At one time I lived very close to the Field Museum of Chicago; I had a membership and spent a good deal of time there. One evening, about ten minutes before closing, I noticed that workers had begun preparing the first floor for an evening event. I had a panoramic view from where I stood at the second floor balcony, and what I saw has stuck with me ever since.
What I saw was a lone man setting up tables and chairs – simple work, the kind that any teenager could do. But what I watched this man do was every bit as beautiful as dance. He moved with integrity, with precision, and with intent. He carefully spaced the tables in a precise geometry, he moved every chair with efficiency. This was more than just work; it was also art. This man knew that he was doing his job well, and, perhaps most importantly, he enjoyed doing it well.
I was transfixed by it all, and I stood there until the guards asked me to leave. And even then, I moved very slowly until I lost sight of him.
There is real beauty in doing a job well, even a simple job. It is our great loss that this form of beauty is never mentioned in public these days – double-sad, because at one time, such beauty was acknowledged.
This brings us to an obvious question: What happened? How did we lose the beauty and dignity of work?
The Joy of Productivity
It is productivity that improves life upon Earth. What I call “the productive class” are the people who build and repair our cars, our houses, and our computers. The people who provide us with air conditioning, electricity, plumbing, and food. The people who make, clean, and repair our clothing. The people who treat our sicknesses and wounds.
If you can drive around town and point out places where you repaired things, or delivered things, or fed people, or made human life better in any of a thousand ways, you are a producer.
And if you are a producer, there is an inherent dignity in what you do. You are actively making the world better. You are directly creating benefit for yourself and for other human beings. What you do every day is morally virtuous and worthy of respect. And you should never let anyone tell you otherwise.
And, it’s worth pointing out: Money is not a measure of your worth. In a perfect world, that might be true, but this isn’t a perfect world. In our time, morality and money don’t always travel together.
Money is certainly useful, and getting it should matter to you, but merely having money is no measure of your dignity or your value as a producer. Actively improving the world, however – producing – is a proper measure of dignity.
So, how were the beauty and dignity of work ruined?
The short answer: They were killed by hierarchy and status. I’ll explain briefly:
Humans have been carefully taught to accept, respect, and respond to hierarchy for thousands of years. As a result, we respond emotionally to images of kings, ‘great leaders,’ and so on. But it was the industrial era that finally did in the respect for work. After all, this was a time when millions of people accepted deathly boring jobs simply for better pay. The meaning of their work became a paycheck and nothing more.
And in the industrial setting, there was one clear marker of status: the position of ordering other people around.
The bosses got status and the workers got checks, and both lost meaning and satisfaction from their work. The assumption that was planted in us over the industrial era was this:
Only people who order others around matter. Everyone else should feel shame in their presence.
This, of course, played perfectly into the hands of politicians. This can be seen in the plague of “great leaders” and world wars that erupted at the height of the industrial era, in the first half or two thirds of the 20th century.
In any event, status involves primate-level cognition. What matters is what you are, not which position you hold within some kind of hierarchy. By believing in hierarchy and status, we lost the satisfaction of work.
What, Really, Is Work?
It’s important to look at things directly; to clarify what they really are, not just what other people say about them.
This is what I see when I focus on work itself:
Productive work is the insertion of creativity into the world. It is the birthing of benefit into the world. It is, in a word, beautiful, and people who do it should be deeply satisfied with what they do.
Compared to productive work, status is ornamental puffery: a shiny coat with the word “Important” emblazoned upon it, worn by a sad little man.
If you are a member of the productive class, I think you should re-arrange your assumptions and stop respecting status. Instead, start respecting things that really improve human life.
Creating things, improving things, or making it possible for other people to create… these are noble, beautiful, and important things. Reclaiming that attitude would be a very good thing.