Manvotional: The Gains of Drudgery

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 24, 2011 · 52 comments

in Manvotionals

The Gains of Drudgery
From The Making of Manhood, 1894
By William James Dawson

By drudgery, I mean work that in itself is not pleasant, that has no immediate effect in stimulating our best powers, and that only remotely serves the purpose of our general advancement. Such a definition may not be perfect, but it expresses with reasonable accuracy what we usually understand by the term.

Now, if this is what we mean by drudgery, it is clear that we are all drudges. We all have to do many things, day by day, which we would rather not do. Even in the callings that seem to present the most perfect correspondence between gifts and work, such as those of the writer or the artist, drudgery dogs the heels of all progress…We show some perception of these facts in our common sayings, that easy writing makes hard reading, and what costs a man little is usually worth little. But few of us have any adequate sense of the immense toil which lies behind the brilliant successes of the great artist or famous writer. And the same thing might be said of the lives of great statesmen, politicians, reformers, merchants, and memorable men in all walks of life. Examine such lives, and the amount of prolonged toil which lies behind all the glitter of public fame is enormous, and to the indolent even appalling. If any man of the Elizabethan period gives the impression of having achieved great things with a certain airy ease and instinctive facility of touch, it is Walter Raleigh. Yet it was of Raleigh that Elizabeth said, “he could toil terribly.” The same thing may be said of every great man, so that it is small wonder that we have learned to believe that genius itself is simply an infinite capacity for taking pains.

When a man grumbles about the drudgery of his lot, then I am entitled to conclude that he has not learned the discipline of work, and that it is native indolence rather than suppressed genius which chafes against the limitations of his environment. Browning, in his poem of The Statue and the Bust, has laid down the doctrine that it is a man’s wisdom to contend to the uttermost even for the meanest prize that may be within his reach, because by such strenuous contention manhood grows, and by the lack of it manhood decays.

The clerk who does not strive to be the best clerk in the office, the carpenter who is not emulous of being the best carpenter in the workshop, is not likely to achieve excellence in any other pursuit for which he imagines his superior talents better fitted….I have little faith in the youth who is always crying out against his condition, and telling an incredulous world what great things he could do if his lot were different. The boast of general talents for everything usually resolves itself into particular talents for nothing. The incompetent clerk, in nine cases out of ten, would be equally incompetent as writer, artist, or speaker. If I were adjured to help a youth to some sphere supposed to be better suited to his gifts, I should first of all need to be convinced that he had performed faithfully the duties of the inferior sphere in which he found himself. The superior talent always shows itself in the superior performance of inferior duties. It is the man who is faithful in little things to whom there is given authority over larger things. He who has never learned the art of drudgery is never likely to acquire the faculty of great and memorable work, since the greater a man is, the greater is his power of drudgery.

But the gains of drudgery are not seen only in the solid successes of life, but in their effect upon the man himself. Let me take in illustration a not infrequent case. Suppose a man gives up his youth to the struggle for some coveted degree, some honour or award of the scholarly life. It is very possible that when he obtains that for which he has struggled, he may find that the joy of possession is not so great as the joy of the strife. It is part of the discipline of life that we should be educated by disillusion; we press onward to some shining summit, only to find that it is but a bastion thrown out by a greater mountain, which we did not see, and that the real summit lies far beyond us still. But are we the worse for the struggle? No; we are manifestly the better, for by whatever illusion we have been led onward, it is at least clear that without the illusion we should not have stood as high as we do. So a man may either fail or succeed in gaining the prize which he covets; but he cannot help being the gainer in himself. He has not attained, but he has fitted himself for attaining. It is better to fail in achieving a great thing than to succeed in achieving a little one, and the struggle that fails is, in any case, to be preferred to the stolidity which never aspires. And why? Because the struggle is sure to develop certain great and noble qualities in ourselves. Thus, though such a man may not gain the prize he sought, he has gained a command over his chance desires, a discipline of thought, a power of patient application, a steadiness of will and purpose, which will stand him in good stead throughout whatever toils his life may know in the hidden years which lie before it. And even if he gain the prize he sought, the real prize is found not in a degree, a certificate, a brief taste of applause on a commemoration day, but in the deeper strength of soul, the wider range of wisdom, which the long discipline of unflagging effort has taught him. So true is this, that Lessing, who was among the wisest of thinkers, said, that if he had to choose between the attainment of truth and the search for truth, he would prefer the latter. The true gain is always in the struggle, not the prize. What we become must always rank as a far higher question than what we get.

{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

1 C.G September 24, 2011 at 10:35 pm

This really could not have better timing. I’m in first year Mech. Eng. and have spent the last 6 hours pouring over my notes to finish assignments and lab reports, and have been struggling to find meaning in all of it. This article hit the spot, so to say.

2 Swampy September 24, 2011 at 11:02 pm

I’m with the previous commenter regarding the timing. I am 36 and training for a pretty significant running milestone. I have felt often in the past weeks that when that day comes, success or failure to reach that milestone will be followed by a fond remembrance of the exhaustion, toil and overall feeling of well-being I have been experiencing during training.

3 Daren Redekopp September 24, 2011 at 11:04 pm

The Stoic philosophers had much to say about growth through struggle. They called it the agon, from which we derive the word agony. According to their philosophy, the wise man should seek to sever himself, through long training, from all dependence on human society or material goods, until he had risen to a level of independence comparable to the gods themselves. If you’re interested, I write more about it here:

4 Tim Ditter September 24, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Agreed on the timing of this article in relation to my situation. I’m a current grad student living in China researching US/China relations and all of my classes are in Mandarin… even though I have studied Chinese for years now, it feels like such a slow, painful process and, like the article states, the only real gains can be made through daily toil and shear determination.

5 TL September 24, 2011 at 11:47 pm

I agree with CG and Tim up top; I’m in my second year of med school, going over a fair amount of info I’m almost sure to never need. I actually sent a link to this article to several of my classmates. Also, to Tim–that’s amazing, I couldn’t imagine doing a thing like that; kudos. Additionally, and in all seriousness: if this were a poster, I’d buy it, frame it, and hang it in my study.

6 CW September 25, 2011 at 12:10 am

I must agree with the posters above on the timing of this article. I’m currently overseas trying to get my career started and thus putting a lot of effort and dedication in learning while still unsure if it will pay off, but I can already feel how it improves my character and mental prowess.

7 Jesse H. September 25, 2011 at 12:40 am

I will be #7 to commend Brett & Kate for the excellent timing of this article – as I have just begun my toil that, over the next 6 – 9 months, will eventually take me to the grand beginning of my quest. But first … I must toil to reach those gates. Onward!

8 Patrick September 25, 2011 at 1:07 am

Brett, Kate… This has got to be one of the greatest pieces of writing on AoM. I thank you very much for sharing it as I needed it really bad. Thank you once again!

9 From Europe September 25, 2011 at 3:00 am

Well, it’s not exactly true. I am a successfull full time writer now, a novelist – and I’ve been working as a clerk in an office once, and I was a lousy clerk, unable to focus on my job, despising my co-workers and duties. I’ve lost this job (only “normal” job I’ve ever had in my life – for not nearly two years) and it was the best thing that ever happened to me, as I just didn’t look for a new job and instead I have been writing and writing a lot.
It takes, in my opinion, a completly different personality, to be a good clerk, good businessman, than to be a good artist. Of course both “tracks” needs your ability to work hard, without hard work you can’t achieve a thing.

10 Carlos September 25, 2011 at 5:09 am

Brilliant. Simply poetically brilliant. You just summed up What a man should strive to be.

11 Tom Sawyer September 25, 2011 at 5:25 am

Most so far have commented on the timing – I think this is because this piece is pertinent to all men at almost all times of their life. Whatever your current goal may be, there is always plenty of drudgery to be done on the way to achieving it. Nothing in life worth having comes easy.

I always laugh when the media reports on an ‘overnight’ success – in most cases you will find that those people have been toiling for many years on the exact topic of this well written essay.

Will bookmark this one for when the going gets tough.

12 Aaron September 25, 2011 at 8:04 am

One of my favorite all time quotes is “If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” -Michelangelo. This article seems to dovetail into previous articles about arduous practice and the 10,000 hour rule: if you want to be great at something, you have to pay the price of long hard work that isn’t much fun. It’s also what separates the good from the great: the willingness to slog through the tough stuff for a seemingly small amount of reward on the other side. But getting there isn’t the point, it’s the accumulation of the expertise along the way that matters most and will leave it’s deepest mark on us.

13 Mark September 25, 2011 at 9:01 am

Thank you Brett and Kate for an excellent post!

This will hopefully ‘stir the blood’ of some young men which is a very good thing.

14 Danny September 25, 2011 at 9:03 am

In my job I work with at risk teenagers. I try all the time to help them understand this principle. They always go for what is easy and steer away from that which is hard or “drudging.” They have the hardest time understanding that real satisfaction and happiness in life comes through drudgery and hard work. That the easy way out usually ends up leaving one hopeless and lost. Sadly this is a very difficult concept for them to understand.

15 Sean September 25, 2011 at 9:39 am

This message is one that all men should hold on to. The journey is more rewarding than the destination should ever be. Never stop striving for more, keep your head looking beyond the horizion for that is where you will find strength and perseverance.

16 Mato Tope September 25, 2011 at 10:02 am

Good comment by Daren about the article’s resonance with stoic philosophy.

Epictetus had a special scorn for those who “merely tremble and mourn and seek to escape misfortune.”
“Zeus!” he cries out at one point, “send me what trial thou wilt! For I have endowments and resources, given me by thee, to bring myself honour through what befalls.”
Epictetus goes on to say that Hercules strength, endurance and noble heart only manifested through toil and struggle.
“The man of noble nature does not become noble all of a sudden; he must train through the winter and make ready.”

Excellent post. The sort of thing AoM does best.

17 StephanieB September 25, 2011 at 11:11 am

Another wonderful article. I have been working on this type of transformation of attitude for several months now. I am in the military and became very unhappy with my job, but due to contract could not leave it. I became very suggish and began to lose my dreams and not take care of myself as well. Finally, I had enough and started reading. I realized that I can’t separate work from my life. If I take care of my self in one area and demand excellence then it will spread over. Three months later and my attitud toward work is much better and my dreams are taking shape with goals and action.

18 Mike September 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Never confuse drudgery with servitude. Don’t ignore the goal, and take your opportunities when you find them.

19 L.A. Frost September 25, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Training in the martial arts is what taught me the value of drudgery. To get good (or to just not be bad) you have to practice the simplest, most basic techniques over and over pretty much for your entire career. It can be mind numbing, but it works. I’m always feel inspired when I see one of my martial peers, thirty or forty years my senior, practicing the same basic movements I learned comparatively recently. As someone else once said, a black belt is nothing more than a white belt who didn’t quit.

Another great inspiration for me is John Steinbeck. Read his biography “John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography” by Jackson Benson. Steinbeck was a person who understood the value of drudgery. His dream was to be a writer and he pretty much almost literally forced himself to be one, writing every day whether he wanted to or not. The result? “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Sweet Thursday,” etc.

The greatest lesson I’ve learned from both the martial arts and from examples like Steinbeck is there is no quick and easy way to get good at anything, at least not good at anything worth bragging about. It takes a whole crapload of hard and often boring work. The rewards though are very much worth it.

20 SM September 25, 2011 at 2:35 pm

My life solely revolves around studying for the LSATs right now; pure drudgery. Few things could have been as spot on and motivating as this article.

21 Steven September 25, 2011 at 4:13 pm

I rarely comment, but I do read most of the posts on TAoM, however, I today I scrolled down just to add something simple such as “This is as inspiring as anything I’ve ever read.” It seems that many of you, too, feel inspired because of the timing. That’s the ultimate beauty of this particular read; it is always the right time. We tell our kids to “Do your best. That’s all that matters.” We, as adults, need to be reminded, too.

22 Mike Duty September 25, 2011 at 4:24 pm

I’ve been working at a side-business for several years. I hope to eventually be able to go out on my own and not need a “regular” job. In that, I’ve learned there’s a fine line between just “doing” something vs actually “accomplishing something”. I’ve had lots of days where I was extremely busy and “did” a lot. But did my “doing” bring me any closer to my actual goals? Sometimes no. Sometimes I look back and realize I wasted a lot of time. But, when I can look back and ask if what I did brought me closer to realizing a goal, then I’ve “accomplished” something. Just my thought.

23 Guest September 25, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Yes, hard work is a good thing.

Do NOT, however, equate someone who does not like MINDLESS work, or indeed, UNETHICAL work, with someone who does not like HARD work. The two are very different, especially in a culture where corporations prey on the people, and are powered by the work of those very same people.

24 MS1 September 25, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Gosh I love this site. I’m a woman, but this has got to be one of the most enjoyable sites I visit. Absolutely love the fact that Brett and Kay have devoted their time to teaching things that are timeless and extremely valuable.. I’ll keep this in mind as I pore over my notes these first two years of med school .

25 Matt R. September 25, 2011 at 6:16 pm


26 Alan September 26, 2011 at 3:27 am

“…easy writing makes hard reading”

I’m afraid that’s what I was reminded on with that final paragraph, that just seemed to go on forever…

Great article, pity about the writing :P

27 Keith Brawner September 26, 2011 at 8:31 am

@C.G. – You have only started to find the meaning of drudgery. People told me this and I did not believe them, but I will tell you now in hopes that you will learn from my mistake of expectation: it gets worse.
20+ hours this weekend working on electronics/DSP/filtering labs

However, I have come to realize that there is only one skill: Learning. If you can do this, then there is nothing that you cannot accomplish.

28 Kyle Triplett September 26, 2011 at 9:56 am

I love this post. Too often, in my current collegiate pursuits, I find myself bitching about how pointless this or that class or project is. I need to man up, and give it my all, to the Glory of God. I recently heard an excellent sermon from my pastor on much the same topic, discussing how, as adults, we sometimes expect that we should be giddy-happy everyday about living life. Such is not the case. We should be grateful to God for the breath in our lungs and an opportunity to serve Him, but we can’t always be thrilled about everything we have to do. However, we can take each and every opportunity to serve willingly and gracefully. There is no class, job, or chore to trivial to be used to the Glory of God. Plain and simple. Thank you, AoM, for helping keep my head on straight.

29 Kyle Triplett September 26, 2011 at 9:59 am

Aagghhh… Typo… I meant to write “There is no class, job or chore TOO trivial….” Sorry. I do care about how I come across in the public eye.

30 lucas September 26, 2011 at 10:14 am

The only good thing about working hard is getting done. Toil is the worlds way of showing you how life can suck if you do not keep on your toes and better your lot. Work hard so that you may play hard and work less next time.

31 Louis Mahaffey September 26, 2011 at 11:17 am

I’m in my first year in college and trying to fight through these Gen Ed classes and its been hard to find the motivation to care about stuff that has nothing to do with my major, and this piece really showed me why I have to put in the work in everything, not just what I think is important. Definitely a needed kick in the butt.

32 Zac September 26, 2011 at 11:42 am

As a 2L in lawschool, this article comes at a much needed time. Thank you. It is indeed the journey that serves as a refining fire. Even though my pride would have me say I am only discovering my inner strength, the truth is that this journey is making me stronger, smarter, more focused.

33 Jer September 26, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I agree with most of this article except this passage: “The incompetent clerk, in nine cases out of ten, would be equally incompetent as writer, artist, or speaker.”

Being a clerk, an incompetent one at that, can be a retardant against creativity no matter how much drudgery one endures doing it. Our culture believes it is a good thing to work in jobs we hate because they teach us things like discipline, value of money, and drudgery. Then we hope that these traits pull over into our real life.

That is not the case. The genius drudges in their talent, not at some job that takes them away from their talent. The genius gets their discipline, drudgery, and creativty from their talent, not their job. Of course, they must put forth the effort in their talent to learn these things.

There are thousands, maybe millions, of stories of people drudging their lives away in dead end jobs they hate or are not good at. They up and quit, work on their talent, and find a better life. Drudging through ‘work’ didn’t teach them how to do this; drudging through their ‘talent’ did.

34 Fox September 26, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Like the many commenters before me, I too have to stress the fantastic timing of this article. I have an exam tomorrow that I should be studying for but I am allowing other more fun distractions to stand in my way. As always another great post to help me on my path . Keep up the great work.

35 Frank September 26, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Agree with the comments and the original post. I am reading “Clive of India” at the moment. It documents Robert Clive’s struggle through life, and frustration at doing “drudgery” on his way to all the great things he ended up doing. Truly an inspiring story and fits well alongside this article!

36 Jared September 26, 2011 at 5:23 pm

10 Long years and many goals passed and won towards one which served the life I had chosen. Trick was I had aimed to low and once achieved I have softened. With softening I have lost my way or my way has become as large as the night sky when I must find a single star. Now that the level is raised by the ante of family and gain and consequence do i dare travel the road of proven hardship. News its hardship all around. I will stay still and quiet until I can see the light.

37 James Morehouse September 26, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Very well written, and with commanding prose ! I really found some meaning with this being that i’m going through something of “marathon” and not a “sprint” situation in life. This post gave me the uplifting kick in the pants i needed. Thank you.

38 Alexander September 26, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Great read. Is it making its appearance in the Manvotional book?

All successful people understand that they have to apply themselves to the best of their abilities in everything they do.

39 Benjamin Cai September 27, 2011 at 1:21 am

I feel that is, hard work itself, can be directed to be used to improve the competency of an individual, in the field that he/she deems that he/she is not good at because of he/her nature or any other reasons or excuses; it can also be directed to be used to find a field that will naturally brings his/her passion or competency.

If someone always blames the situation or role that he/she is in, for his/her competency or incompetency, but still actively search for one that he/she believes that he/she will be able to do well, then how shall we judge a person like this?

40 Johnny September 27, 2011 at 5:15 am

This article is useful to me. I DO need to work harder, and it is easy to get discouraged in business and school.

I’ll take this kind of article with a grain of salt, however. Concentrating too much on this kind of message of “rugged individualism” can lead to a callous attitude towards the disadvantaged and arrogance.

“There but for the grace of God go I.”

41 Jack Coffey September 27, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Great timing yet again. I am 40 years old and work for a public utility. The work is very monotonous and well, yes boring. I do strive to be the best at my job and have as of last week found myself in a unique spot to embark on a 2 1/2 year asset management project with our IT team. When the project ends, I will be the next likely candidate for supervisor. I do believe that building skill in the menial things will lead to the expansion of the circle of influence later on.

42 Mantuitive September 27, 2011 at 3:54 pm

A worthy and well articulated reminder that nothing great is accomplished except step by step. Sometimes those steps grate on you, or at least have the potential to but I hope at least for my sake I keep pushing through the drudgery until I get to where I want to be.

43 caleb September 28, 2011 at 12:35 am

Great thoughts. Just what I needed to hear.

I’ve been the guy who works insanely hard for his goals in the past. I made Eagle Scout at 14. I completed a BA and 60 credit MA in 6 years straight out of college.

The last few years have not gone as well. My wife and I took a huge risk toward something great and it failed miserably. That was actually a bit over 2 years ago now. It has been a long time recovering. Though there has been a lot of other things going on in that time (lived in 4 places in one year; bought a house and had a baby w/in 6 months of each other), the dreams and goals have been on hold.

I’ve been to lazy/tired to push things as I normally would. But there is always a time to start! Time to drudge on!

44 Brett McKay September 28, 2011 at 12:57 am


This selection is not in the Manvotionals book. The selections in the book are each tied to a specific virtue, and while it could have gone in the “Industry” chapter, it really covers all of the virtues and applies to life in a variety of ways, so we thought it better just to put it up on the blog.

But there’s a ton of super excellent stuff in the book too. 75% of the book’s selections have not be published on the blog, as we wanted to give regular readers of the site some fresh inspiration.

45 Steve September 28, 2011 at 11:16 am

This is a great article. It underlines why we, as parents, need to let our children fail. It is a difficult thing for me to do, when I can step in and do his tasks for him, or give him his prize even though he failed in the necessary steps to earn it. The child will learn more from the trying and failing than from the father’s gracious and well-intentioned intervention.

46 Robert October 3, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Having recently graduated from college I’ve been looking for a job recently, which, in itself, is a full time job which feels mostly like drudgery. You put so much work in, only to get a measly postcard back saying “sorry, we’re not interested.” Especially when, unlike many of my peers, I’d be perfectly happy with a minimum wage office rat job just to be pulling in a paycheck, this can be rather disheartening, so reading this was very much appreciated.

@Brett: Thanks for the update on the book. I already preordered and would be anxiously awaiting the arrival of my copy even if it was all reprints of stuff from the site, but hearing that 3/4 of it is new material just makes me all the more anxious to get my grubby paws on it. :) Thank you so much for all you and Kate do!

47 James October 5, 2011 at 9:46 am

Very motivational and very true.

48 Daniel October 12, 2011 at 9:02 am

Absolutely brilliant writing! More poetry than anything else….This is how you inspire people.

49 Lisa October 24, 2011 at 12:58 am

I try to instill this in my fifth grade students by teaching them to analyze “hard” tasks and assignments and renaming them either “tedious” or “challenging”. Higher students like this because it give them permission to seek help with the “challenging” tasks (many of my students come from very demanding families, and wouldn’t dare appear lazy). Struggling students like it because they learn that a “tedious” task is one that may be a pain to do, but can ultimately be completed successfully. When you spend most of your young life toiling away and still getting Fs, a little bit of drudgery or tedium can be pretty encouraging.

50 London October 24, 2011 at 10:36 am

Great article, thanks for the post.

51 jon April 3, 2013 at 10:34 am

@jer- read the first paragraph. by drudgery we mean…
“But over and above all these things that pertain to ourselves and our own interests there lies an obligation upon us to the relation of the human race. Through the sacrifice of patriots and martyrs over a thousand years of struggle, there has been built up, inch by inch, the great edifice of liberty in which we inherit today. We are the inheritors of an immeasurable past, the residuary legacies of all the ages. Hands that are long since dust once toiled for us, so now we must toil for the future. And we do this with the certain conviction that no work done well is worthless, that a humble life lived with diligence and patience is truly noble.” WJD

52 Matthew June 20, 2013 at 11:14 am

This truly is an inspiration. I have been struggling finding purpose in everyday work and this will keep me going.

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