oscillates between ‘hard work’ and ‘leisure’ or ‘rest’ is one that itself makes me uneasy. Why is hard work so highly valued? And what good is ‘rest’ if it is only a means of regathering our energies, so that we can continue to perpetuate this cult of hard work?

The virtues of hard work are sung almost everywhere. Our workplaces, our universities, our societies are caught in the grip of this cult. We don’t just work hard, we pride ourselves on how hard we work. We demand it of each other, and we demand it of ourselves. We strive to outdo each other in how hard we are working. We feel ashamed that we are not working hard enough. If we don’t, we are encouraged to feel ashamed (our institutions have all kinds of mechanisms designed specifically to cultivate this shame). And yet, in terms of effectiveness — whether pedagogical or practical — hard work often seems to be far from the most optimal strategy. We stagger around, exhausted, overwhelmed, joyless, our lives made small by anxiety, by stress, and by the fear that we can never do enough.

Last year, at a conference I attended in Wuxi, China, I met the Dutch flamenco dancer, Tamar Porcelijn, who gave a talk on her practice of taijichuan. She spoke about how, if she had learned to work hard through her training in Western dance, through studying taijichuan she learned to work soft. And this soft work required a complete shift in how she danced, in her relationship to her body, to how she practiced and taught.

Tamar’s idea of working soft was one that has stayed with me. It immediately reminded me of the great early medieval Chinese writer, Liu Xie, who said if one works too hard, one ‘becomes weary in spirit and sapped in vitality. This is the law governing our nature and feeling’ (鑽礪過分,則神疲而氣衰:此性情之數也). The Chinese here for ‘work too hard’ is ‘zuanli guofen’ or ‘grind away excessively’, which has the implication of grinding or boring away at hard stone. What is hard work? Hard work is work that saps our vitality and wearies our spirit. It is work that drains us. Soft work, on the other hand, is work that feeds our vitality and that sustains our spirit. Hard work diminishes life (even on those occasions that it augments the work). Soft work feeds both life and work. Hard work is a zero-sum game. Soft work is a virtuous circle. Soft work is work as if life matters.

It is difficult, though, to maintain the virtues of soft work in an environment like a university where hard work is the highest value. In my previous university job, I often found myself resisting the demands for hard work by hardening myself, digging my heels in, struggling against the prevailing work ethic. But this countering hardness with hardness is in the end not necessarily the best strategy. As the Daodejing points out, countering hardness with hardness is not the best approach, because ‘the soft and supple overcome the hard and unyielding’ (柔弱勝剛強).

This idea intrigues me. It makes me think that perhaps it is not a matter of finding times to rest amid all the hard work. Nor, perhaps, is it a matter of fighting the cult of hard work, hardening ourselves in the process. Perhaps it is a question of both working soft, and also cultivating a soft resistance to this cult of hard work. I don’t quite know what this soft resistance might be, or what it might look like. But there are a few principles that it might have. See them, if you like, as some notes towards a soft manifesto.

  • Soft work recognises that we are flesh. Our bodies are not burdensome impediments to the great projects of our lives. We should treat them nicely. We should take them out to lunch.
  • Soft work is not virtuous. Do you feel that unseemly prickling of virtue when you say how hard you are working? That’s an indication it is time to do something else. Or go and treat your body to lunch.
  • Soft work gives up on guilt. Guilt is a largely pointless emotion. It feeds on itself. It grows monstrously. Hence those institutional machineries designed solely to foster guilt. But guilt, in the end, gets us nowhere.
  • Soft work also gives up on fear. ‘If I stop working hard, won’t I get the sack?’ we think. Well, we might. But the gods are capricious. Who is to say that those who labour most diligently in their service might not be the ones who are first to be sacrificed?
  • Soft work recognises that others are soft, too. Even those men in suits and cufflinks, bellowing into their mobile phones. They may not seem it. But they are. They probably go home at night and sob to themselves. Or wish they could sob. Perhaps if they too recognised this softness, they would be nicer to deal with.
  • Soft work shuns nonsense. ‘There’s a lot of things in this world / you’re gonna have no use for,’ Tom Waits once bellowed. The world is full of bona fide nonsense. Sometimes, if you ignore it for long enough, it shambles away of its own accord. Like a melancholy bear.
  • Soft work is sneaky. It finds workarounds, ruses, tricks, secret passages for escaping from our subterranean caves. As mentioned above, it is unvirtuous. But its sneakiness is not unkind.
  • Soft work is generous. It is not about shifting the burden to somebody else. Instead, it is about building a culture in which we undertake our work as if we were human beings, rather than automatons of productivity.

These are some of the characteristics, I think, of soft work. And whilst it may seem like this is a recipe for disaster from the point of view of our institutions, and from the point of view of all those who value industry and hard work, if we care about the work we do, if we want to do it well, then we need to do it in such a way that it doesn’t bring misery, exhaustion and bitterness in its wake. Throughout my working life, I have seen the destructive effects of the cult of hard work. And I’m sick of it. So whilst I don’t know if this little manifesto will remedy the situation or not, or whether it will ease the misery caused by the cult of hard work, it seems to me to be worth a try.

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