Skip to main content
opinion

John Glynn is a writer and assistant professor of psychology at the American University of Bahrain.

To quote Rihanna, one of the greatest philosophers of our time, Work, work, work, work, work, work. You see me I be work, work, work, work, work, work. Although she isn’t talking about a 9-to-5 job, millions of people across the world can relate to these lyrics. After all, we work ourselves ragged, commuting inordinate distances over the course of a lifetime, all for what, exactly?

Before discussing the reasons why work is severely overrated, let me state a few things off the bat:

This is not an emotive call to ill-advised action. Let me categorically state now, dear reader: I am not asking you to quit your job and embark on some sort of Eat, Pray, Love, soul-searching adventure. On the contrary, this is a call for some much-needed perspective taking.

Also, let me define what I mean by work. I differentiate between work, or a job, and a vocation. The latter is a calling of sorts. Think a teacher who genuinely loves teaching, or a vicar who received a call from God. A vocation is far less cumbersome than work. It lacks the soul-destroying quality that so many of us are familiar with. My definition of work involves doing something because you must, not because you want to, the very opposite of a vocation. Millions, if not billions, of people engage in a daily ritual of insanity, clocking in to glorified gulags and devoting the best years of their lives to the most meaningless of tasks. This is insane.

Wait, what exactly is insanity? Was Hitler insane, or did he just capitalize on the insanity of society at the time, sanely tapping into a sort of collective madness? How about van Gogh? Is an individual who works all day at a job she hates insane? How about sacrificing your health or time with your loved ones for a corporation that treats you like a piece of disposable tissue? Is that insane?

These questions may not come with immediate answers. Nevertheless, they are all worth pondering.

Rather preposterously, we tend to use work as a metric of success. Where do you work? How many hours a week do you work? “Talking about how many hours you work is not impressive,” noted science journalist Olivia Goldhill in a piece for Quartz last year. She went on to suggest that far from being an indicator of assiduous achievements or leading status, it’s a sure sign that an individual has little else to brag about.

From London to Lahore, boasting about how overworked we are is a universal practice. In 2015, Omid Kordestani, Twitter’s executive chairman, told The Wall Street Journal that he and his colleagues try to “maximize every hour we can, however we can do it.” Mr. Kordestani also told the paper that he made a conscious decision to become chief executive officer Jack Dorsey’s driver. Why? So the two could talk shop as they commute to Twitter headquarters, obviously.

Elon Musk, the patron saint of workaholism, famously declared: “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” Mr. Musk, known for regularly working 120-hour weeks, once claimed that, if a person hopes to change the world, then an 80- to 100-hour week is necessary.

How about changing the mindset?

Although his achievements are highly laudable, his overall philosophy is lamentable.

It’s not about working harder, folks; it’s about working smarter.

Countless studies have shown that the mantra “more work equals more success” simply isn’t true. Ms. Goldhill also said in her Quartz piece, “Productivity dramatically decreases with longer work hours, and completely drops off once people reach 55 hours of work a week, to the point that, on average, someone working 70 hours in a week achieves no more than a colleague working 15 fewer hours.”

Charles Darwin, one of the greatest minds of all time, worked no more than four hours a day.

Warren Buffett, the sharpest financial mind of the 20th and 21st century, is known for taking long breaks and long strolls.

Benjamin Franklin, a hero of Mr. Buffett’s, always made a habit of “calling it a day” after eight hours of work.

Of course, your average Joe, let’s call him Joe, doesn’t possess the same aspirations as Mr. Musk. Nevertheless, the same principles apply. Perspective is needed. No matter who you are, the goal should always be to work smarter, not harder.

In 2019, broader society views toil as virtuous; work that involves suffering is seen as noble and praiseworthy. Again, this seems odd, to say the very least.

To the millions of people out there who boast about the amount of hours worked in a week, you are unconsciously revealing a dedication to an archaic and nonsensical belief. You are Sisyphus, not Superman.

Editor’s note: (Sept. 9) An earlier version of this article did not attribute a second quotation to an article in Quartz by Olivia Goldhill. She had written that “Talking about how many hours you work is not impressive.” A following paraphrase also should have been attributed to her.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.