The idea that hard work doesn't matter is complete and utter nonsense

The idea that hard work doesn’t matter is complete and utter nonsense.

On Wednesday, my colleague Biz Carson reported on comments about the government and the future of work from prominent venture capitalist Sam Altman.

Altman is the founder of startup “incubator” Y Combinator, which is basically a startup that funds other startups inside their sphere of influence. Y Combinator’s companies have a combined valuation of more than $US65 billion.

Among the quotes highlighted by Biz was this winner:

“We need to get over the ideal that hard work is valuable for its own sake because the machines are going to do the rote work better,” Altman said.

And in the next graph, Biz added:

He’s been an advocate for a basic income that guarantees everyone basic food and shelter. This may mean that people don’t work, but Altman said that leaves opportunity available for people to write the best new novel or have scientific breakthroughs.

And while this a great techno-Utopian idea of what happens when the efficient machines take our jobs and the government or some other entity subsidizes a dignified quality of life for most of the population, it is also complete and utter nonsense.

To take the first point, even positing that we “need to get over” hard work having value in and of itself completely ignores how anything of real value is done.

The god that hangs over Silicon Valley is Steve Jobs, who worked a lot. In fact, Jobs basically never stopped working. But more importantly, the people who worked for Jobs also never stopped working. Hundreds of thousands people who came through the Apple system under Jobs were probably exposed to this idea that to do anything work anything, you’d have to work your tail off.

And so what I think Altman is saying, in his way, is that we don’t really need everyone to think working hard matters because many of those people won’t be doing anything important anyway. We just need the right people to work hard.

The message sounds an awful lot like some version of: “Work hard if you’re exceptional and can make some great new company or whatever, but if you’re just an average human with average intelligence and average prospects for an average life, don’t think ‘hard work’ is going to do anything for you.”

But anyway.

The second point is the one that is, if you can believe it, even worse.

It’s obnoxious in any setting to bring up philosophy, but I must mention that by referencing the writing of a great novel or a new scientific breakthrough in lieu of “work,” Altman is evoking the ever-seductive but always-elusive idea that we are approaching something like the Hegelian “end of history.”

The basic philosophical idea here is that humanity will or can or should evolve to the point at which we no longer make any progress, basically allowing people to pursue whatever they want instead of, you know, like working for a living at a job you might like but aren’t 100% excited about showing up to 240 times per year.

Which, as most readers who’ve made it this far will readily digest, is an incredibly attractive idea of what life can or should be. Wouldn’t we all like to wake up in the morning and pursue some passion instead of file that expense report?

The problem is that the context inside of which this idea is advanced assumes its own proclivity for success.

Said another way, this worldview requires that you accept Silicon Valley-style “move fast and break things” capitalism will efficiently solve our society’s ills, necessitating the clearing-out of anything like working hard “for its own sake” that doesn’t fit this ideal of leaner, faster, more efficient work by a smaller number of blessed and exceptional talents.

And so while we could go all day about the merits of increasing worker efficiency and cutting down on bureaucratic redundancies that plague organisations ranging from the Department of the Treasury to IBM to Merrill Lynch to Apple, what I take issue with is the implication that there is no value in anything other than a lean, mean, profit-maximizing machine.

It’s intellectually dishonest to suggest that the necessary efficiency of capitalism will create a subsidized, not-working population that will, among the ranks of the not-workers, list its next great artists or scientists. We don’t become our best selves because we’re given the space to explore our true identity, but because someone pushes to this end. It’s ironic, then, as a sponsor of many successful startups, that Altman would seem to suggest otherwise.

One final note I’d make that the headline on Biz’s piece suggests that Altman thinks the government is the biggest impediment to futures success in the US.

Of course, if we want a system where people don’t have to work for a living but instead have their comfortable lives subsidized, we will need a robust government to oversee anything resembling that program.

But these, of course, are details.

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