Life without Work is Impossible

When I had just entered secondary school, I visited a book exhibition with my father in my hometown. I remember the English books section was not the biggest in this regional books-focused event. I picked the usual suspects on science, universe and environment, which I used to love as a school kid. My dad, however, added one book to my basket. It was called the Joy of Work by SA Sapre. I am sure he doesn’t even remember it. I still have the book on the bookshelf of my parental home. It’s been over 25 years since and I think it took me all these years to really understand and assimilate the message in that book.

The book is based on the premise of Mahatma Gandhi’s opinion that: “The source of India’s troubles has been the people who are thoroughly idle’ and so expounds on the evils of idleness to begin and then stresses the importance of work for the psychological, social and economic well-being of an individual. To prove the point it cites interesting case studies of high achievers and greats like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Einstein, and so on. It stresses the fact that work is the essence of man’s success in life.

I find the word productive to be more appropriate than just work. Most of us are fixated on pleasure; meaning we want to largely spend time on pleasurable activities in which we include resting, staying unemployed or rather engaging in passive pursuits like watching web series or social media feeds. Among those of us who work, thousands dream of early retirement so one can escape somehow the drudgery and commitment to work.

I personally believe that the least a person should do in any stage of life is be useful – perform meaningful, productive or creative tasks daily- whether it is a weekday or a weekend. I see several individuals of my generation who spend busy weekdays only to be suddenly hit by a couple of ‘non-working’ days where life loses meaning, purpose, direction and sense.

All work is valuable. Be it doing the laundry or giving a keynote speech at a conference. Work sustains order and life in the world. In the third chapter of the Gita, Krishna reiterates that life is not sustainable without work and even peace of mind is not possible without deliberately choosing one’s action (work). Because if one chooses not to take action, then the forces of nature choose the action for the person. Be it a renunciant, a recluse, a pauper or a king- all must work because life is sustained by work alone. Even an ant works tirelessly to find, move and store food and fight collectively against the enemies of the colony. Krishna goes further to say that the higher one rises on the ladder of success, fame, power or wisdom, the more important it is to engage in work because the world looks up to such individuals and follows their example. Work is not recommended as optional for anyone.

“Without work, all life goes rotten, but when work is soulless, life stifles and dies”

Albert Camus

No friendship, family, state, nation, community, cause, or value can survive without investing in work. The real skill then is to work without getting negatively affected by work, drawing that boundary where to stop, developing that sensitivity to what to choose to do and striking that fine balance between areas of work such that one doesn’t compromise another too much. Pleasure in the short term and Happiness in the long term, both should be side effects of work rather than goals.

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are four kinds of work pursuits mentioned in our ancient Vedic tradition:

  1. āptiḥ: For gaining, possessing, achieving or attaining an object. For eg: build a corpus for buying a home, save for education, get that next promotion, buy that new car, travel to a new destination and so on.
  2. utpattiḥ: For creating, producing, manufacturing, designing something of value. This includes the gamut of productive tasks from simply counting, arranging, administration, coding, manufacturing and so on.
  3. vikṛtiḥ: For modifying, changing, or transforming something that needs fixing or support. It includes activities like social innovation, law-making, charitable activities, environmental conservation and social awareness that make this world a better place for generations to come.
  4. saṃskṛtiḥ: It means refinement; anything that improves on culture including symbols, language, norms, values, and artefacts. One can also count here the various product and process innovations in the digital world because they improve lives, and makes the world more efficient.

Choose your area of work and jump right into it. Keep yourself engaged in one or more of these work pursuits. Goethe said, ‘A useless life is only an early death.’ Stay useful.

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