March 15

How the Protestant Work Ethic Has Turned Us into Productivity Chasers

In a world dominated by the Protestant Work Ethic, our worth is often measured by our ability to produce. This leaves us feeling inadequate when we forget that our value extends far beyond our professional accomplishments.

The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. Henry David Thoreau.

The Protestant Ethic

At the beginning of the 20th century, Max Weber, who occupied a prestigious chair in political economics at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, started to write what would become his most celebrated work and a founding text of sociology, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

While Weber can be credited with coming up with the phrase “The Protestant Work Ethic,” the roots of the philosophy can be traced back to the 16th-century Reformation led by figures such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Protestant leaders.

The “Work is Worship” philosophy

One of Protestantism's core tenets was the idea of a "calling" or "vocation," wherein individuals believed they had a duty to serve God through hard work and diligence in their daily occupations, regardless of the nature of the work. This idea, of course, appealed to many: you didn’t have to lead a monastic life and could be engaged in worldly pursuits such as being a blacksmith, a trader, or a barber and still serve God.

John Calvin then took the ideas even further with the notion of predestination—that God has predestined the eternal destiny of every individual (salvation or damnation) and that success in worldly pursuits should be seen as a sign of divine favor.

Calvin’s followers, the Puritans, were also deeply opposed to any form of sensual pleasure – so whatever they achieved, they reinvested prudently, resulting in ever-growing capital.

Thus arose the modern capitalist spirit: the idea that uncomplaining hard work, discipline, frugality, and deferred gratification are signs of God’s grace while the lazy had to contend with the looming threat of damnation. Society firmly believed that work is not only a means of sustenance but also a way to demonstrate one's faith and secure a place in the afterlife gained

Where we are today

The harder I work, the luckier I get. Samuel Goldwyn

While the direct religious influence has waned over the centuries, the cultural legacy of valuing hard work and personal responsibility remains deeply embedded. Success in business and personal achievements is often seen as a reflection of one's character and work ethic.

As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her New Yorker piece,

Everyone who is part of the modern capitalist economy—whether he’s employed flipping burgers, writing code, or putting out a weekly magazine—has at one point or another considered that his efforts had an ascetic cast. We all accept that our jobs ought to be more than just a way to sustain ourselves and acknowledge that working is our duty.

The impact of the Protestant Work Ethic

While diligence and commitment are undoubtedly valuable traits, the relentless pursuit of success and the demands for constant productivity pose many challenges in today's society.

The struggling artist

For one, the protestant work ethic has been used as a tool to further capital greed and as a basis for worker exploitation.

The trope of “The struggling artist” exists for a reason.

We harbor the notion that our work, especially in loftier professions such as the arts, writing, or other creative fields, is a privilege in itself concealing the reality that writers, artists, and other creatives still have bills to pay.

Fobazi Ettarh, a librarian, referred to this phenomenon as “Vocational Awe.”

Vocational Awe is the belief that as a workplace, places like libraries are inherently good and sacred and, therefore, exempt from problems such as burnout and low salaries. Ettarh wrote,

In the face of grand missions of literacy and freedom, advocating for your full lunch break feels petty.”
Constant self-flagellation

Extreme adherence to the protestant work ethic takes a toll on our wellbeing.

In an HBR article, author Dan Pallotta writes:

"Many of us have grown up thinking that if we are properly self-punishing then we are somehow being responsible. “What, I’m a nervous wreck — how could I possibly take on more?”

On the other hand, if, God forbid, we are feeling carefree, we have this nagging sense that we’re being downright irresponsible, certain that if we don’t get right back to self-flagellation, then the other shoe is going to drop—and hard. We don’t correlate our sense of responsibility with what we are actually producing. We correlate it with how hard we are being on ourselves.

Thus, anything that’s fun cannot possibly be work, and everything that’s unpleasant is.”

Reluctance to take breaks

The chase towards extreme productivity is often fueled by the fear of being perceived as lazy or unproductive. We are constantly seeking to prove our worth through continuous effort, wearing the badge of busyness as an honor.

One of my favorite authors, Oliver Burkeman, describes this quandary in his article “No pain, no gain.”  

These days, if you consider yourself lazy or a procrastinator – who doesn't, in some area of life? – you almost certainly share some vestige of this moralism and use it to chastise yourself. Effort is key. Even failure is acceptable, so long as you try your hardest.
We are hooked on the concept of productivity and efficiency gains.
Is there a way out?

Every idea has to run its course. It is up to us to examine our long-held philosophies and beliefs and adapt them to meet our evolving life circumstances.

The Protestant Work Ethic instilled the idea that busyness equates to virtue. Yet, in our constant busyness, we've forgotten the value of a balanced life and find, not fulfillment, but a haunting sense of inadequacy.

The narrow definitions of accomplishment and success mean we are running a relentless race, which leaves most of us feeling miserable, especially as we realize that the finish line keeps moving farther and farther away.

The cure is hiding in plain sight. It is up to us to question our quest for extreme productivity.

Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long. Michael Gungor



Start Before You’re Ready

Start Before You’re Ready
  • “Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long. Michael Gungor”
    very true.
    Excellent, as usual Aruna. Well articulated

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