It is no great secret that I love my work and working in general. After all, Churnless‘ motto was taken from a Teddy Roosevelt quote (“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”) and I come from a family and community where the culture of work is a strong part of our personal identity.
Which is why this recent iPad commercial featuring Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society speech drives me nuts. Leaving aside that everything people are doing isn’t unique to the iPad and you could sub in basically any tablet, it is the monologue that really kills me.
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business these are all noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, and love; these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman “Oh me, Oh life of the question of these recurring. of the endless trains of the faithless of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these? Oh me, Oh life.” “Answer…that you are here and life exists….You are here. Life exists, and identity. The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
Look, I love Dead Poets Society as much as the next person. And I think this is a powerful and well-spoken monologue. But it is meant to inspire a room full of school boys who believe that they will all go on to be business mavens and who need to be reminded of beauty. And it sets up art and work as separate, with art being the valuable bit. Art is lovely and beautiful. Work is obligation, labor.
“Medicine, law, business these are all noble pursuits necessary to sustain life.” Boom! Drop the mic. That’s the power of work right there. And there is a poetry in all those of those things. I challenge anyone to watch a surgeon perform a complex surgery that saves a life and not tell me that there is art and beauty in that moment.
What we do with our time is a huge part of our identity. And the science is incredibly clear: people who don’t work, who can’t find meaning and employment, generally aren’t happy. Sure, people who work in jobs that feel ineffective and boring aren’t as happy as those who find import in their work, but they are generally still better off than the unemployed (psychologically speaking) and that’s not the same as saying that work itself is fundamentally bad, just that those particular work situations are. Just because some people get divorced or stay in bad relationships doesn’t mean that all marriages are bad, so why would we suggest that because some work is mundane, all work is necessarily less important than art.
And art and poetry are, more off than not when done well, work. There is a great essay by Barbara Kingsolver in High Tide in Tucson about her muse, which she envisions not as some loving, wispy figure but as a gent with a baseball bat who comes around immediately after she puts her daughter on the bus and reminds her that she now has six or so hours in which to produce the work that puts food on the table.
Think about the magic marker study. They’ve just come out, they’re awesome, blowing kids’ minds. So you give them to two different classes and let them play. And at the end of the day, one class just goes home, and the other class gets a “good player” award before they leave. Second day, same thing. Third day, you don’t give the class the “good player” award. And on day four, suddenly those kids just aren’t as interested in the magic markers. Because you replaced all the intrinsic motivation of fun with extrinsic motivation of getting an award.
But work doesn’t have to be that. Just because we receive a paycheck for doing it, it doesn’t have to be devoid of meaning. Whitman reminded us all to contribute a verse and the truth, for most everyone, is this: the most powerful verse your contribute to the extension of mankind will happen at work. It will be that which supports necessity of life. And it will be beautiful.