Some Thoughts on Working Too Hard

 

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Image by Fictor Freitas. Via: (Unsplash)

 

We have a cultural allergy towards people who work too hard. They think that people who work too hard are not enjoying their lives. What if hard workers choose to work hard because they find it gratifying and meaningful? What if we start to rethink our definition of hard work?

For almost my whole life, I frequently get teased by my family and friends because of my extreme work ethic. I am proud of my work ethic because it has led me to enjoy many fulfilling experiences. On the other hand, I sometimes feel lonely and ‘different’ because of it. I remember back in elementary school, my classmates would snatch my pencil from my hand, and throw it across the room so that I could stop studying. Even my family used to tease me, of course, with a touch of humor and love, for my obsession with studying.

Now, the frequency of the mocking and teasing has decreased, but every time I try to overdeliver a project or work harder than anyone, I feel lonely because this loneliness takes me back to my childhood. I remember the mean words of those bullies who mocked my passion in studying, and some people who persuaded me to be more social with girls and to spend less time with myself. There’s a constant monologue in my head that rings loudly when I decide to work hard: “You don’t need to work too hard. If you work too hard, that means you are not special. If you work hard, you will be perceived as needy and too obedient. You need to do everything effortlessly.”

I know that I’m not special, this is why I work hard. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our intense and firm work ethic. As Maria Popova said, “So as you move through life, pedal hard–because that’s how you get places, and because it’s fun and so incredibly gratifying to propel yourself forward by your own will and power of intention.” 

Here’s the hardest truth that I need to share: When you work hard, in fact, extremely hard, your hard work doesn’t always guarantee you to have the life or things you want. There will always be people that underwhelm your hard work, and say that your hard work is not enough. Obstacles will always greet you joyfully on your journey, and disrupt your work. Obstacles don’t care about how much work you have put into a project, a relationship, a senior thesis, a psychology exam, or anything. Once they come knocking on your door, you have to face where they are. Of course, this sucks. This is the truth that we have to face.

However, to work hard or to be idle is a choice that’s always available for us, if we’re conscious of it. I like to think that working hard is a sign of self-respect because you believe that you can achieve something remarkable. You believe that your brain and vitality can bring so much goodness for you and for other people. You believe that we, humans, exist not only to work from nine to five and retire, but also to create and make something more beautiful than it needs to be. Working hard can also be a sign of your deep love of the work you do. Any reason to work hard must come from within yourself, not from anyone.

If you have ever stayed up all night to perfect the design of the website of your creation, if you have ever sent a project to a company you’re applying for even if it’s not required but you love the company so much, if you have ever refused an invitation to a party because you need a big chunk of uninterrupted time to rehearse your speech, if you have ever become a volunteer to help your professor for his research, if you have ever created an app to solve a productivity problem in your office, I applaud your decision to be a hard worker. Again, it’s always a decision.

Kartini and The Question of “What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?”

 

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Kartini, in the middle, with her younge sister Kardinah, and half sister Roekmini, 
in Semarang, Indonesia, 1900. ©KITLV. Via: (Dereisnaar)

 

One of the most interesting people that I know is R.A Kartini (April 21, 1879- September 17, 1904), a young ambitious and brilliant Javanese woman who contributed and shaped Indonesian history, especially in the early twentieth century, because of her relentless dedication to elevate the status of women in her society.

Kartini was born into a high-class family in a small town on the north coast of Java island. Despite the immense privilege that her family possessed, her time was hard and challenging. It was the time when women’s status was reduced to a fertile uterus and kitchen. The effects of Dutch colonization were deeply inhuman and evoking a sense of opposition in her spirit. Moreover, Kartini was uneasy with the way the Javanese behaved. They were lazy and only glorified prayers and spirit offerings to improve their conditions of life. Perhaps, the most devastating thing that happened to her life was when she had to be withdrawn from her school by her family to obey to her Javanese tradition. Around this time, girls of high nobility family, were excluded from outsiders to prepare them for an early arranged marriage.

These things made her heart broken. She turned to reading as an escape from her bleak reality and a way to stimulate her curiosity. Not only was she a voracious reader, but she’s also a prolific letter writer. Kartini wrote letters to unpack everything she observed, both in her internal and external life, mostly to her Dutch friends, in Dutch. After she died, her letters were posthumously compiled and published in a book titled “Door Duisternis tot Licht (Out of Dark Comes Light)” in 1911, and then later translated in English by Agnes Louise Symmers as “Letters of a Javanese Princess.”

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My left hand holding “Letters of a Javanese Princess”

 

In the book, there is one letter that was written to her friend, Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri, in 1900, that has left a profound mark on my mind.

The letter begins with a story of Kartini who asked her Dutch friend named Letsy to play with her at recess. Letsy, who at the time was reading a book, politely declined the invitation because she had to study the book in preparation for an exam. She did not want to fail the exam, and she said that she had to be smart because one day she’d like to be a teacher. When Letsy curiously asked Kartini what she would like to be in the future, Kartini innocently replied, “I don’t know.” The question startled her. Kartini stood in disbelief, unable to articulate her answer. It was a strange question for her because nobody had asked her this question before. And perhaps, devastatingly, she lived in an era when her society did not believe that women were capable of thinking and dreaming big.

Right after Kartini was asked the question, she sprinted to her house, still haunted by Letsy’s question. When her brother frankly told her that she’d naturally be a Raden Ayu in the future (a Javanese married woman of high rank), Kartini realized that her fate was already shaped by her society without her will. Being a Raden Ayu would mean that she had to marry, must belong to a man, without her consent.

Though she eventually married to a man that was carefully chosen for her, Kartini refused to live her life like most of Javanese married women who were submissive and expressionless. The older she got, the more passionate she became with the issues of women’s rights. Even, she erected a small school for young girls with her sisters. She was not only a teacher who taught them writing, reading, handiwork, cooking, and art, but also, she became their mother who taught them about love and life.

A century after she died, even when Indonesia has become more modernized than her time, some of us still think that this question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is challenging. It’s a big question, but at its core, it invites us to define our own dreams vividly.

Defining our dreams means refusing our parents, lovers, neighbors, and even politicians to shape them. Defining our own dreams means avoiding shallow work and embracing any future obstacles as a learning process. This also means planting ourselves in the soil of optimism and solid work.

James Baldwin, an American writer once said, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”  Just like Baldwin, Kartini refused to let her world to define and dictate her dreams. She told her world how she and other women would like to be treated. She didn’t live in somebody else’s dreams. She made her own dreams.

Rainer Maria Rilke on Embracing Our Unsolved Questions

 

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Rainer Maria Rilke (far left) and young Balthus and his mother, Baladine Klossowska. Via: (Artnet)

 

To be alive is to inquire. We ask questions to find answers. However, there are times when we can’t find the answers to the questions we raise. The questions seem overwhelming that we can’t dismantle them, and even make an attempt to answer them. Moreover, in this age of constant gratification, and information overload, it seems so amusing and appalling to have our questions unsolved. Then what’s the most graceful way to behave when we have unsolved questions? What do we do with them?

One of my favorite thinkers and poets, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), knows exactly what one must do with his or her unsolved questions. In a heartfelt letter dated from July 16th 1903, Rilke, already a famous poet, consoled Franz Kappus, the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet, who seemed to be eaten alive by his own immense unsolved existential questions.

Found in book titled Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke replies his letter beautifully:

“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it–but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.”

I hope that Rilke’s letter to Kappus can be a wise reminder for us to always “live the questions” without any hesitation. Knowing how to be calm with our unsolved questions is, I believe, a path to become more grounded and wiser human being.