Work hard—life improves. These four words summarize one of the most prevalent narratives in Western culture about how to achieve the good life. As a graph, it would look something like this:
I sometimes ask in the classes I teach, which are made up of predominantly white, middle- and upper-class Christian college students, “Who do you think worked harder in school—the kid who grew up to be a lawyer or the kid who grew up to be a fast-food cook?” Usually only a handful recognize that kids who end up with lower grades or lower-paying jobs often work just as hard or harder than their higher-earning peers. Sometimes solving life’s problems takes more than hard work.
Our school system trains kids to think they’ll get ahead through a meritocracy of hard work, and so does much of the messaging in our churches, media, and families. Indeed, much research shows that when the level of effort people put into a task correlates to the rewards they receive, groups thrive and individuals stay motivated. Hard work is so foundational to Western concepts of achieving the good life that it can be hard to see any other options. But for many people in 2020, that narrative of hard work and the good life shattered.
Hard work is so foundational to Western concepts of achieving the good life that it can be hard to see any other options.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us to confront the narratives we took for granted. For some, the year brought beneficial possibilities like working remotely or new business ventures. But for many more, 2020 brought vocational struggle and disappointment. We faced rampant unemployment, conflicts between home and work, interrupted retirement plans, new reminders of the racialized inequalities in employment, and starkly disproportionate work-related health risks. In 2020, work got harder—we struggled amid a proliferation of rules, personal protective equipment, awkward technologies, uncertain futures, and clashing family priorities. And all that hard work didn’t necessarily seem to get us any closer to the good life.
For Americans on both sides of the political aisle, the simple graph above often serves as a go-to guide when facing personal and social problems. Liberals were quick to criticize Donald Trump for his hard-work narrative when he claimed that his fortune came from business acumen rather than a million-dollar “small loan,” but Joe Biden and nearly every political candidate for decades have played up the same story of their hard-working roots. Groups including immigrants, farmers, and the working class are all often pressured to prove that they deserve dignity and rights based on being “hard workers.” In our politics as well as our personal lives, Americans often equate hard work with goodness itself.
Which is why even as the pandemic called into question much about our working lives, Americans still tend to fall back on this same tired hard-work narrative in looking for ways forward. Surely, we think, if we didn’t value hard work, wouldn’t we end up lazy and unproductive? We idolize hard workers and defend ourselves from allegations that success comes from anything but hard-earned merit because at some level we want to believe it should be true—hard work should earn rewards.
But there’s much this narrative misses. Hard work won’t bring back factories from nations paying lower wages, or eliminate immigration barriers. Hard work won’t change the ways that US agricultural profits are structured around subsidies, indebted farms, and GMO patents. Hard-working individuals won’t singlehandedly undo the systems of racial prejudice, segregation, and inequity built over centuries. For many, social structures are set up such that opportunities for rewarding and enjoyable work simply don’t exist. Making hard work the centre of our explanations for who has or hasn’t succeeded can blind us to the deeply influential systemic causes of unequal career outcomes.
And relying just on the hard-work narrative also leaves people unmoored in their personal vocational journeys. Relying on hard work for our happiness can leave us burned out when we have jobs and emotionally distraught when underemployed. The hard-work narrative does not describe the actual rules of society’s success game, and neither does it describe the path to the good life God intends for us. A good life is richer and more complicated than trudging our way through checklists of tough tasks.
Let’s take a step back and reassess what the good life is and what work has to do with getting there. What follows is an activity based on qualitative research techniques I’ve used to get people thinking about work and the good life. It’s designed to help you dig into your assumptions about work, and then recognize possible changes you want to make in how you approach your work and vocation. Think of it as a vocational audit for 2021.
First, grab a paper and pencil and draw the following: a star somewhere on the paper to represent the good life, and a dot somewhere to represent not living the good life. (Notice the graph above includes these too.) Now draw some representation of how you believe you get from one to the other. Consider using lines, arrows, shapes, or simple figures.
Stop and complete this before you scroll on. If you’d like, also spend some time writing in a journal about how you chose the elements of your drawing. Better yet, ask someone to try the activity with you, and talk about your drawings together.
Once you’ve made an initial attempt to represent your beliefs about the good life, let’s look at some examples of how else people drew the path to the good life. Then read on for some questions to help you reassess your own drawing.
In 2014 and 2015, I conducted over a hundred interviews with people in South Africa about their work and understandings of the good life, and I often asked people to use this drawing activity. I also put simplified versions of people’s drawings and ideas from conversations onto notecards, and asked people to talk about the drawings of others, choosing drawings they liked or disliked. The drawings are a great way to refine and identify beliefs about the good life, because you can interpret them in many ways.
For example, some people described the path to the good life like this:
In one South African Zulu saying, success is like a wheel that turns and turns, taking people to success at times, but eventually bringing back down the people who achieve success through unjust means. It’s a vision of the good life that involves a hope for justice.
Another man described his life like this:
He interpreted this drawing as someone reaching a point in life where they decided not to achieve what other people might assume was the ultimate goal of career success. He said there were some people who wanted to be all the way at the top, at the level of the star, but he wanted to be content where his arrow led, in the middle. He said he believed God had put him where he was in life for a reason, and he wasn’t interested in chasing after the highest status in society.
Many South Africans talked about versions of this picture:
Here people saw the stick figures as people either helping each other to succeed through good relationships or pulling others down.
In my book The Laziness Myth: Narratives of Work and the Good Life in South Africa, I go into further depth about these and other ways people seek and understand the good life, in and out of work. In my own life, I’ve found that learning from people of cultural, racial, and class backgrounds different from my own is a valuable starting point for seeing new possibilities for my own thinking.
Having taken a brief peek at the wide variety of ways people think about work and the good life, I would suggest the following questions to reflect on what your understanding of vocation might be missing.
Consider the end goals: When have you seen someone living what you consider the good life? What moments or seasons in your own life seemed especially “good”? What made those moments good? What role did money play? What about leisure, entertainment, or rest? What relationships with God or the world around you were in place? Were you grounded in particular attitudes or values?
Consider the role of work: Do you typically think of work as good, bad, or something else? Can you have the good life without work? When have you been hurt by work, and in what ways have you been scarred or healed from those experiences? What models of working adults were you surrounded by as a child? Do you tend to think of work like the Garden of Eden, or the curse of producing sustenance amid thorns and thistles? How much of your identity is entrenched in your work? In what ways do you evaluate other people by the work they do? What makes work “right”—should it conform to your unique gifts and passions, should it change the world, or should it merely provide sustenance?
Consider the strength and limits of your agency: How has your work trajectory been shaped by chance or structures beyond your control? When have strangers or acquaintances assumed the best or worst of you in ways that shaped your career? How much of your life journey rightly depends on your own control?
Consider the role of others in your life: Have you tended to prioritize relationships or achievement? What relationships do you value and which do you ignore—family, church, co-workers, people who seem far away or different from you? When have you been the recipient of kindness? Whose work or generosity supports you? Who is dependent on you, and how does that shape your sense of purpose? How do you recognize with gratitude the resources that have been entrusted to you by God and others? What purposes do you see in serving others?
Where Are You Now?
Might you amend or redraw your image of the good life after reflecting on these questions? There are many possible answers. The intent is to identify and root out some of the partial truths or lies you may have believed about work, the good life, and the vocational journeys of yourself and others.
Let me offer a few principles to evaluate narratives of vocation.
The good life is not that which is earned by achievement, but that which people are appointed to and welcomed to participate in.
First, Christians need to recognize the role of the Spirit of God in determining the good or bad nature of work. In his book Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, Miroslav Volf offers a helpful explanation for the opposing good or bad possibilities of work. He writes, “All work that contradicts the new creation is meaningless; all work that corresponds to the new creation is ultimately meaningful.” Central to Volf’s theology of work is the idea that work at its best has the capacity to be done “in the Spirit,” as an active means of cooperating with God in the transformative process of the new creation. Whether done by believer or unbeliever, work will be revealed over time as either “that which has ultimate significance” or that which schemes “to ruin God’s good creation.” This view of work avoids a fatalistic resolution to put up with oppressive conditions. It adds an awareness of work-related injustice that often gets lost in both theological discussions of work and the popular discourse of hard work as the sole route to a good life.
Further, in the Christian narrative of work, the good life is not that which is earned by achievement, but that which people are appointed to and welcomed to participate in. Jesus’s words in Luke 10:1–3 offer one encapsulation of this picture of work and the good life:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. (NIV)
Here the good life consists of a harvest owned and managed by the “Lord of the harvest,” but designed to also incorporate the contributions of workers. Note that the qualifications for workers are virtually absent—there is no mention of gender, skill, age, physical ability, race, ethnicity, or class. Their qualification is only this: they are sent by the Lord, and generously so, at the request of people in need. Also note the plural word “workers.” They are not alone. Their work builds on the labours of those who came before them, and its purpose is in preparing for the coming of the Lord.
Finally, the workers are sent as lambs among wolves. How do they survive the wolves? Not merely by hard work or fierce competition—they are lambs after all. The passage offers no assurance of safety, comfort, or achievement. Not only does their work enrage the forces of evil around them, a case could be made that this very view of work as that which humans do out of the calling of their Lord runs counter to the view of work that prevails in our society.
The “work hard—life improves” narrative has never offered a full explanation of reality, and it has the capacity to steer society in dangerous directions. Far from merely a pathway to earn some fabled pinnacle of achievement, we see here a reminder that work often will be, as it was for many of us in 2020, just plain tough. To make it, we need more than just another to-do-list app and a faster pace of life. We need narratives that reorder the relationships we draw between work and the good life, recentring our relationships with others and with God.