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• Last updated: May 30, 2021

Vocation: The Necessity of Dead Work

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.

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