We don’t often think of work when we think of Henry David Thoreau. We think of Thoreau living with his family, or loafing around at a cabin at Walden, and mostly spending his days walking and enjoying nature. We know he did some writing, sure, but often think of him as being largely the abstract thinker type.
But Thoreau was a man of much practical skill, who lived a life of both thought and action. He did lots of kinds of work — from carpentry to surveying to helping raise Ralph Waldo Emerson’s kids — and thought a lot about the nature of work, both the paid variety and the kind that’s necessary for simply sustaining day-to-day life. Today on the show, John Kaag, a professor of philosophy and the co-author of Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living, shares some of Thoreau’s insights on work with us. We discuss what Thoreau can teach us about the value of resignation, the importance of continuing to work with your hands to maintain what Thoreau called your “vital heat,” what makes for meaningful work, and the trap of working in bad faith. We end our conversation with a call to consider what you’re really being paid for in your job and the true cost of the things you buy.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- John’s previous appearances on the AoM podcast:
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau
- AoM Article: How to REALLY Avoid Living a Life of Quiet Desperation
- Sunday Firesides: The Cost of a Thing
- Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
Connect With John Kaag
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. We don’t often think of work when we think of Henry David Thoreau. We think of Thoreau living with his family or loafing around at a cabin at Walden and mostly spending his days walking and enjoying nature. We know he did some writing, sure, but I often think of him as being largely the abstract thinker type. But Thoreau was a man of much practical skill who lived a life of both thought and action. He did all kinds of work from carpentry to surveying, to helping raise Ralph Waldo Emerson’s kids. And thought a lot about the nature of work, but the paid variety and the kind that’s necessary for simply sustaining day-to-day life. Today in the show John Kaag, professor of philosophy, and the co-author of Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living, shares some of Thoreau’s insights on Work With Us. We discuss what Thoreau can teach us about the value of resignation, the importance of continuing to work with your hands to maintain what the Thoreau called, your vital heat. What makes for meaningful work and the trap of working in bad faith. We end the conversation with a call to consider what you’re really being paid for in your job and the true cost of the things you buy. After shows over check out our show notes at aom.io/henryatwork.
Alright, John Kaag, welcome back to the show.
John Kaag: Oh, thanks so much for having me, I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So we had you on before and talk about your Hike with Nietzsche, then we also talked about your experience with the pragmatist by this library you found in the middle of the New England Woods. You got a new book out, it’s called Henry at work: Thoreau on Making a Living. It’s about what we can learn from Henry David Thoreau about our work lives. And what’s interesting is, we typically think of Henry David Thoreau as the original drop-out. Alright, the guy that built a shack by a pond, so he could write and look at nature, but you and your co-author, you make the case that Thoreau has a lot to teach us about work. So let’s start off with Thoreau work life. What was his work life like? What did he do to make a living?
John Kaag: Yeah, I mean, we think about Thoreau going off to Walden, we think, Oh, this is just a nice vacation. But really what Thoreau is doing when he goes to Walden is he’s attempting to live deliberately, he says this at the beginning of Walden he says “I went to the woods to live deliberately so that I didn’t get to the end of my life and discovered that I haven’t lived.” But also, what we sometimes forget is that Thoreau worked his butt off at Walden over the last 15 years, some authors have criticized Thoreau for the help that he received while he was at Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days.
But when we really look at Thoreau’s day in and day out life at the pond, what he’s trying to do is he’s trying to sustain himself through his work, he’s trying to build his own house, he’s trying to grow his own crops, grow his own on food, mend his own clothes, and also, write two of the greatest pieces of American letters, Walden and his famous essay called Civil Disobedience. So if you think about Thoreau as a loafer or a Lotus-eater, you’re sort of off base here. I mean Thoreau worked his entire life, you don’t write a 2 million word journal just by sort of sitting on your hands and doing nothing. Sometimes we don’t think about writing as real work, but it was for Thoreau, but he was also a sort of manual laborer in a way that many of us have come to re-appreciate or appreciate once again during the pandemic, and the pandemic is basically a time when we’ve had to re-evaluate our work life and work-life balance, and Thoreau is a really good one to start us on that path.
Brett McKay: And you also highlight his work life before Walden, like the guy had lots of jobs, he tried his hand at teaching school, him and his brother opened up their own sort of alternative country school, he was a surveyor, and then he was also… He was Emerson’s basically was like a babysitter for Emerson and did just sort of general handy work for Emerson when he was out touring the world giving lectures.
John Kaag: That’s right. I mean, if we think of Thoreau’s, early life, it really was a childhood of a working class or middle class family, where he wasn’t the famous author that wrote Walden, he was just a boy who falls off a cow and was a farm hand and who cut his toe off cutting wood and really lived a very straightforward, manual existence for much of his early life, which I think explains in some part why Thoreau disdained the high society and the high intellectual life at Harvard. He believed that the real life, real world lessons of experience were oftentimes far more important than the book learning that we would get from philosophy or from academia.
But you’re right to say, if we think about Thoreau’s life as a worker, he was first and foremost, as we know him today, a writer, that’s true, but he was also a teacher, he was also a nanny, as you say, to Emerson’s children when Emerson went away. In fact, Emerson’s son was so close to Thoreau that when Emerson was away, he asked, he said to Thoreau, Mr. Thoreau can you be my father? I mean, he’s that close to the Emerson kids, and he, in a way that I think comes back to our own present day, we’ve really had to think about what it is to make our homes and the importance of frugality and home economics. Thoreau was very much aware of that and his journey out to Walden and his press for simplicity and frugality was really a function of economic necessity, he lived through the panic of 1837 where lots and lots of people lost their jobs and Thoreau had for one, worked on 75 cents a day for months upon months and even back then, 75 cents a day was not much money.
Brett McKay: This idea of economics, I think to understand Thoreau’s philosophy towards work, you have to understand his philosophy towards Economics in general. When we think of economics today, we think of sort of macroeconomics, the market, business, and that was part of Thoreau’s idea of economics as well, but his was more home-based. He was trying to go back to the original meaning of the word economics from Greek, and he talked about this in a chapter in Walden called economy, so what understanding of economics do we get from Thoreau from this chapter on economy?
John Kaag: So when you open up Walden, sometimes you’re a little surprised to find this chapter called economy, because Thoreau is such a stringent or such a harsh critic of modern consumerism, and you think, What is this chapter economy doing here? But your’re right Brett, I mean he’s thinking about Oikos, the Greek word Oikos, which basically derives from the word to dwell or dwelling. And he’s reminding us, Thoreau’s reminding us that all of the jobs that we have and all the work that we do should really be geared to figuring out how to make the world more livable and how to make a home in the world. And when Emerson encourages us to be self-reliant, his friend Emerson says, “Trust thyself every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Thoreau takes that really practically and really seriously, and he says to himself, What exactly do I need to sustain myself in my everyday life? And that answer, I think if we really are careful about it is a surprising one, we don’t need that much. And what you find in that first chapter of economy is Thoreau’s almost painstaking diary of all of his accounts and all of his accounting of how much it costs to sustain himself, what did he eat, what kind of shelter did he require, what sort of clothing did he have to wear, what actually supported him through life, and I think that if we reorient ourselves to that question, we discover that economy can be a much more humble, modest, but also a much more meaningful word.
So the audience that Thoreau was addressing was one in which they were already beginning to think about the surpluses and the excesses of modern consumerism, and the Thoreau says often times those excesses of our economic life are hindrances to the actual meaningful business of living.
Brett McKay: So that home-based idea of economics that shapes what Thoreau thought about work, and that work is… It’s something you have to do, but make sure you do work that is enriching, that’s life affirming. You start out the book with a chapter on quitting, it’s called resignation, why start with quitting jobs in a book about Henry David Thoreau and work?
John Kaag: Well, one of them is a sort of contemporary issue, and both I have faced and my family have faced, and then a lot of my friends have faced a moment in our US or Contemporary economic scene where many people are losing their jobs and also deciding not to go back to work in the same way. The pandemic sort of changed things for many, many people, and it was a moment that I thought Thoreau could speak to because Thoreau was a very big resigner, in the sense that he resigned to my account six pretty substantial jobs.
The one that sticks out to me is after he graduates from Harvard, he establishes a school with his brother, but also teaches at Concord Academy, and at the academy Thoreau was asked to exact corporal punishment on his students, and he did this for exactly one day and then got completely fed up and quit his job on moral grounds, and I think a lot of people when faced with a pandemic, when faced with sort of existential moments of crisis, have the opportunity to ask if their jobs are in line with their moral lives, their intellectual lives and their passions.
And Thoreau was always adamant that you should never sacrifice your dreams for your dream job, at least in the lucrative sense, and he was very insightful that the next century and then the following century, the one that we’re living in, would see moments in which people confused the size of their bank account with the true riches or wealth of living, and so Thoreau is on to that, and he says, quit your job if you think that it doesn’t fit into the sort of logic of living, deliberately. Ask yourself whether you’re going to get to the end of your life and look back and regret certain things about your life, and that includes your work life, so Thoreau would say or advocate for a certain type of self-examination and then oftentimes a certain type of resignation from jobs that don’t fit our ideal.
Brett McKay: And I think another thing I took away from Thoreau and his willingness to resign himself when he didn’t like a job or wasn’t aligning with his values, he also resigned from himself, from the world, whenever he faced big, I guess we call them, life disruptions or failures, you talk about in the book, you know his brother died. It was devastating to him. I think his brother cut himself with a razor, died from shaving. And then shortly after that, I don’t think a lot of people knows about Thoreau, he actually accidentally burned down a giant forest near Concord, Right?
John Kaag: That’s right. And we oftentimes think about Walden as this almost heroic mission of like self-reliance, but really Thoreau is retreating from a world that seems to have come undone for him. I mean, his brother, John dies in his arms from lockjaw, basically gangrene and then Thoreau, as you say, burns down a chunk of the forest and is the pariah of Concord for several months, if not a year. And we often times think, Oh, Thoreau, he’s just going out to sort commune with nature, he’s also retreating from life in a particular way, but what I will say is that he’s also turning to work or a new version of work, of manual work, of meaningful labor in order to get himself through. So it’s not simply that he went on a vacation to retreat the world, he says, I’m gonna see how much I can rely upon myself in order to sort of sustain myself in life, and I think that that’s a really redemptive move for Thoreau, but also for our understanding of what work can mean for us.
Brett McKay: And what was interesting about Thoreau, he was willing to resign himself from work or projects that were also successful, like Walden, for example, at the end of it, when he writes, why did I leave Walden? Well, just it was time to end it, it was time to move on to something else. He didn’t hang on to it, even though it might have been a good thing, I think that’s another lesson you can take from Thoreau. You might be in a job that’s great, but maybe you need to quit it and move on to something else.
John Kaag: Yeah, I mean I think, if I think about the heroes from American philosophy, the pragmatist William James says that we should do two things every day that are difficult just for the practice of it, and sometimes in Thoreau’s case, just changing your habits of life is both difficult, but also rewarding, we often times get stuck in a rut and we suffer through the sort of fallacy of sunk costs, we put so much into a job in terms of time or resources or ourselves that we can’t imagine doing anything else, and Thoreau says, Oh gosh, everyone, come on, there are so many possibilities to life, you can do something else, and if you fail, at least that failure will be yours in changing careers or changing tax. And I think that that’s something that when we think about the desire for economic security, and when we think about the way that employment sort of draws us in and requires us to invest ourselves, we need to be very careful and self-reflective about knowing when it is time to go or let go, and not allowing the draw of security to actually get in the way of some of our more personal or existential ambitions.
Brett McKay: So Emerson famously said in his eulogy to Thoreau, which is a great… I recommend everyone read this thing, it’s fantastic, willing to it, but in the eulogy to Thoreau, he said that Thoreau lacked ambition, what do you make of Emerson’s critique that Thoreau, you know you kinda just dressed up his willingness to loaf with philosophical pretensions.
John Kaag: Emerson and Thoreau were very good friends through much of their life, but they did have a falling out, and one of the ways that they diverged, I think, is that Emerson became a public intellectual in a way that Thoreau never did. Emerson spent countless hours delivering public lectures, developing public lectures, going on tour and making some serious money doing it, and I think that his comment about Thoreau being less ambitious was a function that Thoreau never achieved the same success on the lecture circuit or in terms of monetary goods, in fact, Emerson oftentimes hired Thoreau to do his household work to plant his gardens, at least impart to the nanny his children.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s one thing that separated in Emerson and Thoreau in their approach to transcendentalism, So Emerson really embraced the life of the mind of transcendentalism. I think, like you said, if he were alive today, I’d imagine he’d be some superstar professor, thought leader going around the world doing TED Talks and writing New York Times best sellers, but he also, he appreciated, he had a romantic appreciation for the sort of the down-to-earth self-reliance that Thoreau embodied. Like he would often imagine himself it would be nice to have some land and do manual labor himself, but he didn’t follow through with that idea ’cause he was busy lecturing and things. So Thoreau, what’s interesting about Thoreau, he continued to write, continued to think about philosophy but he made a point to keep doing manual labor, he had real practical skills, he could build boats, he could build a house, he could do carpentry, he could garden, did surveying. Why did the Thoreau think it was important that we keep working with our hands, even if we are engaging in what we think of as abstract thinking or philosophizing.
John Kaag: That’s such a good question. I mean, we should remember that Thoreau is a contemporary of Marx, that Karl Marx and Marx’s criticism of labor and capitalism turns on the fact that modern industrialism and modern industrialization leads to the alienation of the workforce and how that happens, is that workers no longer have a sense of the control over the means of production. In other words, they lose the sense that their efforts are translating and generating particular products, so you can think about the assembly line in Thoreau’s day in the factory or in the mills, and those workers make only a very small part of a much bigger product, which they don’t particularly own or lay claim to. And Thoreau thought that one way of counteracting modern alienation in the form of economics and in the form of modern economics, was to work with our hands, to go back to sort of older artisan forms of work. And you can think about the maker movement today, or make your own food, make your own clothes, the right to recycle, these are attempts, very Thoreauvian attempts to get back to the products that underlie our lives and also to lay claim to them again. So I think Thoreau more than Emerson said, let’s see what my hands can actually do, and If you…
The front cover of The Book of Henry at Work is Thoreau up on his ladder fixing his cabin at Walden or putting his cabin together at Walden. What’s interesting about the frontispiece, or the first page of Walden is it’s just the cabin already constructed, but Jonathan and I thought that what was most interesting is about Thoreau’s actual attempt, his hands on attempt to put the shingles on the roof, and to think of that as really both an intellectual, philosophical, but also a very personal form of work, Emerson in the American scholar says that a true American scholar needs to draw in a number of resources the past, history, but also nature and action, and the action part was pivotal for Thoreau.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you quote him saying that one of the things you get from working with your hands is you said you get to see immediate feedback, right? Unlike a lot of work today, you do spreadsheets and it goes off to someone and you don’t know what happens to whatever work you did. What he liked about manual work is you got to see right away. So he talks about this in Walden, talking about his bean field. He’s talking about his beans, all the things that went into growing these beans. And he said, it’s just really satisfying to see the things I did weeks before would have an effect on these little beans. But he also had this great line about how manual labor, working with your hands, can give you sort of a spiritual vigor. I’m gonna read it here. It says, it is something to be able to paint a particular picture or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look.
So I mean, I guess for him, when you work with your hands and you’re shaping your environment, And then that in turns shapes you as well. When I read that line, it reminded me of Matthew Crawford’s work that he did in shop classes, Soulcraft. He had that very same idea. You work with your hands because there’s something about it that’s going to give you a satisfaction that you’re not going to get with just abstract work.
John Kaag: I love that. I love that book Shop Class as Soulcraft. I think in terms of Crawford and Thoreau, there’s also a sense that manual labor connects us to the natural world in a way that intellectual labor sometimes does not. What I mean by that is that when you’re working in a garden or when you’re even washing dishes and you’re really, “into it or immersed in your dishes, you’re connected to something radically other than yourself, and you’re connected in this very intimate way. I think oftentimes manual labor can be a form of drudgery and meaningless if it is forced, but I mean, if we choose to use our hands to, as you say, shape the world and let the world shape us in the process, you also come away feeling like you weren’t just alone in the bean fields or weren’t just alone in the garden. Like you actually feel like you were connected. And I think in our modern day, we really crave that connection that’s just beyond our fingertips, that’s right there for us to have if we’re willing to put our hands into it.
Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show.
He also talks about in Walden how manual work can also help us retain our vital heat. I’m curious, you’re a professor of philosophy, so you spend a lot of your time reading, writing. What do you do to work with your hands so you can keep your vital heat in a Thoreauvian sense?
John Kaag: Yeah, that’s a good, thanks for that. I mean, I had a cardiac arrest when I was 40, and I was out for three minutes before the EMT shocked me back to life. And that moment when I was 40 was really a moment when I thought, I need to get this vital heat back. And so we moved, and we started a garden, and we have two kids. And I have spent basically the last three years, I’m now 43, really trying to think about the meaning of work in a more sustained way, but also using my hands and having two dogs and raising two dogs and being much more hands-on. And I’ve gotten emails and letters over the last three years from readers, and they said, when’s the next book coming out? What’s happening? Why aren’t you writing more? And the answer is that I was too busy living and I was too busy using my hands. And in part, I’ve toned back my reading and my writing so that I could have a more Thoreauvian existence in some ways.
Brett McKay: So work can sometimes feel meaningless. For Thoreau, what made work meaningless?
John Kaag: So Thoreau, I think, makes a distinction between meaningful work and drudgery. Meaningful work has an objective that is freely chosen and a path to achieve that objective. That’s like the very, very minimum for meaningful work. Meaningless work usually has no objective freely chosen and oftentimes doesn’t have a true means or a path to achieve any sort of objective chosen or not. So it’s not clear to the assembly line worker what the objective is or the end objective of their work. No one ever sees the final product. All they see is the same assembly line moment. That oftentimes is meaningless, according to Thoreau. And meaningful work is utterly personal. It’s the type of work that you feel like when you do it that you are fully suited to that particular task, that the universe has sort of picked it out for you, that you’re not just some sort of fungible part that somebody else could step in and do exactly the same job. It’s personal and it’s unique.
Brett McKay: Well, to that second point, I think that’s one reason why Thoreau is such a great resigner, right? The more he resigned from stuff, he was able to figure out what was the thing that he was suited for. I think oftentimes we just stick with a job because, well, it pays the bills, whatever, but you limit your opportunities to find what you’re actually called to do.
John Kaag: That’s right. And I mean, we use this expression that oftentimes is associated with 20th century existentialism, which is bad faith. But I think that Thoreau is worried about jobs that we work in bad faith. What we mean by that is that, about how often you hear a friend or even hear yourself say the expression, I can’t leave my job. And that expression oftentimes is a reflection of bad faith, saying that you are not free to do something when in fact you are, but perhaps you’re simply not willing to face the consequences of the action. Now, I understand that many individuals, especially those individuals who are in very tight socioeconomic circumstances might feel that they can’t leave their job. And that situation might not necessarily be one where you are living or working in bad faith. It might actually be that you can’t see any other way forward, that you can’t see any other outlet to make ends meet. But Thoreau was also concerned about those individuals who have more than enough, who live on surplus, but they still at the same time say, I couldn’t change my job. I couldn’t take that risk. I couldn’t do without that last zero on my paycheck. And I think that’s a concern that Thoreau is expressing to his readers in Walden.
So meaningful work is one where you definitely don’t work in bad faith or live in bad faith. You say, I am doing this freely. I’m doing it deliberately. And that also means that I’m free to leave it when I choose.
Brett McKay: Thoreau would say, don’t put golden handcuffs on yourself.
John Kaag: Do not. Do not.
Brett McKay: What would Thoreau say to those situations where there’s work you have to do, it feels like drudgery, You can’t escape. It doesn’t have to be work for money. It could be, you talk about this in the book, I think it was either you or your co-author taking care of their mother as she was, her last few years. And caregiving for someone like that, it can take a lot out of you. But you gotta do it, ’cause you have this responsibility and you feel like this filial duty to that person. What do you do in those situations when you gotta do something, but it’s just man, it grinds you down. Does Thoreau have any advice there?
John Kaag: Yeah, yeah, oh gosh. It’s such a both a really good question and very hard answer. So let me try. The issue about doing things that you would rather not do when it comes to work, like modern adult life is full of these moments. Like maybe I don’t want to drive my kids to the extra soccer practice, or maybe I don’t want to take care of, it was my mother that you’re referring to, who’s now in hospice. Like maybe I don’t want to go see her once again for the umpteenth time. And like, how do I get myself to think about this experience differently? So Thoreau would say that you don’t have to be Zen about drudgery all the time. Like we just don’t have that capacity, that sort of Marie Kondo sort of like capacity to see that tidying up is always that tidying up is always this opportunity for growth and beauty. That would be great, but lots of us don’t have that ability.
What Thoreau says is that we can oftentimes try to see the world a little bit differently. And what I see Thoreau doing repeatedly in his work and also in his walks through nature and his reflections on nature is that he’s pointing out that we oftentimes work under the assumption that we are the sole kings of our little imperial realms and that we are going through life doing things and doing things for ourselves. And if we can shift our perspective just a little bit and realize that adult life really has a lot to do with sacrificing to our loved ones and to strangers and to the world at large and not just about yourself but about something else and trying to take that perspective for just a little bit of time that what might seem like drudgery or might seem incredibly boring can be incredibly interesting. And now how does this work? Well, there was this American philosopher by the name of Ella Lyman Cabot and Ella Lyman Cabot basically set up an informal orphanage and she wrote several books about ethics. And one passage I’ll relay here is a passage where she says that a child came up to her and held out three little cherries in her hand and said, look how miraculous these cherries are.
And at first, Ella Lyman Cabot said, I could scarcely imagine what could be so interesting about three little cherries in this child’s hand. But then what she said is, if she really looked carefully and really thought about things carefully, all of a sudden those cherries or something about the external world seem sort of wonderful or imaginative or meaningful in a way that she had not anticipated. And I think that Thoreau’s message at the end of Walden, which is to the effect that we need to be awake to the world and the world dawns on us only if we have eyes to see it has a lot to do with transforming meaningless drudgery or a boring task into something meaningful. And I think that most listeners and most of my students can think about times in in their life where they actually transform something they thought was going to be boring into something very meaningful and maybe even a little bit sacred. And those are the moments that I think, reaching adulthood, I take a little bit of solace in or I find a little bit of hope in. Because gosh, life is going to be so boring sometimes, especially with our work. And if we have the ability to see things a little differently, I think that will make all the difference.
Brett McKay: And it seems like part of what Thoreau teaches us about how to do that is that he shows the importance of having curiosity. There’s a great quote, his friend said that he was alive from top to toe with curiosity. And that curiosity is what allowed him to take the same walks again and again in this small Concord town, but he never got tired of it. He still felt like there was still interesting Explorations to have there and then I get another thing too like you talked about this in the book like he could stand in a pond In the same spot staring in the water for hours and hours Just studying the bullfrog and people would be like, Hey, Henry, what are you doing? He’s like, Well, I’m just looking at the bullfrog and people were like, What a weirdo?
So that’s another thing we forget about Thoreau like he, Thoreau in his work He was a naturalist and he made lots of observations and studies of nature but yeah, I mean, I think he really embodied the art of of looking or noticing that kept everyday, the everyday things fresh to him. You know, he told his friend, he said this, he says, the art of genius is to raise the little into the large, which that can be challenging, but it’s an interesting challenge to try. So turning back to work more generally, we work to pay the bills and Thoreau wasn’t against that. He wasn’t against money-making completely. Even in Walden, he talked about he’d sell things and he made this much money. But how did he think about the relationship between work and money? What was his idea of compensation? Besides the dollar value that we get from our work, what else was he thinking about? Does that make sense?
John Kaag: It does, yeah. I mean, Thoreau would point out that really what’s happening when we get the paycheck for every month is that our employer is paying us for a task that we perform. But more importantly, the employer is always paying us for the time that we’ve spent of our lives on that task. In other words, our employer is compensating us for our life, for our time. And that’s something that we oftentimes forget, that what we’re spending in our work life is our minutes, hours, days, years, and decades. And Thoreau basically says, the whole point of life is to improve my nick of time. And we oftentimes do that on the clock. We do that at work. So first of all, the compensation that we take away in terms of our monetary gain should not mask the fact that we’re actually being paid to give up parts of our lives. And to make sure that the money that we make actually And the way that we then spend that money is in some ways aligned to the way that we want to spend our lives, the way that we want to value things and revere things and pursue ideals. And just ask yourself, like, is the extra paycheck or the bonus really worth it? Am I sacrificing something that I shouldn’t be?
Brett McKay: Well, he has that famous quote in Walden, the cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life, which is required to be exchanged for it immediately or in the long run. So we’d think, yeah, like what, what opportunities are you giving up by taking this job? What I don’t know, maybe kids activities are you going to miss because of the job? And he also not only think about this with your work, but also the stuff you buy, the stuff you buy has an immediate cost, but some stuff has long-term costs. Well, if I buy this house, how much money am I going to be spending on in the long run to fix it up or pay taxes on it? And he’d say, you need to take that into account too, when you’re thinking about what you’re buying. Because ultimately the more stuff you buy, the more work you’ll have to do in exchange for it. And then the more life you’ll have to exchange to do that work. And for Thoreau, that’s what he was saying. He’s saying that’s the real cost of a thing.
John Kaag: Right. I mean, Thoreau walked around his native Concord and observed that many men and women were tied to their family farms. In other words, these big farms that in fact made a lot of money perhaps, or made a surplus, cost a lot. And what they cost was the time and energy to keep them upright and to keep them going.
Brett McKay: Okay. So I guess Thoreau’s advice about compensation, don’t get myopic and just think about the number on your paycheck. You also have to think about other things that you’ll have to give up for it, your time, and maybe even your values.
John Kaag: I’m reminded a little bit, someone recently, a friend recently asked me, he goes, When were you most happy with your job? And I said to him, Well, it was when I was teaching community college when I was in grad school. And I remember making, you know, $14,000 a year in grad school and thinking that that was a lot of money and that that was more than enough. Granted, I didn’t have kids, but at least those moments of frugality and those sort of moments of forced frugality remind me that I can be happy on less. And I think that that’s really Thoreau’s takeaway on the notion of compensation and modern compensation. We could probably be happy with less or many of us could.
Brett McKay: I love how you end the book, you and your co-author end the book talking about what is kind of sum up, what does it mean to work in a Thoreauvian sense? And you have this great quote from him. He says, I say to myself, do a little more of that work, which you have confessed to be good. So good work. I mean, so what is good work in the Thoreauvian sense? If you were to sum it up, like what does it mean to do good work in a Thoreauvian sense?
John Kaag: So we say in the book, we say that this type of goodness, Thoreauvian goodness, it doesn’t necessarily turn on God’s grace or the permission of some sort of higher power, but on one’s willingness and ability to confess that the task was good. What do I mean by confess? I mean when you think about the work that you do in the course of your life, and we spend so much of our lives at work. If you take a minute and you think about the ways that you’re working and your work life and you say, if this were my last day on this earth, would I be happy with the work that I’ve done? You might say to yourself, Oh gosh, there’s so many times where I’m like, you know, drudging through something or slogging through something. No, I wouldn’t be happy. Well, then think to yourself, first of all, A yeah, you might resign, you might change that course of action, but you might also change your orientation to work on the whole so that you can do it deliberately, which just simply means to say, this is my task. This is what I shall do and I’m doing it freely.
And that allows you to do lots of tasks that oftentimes aren’t that great, but at least those tasks will be yours. You’ll say to yourself, and this is what I mean by confess, it’s basically to say, this is my life. This is my task. I will get to work on it and I’m free to decide to do this or to do otherwise. That I think is what makes a Thoreauvian moment of work a good work. It’s simply to say that I’ve claimed that moment of work or labor in a real way where at the end I’d be satisfied that I had done so.
Brett McKay: So work in good faith, it goes back to that.
John Kaag: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, John, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
John Kaag: The book comes out, June 13th. I would encourage folks to go to Princeton University Press’s website and not necessarily to Amazon, but that’s up to them. And I really, really hope that the book helps a lot of people rethink the way that they approach their work life and also vacations. Also the moments when we don’t necessarily have to work. So that’s my hope.
Brett McKay: Well, John Kaag, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
John Kaag: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was John Kaag. He’s the co-author of the book, Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living. It’s available for pre-order at Princeton University Press. We’ll put a link to the show notes where you can pre-order it. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/Henryatwork where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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