A Good Play Ethic

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I don’t wish to defend laziness but rather to speak in favour of play. Play has a lightheartedness that the work ethic lacks.

My adult life has been punctuated by times of unemployment. One of the more unpleasant aspects of being unemployed is trawling through the employment section of the newspaper looking through all the ads. A special place of loathing in my heart is reserved for those ads which ask for people with “a good work ethic”. This seems to translate to: we’ll pay you peanuts and work you as hard as we can. Needless to say, I didn’t apply for many of these jobs. (OK, actually, I didn’t apply for any at all.)

I think it is possible to understand this work ethic and why it’s attractive. I should add that I don’t think it is all bad. Work here seems to mean focused effort to achieve an objective. Once this objective is achieved, the person is entitled to a sense of accomplishment. The focus means that other tasks, and parts of the environment, are excluded from consideration. The work done may be pleasant (and this may be seen as preferable), but it is done whether it is pleasant or not. A sense of achievement is no bad thing in my view. It can also be used to build a sense of self-esteem: “I have done this, and so I know I have particular useful skills, and this helps me feel good about myself”. This is by no means unimportant — especially for the many of us who suffered schooling where we experienced a focus on what we got wrong.

The work ethic has a feeling of solidity about it: it can provide a sense of certainty and a point of reference to get us through our moments of insecurity and disorientation. I may doubt that I am a good partner, but I do put the time into listening. I may doubt that I am a valuable part of my work team, but I have ticked off on my list the tasks assigned to me.

The work ethic values effort; this is slightly different to success. What matters in the work ethic is effort. Sometimes the job won’t get done, but this won’t matter if the person has been seen to put in the effort. One of the healthy aspects of the work ethic is that it is not perfectionist: it is not the outcome that is evaluated but what the person has done. Within the work ethic it is entirely possible for the worker to claim that they did everything they could but that there wasn’t enough time or resources or some other factor intervened. This means that there is some reference to reality and what is possible in a given situation. In practice, the work ethic and perfectionism are often confused.

If the work ethic values effort and achievement it has no time for laziness. This dislike of laziness can even be more important than the results or outcomes desired. Someone can achieve an outcome yet still not have a work ethic — a result can be achieved too easily, and the person or their work can be suspect if it is achieved without effort.

The big problem I have with the work ethic is that it can lead to useless effort. The freedom from being judged by results is a strength in some ways (people aren’t blamed for failure) but a problem in others (how can we know when to stop working?). Another is that it can be incredibly wasteful of time and effort. (Losing sight of the outcome that the effort is directed to achieving can lead to inefficiency and waste.) It doesn’t naturally lead to looking for or finding an easier way.

I don’t wish to defend laziness but rather to speak in favour of play. Play has a lightheartedness that the work ethic lacks; the latter can encompass determination, yet it is hard to find a place for joy in it.

The curious thing about play is how much energy can be invested in it. Children will play for hours, and adults can dedicate much of their leisure time to more organised games (from cards to sports) with no reward except the pleasure of engaging in the activity. In a sense, play is its own reward (although this includes getting better at the particular kind of play being engaged in).

After much time playing we may feel tired; but we won’t feel wearied by the work in the same way we do after forcing ourselves to persevere against our laziness. What I’m suggesting is that play will often mean engaging with a task with greater energy than the work ethic provides.

It seems likely to me that if we can be more playful then we are likely to both achieve more and have more fun as well.

I hope that I am not being too idealistic suggesting that there is room for more play in our lives. I would like to hear your experience. Do you value the work ethic? Have you found that finding a way to play with something makes a difference to how enjoyable it is to do it (and whether it gets done)? I’d like to hear from you in the comments.

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