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Jean François Millet - the Gleaners (1857)

“Some temptations come to the industrious, but all temptations attack the idle.”

  • Charles Spurgeon

“To do good work a man should no doubt be industrious. To do great work he must certainly be idle as well.”

  • Henry Ward Beecher

What is Industriousness?

Work is something we all do, every day of our lives. In some way, shape, or form, we labour to produce things to serve one another, create, and find satisfaction therein. Any productive action for the sake of a goal requires motivation, and an impetus from the person. The virtue most closely associated with this is fortitude (courage), comprised of the acts of resisting and undertaking. Industriousness is the virtue that helps directly with the latter.

Colloquially, industriousness suggests ‘productivity’ and ‘work ethic’, yet it is much more – it entails diligent, hard work put toward a given task, done in the spirit of love. Industriousness is something we bring to bear on both our leisure time and various types of work because purposeful, goal-directed activity is a type of labour that should be offered up as a gift to others.

To labour diligently, we must do our work well. This refers to both the effort we expend and the quality of the ensuing product. Too often, we think we can separate the two, but this is incomplete. The essence of work is equally about the outcome as it is what goes into it. Not only does the product suffer at the end of the day if done with lacklustre effort, but the worker and others involved as well. In a desire for expediency or disdain for trivial or tedious work, there is a failure to love oneself and others through the work performed.

To work well, we have to know what we are doing. This requires practice: an investment of time and effort into the acquisition of the proper skills to perform the work. It is not about dominance and showiness but rather a mastery of skill that is attuned to creating out of love. To love well, one must know the good, as the product we are trying to create, and develop the know-how required to create it.

Furthermore, work involves the reasons and mindset we bring to it. Working well requires motivation and dedication to the creation of something of high quality, which involves two aims: doing something with originality so that it is human rather than mechanical, as well as appropriate evaluative standards. Our work cannot be done mindlessly or without an eye to what makes for good work in the domain we’re working in.

Two vices detract from industriousness – laziness and frenetic, non-stop activity. Laziness is not necessarily lack of activity but is more an attitude resulting in depression caused by an inability to summon enough energy to achieve any spiritual good. Our actions are barren when done out of laziness. In contrast, industriousness leads one diligently to complete one’s own duties.

The seeming opposite of laziness is frenetic activity, but it is in fact concealed laziness. Frenetic activity assumes the appearance of industriousness, but it is the attitude and connection to one’s duties that distinguishes it. In frenetic activity, one is fleeing from the diligent pursuit of one’s other duties. Every spurt of activity needs to be balanced by rest and play and flow from a right inner disposition. Ultimately, all fruitful activity must flow from an inner peace. Therefore, it must be rooted in love, which can only be cultivated through rest and contemplation, so that the fruits of our labour are ripe, rather than rotten.

Lastly, work isn’t something done for oneself or for the praise of others, to satisfy one’s ego – it is a service of others. We all know what it is like to labour with a grimace, as though our task were the last thing in the world we’d like to be doing. Work is impoverished if not done in the spirit of generosity. Work as a giver is the ultimate liberation.

Written by: Peter Copeland

Interview on Industriousness, with Peter Copeland

How does the virtue of industriousness relate to work?

Industriousness can be thought of as a combination of work ethic, endurance, and focus. It's so easy for us to spend time working hard, long hours, but with little to show for it. We can easily convince ourselves that, through putting in the time, or working on certain things that are not pertinent to the task at hand, we are 'working hard', when in fact, we are working aimlessly.

Secondly, when properly understood, industriousness means we have a good idea of what work is for. It goes much further than our job description, and fulfilling tasks associated with the goals of an organization. Work is really about serving others, creating things or performing services, and working with people in ways that actually help them. Work is essentially a creative act, where the effort we put in, the manner in which we work, and the standards that we bring to the product all add or detract from its quality and its goodness.

Why is it important in a work context?

In a work context, it's particularly important because we are serving others–our colleagues, customers, clients. As well, the organized nature of a business and its goals means that we have a special duty to perform our tasks at work. What's more, the formal goals of an organization entail specific tasks and outputs that must be completed. This makes thoughtful, efficient, and effective work all the more important.

How have you personally built on this virtue?

I would say that work ethic, time put in, and desire to do work of a high quality comes relatively easily because of my personality. Yet, I'm someone who has struggled with the concept of serving others through my work. It's only with time, experience, applying philosophy, and practicing my faith that I've come to see how narrow and unfulfilling the pursuit of my own desires really is. It's been difficult, because it means parting ways with the 'old self' and admitting your own failings, but there is nothing more liberating than finding the humility to see yourself as you truly are.

I have a tendency to take on new projects and initiatives. Although laudatory, it is actually often a disguised form of procrastination or a lack of commitment to seeing things through. To counteract this, I seek spiritual direction and friends who give honest advice. Without someone with whom you can share your challenges, difficulties, hopes and desires – and to whom you are accountable – it can be difficult to see yourself objectively.

Did somebody mentor you on this? Have you mentored others about industriousness.?

No one person in particular has mentored me, but I have benefited from the actions and words of many along the way. I am an avid reader of philosophy, in particular, what's known as virtue ethics, which focuses on how to develop good, stable character traits and virtues over time, which leads to happiness and a flourishing life.

Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas, Alistair Macintyre, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Jennifer Frey are all great writers on the topic. I find virtue ethics the right approach to finding happiness and living a moral life, rather than following abstract moral principles such as consequentialism (acting in such a way that you do the greatest good for the greatest number of people) or deontology (following universal moral maxims in a dutiful way). I find that those moral philosophies separate happiness and the search for good from the practice of ethics, which becomes either a dry calculation (consequentialism) or dry rule following (deontology).

How have you lived this virtue at work?

I make lists, firm calendar dates, and reconcile what I've done against the outstanding objectives at the end of the day and week. This kind of planning and commitment to the tasks laid out before me helps me stay on top of the right things, and pursue them in a timely manner.

Do you have any examples of failing to live this virtue at work, and did you overcome that?

I have three main failings in this area: being overly critical, opinionated, and complaining too much. I have a bit of a superiority complex from having studied philosophy. I think I know better, and I am dismayed to find that many people don’t uncover every stone to understand a problem and look for a solution. Nor are they guided by the criterion of 'what is the right answer', but instead by public opinion, desire for fame, glory, what is most expedient, etc.

I've learned that the 'right answer' is not always easy to find, and that it is better to serve others through your work, rather than fight every battle over what to do based on a rational perspective. I try to not share my opinion unless asked, not to criticize needlessly, or if I have to, start with a positive comment before doing so, and to not complain about others or some problem. This helps me to listen and see others' perspectives more easily.

Do you have any examples of friends or colleagues living this virtue at work?

Ontario Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Sylvia Jones has lived this virtue. I had the privilege of working for Minister Jones when she served as provincial Solicitor General. She is someone who is truly tireless, reads all her briefing materials front to back, and never directly criticizes others, or shares her opinion on something.

She asks questions of those presenting her with material for review and decision, rather than giving orders or explicitly critiquing. What's more, although she is a prominent Cabinet minister with important provincial duties, she rarely missed carving out a whole day each week to devote to the people who elected her, in her own riding of Dufferin-Caledon.

To me, she is an exemplar of well-rounded leadership, which is just what the virtue of industriousness entails. It is more than just work ethic, but work done in the right way, for the right reasons, in a virtuous way, where you seek to serve, not be served.

Peter Copeland is a husband to his wife Kelly, a father, son, brother, Ontarian and Canadian. He has worked in entrepreneurship and business, teaching, academic writing and research, and politics. After pursuing graduate school in philosophy, he entered politics and public policy, where he now works as Director of Policy & Stakeholder Relations for Ontario’s Solicitor General. He also serves as an Associate Fellow with various think tanks and NGOs, where he writes, interviews and produces content at the intersection of ideas, science, public policy and culture.

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