Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Thomas Carlyle and the "Perennial Nobleness" of Work

Thomas Carlyle
The Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle[1] was not a fan of America, seeing it as "unrefined, even raw" and lacking in anything of greatness.[2] However, one exception to his disdain was that of "Joseph Smith's [unnamed] successor" (Brigham Young), who seemed to possess the qualities of  Carlyle's "Great Man,"[3] according to his "Draft Essay on the Mormons." Carlyle saw Young among great "men who had struggled with belief and, having resolved to some degree their personal spiritual conflicts, lived lives of usefulness, activity, and leadership."[4] Carlyle was particularly impressed by how this "Great Man" governed the Saints, largely because work was at the heart of Mormonism:

Mormons thrive because they work, are led by a "great man" who values work, and therefore experience success in their efforts. Carlyle's Calvinist upbringing saw these as natural connections...Ian Campbell reminds readers that in the Seceder Church of Ecclefechan where Carlyle's father attended, "work was put before the worshippers as the ultimate end of life." Carlyle sought some form of firm ethics without dogmatism that could be applied to practical problems and above all would imbue "a religious obligation to work." John M. Ulrich writes that Carlyle sought to renew society spiritually by calling for "a religious view of work." [Carlyle's] "Draft Essay on the Mormons" is a part of his attempt to show how work can sanctify society.[5]

In chapter 11 of his Past and Present, Carlyle describes the "perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in Work." For him, "the latest Gospel in this world is, Know they work and do it." Work was the means of "knowing thyself." "A man perfects himself by working," he wrote, for work is a "purifying fire"; a "life-purpose":

Labour is Life: from the inmost heart of the Worker rises his god-given Force, the sacred celestial Life-essence breathed into him by Almighty God; from his inmost heart awakens him to all nobleness,--to all knowledge, 'self-knowledge' and much else, so soon as Work fitly begins. Knowledge? The knowledge that will hold good in working, cleave thou to that; for Nature herself accredits that, says Yea to that. Properly thou hast no other knowledge but what thou hast got by working: the rest is yet all a hypothesis of knowledge; a thing to be argued of in schools, a thing floating in the clouds, in endless logic-vortices, till we try it and fix it. 'Doubt, of whatever kind, can be ended by Action alone.' 

It is in the act of labor that "the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony." For work "is of a religious nature...a brave nature; which it is the aim of all religion to be." In an 1842 letter, Carlyle wrote,

I wish all men knew and saw in very truth, as Emerson does, the everlasting worth, dignity, and blessedness of work...For myself, I feel daily more and more what a truth there is in the old saying of the monks, Laborare est orare [to work is to pray]. I find really that a man cannot make a pair of shoes rightly unless he do it in a devout manner...all work properly so called is an appeal from the Seen to the Unseen--a devout calling upon Higher Powers...[6]

That same year, he wrote another letter declaring that

there is but one man...who is worthy of respect in this world: he that can work at something. The old Monks had a proverb, "Laborare est orare, To work is to pray"; the meaning of which goes far deeper than they perhaps were aware of. He that works well and nobly, not as a slave for mere money-hire, but as a man withal and in the spirit of a man, he, if any, is in real communication with his Unseen Author, making a perpetual pious appeal to the Invisible Powers of this Universe,--which respond to him, if he is faithful. You cannot raise wheat, if you have no virtue, no heroism at all: how much less teach men, conquer men, teach or conquer yourself!

The Mormons ability to "endur[e] the extreme conditions and coloniz[e] desolate regions of the American West"[7] obviously appealed to Carlyle's views of work. His "Draft Essay on the Mormons" is "nearly devoid of theological examinations; instead, it emphasizes the practical results of the religion and expresses approbation for the Church's leadership and the kind of action-oriented belief and obedience it inspires in its members."[8] It seems that Mormons in Carlyle's mind were properly living "the gospel of work."


NOTES

1. I've written elsewhere about Carlyle's racist reasons for calling economics the "dismal science."

2. Paul E. Kerry, “Thomas Carlyle’s Draft Essay on the Mormons,” Literature & Belief 25:1-2 (2005): 268.

3. Ibid.: 274.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.: 282.

6. Carlyle was quite extreme, calling for the termination of "Fox-hunting, Almacking, Corn-lawing, and a variety of other things" that didn't qualify as work. He also thought "that no man is ever paid for his real work, or should ever expect or demand angrily to be paid..."

7. Kerry, 2005: 282.

8. Ibid.: 284.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Union Review, 1868: "Labour, In Fact, Is Their Religion"


I get up at seven, yeah
And I go to work at nine
I got no time for livin'
Yes, I'm workin' all the time
...I guess that's why they call me
They call me the working man

- Rush, "Working Man," Rush (Moon, 1974)



In an 1868 volume of The Union Review, there is a review of William Hepworth Dixon's New America with a rather large section devoted to the portion about Mormonism. The comments are similar to that of The Edinburgh Review I covered in my last post:

But Mormon life is not a life of ease and pleasure; on the contrary, it is essentially a life of labour and toil; nay, we may say that hand-labour is the essence of every-day religion; with them is far more realised the old saying, laborare est orare [to work is to pray], then anywhere else. The following is a part of a "sermon" preached by [Brigham] Young to a band of newly-arrived emigrants:

"Brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ, you have been chosen from the world by God...You are faint and weary from your march. Rest, then, for a day; for a second day, should you need it; then rise up, and see how you will live. Don't bother yourselves much about your religious duties...Look about this valley into which you have been called. Your first duty is to learn how to grow a cabbage; and along with this cabbage, an onion, a tomato, and a sweet potato; then how to feed a pig, to build a house, to plant a garden, to rear cattle, and to bake bread; in a word, your first duty is to live. The next duty--for those who, being Danes, French, and Swiss, cannot speak it now--is to learn English; the language of God, the language of the Book of Mormon, the language of these Latter Days. These things you must do first; the rest will be added to your in proper seasons. God bless you; and the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you."---Page 210.

Labour, in fact, is their religion; they have a creed, it is true, and they have their peculiar doctrines; but the cultivating the land, building of houses, and making the land profitable and their homes comfortable, is the real religion of the Mormons. Without such a religion...life would be impossible in the Salt Lake Valley.[1]

Building a literal Zion means literal work. Therefore, the work is elevated to the same heavenly heights as Zion itself.


1. The Union Review: A Magazine of Catholic Literature and Art, Vol. 6 (January - December 1868), 297 (bold mine).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Edinburgh Review, 1854: "All Is 'Of the Earth, Earthy'"

In the May 1854 issue of the journal The Leisure Hour, there is a scathing article on Mormonism, describing it as the  the "foremost" among the "social or religious impostors" of the day.[1] Drawing on a recent depiction of Salt Lake, the article bemoans "the grossly secular and sensuous character of Mormon worship."[2] This relied heavily on an April 1854 report in The Edinburgh Review, which noted the following:

But the most remarkable feature in the practical working of Mormonism, considered as a Religion, is the almost entire absence of the devotional element...All is 'of the earth, earthy.' One of the ablest writers against Christianity has lately stated it as his chief objection to the Christian System, that it discourages the love of earthly things, and requires its votaries to set their affections on things above. He proposes to amend the precept of Saint John, ---'Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,' by simply leaving out the word not. Mormonism seems exactly to realise the ideal of this distinguished controversialist...[3]

Neither of these descriptions are exactly flattering, but both capture something significant about early Mormonism: the religious nature of work. The review continues: "The Gospel which they proclaim consists of directions for emigration, instructions for the setting up of machinery, the management of iron-works, the manufacture of nails, the spinning of cotton-yarn, and the breeding of stock. The same undevotional aspect is exhibited by their public worship, at least in Utah."[4] This "grossly secular" form of practical religion seems to have been something of a surprise to its outside observers. It's overly "earthy" nature was off-putting.



In its description of the Mormon worship service, the review mentions

a discussion, in which any one may speak. This part of the service is usually a conversation on local business, like that in an English vestry meeting. The sermon follows; but even that is not confined to religious exhortation, but embraces such questions as the discipline of the Legion, the Californian gold-digging, and the politics of the Territory. The most curious specimen of these discourses which we have discovered is the following, which we take from the official report:

"Elder George Smith was called upon to preach an iron sermon. He rose, and took into the stand [pulpit] one of the fire-irons [the first productions of the Utah founderies]. Holding the same over his head, he cried out "Stereotype edition," and descended amid the cheers of the saints. The choir then sung the doxology, and the benediction was pronounced by Lorenzo Snow." (XV. 492.)

This kind of religious service would satisfy the aspirations of [Thomas] Carlyle himself, whose rather lengthy sermons on the text laborare est orare [to work is to pray], are thus condensed into pantomime by 'Elder George Smith.'[4]

Even early outsiders noticed what Terryl Givens calls the "collapse of sacred distance" in Mormonism.



NOTES

1. The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation, No. 126 (May 25, 1854), 334.

2. Ibid.

3. The Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal, Vol. XCIX (January - April 1854), 369.

4. Ibid., 370.

Monday, September 22, 2014

"...The Sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a Four-Count Rhythm..."



In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing...It is true that one day a week was given over wholly to religion...Even so, in a typical week of our childhood [we] probably received as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as we did in all other spiritual matters.

...My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things--trout as well as eternal salvation--come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy

- Norman Maclean [1]


Maclean's novella A River Runs Through It (and the Robert Redford film inspired by it) is a fine example of uncovering the sacred in the mundane. Though there is much more to the memoir than this, the idea that an activity such as fly fishing can become pregnant with such profound meaning is an important takeaway. Early on, Maclean explains the tedious labor of learning the purely functional elements of fly fishing: "So my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian-style, on a metronome."[2] It was a craft that must be done with great care. "If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him."[3] It was part of the Maclean boys' "religious training" to never be late for "church, work, and fishing."[4] These three all operated under the same metaphysical assumptions, the same religious framework. Various passages demonstrate the profundity of a craft or task, whether it be fly fishing in Montana's Blackfoot River or the TPS reports on Monday morning.

It was through fly fishing that Maclean's alcoholic and gambler brother Paul (played by Brad Pitt in the film) became his best self. While witnessing "the last fish we would ever see Paul catch," the Maclean brothers' father simply states, "He is beautiful."[5] The struggle with the enormous trout transformed Paul. He was the very messiness of humanity endowed with divinity; "a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter." He was, in the words of his father, "a fine fisherman."[6] Through his art, grace was made manifest.


The art above took time, patience, discipline, and practice. Fishing is "an art performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock." While Maclean's father may not have "believed God was a mathematician...he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God's rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty."[7] As young boys, the Maclean brothers often had to cite the first question in The Westminster Shorter Catechism: "What is the chief end of man? Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." This accompanied sermons and personal lessons about Christ's disciples being fisherman, leaving the young boys "to assume...that all-first class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."[8] In the case of the apostles, discipleship, art, and vocation came into one (at least for this Presbyterian minister). On the banks of the river watching Paul's final catch, Maclean's father made an important insight: "[The New Testament] says the Word was in the beginning, and that's right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water...The water runs over the words."[9] One scholar has noted,

The river is the background of the story and is associated with the flow of experience, with nature, and also with our memories of the past that continually flow into the present and sometimes threaten to drown us. Words are our attempts to understand, to deal with, and to control insofar as we are able, the flow of life. It is the words that enable us to perceive meanings and to create the forms that articulate our lives.

For this writer, "the interplay of river and words" is "the dialectic of the flow of life and of our attempts to understand and shape it..." The "words are the medium through which the river is conveyed to us and so they also return in the last paragraph of the story as the foundation of everything."



I'm sure few would consider fishing "art" in any familiar sense, just as few would describe the menial tasks of everyday work as such. However, these tasks can be infused with meaning and purpose. They can provide structure in the midst of chaos and provide tools to deal with life in general. They can, in essence, "glorify God" and become one way we "enjoy Him forever." And sometimes, they can even be the means by which we witness perfection.

Try remembering that next time you're prepping a spreadsheet for work.



NOTES

1. Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, 25th Anniversary Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 1-2, 4.

2. Ibid., 4.

3. Ibid., 2-3. 

4. Ibid., 34. 

5. Maclean, 2001, 100. According to Maclean, his father, "unlike many Presbyterians...often used the word "beautiful"" (Ibid., 2).

6. Ibid., 101.

7. Ibid., 2.

8. Ibid., 1.

9. Ibid., 95-96. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Management Lessons from Dr. Who: Robert Sutton Edition


The Doctor: "So tell me, what do you think of the view?"

Half-Face Man: "It is beautiful."

The Doctor: "No, it isn't. It's just far away. Everything looks too small. I prefer it down there Everything is huge. Everything is so important. Every detail, every moment, every life clung to."


Did I mention the balloon is made out of human skin?
Perhaps a reflection of how "small" people were to the cyborg.
The above is one of my favorite lines from the Season 8 premiere of Doctor Who, featuring Peter Capaldi as the brand new face of the Doctor. It takes place in a hot-air balloon above the city of London as the Doctor attempts to reason with a cyborg built largely out of human parts ("Hello, hello...rubbish robots from the dawn of time..."). It isn't getting the praise that the Doctor's alley scene or the Clara/Doctor "egomania" restaurant spat are (which are both brilliant), but it was a small glimpse into how the Doctor sees the world. "Those people down there," the Doctor growls, "they're never small to me." The line about big and small resonated with me not only on both a theological and moral level, but even from a management perspective. Stanford professor Robert Sutton has addressed the management vs. leadership trend by pointing out the danger behind it:


[T]his distinction seems to be used as a reason for leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they serve... “Big picture only” leaders often make decisions without considering the constraints that affect the cost and time required to implement them, and even when evidence begins mounting that it is impossible or unwise to implement their grand ideas, they often choose to push forward anyway...[T]he worst senior executives use the distinction between leadership and management as an excuse to avoid the details they really have to master to see the big picture and select the right strategies. Therefore, harking back to the Bennis theorem I quoted above, let me propose a corollary: To do the right thing, a leader needs to understand what it takes to do things right, and to make sure they actually get done” (bold mine).

Sutton sees the distinction between leadership and management as 

accurate but dangerous because it distorts how too many bosses--at all levels--view and do their work. It encourages bosses to see generating big and vague ideas as the important part of their jobs--and to treat implementation, or pesky details of any kind, as mere “management work” best done by “the little people.” Even if left it unsaid, this distinction reflects how too many bosses think and act. They use it to avoid learning about people they lead, technologies their companies use, customers they serve, and numerous other crucial little things. Among the CEOs, Brad Smith of Intuit (maker of popular software such as QuickBooks and TurboTax) reacted most strongly to these arguments. He explained they struck a nerve because of his experience with developing new managers: The best are obsessed with learning details about every aspect of the business; the worst--the least promising and most arrogant--treat such nuances as being somehow beneath them (bold mine).

Sutton warns of what he calls “Clusterfugs”: "a deadly blend of illusion, incompetence, and impatience [that] creates disasters." These are often "attributable to a failure to “do things right” rather than a failure to try to “do the right thing.” For a recent brilliant analysis of one such “clusterfug” see Harvard's Amy Edmondson’s piece on the botched Obamacare rollout. Such sad tales further reinforce my view that thinking about what could happen, and exhorting people to make it so, is a lot easier than actually getting it done. What's that old saying? Isn't it, "strategy is for amateurs and logistics are for professionals."

Organizations, according to Sutton, need both poets and plumbers. They need to "weave together the "birds eye view," the big picture, with "the worm's eye view," the nuances and tiny little actions required to make bold ideas come to life." As a 2,000 year old Time Lord, I think the Doctor understands this quite well. Managers should take note. 

With that, watch the Doctor regenerate into his newest incarnation (Capaldi) below. And watch Season 8. It's shaping up to be amazing.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Meeting Core Needs


Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath of the Energy Project have an excellent article in The New York Times titled "Why You Hate Work." The gist of the article demonstrates that organizations must be recognized as communities (my word, not theirs) made up of actual people. This requires organizations to meet what the authors call "core needs":

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

The more effectively leaders and organizations support employees in meeting these core needs, the more likely the employees are to experience engagement, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy at work, and the lower their perceived levels of stress. When employees have one need met, compared with none, all of their performance variables improve. The more needs met, the more positive the impact.

The specific examples of increased "engagement, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy" are impressive:

Renewal: Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being. The more hours people work beyond 40 — and the more continuously they work — the worse they feel, and the less engaged they become. By contrast, feeling encouraged by one’s supervisor to take breaks increases by nearly 100 percent people’s likelihood to stay with any given company, and also doubles their sense of health and well-being.

Value: Feeling cared for by one’s supervisor has a more significant impact on people’s sense of trust and safety than any other behavior by a leader. Employees who say they have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and are 67 percent more engaged.

Focus: Only 20 percent of respondents said they were able to focus on one task at a time at work, but those who could were 50 percent more engaged. Similarly, only one-third of respondents said they were able to effectively prioritize their tasks, but those who did were 1.6 times better able to focus on one thing at a time.

Purpose: Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations — the highest single impact of any variable in our survey. These employees also reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and they were 1.4 times more engaged at work.

It is exciting that the evidence points to a more human-driven business model. According to the authors, "more and more companies are taking up this challenge — most commonly addressing employees’ physical needs first, through wellness and well-being programs. Far less common is a broader shift in the corporate mind-set from trying to get more out of employees to investing more in meeting their needs, so they’re both capable of and motivated to perform better and more sustainably." 

I hope to see more organizations focusing on all core needs. 


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Alain de Botton on Work

I just downloaded author Alain de Botton's book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, but haven't cracked it open yet. The following inspired me to check it out.


Is the daily grind of work an escape from the big questions? Is daily work about imposing order on the seemingly meaningless chaos of human existence? Does work allow us to become something greater than we are ordinarily?

Questions to think about.