Elephant in the Room: On Working Hard

I listened to an interesting podcast on CBC radio the other day. One that started me thinking about hard work, and about blogging, among other things.

“Seat at the Table” is a new series hosted by Isabelle Racicot, a well known television and radio host in Quebec, and Martine St-Victor, a communications expert, specializing in pop culture and politics, who runs her own PR firm in Montreal. In the segment of their show called Elephant in the Room, Racicot and St-Victor explore the idea that very successful women can make the rest of us feel bad about ourselves. About our choice to work hard. That the exhortations of uber-successful women on how we should be successful, happy, and healthy, and at the same time live more balanced lives, sometimes make other women feel guilty, unworthy, or unhappy with their own choices. And that this is particularly frustrating when these “helpful” exhortations are patently unrealistic. Or sometimes even hypocritical.

Racicot and St-Victor call out successful women like Arianna Huffington and Sheryl Sandberg who have both written and spoken on how to be successful and, at the same time, have more “balance” in our lives. Whether that means getting enough sleep like Huffington, or leaving the office every day at 5:30 like Sandberg. I chuckled as I listened to the clip from Arianna Huffington’s Ted Talk on the importance of sleep because I used that same Ted Talk in a post I wrote about sleep a while ago. And, like Racicot and St-Victor, I noticed that, oddly enough, Huffington pitches sleep as a “feminist issue.” As I said in my post, Huffington’s Ted Talk was presented at a women’s conference, so I guess she felt she had to spin the issue that way. Still, it seemed a bit like pandering to me. But never mind.

Beaver dam in Algonquin Park
The beavers in Algonquin Park have been working hard.

Racicot and St-Victor question whether these very wealthy, very successful women would have taken their own advice back before they were successful. And if they had had more work-life balance back then, would they have achieved as much as they have. Huffington’s Ted Talk answers at least one of those questions; she says that it was only when she was severely sleep deprived, and fell asleep at work a few years ago, injuring herself, that she began to question her work ethic. In an article I read about Sandberg, she says she’s been leaving the office at 5:30 since she first had children, so I’m not sure that their criticism of her is fair. But I guess where Racicot and St-Victor are going with all this is that the well-meaning advice of successful women can make us feel guilty… for working hard. I should say that they both express admiration for Huffington and Sandberg. But they also express frustration with being told to “do as I say, and not as I did then.”

Finally, Racicot and St-Victor talk about Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. In an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2014, Nooyi is refreshingly honest and witty in her discussion of how hard it is to work and raise a family. You can hear the whole interview with Indra Nooyi here if you’re interested. After jokingly making reference to an interview in which self-help guru, actress, and super-mom Gwyneth Paltrow tells Conan O’Brien that she would “rather die than let [her] kid eat Cup-a-Soup,” St-Victor and Racicot exhort their listeners: “don’t be a Gwyneth, be an Indra.” They stress that most working women do not have the luxury of being able to make the kinds of choices suggested by wealthy and privileged women like Arianna Huffington, Sheryl Sandberg, and even Gwyneth Paltrow. But that’s a whole issue in itself, isn’t it? Still, despite all the celebrity advice out there Racicot and St-Vistor say they refuse to feel bad about loving their work, and working hard at their jobs.

So what the heck is my point in all this? Well. Kind of the same as Racicot and St-Victor’s… at least partly. And it constitutes only a small part of the whole issue of work. That maybe working hard is getting a bad rap these days. We’re all busy telling each other not to be so busy, not to make work our whole lives, not to work so hard that we have nothing but work in our lives… all of which I agree with. I think that work-life balance is very important. But it also seems we’ve lost the idea that hard work has its own benefits. Beyond climbing the corporate ladder. Beyond getting a pay raise to allow for the bigger house, the new car each year, the fancier vacation, whatever. We seem to have lost the idea that there is inherent value in doing a job as well as you can. No matter what that job may be.

a derelict mill, saw blade and old wood.
My step-father’s old lumber mill, falling down now.

After all, hard work can have its own rewards, can’t it? I think of how hard my step-father worked on the farm. The logs he cut, milled, sawed, and made into barns, or animal pens, or hay wagons, or even cupboards for our kitchen. The land he cleared for pasture, or the soil he tilled for the vegetable gardens, the acres and acres of potatoes, and strawberries, and vegetables he planted. So much food we ended up giving much of it away. He didn’t make his living from farming; he always had another job. So what did he gain from all that extra work? Besides feeding his family or selling a few cattle or a couple of loads of pulp wood? Peace of mind, maybe. The satisfaction of carrying on a life he loved. Seriously, he didn’t need to keep two old Clydesdales, hitch them to his sled each winter, and go to the woods to cut logs. But he was never as happy as when he was doing that. And nobody said he should worry about his work-life balance. Because it was work he loved and which sustained him.

And this week I started thinking about all of this with respect to blogging. Because now that I’m retired, and I’m no longer ‘gainfully’ employed, blogging has become my job. I mean, I don’t make money from my blog. But it’s more than just a “hobby” to me. And doing it as well as I can is important to me. How hypocritical would it be of me to spend all those years pushing kids to do their best, asking them to read, research, write, rewrite, and rewrite again, if I simply turned around and did the opposite? And what I gain from all my hard work is satisfaction. The opportunity to have a voice, have my say, so to speak. Plus, the chance to use my time and my abilities to do something I love. And if what I want to say is important to me, why would I not work hard to do it justice?

Man on a bike on a country road.
Besides blogging I also work hard to keep up with Hubby.

The other day I read a post on one of those “big blogs,” one with all kinds of advertising and tons of subscribers. And the post really missed an opportunity, I thought, to do something of value. Instead of being flippant, and not a little insulting to a whole segment of the female population, they could have chosen to show some empathy, to do some groundwork, and use their platform to inform or educate as well as to sell swimsuits, or jeans or shoes. I thought that with a little more hard work, and a few more hours of effort they could have written something really interesting. And worthwhile. And still probably sold lots of swimsuits, or whatever.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that it’s a bad thing for bloggers, or anybody doing any job, to be fairly remunerated for their hard work. That would be silly. I think people should be paid a living wage so young parents don’t have to work three part-time jobs to make ends meet. And I regularly read and enjoy many excellent blogs which make money for the blogger. I look at a couple of these women bloggers as role models, and aspire to be as good as they are some day.

I know that being paid for our work is society’s preferred way of saying that our work has value. But I’m saying that money is not the only compensation that makes our work worthwhile. That’s the “elephant in the room” for me. When I was still teaching, I didn’t make more salary if I worked harder, designed more creative lessons, or stayed up later researching a new idea. But I sure felt more satisfaction if I knew that I had done my very best for the kids.

So… should the blogger on the “big blog” I mentioned above have spent a few more hours, working harder to write a more worthwhile post which would probably not have garnered any more sales than the flippant one? I think so. Because if something is worth doing, isn’t it worth doing well?

Gad. What a Pollanna I am.

Enough with all this serious stuff. I’m off to visit my buddy Liz at Nordstrom in a couple of days. Who wants to talk shopping?

P.S. I’m adding these few thoughts after I read Ramona’s comment below. I tossed and turned last night after I hit publish on this post. Knowing that some readers would think I was missing the point. But that’s because there are so many points in this issue to explore. I really believe in a fair wage for quality work. I also understand that so many of us do not have the luxury of angsting about whether our work is satisfying enough. As a single parent of four kids my mum worked two jobs when we were kids, before she married my stepfather and we moved to the farm. She couldn’t quibble about work-life balance. She didn’t have time.


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39 thoughts on “Elephant in the Room: On Working Hard”

  1. My father, who died when I was 16, (36 years ago) always said "If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well" usually when I was making a half hearted attempt at my chores. I still believe that even doing the most menial of tasks, we should do them properly, so that certainly goes for more important things. Great post, always thought provoking. Thanks Sue.

  2. As usual, I totally agree Sue. And in your last reference to Big Blogging, it smacks so much of what creates annoying waves in my day to day – when I seen people doing a job and not doing it well (resulting in bad service, incorrect information provided etc). Where is the satisfaction? Acting inwardly "as if" you're the best at what you do, makes doing a job worthwhile and getting through the day that much easier. And anyway, aren't employees PAID to do the job to the best standard required of the company?
    Last summer, when a friend* discovered what I was doing and that I was not paid to blog, she bluntly told me I was wasting my time, that there's no point doing something without being rewarded by payment. I was inflamed! Reward does not mean financial reward to everyone in this life, and certainly not to me because I am getting so much satisfaction from blogging and it's filled the retirement-void that I didn't know was there.
    So these days, I joke with hobby with quips like "I'd better finish off that blog post if we want bread on the table". He gets it! *ex, BTW.

  3. My response, if I let it, would be super lengthy so here's the short and sweet. I think you are exploring 3 really separate topics here: creating work/life balance, deriving pleasure from work that is meaningful to you, and whether work must be remunerated to be called work. Working hard should not exclude having a life. Philanthropy is both meaningful and fulfilling, yet unpaid. And, at least in the US, those who work do not always have the luxury of loving or being fulfilled by the work they must do to survive, nor can they afford the support from paid staff to change their situation. Thought provoking blog, but the topic is massive

    1. I hear you, and agree. I could have gone on and on about things I also believe in. Like paying a fair minimum wage to workers so they don't have to hold down three part time jobs to make ends meet, or climbing the corporate ladder at the expense of one's health and family. But I really only wanted to use that podcast to talk about one small area of the issue. It is indeed a massive issue.

    2. P.S. Thanks for your comment, Ramona. This post has been bugging me all night. I knew I hadn't hit quite the right note, nor had I quite pulled everything I wanted to say together well enough. So I've added an addendum, now. You've helped me do that.

    3. Well thats sweet of you to say! Would love to pull together a wine evening on this topic with thoughtful friends. Hmmmm…

  4. There is definitely merit in a job well done, and many times hard work is its own reward. But I think there's also truth in the adage "sometimes good enough is good enough". Like many women, I sometimes fall into the trap of believing my work has to be perfect before I'll share it, or even worse, the fear of not being good enough makes me procrastinate (and procrastinate……..)

    1. You're right, Adele. I kept thinking about that as I wrote my post. It's just that sometimes I think that "not good enough" is considered "good enough." I know about that old perfectionism thing too. And it's sometimes hard to recognize when to quit, isn't it?

  5. Hmmm, I never know what to expect here, envy inducing trip pictures, the route to an organized wardrobe or deep thinking. One of the things that always troubles me about musings about work/life balance is that they tend to come from the successfully well off vs from the single mom with 3 part time jobs…… Also the difficult balance between perfect and good enough, getting it done and never taking the last step….on and on.


  6. I was also brought up on "if a job is worth doing then it is worth doing well" but there does come a time when one has to say to oneself "enough is enough". Recently I had to do this with a piece of art that I had spent months on. It's like editing a piece of script, you can go on forever. However, to do the best you can for whatever the reward, whether it be money or personal satisfaction is surely something to aim for. I totally agree that the "advice" on work life/balance always seems to come from those who are extremely successful and can pay for nannies etc rather than the woman who is working 3 part time jobs to put bread on the table. She is working to survive as so many of us do. This is another good thought provoking piece you have written and thank you for that.

    1. You're right about the enough is enough at some point. I discovered this with my marking when I was a young teacher. I set a nightly goal for my marking, because after 9:00 PM or after 7 English essays, I worked slower and slower, and found it hard to concentrate…ergo… my time was not being spent wisely. Time to hang up the red pencil and watch Masterpiece Theatre with my husband.

    2. Your remark about grading made me think that age also has a role here. In my younger years I could manage 35+ term papers over a couple of days that also included teaching. Today I can't do that well. It just takes me longer, and in some classes, I have had to cut back on the number of assignments. I would not have considered that even "good enough" years ago, but my 60+ age has required some adjustments. I hope it's balanced by my years of experience, but who knows?

    3. I am 100% sure that fewer assignments is not a bad thing, Lynn. I in my last 5 years I started giving my seniors more class time in the computer lab to work on major essays. That way they could ask me questions, I could follow their progress and see their drafts, and thus ensure that they were NOT plagiarized. The other benefit was that the papers were always much better written, I knew pretty much what every kid was writing about and they were a breeze to mark. Only experience taught me the many benefits of doing that!

  7. What a wonderful post. The quality of your blog is the reason you are one of the few that I follow. Thank you- Mary Lou

  8. Great post. I was also raised to do things right or not at all. At times that has stymied me on work projects that I wanted to keep working on until it was dark and my office mates had all gone home. At some point, I was introduced to the phrase "The perfect is the enemy of the good." I try to think of it when I'm pushing for perfection, but it's a hard habit to break. Thank the goddess for retirement. 🙂

    1. Oh yes… hard to break the perfectionism habit. Retirement sure helps with that. Doesn't eradicate it though… just lowers the ante.

  9. This is something I have been considering over the last couple of years. My problem is with the adjective hard: if something is not difficult or trying or tiring or overtaking you, then it is not worth doing. I have fallen into this trap and suffered the consequence. Perhaps we need a new descriptor? Worthwhile. Profound. Worthy. I don't know but the element of suffering needs to be ousted. Not everybody who works needs big bucks, not everybody needs the money at all, not everybody is on the breadline but work/occupation/activity is intrinsic to the human being. I do think, however, that too many people over-apply themselves because of perceived expectation. There's the danger, right there. Glad you raised this. It seems we all have a relevant opinion on this topic.

    1. Interesting point. I don't think of 'hard' as necessarily engendering suffering. To me it implies that I am doing the best I can, and not just going through the motions, coasting, taking the easy way out. I think if the work is something from which I get satisfaction I don't mind it being difficult.
      It's amazing how many takes there are on this issue, what part of it resonates with different people. Like the decision to retire… so many angles from which to view the subject.

  10. Yes, yes, yes! Hard work DOES have its own rewards, and indeed, before the women you mention became successful, it's hard to imagine they would have listened to the very advice they now give.

    Challenges: We currently live in a blended culture that flashes messages of (the trappings of) success at us 24/7, unless we explicitly choose to remove ourselves from all forms of media. We have seen an erosion of fundamental values that respect the dignity of work (of all sorts), along with other values that may be alive and well in small communities (supporting each other, helping each other), but that aren't promoted as valuable as they once were.

    The there's this: "very successful women can make the rest of us feel bad about ourselves" — an enormous issue in social media, leading not only to feeling badly about our own lives, but misinterpreting what that success actually entails, not knowing if it is "real," and making all manner of assumptions about the person's life that may not be true. (I could go on, as I'm sure you know!)

    Somewhere along the way, certainly in the US, integrity has been pushed to the back of the shelf…

    And eventually it will bite us all in the butt.

    Terrific post!


    1. Leslie in Oregon

      Re "And eventually it will bit us all in the butt:" it already has, and it continues biting us all there every day, whether we realize it or not!

    2. Thanks, DA. Sometimes it's the definition of success that makes me roll my eyes. Was I less successful in my career if I chose to remain a department head and classroom teacher? I don't think so.
      I hear you about the other stuff… but I'll let Leslie respond to that bit. You guys are so much more knowledgeable than me on what's up in your part of the world.

  11. How many times did my father tell me when I was growing up, "If you're going to do something, do it right." And, "If you want something done right, do it yourself."

    That encourages perfectionism which is a very difficult and unattainable goal. Nothing is truly ever perfect. Following such advice can either push a person to achieve greatness to make them feel like they are a continuous failure.

    As an art student I was told that a painting is never finished because you can always choose to add or subtract something, however it was up to you as the artist to understand the painting well enough to walk away from it when it was time. I believe that to be true for most everything in life.

    I agree that there are benefits to work well done and not all of them are monetary although we are trained to believe that is the only true way to judge value.

    This was a very interesting topic with great comments.


    1. I love the comparison to making art… the same goes for writing. When to stop revising? That's a hard one…and one which I solve by walking away and coming back to my work the next day. Then it's so much easier to see what needs to be changed if anything. I think that perfectionism can be a bad thing, but so can "good enough-ness." When a slap-dash job is just shrugged of as "good enough."

  12. Leslie in Oregon

    People and their work is a topic that always has fascinated me, and it has been the context of my life's work. With your admirable ability to articulate and stimulate, Susan, you have raised and begun a discussion of several very important questions on this topic…thank you! I hope that you continue to explore those questions, and we continue to respond to you and exchange ideas with each other regarding them, in this forum.

  13. Modern society has created an artificial split between "work" and "life". Who can judge whether someone has the right work life balance? For example woodworking can be a job to one person and a hobby for another. Reading a student 's story is work for the teacher and reading a book is leisure for the same teacher.

    You decide your attitude to what you are doing in each moment, whether the work is paid or not.

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