Unlearning the Protestant Work Ethic
I coach and teach a lot of woman-identified People of Color. When I do, I often observe that their successes are bigger, brighter, and more worthy of appreciation than they give themselves credit for, especially given the myriad way systems are stacked against them. Their success is valuable and worthy of celebration in itself, struggles or not. But, their success is also radical because it challenges an existing social structure while also reminding those who identify with them that they do, in fact, have agency, choice, and even power. In other words, they are “doing the most” even when they think they’re not doing much of anything at all.
But, I’m a hypocrite.
I go from one meeting urging a client to take a moment to really appreciate their wins and embrace the word “enough” to consistently telling myself that I am not doing enough. It’s to the point where during a recent session with my mindfulness and meditation coach, I articulated something I’ve known for a while: my least boundaried and most exploitative relationship is the one I have with myself. If my inner voice were an external person, I would have left them behind a long time ago.
I started to notice how extreme the disconnect between how I show up for others and how I show up for myself at the end of 2020. Struggling with the need to be “productive” and engage in “impactful activity” has been an ongoing theme throughout my life (and one I’ve explored the psychology behind here), but last year, the struggle became more intense. I literally forgot I landed a book deal, something I had been trying to do for almost two years and represented a lifelong goal of becoming a published author. I erased the circumstances that led me to my daily writing sessions. And it didn’t just happen there. I graduated from an intense program at Georgetown that involved months of commuting to DC from Chicago and large-scale personal sacrifices, and I didn’t remember my graduation. I was erasing my own victories.
At first, I theorized that part of this had to do with how I measure activity: in planes, trains, and walks from one place to the next. Working from home makes everything I do feel small-scale and banal. How is landing a major deal at Ethos any different from folding the laundry if they happen in the same room?
While I think there’s truth to this theory, I have to acknowledge that I was never very good at being “happy” or “proud” of a major win anyway. It’s part of why I instituted “wins” in my one-on-one meetings with teammates at Ethos. I know how hard it is to celebrate good things when there’s so much in the way of bad things to ruminate over. (Of course, I don’t celebrate my wins. I just celebrate the ones my teammates make).
It wasn’t until I read Sarah Jaffe’s excellent and vexing Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone that I came to a different theory of my struggle with “enoughness.” As she points out in a meticulously researched exploration of how work shifted from being about earning a paycheck to subbing in for love, connection, care, and art, one of the realities of late capitalism is that in order to maximize productivity, the structures have to reinforce that we need to be doing more and that none of our actions are ever enough. To be “done” would be to move on from our work and choose leisure time, which doesn’t serve an engine powered by constant and increasing production.
I am a worker bee. I grew up on idealized notions of the protestant work ethic and learned that nothing worthwhile comes without earning it through hard work. I believed that windfalls, lucky breaks, and positive developments outside of my control were somehow cursed. If I didn’t work for it, I didn’t want it. It’s the same mentality that led me to take on six jobs at the same time while fully enrolled in college. Let me be clear: I needed the money. But I also fetishized the work and the volume of it I could take on. But then, much like Eula Biss in On Having and Being Had, I learned the truth behind the protestant work ethic.
As she writes:
“The protestant ethic describes the moralizing of work and the privileging of property, not, as I used to think, the belief that work is, in and of itself, good. All this time, I’ve been using that term to describe my faith in work” (35).
My late twenties have been a period of unlearning my social conditioning around work and really struggling to find new models. For years, working hard was synonymous with being a good person. When I saw myself as “good” and “whole,” I used words like “hardworking,” “industrious,” and “productive.” If being aligned with industry and the means of production made me worthy, how could I accept a life where I would just call it a day and watch a movie? Or worse, fight for a shorter workweek or more sick leave?
Of course, advocating for workers’ rights then became part of my “life’s work” at Ethos, and all of these ideas started to come together meaningfully. I started shifting from valorizing “industriousness” to watching for “extraction” and “exploitation.” I paid close attention to employees at client companies and Ethos naming burnout, emotional work, and the psychological strain of discrimination, and I tried to design solutions. For them. Always for them.
That’s because, as Jaffe points out, my line of work is decidedly in the “care work” camp. The kind that is supposed to be done as “an essential job nevertheless to be done out of sheer love” (88). To not answer the late-night phone calls or a barrage of emails from clients in need would be selfish. To take days off or monitor “emergencies” would be irresponsible. Imagining a world where this isn’t true is hard for me, and it’s Jaffe’s vision of what it might be that is helping me come to terms with my disordered relationship to work.
“Society will always make demands of us, and a world that we built to value the relationships we have with others would perhaps make even more of them. But it would be a world where we shouldered those burdens equitably, distributed the work — pleasant and less so — better, and had much, much more leisure time to spend as we like. It would be a world where taking care of one another was not a responsibility sloughed off on one part of the population or one gender, and it would be a world where we had plenty of time to take care of ourselves” (331).
While I may not know what the kind of leisure time I am looking forward to is today, I can use her vision of a better future to try to settle into a more balanced present. And the first, a very small one, is to reconceive my “wins” altogether.
For years, feeling a sense of accomplishment came from the sheer number of things I achieved, not what they were or what they meant to me. Now, I am trying something new. Each day, I am writing down one thing I was proud of doing regardless of prestige, scale, or recognition. On Thursday, I had my State ID renewed. I took time off from work to do it, I was very prepared, and I felt satisfaction at doing something I wanted to do that felt kind of hard but also necessary. Anybody could do it — what mattered was that I made the time and space, and of course, that it mattered to me.