Vocation: The Necessity of Dead Work

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 27, 2010 · 18 comments

in Money & Career

Editor’s note: In conjunction with the series we’re doing on vocation and calling, we will be publishing excerpts from Self-Culture Through the Vocation by Edward Howard Griggs (1914).

Dead Work

There is no honest vocation that cannot be made to some extent a fine art. That is, in every honest vocation, each day, growth is possible, if the work is loyally done; and that, we have seen, is the meaning of art. Indeed, the one supreme fine art is the art of living, and the particular vocation gets its meaning as a phase of that highest art.

In most vocations, it is true, there is so much dull routine work that we can discover little growth in the action of the single day. To go to the shop and sell a spool of thread and a paper of pins, to make the physician’s daily round, prescribing for those who are ill and the larger number who think they are, to work over the lawyer’s brief for some petty quarrel, to write sermons for congregations that will not listen and that demand the sermon shorter every week—it all seems such a blind mill-wheel grind that one sees little progress in the day……

It is, nevertheless, just such work, done cheerfully and loyally, to a high purpose, through the succession of days, that builds into the human spirit the noblest elements of culture. What then do we mean by “culture”— some esoteric knowledge or remote adornment of life? Surely not. Its foundation elements are: loyalty to the task in hand, the trained will that does not yield to obstacles, cheerful courage in meeting the exigencies that come, serenity maintained amid the petty distractions of life, holding the vision of the ideal across the sand wastes and through the valley of the shadows: these are the basic elements of culture, and they are built into the spirit of a man or a woman by the loyal doing of dead work through the succession of days….

Then, too, there is an almost universal optical illusion with reference to work: each of us is fully conscious of the dead work in his own calling, because he must fulfill it; with the tasks of others, he sees only the finished product. Thus each is inclined to exaggerate the dead work in his own vocation and to envy the apparently easier and happier tasks of others. You sit down in an audience room, and some master at the piano sweeps you out on to the bosom of the sea of emotion, playing with you at his will. The evening of melody is over; there is the moment of awed silence and then the storm of applause; you go home exclaiming, “What genius!” O yes, it is genius: someone has defined genius as the capacity for hard work. Genius is more than that — much more; but no exaggerated talent would take a man far, without the capacity for hard work; and what you forget, as you listen to the finished art of the master genius, is the days and nights of consecrated toil, foregoing, not only dissipation, but even innocent pleasures others take as their natural right, that the artist might master and keep the mastery of the technique of his art.

The thing that seems to be done most easily, costs most in the doing and has been paid for, invariably, out of the life. It is when men work with most exhausting intensity, on the basis of a life-time of training, that they work with most apparent ease. This world is no lottery, where you take a chance ticket and run your risk of winning or losing a prize, but serious business, where nothing worthwhile comes any other way than through dead, hard work carried through the days and years. One never truly possesses anything one has not earned by hard effort. To possess money, you must have earned money, or you do not know its worth, nor how to spend it aright. To possess knowledge, you must have earned knowledge; and the brilliant student who slides through college on his wits, coaching up just before examination and winning fairly good grades, loses in the slower race of life beside even the ungifted plodder, who has taken faithfully every hard step of the road.

It is said of Euclid, formulator of the earliest of the sciences, geometry, that on one occasion he was called in to teach a certain king of Egypt his new science. He began as we begin, with definition, axiom and proposition — we have not improved appreciably upon his text-book; and the king grew restless and indignant: “Must a Pharaoh learn like a common slave?” Euclid, with that pride in knowing one thing well, that everyone ought to have who knows one science thoroughly to the end, responded: “There is no royal road to geometry!” We can universalize the statement: there is no royal road to anything on earth — perhaps in heaven either — worth having, except the one broad, open highway, with no toll-gates upon it, of dead, hard, consistent work through the days and years. Spinoza said — it is the last word in his Ethic: “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare; ” and we may add, they are rare because they are difficult.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James May 27, 2010 at 12:29 am

Ok, you folks know my friend don’t you? He told you to post this as the next subject to this “vocation” series, didn’t he? As if you and he are in the same room reading the same book to each other then called me to tell me and test out the matter on me.

To think I was just trying to catch up only to find out I’m here, right where I need to be, right now!

Thanks again, I hope others get even a remote sense of what I have gained in the last 12 hours of conversation and reading.

This blog rocks!!

2 Tim May 27, 2010 at 4:35 am

This series is the best thing I’ve read on Art of Manliness. This particular lesson is one I need to hear as often as possible- I’ve always had the experience of skating through school on my smarts, and being surpassed by those that work harder.

To condense this article: “Nothing worth having comes easy.”

3 Conor May 27, 2010 at 6:36 am

This is a wonderfully powerful piece of writing.



4 Brandon May 27, 2010 at 9:25 am

One of the best written blogs I have ever read. Very well done, very well thought out. Thank you for writing this article.

5 Magnus May 27, 2010 at 10:23 am

The same author, Edward Howard Griggs, also has a short book called The Use of the Margin.

The term “margin” is meant in the same way we now say “profit margin” — the extra time, money and resources that exceed your basic costs.

His main point is that the way a man utilizes this margin is all-important. It’s the space where all change, growth and development occur (or doesn’t occur, as the case may be). In short, the way you use your margin will determine your future.

6 Claudia N.N. May 27, 2010 at 11:36 am

Coming from elsewhere, I experienced the old-style apprentice ship.
That in itself is an art-being-lost. To learn something, step by step, a feather at a time, to develop the discipline, bloody-mindedness and endurance to plow away at something tedious in order to build skill. My chef was a very tough task-master, and the 4 days at work and 1 day at school was somewhat like marine-boot-camp for 2.5 years (including the screaming in your face, physical danger (knives, hot oil/water/steam, etc) – but it also taught me so much more than just the skill itself. How to stick-with-it, stay focus in the middle of some mayhem, the make quick decisions under pressure, etc.

Am happy to read well written thoughts on this very important topic.
Thanks for sharing.

7 Claudia N.N. May 27, 2010 at 11:40 am

~ I’ve written a comment before – which got lost in cyberspace when I hit “submit”. Alas, now I will just post this here from:

Work (from “The Prophet” by K.Gibran)

Then a ploughman said, “Speak to us of Work.”
And he answered, saying:
You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.

For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.

Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,

And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.

You have been told also life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.

And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,

And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “he who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is a nobler than he who ploughs the soil.

And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”
But I say, not in sleep but in the over-wakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass;
And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.

Work is love made visible.

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

8 Loafy May 27, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Great post.

9 WorthyOfNoName May 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm

This reminds me of a quote from an article I read in MacLean’s Magazine entitled “The true meaning of work? It’s money.”

“… in the end, the real bill of goods we’ve been sold is the idea that the work that feeds our bellies should also nourish our soul. As Joe Heath writes in his book Filthy Lucre, the market is a ruthless destroyer of dreams. Every kid wants to grow up to be a rock star or an astronaut or a firefighter, but the vast majority end up as cubicle drones or assembly-line widgets, not from choice but from necessity. There’s a reason why they call it work, and a reason why they pay you.”

source: http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/08/20/the-true-meaning-of-work-it’s-money/

IMO, Facing that reality is being man.

10 Mike May 27, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I have a passion and calling to full time Christian ministry, God has placed in my nature such a passion for teaching you might call it intrinsic. This bit of dead work, I am currently stuck in is a sorce of great temptation to grumbling and inconstant dedication. I have to continually remind myself of Pauls admonition to, “Do your work heartily as if for the Lord rather than for men.” This journey is long and hard, but the goal is high and pure. Right now I work retail, making ends meet as I strive to finish my education and seek opportunities to serve where possible.

Thank you for the boost of much needed confidence, and more importantly courage to continue. Often I think we feel a terrible grinding from the seemingly mechanistic pace of everyday life, specifically those steps on the yellow brick road… or desert wanderings. Thank you.

11 Philip May 27, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Thanks for another superior selection for writing. I think ever since the connection was made between the excesses of consumerism and the manliness of what men produce was made the Art of Manliness has made huge steps with the blog to identify the most potent expression of the masculine energy every man possesses within himself: hard work for a noble purpose.

Life is more than work, but too often people have taken that to the level that work merely exists to support leisure, not that work itself could be a noble task in itself that can still support leisure.

If you were to do a lessons in manliness on someone who knew their noble cause I would suggest Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. He made a commitment to public service where he would only work enough for pay to support his family and spend the rest of his time employing his talents and skills helping society.

12 Joseph C May 29, 2010 at 2:20 am

Nothing Without Labor

13 Mike May 29, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Yaba, This is a selection from a book, not the personal writing of Brett and Kate. How about losing the condemning, critical tone? If you feel that way, don’t go buy the book. Don’t read the post. Forget about your individualistic, where-is-my-slice-of-the-pie attitude. Go do a job-aptitude test, or write down a list of careers you could be stuck in for all your life and be content.

14 Brett McKay May 29, 2010 at 1:16 pm


I deleted old Yaba’s comment for violating our comment policy by using a false email address (not to mention excessive whininess and obtuseness), but I appreciate your retort!

15 Mike May 29, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Thank you. This site you’ve created is wonderfully encouraging and helpful.
You’re posts are both entertaining and insightful, and the selections you’ve chosen from this book are a great encouragment.
I’m sure to spread the word on this (site & post), you can be assured.

16 Stephen May 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Bravo! It is good to be reminded that the only truly good things in life are those things we work hard for.

17 Josh Knowles May 30, 2010 at 12:12 pm

So true! I think this is why many college/university programs require you to do an internship. I know this was one of the biggest things I learned through interning with one of my professors…

As a student all you see is the prof at the front of the classroom amazing everyone with his/her wisdom and knowledge and wit. You experience your mind and the minds of your peers being expanded and you learn to think in new ways.

But tag along with a professor for a year and you see quite a different story. You see ages spent reading the latest books arguing different sides of any given number of debates. You see long afternoons and late nights marking exams and essays. You see calls to the academic dean because some students cheated. You see valuable time given to preparing powerpoint presentations only to have the computer crash and destroy your work. You see the office light on at 6:00 am on weekdays and 7:00 am on Saturdays.

Do I still want to teach? Yes, because I think that is what I am made to do. But now I think I understand that nothing is easy. There are no shortcuts, and yet that’s OK.

18 Jordan June 1, 2010 at 8:08 am

Great, great article. You continue to produce great material that I am sure helps thousands of men around the world. Keep them coming!

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