Don't work too hard, a friend says as we part. You, too, I say.

Then, I wonder. Why do I say that? Why do people say that? I am often tempted to retort and say: you work hard, now. Am I to understand that I shouldn't work too hard, or I'll get sick? Is it a warning, then? There are analogous cautionary statements. Don't go too close, or you'll burn yourself. Don't stay up too late, or you won't be able to get up in the morning. Don't press it so hard, or you'll break it.

The message, on the other hand, may be more a reminder than a warning. You shouldn't work too hard because you are not paid enough, because you won't be rewarded for your extra effort, or because you have better things to do in the day's allotted time.

The implication, in any case, is that work is something undesirable, if not in itself, surely in excess.

As the familiar saying goes all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy, and Jane a bore. It is a necessary burden best kept at an absolute minimum. Play, on the other hand, is always welcome. No one warns us that all play and no work will starve Jane and Johnny. No one says to each other on parting, "Don't play too hard."

Best avoided so long as possible, work is onus. Tolerable in moderation, it is harmful in excess. Even if necessary, one should not indulge in it, as it is with eating, drinking, and sleeping.

In Latin, work was that which took away from free time. <Negotium>, the word for business or occupation, was the state of being without <otium>. Leisure, in other words, was entitlement rather than what remains of the day after hours of work. The familiar parting words would then be more like, don't give up too much of your free time. Work could, of course, mean <labor> rather than <employment>, but work in our discussion refers to work as in the phrase <go to work>. It's a wage-earning activity in post-industrial economy. This was also more or less the source of the play-work dichotomy that we take for granted today.

A craftsman (or craftswoman), self-employed by definition, is paid not in wages but by the sale of the pieces s/he produces at prices set according to the effort that went into the making and the quality of the work produced. A more elaborate work will naturally cost more. But a work, say, a piece of pottery, quickly made, may be priced higher than another piece on which more hours were expended but with less satisfactory result, and vice versa. When the motivation for work is the quality of the work produced one does not mind spending hours on end to achieve that result. Then, work is no work but more like play, where the objective is sharpening one's skill and entertaining oneself in so doing. Any activity one calls a hobby, as opposed to work, engages the hobbyist to the extent that she or he is oblivious of the passage of time. You don't tell a friend going fishing not to work too hard. You say, instead: "Have a good time."

It is curious that students consider study work. If learning is something to aspire for in itself, studying to learn should not be a burden. Reading a novel, writing poems, scrutinizing historical documents, contemplating Plato, analyzing a painting, solving equations, observing microorganisms -- these should be a pleasure, and they are when carried out outside the curriculum in leisure at our own pace to satisfy our own curiosity. We all remember the classics we were assigned to read in school were work; years after college we relish them without any compunction about the length of time we have to put in. We pay to go to school; learning is the reward. Study doesn't earn a wage. It is more play than work. But compelled to set up a dichotomy, we oppose study time against play time while in school.

Learning has never been an onus for me, and teaching to me has always been learning. So, it was always more play than work, even though I earned a living doing it. Earning by learning! This was the blessing of the profession I chose. There are, of course, many who say how fortunate they are that they do what they enjoy more than anything else and get paid for it. When one is dedicated in one's work, one is bound to feel this way.

When a student comes to me for advice on choosing a career, I have little to say but one counsel. You will be happiest if you choose whatever you are happiest doing day in and day out for the rest of your life, and keep in mind that career is only a part of life.

In retirement I spend time, unfettered, sitting in an opera house, theater, or a concert hall and am enjoying every minute of it. It's playtime all the time. But I also spend time doing homework. I spend a great deal of time and effort preparing myself in advance. I read the plays I am going to see, listen to the recording of the music I am going to hear, and study the music and the libretto of the opera I am going to attend. I also go over the material afterwards. School habit perhaps dies hard. This is a lot of work. While I was actively working, work was play for me. Now in retirement I find that play is work. But it is pleasurable work through and through, no less than teaching used to be. It's all learning.


T. Kaori Kitao, 05.01.02



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