effort and work

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Pathless Path" by Paul Millerd. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is your job a big priority in your life? Do you feel pressured to work more and more?

In his book The Pathless Path, Paul Millerd discusses the traditional approach to work in America. He points to the historical events that made it popular to prioritize work ahead of everything else. And, he outlines the negative consequences of prioritizing work.

Read more to learn how the American work culture came about and the ways it causes harm.

American Work Culture

Millerd explains that, historically, most people understood work as something you must do to survive and believed that once your needs are met, it’s OK to stop working. However, during the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin introduced a new idea—that everyone had a God-given purpose and that working hard to fulfill this purpose would bring you closer to God. Millerd says that, according to sociologist Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, this sparked a major cultural change in the West with long-lasting effects on the way people approach work: In capitalist countries, work became the first priority in most people’s lives. Millerd points to three historic events that deepened this emphasis and shaped the American work culture.

(Shortform note: Weber explains further that, while Luther and Calvin’s teachings encouraged early Protestants to embrace work for spiritual purposes, later church leaders also taught Protestants to embrace wealth for the first time. Traditionally, Christians believed wealth was sinful because Jesus taught that you can’t pursue earthly treasures and eternal life at the same time. Then, Protestants began accumulating more wealth as a result of their devotion to work—to account for this, theologian Richard Baxter taught that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and that it was immoral not to pursue wealth when given the chance. Today, this lives on in the form of the prosperity gospel, which teaches that God wants his followers to become wealthy.) 

Events That Deepened the Emphasis on Work

After World War II, the US experienced an economic boom that enabled the average person to buy a house, support their family, and build unprecedented wealth just by working a full-time industry job until they reached retirement age. (This was a drastic change—before the war, most people supported themselves through subsistence farming.) 

(Shortform note: Several factors contributed to the postwar economic boom, but economists point to three particularly important ones. First, the war increased demand for production, which fueled higher employment rates, wage raises, and overtime hours. Second, since the war took many people out of the workforce, Black people and women were able to access jobs they hadn’t been able to access before, which expanded the middle class. Third, public sentiment held that returning veterans should be given the opportunity to support themselves. So, a GI Bill was passed that provided many benefits (such as small business loans) that enabled them to pursue economic prosperity, which further built the middle class.)

According to Millerd, most people continue to believe that this is the way things are supposed to be—but he explains that this was an exceptional event in world history and that economic circumstances have changed vastly since then, which means that trying to replicate this way of life is futile.

(Shortform note: Many social and economic changes occurred that now make it harder to achieve the kind of prosperity that was possible in the postwar years. These include the fact that wages have not kept pace with inflation, which reduces the buying power of many workers, and a trend toward automating jobs which displaced workers, lowered wages, and is thought to have contributed significantly to the decline of the middle class.)

Second, these postwar economic changes led to a widespread change in American culture: For the first time, you would only be seen as a legitimate member of society if you worked a full-time job. The government even codified this opinion into law in 1946, when Congress passed the Full Employment Act, which mandated that the federal government do everything in its power to ensure every American was employed full time. Millerd says that according to anthropologist David Graeber in Bullshit Jobs, this made it necessary for useless jobs—which don’t have an intrinsic value and entail wasting time for most of the day—to be created and kept, even though most workers hate these kinds of jobs.

(Shortform note: Historians say that Congress passed the Employment Act of 1946 because there was national anxiety about how veterans returning from World War II would be able to adjust to economic changes and support themselves. Congress intended the Act to help avoid an economic disaster on the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Bullshit Jobs, Graeber argues that mass unemployment carries another risk—the possibility of revolution—which also motivates the government to keep people employed. The belief that you’re only a legitimate member of society if you have a full-time job persists today in the form of unemployment stigma, which associates joblessness with negative traits like ineptitude, laziness, and being a burden.)

Third, Millerd says that, beginning in the 1990s, researchers began to suggest that people needed emotionally rewarding work to be happy. This led most people to believe that not only did they need a job to support themselves monetarily, but they also had to find a job that aligned with their life’s purpose, or else they’d be miserable. People began to expect their jobs to make them happy, and major companies responded by advertising that the jobs they offered could give people’s lives meaning.

(Shortform note: Many experts agree that most people are happier when their jobs are emotionally rewarding, and they explain that emotionally rewarding jobs satisfy three conditions: You’re empowered to work independently, feel capable of performing well, and have meaningful working relationships. However, there can be drawbacks to having an emotionally rewarding job—you might be motivated to put extra effort into your work, which can lead to burnout, and instead of rewarding you for your hard work, your employer might underpay you.)

Millerd says that, as a result of these historical developments, most Americans today believe that work is central to life—so much so that they can’t even imagine spending the majority of their time doing something else. In fact, Americans tend to identify themselves in terms of their job more than any other part of their life—they’re more likely to introduce themselves as lawyers, for example, than as mothers or cyclists.

(Shortform note: One reason Americans may struggle to imagine a life that’s not centered around work is that they’re not sure what to replace it with. Research suggests that when your identity is tied to your job, losing your job (or deprioritizing work) could lead to an identity crisis. Studies show that because American society is centered around work, many unemployed people feel like they lack a sense of purpose, and they don’t use their extra time to pursue other meaningful interests. However, some argue that if American society stops prioritizing traditional work on a large scale due to increased automation of jobs, masses of people will move toward achieving meaning—and affirming a positive sense of identity—via creative projects instead.)

The Negative Consequences of Prioritizing Work

Millerd argues that prioritizing work makes you miserable for a few reasons. First, work rarely aligns with your values or passions. Second, even if you are passionate about your job, it may not make you happy. For example, social workers may see the value in their job, but, because they’re in constant contact with people who are suffering, their job can be challenging or even depressing. Third, to succeed in traditional workplaces, you have to play political games: You must prove to higher-ups that you care about your job by putting in an excessive amount of time and energy. When you gain their favor, you become one of the elite, which opens countless doors to you—not on the basis of true talent, which would be satisfying, but on the basis of following the rules, which isn’t satisfying (in Millerd’s experience).

(Shortform note: Although Millerd argues that prioritizing work makes you miserable, some research suggests sometimes work can actually enhance your overall happiness. This happens when your job satisfies certain conditions, like paying you well, giving you a chance to learn new things, and empowering you to work independently. If your job helps you achieve other valuable goals (like financial security or a sense of meaning), it can make sense to prioritize work to reap those benefits. Work-related misery seems to arise when you prioritize work at the expense of other facets of well-being—for example, when your commitment to work prevents you from enjoying family time.)

Millerd also says that it’s clear that most people suffer when they prioritize work because there’s a huge financial market for coping with your job. He explains that most people cope by living for the weekend or planning for retirement—since they can’t spend most of their time doing what they truly love, they party on the weekends and plan extravagant, far-off vacations. They also take shortcuts around important parts of life—say, by eating fast food daily because work takes up too much time for them to cook. These coping activities sustain a significant part of the US economy.

(Shortform note: Many people cope with jobs that make them miserable by engaging in numbing behaviors—activities you engage in, like mindlessly binge-watching TV shows or browsing the internet, to distract yourself from your true feelings. Psychologists say emotional numbing is one reason people watch more TV than ever—it’s one of the cheapest, most accessible means of escaping your problems. As Millerd says, people’s willingness to engage in numbing behaviors fuels large segments of the economy—for example, the higher demand for TV shows contributed to a boom in streaming services’ content production and profitability.)

American Work Culture: How Work Came to Dominate Life

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Paul Millerd's "The Pathless Path" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Pathless Path summary:

  • How to take a non-traditional approach to career success through freelancing
  • Why Americans prioritize work and the disadvantages of this lifestyle
  • One man's inspiring story of shifting from the workforce to freelancing

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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