I just read this piece by Mike Elgan. Elgan’s argument is that hard work is dead in an age where we have Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. to constantly and effortlessly distract us.
There seems to be a mistake in this reasoning. If all that’s changed from now and the golden age of hard work (whenever that might have been) is that we have more media for distraction at hand, what follows immediately is that people were less distracted in the good old days. But to say that someone is less distracted doesn’t suggest anything about their “work ethic” without some meaty assumptions.
The lack of distractions (or, to put it in more neutral terms, the lack of alternative avenues for your attention!): this sounds like the very definition of boredom. But boredom – a state you find yourself in – isn’t directly related to how hard you work – a choice you make. It’s true that boredom might drive you to devote your energies to something in the way that exemplifies a good work ethic, but on the other hand it might not, and you might end up staring at the wall as I so often do. On the flip side, someone who is never bored (i.e. is constantly distracted) might well be working very hard all the time. Anyone who tries to keep up with their feed reader knows how hard you have to work to maintain a respectably high level of distraction.
More importantly, though, the assumption that there is something holy about the work ethic of our grandparents is off. Work ethics are not inherently valuable; they only derive value from their products. Thus, for example, a writer’s work ethic is valuable because of the things that she writes, or even the kind of person she becomes as a result of this work ethic. But things like good writing and being a good person are, as philosophers are wont to say, multiply realizable, and while it’s true that the supposed tunnel vision of our forebears sometimes resulted in the kind of work that is independently valuable, it doesn’t mean that equally good or better work can’t come out of more distributed, “distracted” processes.
Isn’t it at least conceivable that, for instance, an obsessed Twitter user might write a poem that is not only as good as a more “focused” poet, but one that would be impossible without something like Twitter?
This is not to say that I don’t think total focus is not valuable. I do think, however, that distraction can have value too, or at least that the question is an empirical one.