If you’re reading this, you might not know what hard work looks like

I want to make something clear up front: Jason Fried’s recent [as of 2017] piece, If you’re reading this, you probably don’t do hard work — which this is a response to — is part of an important conversation. You should read it.

The thesis of Jason’s piece is simple: the kind of creative output and problem-solving that the folks in white collars call a day’s work may not be easy, but that’s not the same as it being hard. Hard work, he says, is “doing the work other people don’t want to do,” as do migrant farmers, day laborers, single parents making ends meet on minimum wage, and blue-collar workers who risk life and limb on construction sites and in factories.

And it’s very hard to disagree with that! There’s a lot of truth to it. And the kinds of people likely to be reading a publication called “Signal v. Noise” definitely need to hear it. I needed to hear it.

But it misses much. And in doing so, risks establishing overly simplistic criteria through which we misjudge the worth of labor, and by extension (because capitalism), the worth of laborers.

Or, to put it in the tone set by the piece itself:

Hard work is fighting your crushing depression just to get out of bed, showering with your suicidal thoughts, and practically crawling to your desk in the morning. Every morning. For years.

Hard work is being continually terrified of losing your job because you might die without insurance.

Hard work is performing, in addition to your usual duties, the emotional labor for an entire company, taking up an unpaid position somewhere between “office manager” and “office mom”.

Hard work is having just enough opportunity to get into environments you haven’t been given enough opportunity to succeed in.

Hard work is dealing with sexual aggressions from people who can fire you without recourse.

Hard work is transitioning genders at the office.

Hard work is being the butt of racist jokes at the same time you’re being touted as the company’s solution to diversity.

Hard work is doing everything your colleagues who are men do, and still being responsible for the majority of parenting duties when you get home.

Hard work is being expected to smile through all of this.

Casting the efforts of all office workers as categorically different from those of physical laborers may make an important point, but uses it to ignore another: that dichotomies like these are, in many ways, already encoded in the culture of office work, and used to selectively devalue the efforts of individuals who should otherwise be peers.

The visible trumps the invisible; the clicky-clacky trumps the touchy-feely.

Even in a purely white-collar context, what disparities in value do we assign to jobs perceived as more effortful (coding, engineering) and jobs perceived as more creative (design, writing)? What even of back-end (logic) vs. front-end (creative) engineers? What value do we assign to navigating the feelings of others, even and especially those who do not consider yours in return? What value do we assign to bearing the burdens of a fiercely unfair society while we earn our daily bread alongside everyone else?

However much corporate America needs a reality check, it’s dangerous to let CEOs define the boundaries between leisure and labor. By the standards set in Jason’s piece, a laborer who finds her work to be creatively rewarding or intellectually stimulating is not laboring. And seemingly, a creative whose invisible labor pushes her to the brink of exhaustion every day isn’t laboring, either.

And what of the service jobs, sometimes called pink-collar (wonder why?) that are arguably neither white- nor blue-collar, requiring both effort and intellect? What of teachers, or nurses, or bartenders? What of mothers who are wives who are caretakers, keeping multigenerational families intact?

None of this is an indictment of Jason’s excellent writing, or his choice (if it was in fact a choice) to strip some of the nuance from an issue to make it palatable to his nearly 200,000 followers—many of whom would probably be rolling their eyes at most of the sentiments in this piece. They need someone they trust and respect to change their thinking in incremental fashion.

But programming is forgetting, and simplifying anything begets not only an obligation to consider what (and who) you’re leaving out, but the unintended effects of what you’re leaving in.

We need respect for labor, alright. But we also need to acknowledge what labor really is.

Tremendous thanks to Kara, Laura, Patrick, and Alison for the Facebook thread that directly inspired these ideas. As always, I am beholden to my friends for keeping me on the narrow, even if never on the straight.