Thoreau on Hard Work, the Myth of Productivity, and the True Measure of Meaningful Labor
By Maria Popova
The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) is the closest thing I have to a bible — I read it frequently and devotedly, always with great gratitude for the enduring wisdom that brings me closer to what I know to be true but so often forget. Indeed, Thoreau is among those rare luminaries whose ideas live on as resolutions of the most existential kind — be it his reflections on the creative benefits of keeping a diary or the spiritual rewards of walking or the only worthwhile definition of success.
Recently, while listening to a conversation with the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer — a Thoreau for our time — I was reminded once more of a particularly insightful passage from the journal as Palmer lamented that “the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we’re going to take on.”
More than a century and a half before our modern malady of confusing productivity with purposefulness and the urgent with the important, Thoreau wrote in an entry from the last day of March in 1842:
The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.
In another entry from the fall of 1851, Thoreau touches on this again in reflecting on a neighbor he finds to be “the most poetical farmer,” one who embodies “the poetry of the farmer’s life”:
He does nothing with haste and drudgery, but as if he loved it. He makes the most of his labor, and takes infinite satisfaction in every part of it. He is not looking forward to the sale of his crops or any pecuniary profit, but he is paid by the constant satisfaction which his labor yields him.
This philosophy of quality over quantity, of present labor over productive work, is also manifested on a meta level in the journal itself — Thoreau’s entries are usually short, always acutely insightful, and never belabored with vain excesses. He writes one December day:
I find that whatever hindrances may occur I write just about the same amount of truth in my Journal; for the record is more concentrated, and usually it is some very real and earnest life, after all, that interrupts. All flourishes are omitted.
The Journal of Henry David Thoreau is indeed an infinitely rewarding read. Complement it with Thoreau on the spirit of sauntering, the greatest gift of growing old and a charming children’s book about his philosophy.
Published February 10, 2015