Arbeit mach frei?

Does work set you free? The phrase has a chilling presence, as it was used on the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Whether it was a taunt or an indication of a mystic ideal I am not interested in going into. In fact, I don’t really want to talk about Nazi’s or prisoners at all here. What I’m more interested in is the philosophical ideal behind the phrases origins, and if it is relevant to work today. As Wikipedia will tell you, the phrase comes from  the title of a German novel (“Arbeit macht frei: Erzählung von Lorenz Diefenbach”) where virtue for a cast of ne’er-do-wells is achieved through hard work.

There is certainly something powerful, perhaps the search of virtue, that drives some people on. Something that leads to the pulling of all-nighters, the ducking social events or the working of weekends. That drive to just keep on working, having an output

Such a drive is certainly rife in academia. There has been much written on the incredible pressure inherent when working in academia. Publish, publish, publish or perish, but also mark these essays, set this course, write that grant and sit on this board. This has been linked to unhappiness, ill health and suicide (see herehere and here for more on this). In general it is the world of academia that is said to be causing this to us. That we are trapped in a world, partly of our own making, that is causing us harm, and we need to break out of these chains that hold us to change this world and make our lives better.

But perhaps its not always something outside of us that causes us to act this way. I hosted some family recently, and it meant I took a couple of days off work to show them some sights. No biggie. But it was sometimes a middie. I felt tense, a little stressed, and probably not as good company as I should’ve been. And I can only reason that this was because I felt I should be working. Is this what academia has done to me, creating some anti-social workaholic who can’t bear to be with his family? Perhaps. But part of it was that I simply didn’t enjoy not getting stuff done. I like charging forward, ticking things off my to-do list, solving puzzles and completing tasks. There is a glow from good, honest striving, from labouring towards a self-set goal and sitting here afterwards and thinking, yep, job done. I’m sure I’m not alone. I know I’m not alone. I’ve talked to plenty of others who say they love the problem solving part of their work, who smile when they talk of a productive day and get restless during a slow patch at work. Then there are the real long-hour workers that put me to shame, those that are rarely seen outside of the lab or office, every evening spent on another project, every weekend spent making that sample size bigger, the ones everyone knows about but doesn’t know well. I’m not sure these people talk about their experiences on twitter or write blogs, but they are here nonetheless. What seismic force is driving them on?

“The sign of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one”  

– J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

I can’t think of more humble pursuits than many aspects of science research, poring over stacks of cell plates, tramping round muddy fields looking for insects, or gazing at hours of camera-trap video to catch that one glimpse of your study organism. So this quote speaks to me. Part of what we do massages our egoes, making the discovery, putting our names on the papers, standing in front of an audience and showing them what we’ve done. But part is also very selfless. The obvious aspect of this is the mentoring, the reviewing, the organising of events, all largely without direct reward. But also the whole endeavour will tend to leave us without any wider acclaim. Yup, no one really cares that you spent years studying the properties of random graphs or quantifying sexual conflict in beetles, or that you dabbled in the writings of Samuel Johnson. You’re very unlikely to get an obituary in the Times. A friend studying medicine asked me during my undergraduate degree what I wanted to do in the future, so I said something (I thought) grand-sounding about adding to the sum total of human knowledge. Their reply was: “so you’ll be a scientific footnote?”… I thought about this, and eventually replied that: yes, essentially I would be a footnote to a far bigger story, and that I was fine with that. So its not all, or even largely, about the ego.

“All the science will be mine!!” – Not what is being said in most labs

I think a big part of it is simply having a sense of purpose makes us feel a lot less alone, scared or lost in this big wide world. I talk to some people and they seem to be drifting through life, getting by for the sake of getting by. This security may satisfy them, but it confuses, bores, and really scares me. I’d feel lost without something bigger to at least aim for.

As the Drive by Truckers said (in This Fucking Job):

“It’s the living and the learning, it makes the difference, makes it all worthwhile.”

And I couldn’t agree more. There is not really an end point, but going through life learning like this makes me feel a whole lot better than any alternative I’ve experienced. And perhaps that is because, indeed, work sets me free.

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