Sunday, April 20, 2008

Work ethic: it used to have a collective moral meaning


The notes in my medical records from my spell at NIH in 1962 (see Nov 28 2006 on this blog) indicate that my own father tended towards “moralizing” and that so did I. Like father, like son. That seems understandable enough.

The notes also discuss my father’s concern about my learning to do manual tasks and mechanical chores correctly. I remember this well. He used to talk about “learning to work.” At some time like ninth grade, I used to put up existential arguments, saying that work in the abstract did not matter, only finishing specific tasks did. I would do a task "my way" and sometimes get it one in what would look acceptable, and he would insist that it wasn't "the right way." I might "get away with it" in this sheltered circumstance, but I would need to be able to tie the right knot in a more difficult physical circumstance down the road.

This sort of thing translates into school work. We know there are debates about how to teach reading and math skills, because sometimes there are ways to get acceptable situational answers without understanding what is going on beneath. This always happens in the workplace, when one needs to dig into unfamiliar material to solve a problem. I was actually a slow reader (and tended to let my mind wander), but I did well in upper grades of school because I learned how to identify what concepts and facts mattered and connected to already mastered material. I learned how to predict what would be on exams. (A good way to study is to make up an exam.)

I can fast forward about three decades and remember managers at more than one company circulating memos about “work ethic.” In information technology, that is a fairly concrete concept. You test thoroughly before you move into production. You pay attention to detail. You watch the little things, because they can lead to big things. I’m sure that programmers and systems professionals at Sun, Microsoft, Google, IBM, EDS, Perot, etc. all live this ethic every day; they have to or their companies wouldn’t be where they are. Yet, throughout this whole period of my life, I was Okay with that, and I believed it as part of my own set of moral values. I was pretty fastidious about testing (file-file compares) and keeping records of the tests (too much clutter in those days), and about being around to support jobs at night when they went in.

One place that this comes up is in coding standards. Companies are usually strict about this (particularly companies that sell code to clients), but in practice (particularly in older batch systems) there are often many ways to do something that will work and give correct results. But one way is usually better than others and follows “standards” and leads to systems that can be maintained by others. Getting people to do this is always a problem in management.

Still, though, my father’s concerns about how I did mechanical tasks (whether tying shoes, mowing the lawn, physical “chores”) bring up another aspect of “work ethic” which has more to do with “paying your dues” and “Boy Scout” preparedness than everyday productivity in a job in which one is fully acclimated and experienced. “Formation of proper habits” was one of his pet ideas. The military makes a lot of this concept in Basic Training because following procedures exactly (and keeping everything "perfectly" clean) can save lives in combat -- and I grew up when there was a draft and when men owed such "service" to society. It obvious matters in other areas, like medicine.

These had specifically to do with gender roles, for starters. Yes, I was always being reminded “girls first.” It was intrinsically a man’s responsibility to be able to protect women and children. This all took place in the early days of the Cold War, in a society used to conscripting men, and that would go through another round of controversy over the draft and how it worked (deferments and differential “sacrifice”) during the Vietnam era. As we know, this would all change with the Civil Rights movement, the breakdown of the credibility of old fashioned systems of authority with the failure of Vietnam and Watergate, with women demanding parity in the workplace and developing and asserting individual identities outside the home and family, and with gay rights. We became a culture that struggled with how to “have your cake and eat it too.” Gay men often, although not always, report that this aspect of their social training was oppressive, yet often embedded the parts that they needed into their adult work ethic.

A lot of well known people (especially journalists) have “paid their dues” and worked in dangerous environments, and they certainly needed work ethic and “proper habits” to succeed, even survive. But in these cases they had usually chosen the work they did, out of some passion. It isn’t that hard to stay with something that you see as a personal mission and live it 24 hours a day. It’s harder to accept someone else’s mission if it is imposed on you by circumstances beyond your control.

Choice, follow-through, and control of one’s own message seem like an essential component of individuality in the modern world. But my father (born on a farm in Iowa in 1903) knew that freedom and “choice” and favorable circumstance can’t always be taken for granted. People have to transcend survival and find meaning in adversity, in circumstances caused by the aggression or wrongdoing of others. That reality generates a lot of the deeper moral thought of Christianity (indeed part of the Pope’s many sermons this week). People have adversity imposed on them (or indirectly on them by family members) by chance, even genetic chance. After the Civil Rights movement was well underway (and particularly after Stonewall and toward the time of Watergate) my contemporaries became more concerned about “bad karma” – that many of us have our “independence” and “expression” at the expense of the undervalued labor of others. In time, that can lead to political or even aggressive movements to force the sharing of burdens by others and create the feeling that basic freedoms have been taken away in the name of group morality or karma (the “cultural revolution” problem). Basic work habits and emotional adaptability to meeting the needs of others, even when on their turf and not one’s own, become important virtues. My father was probably right about that.

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