Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Work is (Not) a Four Letter Word

I recently finished reading comedian Mindy Kaling’s second memoir, Why Not Me? What I found most empowering was her openness about hard work.

In the book, Mindy is refreshingly honest about being a “workaholic.” In the Glamour excerpt of the book, Mindy cites hard work as the path to “killer confidence.” She writes, “...the truth is, I have never, ever, ever met a highly confident and successful person who is not what a movie would call a ‘workaholic.’” Mindy describes herself as a “vampire” following a daily routine consisting of 5am wakeups and days so long in the studio she never sees the sun.

Amidst this discussion, Mindy acknowledges that her honesty about work is in opposition to how we are socialized. She describes how we are taught to work hard until we finish school and then, all of the sudden, people seem to regard work as something harmful. We live in a society that values achievement but not the work required to get there.

Yes, Mindy Kaling. YES. I have long felt caught between pressures for my achievements to appear effortless yet well-deserved. This tension is particularly fraught because of the connection between work and social identity. To some people, I work “all the time”--and to only a subset of these is this a good thing. Others have asked me, “Do you ever work?”--some with admiration and some with disdain. Why is it that my attitude towards work seems to matter more than the work I produce?

Increasingly, narratives around work have become a means for reinforcing current structures of power. In Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite, Shamus Khan writes about how attitudes towards work serve as a gatekeeping function for socioeconomic status. The elites, Khan writes, value hard work and appearing busy as a way of justifying their superior status. It is, however, important to maintain an air of effortlessness. True elites need not work.

Race plays a role in narratives of work. In his New York Magazine piece “Paper Tigers,” Wesley Yang writes about the phenomenon of Asian-American families placing a higher value on academic work--and thus schools requiring Asian students to, on average, score 140 points higher on the SAT for college admissions. Throughout their careers, Asian-Americans continue to be penalized for the perception that they are predisposed to be hard-working, facing the “bamboo ceiling.” Asian-Americans must work harder while maintaining the facade of effortlessness, lest they be labeled as one of the one who knows little else than hard work.

Unsurprisingly, narratives on work also have a gendered element. People have told me, “But you’re a woman. Don’t you want to have a family?” While men have the freedom to be “obsessive” like Judd Apatow or “cocky” like Jerry Seinfeld (okay, I have been reading a lot of comic memoirs), there are fewer equivalent roles for women. The hard-working woman is often vilified, portrayed as cold and distanced from the ones she could love. There is no doubt that this perceived incompatibility between being female and hard-working contributes to the glass ceiling. I have all the more respect for Mindy Kaling for being among the few celebrity women who talks openly about hard work.

In “Is Food the New Sex?," Mary Eberstadt argues that food has replaced sex as the dominant mechanism for maintaining social hierarchy. It is fitting that Mindy Kaling is as open about loving McDonald’s as she is about working hard. If we are to promote inclusiveness and equal opportunity, we need to talk openly about work--and be critical of our fascination with the narratives around work, rather than the work that is done.

7 comments:

Deets said...

A strong work ethic + being passionate about something enough to even dedicate your job to it? Sounds great to me :) Party circuit ladies, play hard, but work hard too!

Anonymous said...

So, how much do you work each week? Not including any comp sci you might do in your "free time", how many hours do you put towards your obligations? Then, to extend the question, how many hours INCLUDING the free time you spend on comp sci related subjects?

Kenneth Miller said...

Me personally, I highly respect and admire women that work hard. It says they have ambition and the independence to choose their own path. Every day I wake up, I look forward to the learning and the coding that I'll do, trying to push the boundaries in my field. Ubermensch is the name, and hell bent, fiery determination is the game. I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't have a lot of the same outlook in common :)

| portrayed as cold and distanced...

I think you're awesome, and pursuing your dreams is taxing when you set the bar sky high like you have. I think I can empathize with what this blog addresses-when you work that hard for what you love, often the truth is more that there are only 24 hours in a day is a tradgedy, because otherwise we could all spend our every waking our seeking to be what we can. Therein lies where lament should be *judiciously* placed, because otherwise, that loving person could have the time and space to express to others what *they* need to hear before reaching conclusions such as "cold".

Hopefully that accurately captures what you're feeling.

A. said...

You'll maybe find food for thought in the following article.

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/in-the-name-of-love/

Kenneth Miller said...

Oh you know, ironically, I had read this article after having posted this but before you actually pointed it out to me. Jacobin magazine is a new source to me that I just found after having run across this blog. So, my post reflects my first thought, but I still think my response was fitting.

This article was really stimulating in a good way, but it's crazy to think that someone that works as hard as she must and that is so well accomplished is into an idea like this. Is it because she only just discovered this outlook? So I don't really believe that she so wholly endorses the message that the Jacobin article that she's stopped looking at her aspirations as being for herself. In fact, there's a gap between what the article has to say about the society's value of work and what she's saying.

Mindy's point that she really caught onto was really more about the fact that people have a love for other's accomplishments, but not an appreciation for the work it took to get there. She then makes a note about the taxing nature of work, saying that women who truly work hard appear cold. So I felt like my response got to the nature of what she was saying-ubermensch was something Nietzsche used to describe his version of a superman, and fits the bill *exactly*. It's someone who's always in *pursuit* of their goal-it doesn't establish what to look up to by accomplishment.

There's a stark contrast between what she's saying about work and what the Jacobin magazine is saying about work, and you can see it. She directly questions why women can't work hard too. The Jacobin article's thesis is that the mantra loving work is used to justify implicit benefits to companies, but that it doesn't suit people very well at all.

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Kenneth Miller said...

I think I wrote this *casually* on my cell phone so there were some typos, and I can't edit my comments them so it's really just carelessness on my part.