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The False Religion of 'Working Hard'

One of the most touching and life changing experiences in my life was my mother apologizing to me for mistakenly using the morality of 'hard work' to motivate me to become a more successful person. She developed that insight not because I confronted her, but because she stayed with my family for a short time and had the opportunity to observe me as a father. Perhaps her perception was unfair because she was comparing her generation with mine. I was actually not that good as a father. However, it was a powerful moment. At the time, I was still unsure of whether I should focus on being successful in my career or on spending quality time with my children. Sadly, even after my mom's attempt to release me from the bondage of success and hard work, I still made the wrong choice. Why?

As a psychotherapist and a person, I have witnessed my patients, friends, colleagues, family members, and myself suffer immensely from valuing work over everything else, including family and happiness. Many people are injured by the culture of workaholics- resulting in either becoming workaholics themselves or going to the other extreme of feeling helpless and worthless and giving up. We all carry heavy burden of shame, guilt and fear when it comes to work. A recent study by Pew Research found an epidemic of youth anxiety around work, 95% of teens said "having a job or career they enjoy" would be "extremely or very important" to them as an adult. It ranked more important than helping people who are in need or even getting married. Why does work dominate every other aspect of our lives?

Since many people have lost faith in organized religions, work itself has become the Universal Religion. It is much more appealing because work provides tangible outcomes. In the old days, a person spending many hours in prayer was praised by others for their dedication, but they were not able to observe the outcomes of the prayers. They were too abstract. Many hours of hard work do lead to measurable outcomes. Not only are the material rewards from hard work constantly being advertised in all media, additionally, the praise of 'hard work' itself as a virtue is used as motivation.

Working hard is no longer just a means for economic gain, but also the core of one's identity and purpose. This phenomenon is the worst in the United States. In Samuel P. Huntington's book 'Who Are We? The Challenge to America's National Identity', he explains that Americans "work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies."

I am surrounded by the majority of people, some of them my colleagues, who vehemently preach the morality of 'Hard Work'. I am a little scared, worried, and conflicted writing this essay. First, I am worried people will judge me for promoting laziness. Second, I myself am trapped by the morality of 'Working Hard'. It is hard work to teach against 'Hard Work'.

I used to explain my philosophy of parenting to my colleagues, and got a lot of pushback and criticism. At that time, I felt shame and fear of doing the wrong thing. However, I insisted on not teaching my children the virtue of 'Working Hard'. I believed there were many other ways to motivate my children to be active and live meaningful lives. If they wanted to pursue something, they would work hard naturally to achieve that objective. Now, I am more confident discussing this topic because all three of my daughters have accomplished amazing things beyond my expectations. I am so proud of them. Also, I have helped so many youngsters, and even adults, break away from this moral trap. Instead of fear and shame, they can find more constructive ways to motivate themselves to do things that help them to connect with others and provide contributions to society.

Ironically, I am still working very hard to break myself out this trap of 'Hard Work' because the emotional attachment to 'Hard Work' as a virtue is still lingering in me.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with hard work itself, but it's the moral superiority that can lead to so much shame, guilt, pain, and suffering. People judge others and themselves harshly for being lazy. It is hard to free oneself from the trap when one is afraid and ashamed of being associated with "bad" irresponsible lazy people. I do not want to blindly accept Hard Work as intrinsically good. It surely can lead to success and accomplishment, but it ends there. Hard work is a means to something not an end unto itself.

Maybe in the past or in different circumstances (like immigrants who have to survive being in a new country or people who have to change their standard of living to provide opportunities for their children) they had no other options. Working hard was the only way to free themselves from the restrictions of poverty. It has great utilitarian values for that purpose. That is a means to an end. It is not the same as valuing hard work as a virtue intrinsically. You cannot find spiritual teachings from the major religions in the world to support that concept. Labor is a consequence of gaining consciousness from partaking the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. It was part of the pain and suffering caused by gaining consciousness. It was not listed as a virtue, or as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Some scholars have traced the origin of the virtue of Work to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Capital Industrialists worked together with the Church to start preaching Hard Work as a virtue. It was a brilliant idea to coerce workers to spend more hours in the factories without paying them more money, because hard work itself was the motivation. It could also reduce the cost of management.

We are entering a different era. I am not the only one awakened to that fallacy. We need to open our eyes to see how the world is changing, especially for developed nations. AI and intelligent machines are taking over many jobs. Ironically, even the technical jobs that require many years of training for humans to succeed. Renowned Philosopher/Cognitive Scientist Dan Dennett, Historian/Philosopher Yuval Harari, and Psychiatrist/Bio-Ethics Specialist/Philosopher Jodi Halpern all went into detail about AI outperforming humans in a recent debate. For example, Dr. Halpern stated that AI can predict suicide much better than a panel of the best psychiatrists in the country. AI can do better diagnostic assessments and robots can perform better surgeries.

We cannot be ignorant anymore by believing that our children can just repeat what we did in the past and expect the same results. They challenge us because even with their young minds, they know we are not keeping up with the times. We have to re-evaluate our value systems to meet the demands of the rapidly changing world. For people who have been following my website, this is another example of Paradox. We have to find new ways to motivate ourselves and our children.

As I said earlier, I am not against hard work. Hard work is a tool to get what we want. It is an instrument, not an idol. We have to be open to new ideas of how to motivate ourselves and our children to find their identities and purpose in life. We are entering an era in which we have to listen to the younger generations instead of preaching to them about the old ways. I am not against traditions, we just have to have two way communications instead of one sided lectures.

In the debate I mentioned earlier about the relationship between humans and AI, Harari began by arguing from the side of machines and Dennett from the side of humanity. Harari pointed out the utilitarian value of machines, like self driving cars. Dennett then replied saying, even with the superior power of GPS, he would rather sail his boat by the night sky for the beautiful but flawed human experience. Harari understood what he meant and concluded that maybe eventually super intelligent machines could make technically difficult decisions for us, so that we can focus more on experiencing life itself.

I have a strong hope for our future. Maybe, for the first time, technology can free us from the religion of 'Working Hard' so we can focus on humanity itself. We can spend more time learning to improve relationships instead of developing technological advantages over others for the purpose of oppressing them. In a twisted way, developing humanity will finally triumph over technologies. What an irony. Technologies might allow humans to be more humane after all.


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