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Lacking a Work Ethic

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

In a world that values leisure over work, how can I attain a strong work ethic?

Dear Rebbetzin Feige,

I have a challenge. I grew up in a family and a society that valued leisure and pleasure over work. I rarely worked hard and only did so reluctantly. I was lacking a work ethic. I recently realized that this meant I had never developed the full measure of my potential and perhaps fell far short of what I could have achieved academically, financially and personally. Previous generations had a strong work ethic and considered it a trait of good character in and of itself. The value of work was not solely defined by its end products or financial rewards.

I feel this approach has potential to mold my character and enable me to fully seize opportunities. But I am still stuck in old avoidance habits. How can I attain a strong work ethic?


My dear reader,

It is to your great credit that you are able to make this huge paradigm shift in your life. You have observed correctly that maintaining a strong work ethic, i.e. living by the product of one's own industry, is a source and a means of building character and personal development. Our tradition supports this understanding in its many teachings: "Fortunate is he who lives by the toil of his hands, fortunate not only in the physical and material world but in the spiritual realm as well." Elsewhere, the mishna comments, "idleness leads to atrophy." In the absence of purposeful engagement, one's mind will more easily become preoccupied with the indulgence of the senses and the appetites. Simply put, having too much time on one's hands is a prescription for trouble.

King Solomon comments that man was created to toil, i.e. to meet the challenges of life. The underlying premise is that each one of us is dispatched to this world with a set of gifts, talents and abilities by a purposeful Creator. This package simultaneously includes the negative aspects of a person requiring self correction. The first step of the process involves obtaining self knowledge so that one may identify the better part of themselves -- to stretch it to its fullest and, at the same time, confront those characteristics and inclinations that constitute the impediments and roadblocks in one's particular growth journey.

Being mindful and aware that each one of us is here on a God-mandated mission to "toil in His vineyard" is, perhaps, the greatest challenge to us in this world of illusion. We can easily get distracted and derailed by the lure of the blandishments -- the stimulation, the sensuality and the stuff that surrounds us.

It is like subscribing to a diet exclusively of desserts.

Certainly, vacations on tropical beaches can be a beneficial break and diversion in the context of a constructive and productive existence. Enjoying nature and God's world is of great value, but when it becomes the raison d'etre, life becomes distorted and meaningless. It is like subscribing to a diet exclusively of desserts. Desserts are fine when they follow a meal of substance, but alone they constitute unhealthy and disease prone indulgence. Many people indulge the life that fits the description of your youth. Curiously, and consistent with your experience, they eventually tire of their endless vacation spots and in their frustration and emptiness, seek vacations from their vacations.

Recently, I found myself urging my husband to consider a Sabbatical, a legitimate break, I figured, after more than four and a half decades of uninterrupted service to the rabbinate. My husband's response has been, to put it mildly, less than agreeable or sympathetic to my appeal. He is a person consumed with the urgency of life and the need to leave a mark in this world.

Just as I thought that I was making a dent in his resistance, as though dispatched from above, a surgeon friend of ours, chose (unfortunately for me) to share his dismal experience with retirement. He has traveled incessantly, seeing all the exotic sights of the world, swam in every stream, drunk from every fountain of pleasure and has become really tired of it all (I still wouldn't mind finding out for myself). He commented that while the pleasures are certainly there to be had, they are short-lived and fleeting. In his articulation, he paraphrased my father's sentiments when he would say, "I would love to go on vacation far, far away. The only problem is that I would have to take myself along."

Understandably, the only real and lasting gratification in life comes from the product of our own industry. It comes when we dig into and access the inner resources of ourselves. It is then that we feel a true sense of being alive. That alone resonates with the Divine calling deep within our core and to the contribution that we must make in this brief sojourn on Earth. Only that which we attain by the sweat of our brow will give us the fulfillment we seek. The inherent dignity of the human being, that is part and parcel of the magnificence that God has invested in each of us, yearns for expression. It gives us no rest and will not allow us to be satisfied until it is actualized.

Dear reader, you have demonstrated in switching gears from the habitual course of your life that you are not the proverbial, ‘rat in the Skinner box'. You proved within your own experience that humans are not hopelessly condemned to habituation. You plugged into the distinct hallmark of man that distinguishes him from all other beings; namely, your free will to choose. Against the odds of following the familiar pattern of your formative years, you were determined otherwise. You exercised your free choice. This, in and of itself, is a wonderful achievement. My favorite quote on the subject is from the great Rabbi Israel Salanter who said, "the loudest sound in the universe is that of one breaking an established habit."

Striking a Balance

As relates to your quest for pride and enthusiasm in your work, consider the following anecdote. Three men were chopping wood in the forest. A curious observer questioned them as to the purpose and objective of their hard work. Indeed, what were they thinking during the many long hours of hard labor? What made it worthwhile for them? The first chopper responded that he was motivated by the money he would earn. The second commented that he focused on the fact that the pay would allow him to feed, clothe and shelter his family. The third worker shared that as he labored, he was sustained by a vision of this wood becoming the beams, support and features of a house of worship where people would come and connect with the supernal. This way of thinking gave him great pride and enthusiasm, making his back-breaking labor worthwhile.

Work, carried to an extreme, can become a symptom of dysfunction.

You, dear reader, have already taken a most significant step in the right direction -- moving from endless leisure to adopting a work ethic. The second step is to recognize that work, carried to an extreme, can become a symptom of dysfunction. It can give rise to the obsessive ‘workaholic' who hides behind a supposed ‘work ethic' to distract himself from having to face an emptiness within himself or in his life. Unquestionably, any behavior carried to an extreme is a red flag and should be addressed. The great rabbi, teacher and philosopher, Maimonides purported balance as the key to healthy living.

Pride and enthusiasm in one's work comes from both balance and from a sense that what one does matters, that there is a transcendent objective to one's effort. Working so that one can serve and use the compensation for a higher purpose is far more rewarding than work for its own sake. The key to balance is to make sure that the work ethic extends to the spiritual dimension of one's life which, at the end of the day, provides the true ‘raison d'etre'.

Finally, you need to recognize that whenever we strike out to make necessary changes and corrections in our lives, there inevitably will be huge resistance from the lesser part of ourselves which will attempt to drag us back to old habits. This resistance comes in the form of thoughts that bombard us with agendas of getting us to second guess the forward moves that we have made. The goal is to recognize the face of this enemy, let go and move on.

To sum it all up:

  1. Affirm your great achievement of breaking out of the box of your early conditioning.
  2. Revisit your understanding that work extends to every area of your life. Balance.
  3. The transcendent factor. Is there enough of it?
  4. Recognize that growth is not a consistent uphill move. The lesser part of ourselves is ever vigilant to undermine our efforts. There will be moments of weakness when you will stumble. Do not lose heart. Pick yourself up and move on.
  5. After putting the above into place, the remaining piece to accessing pride, enthusiasm and joy is one that you already know. If you would place yourself in the company of people who have acquired these qualities in their lives, you will find that it isn't the circumstances, others in their life, or anything external to themselves that provides this positive and joyous affect. It is a personal, inner driven, deliberate and determined decision -- a choice that creates their emotional environment.
  6. Invoking the choice point is where you began your journey towards a more meaningful life and staying that course will carry you further. You are on the right bus!


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