Work as if You Lived in the Early Days of a Better Nation

It’s Monday morning: when better to meditate on one of life’s four-letter words?

Work: it consumes vast amounts of our time, and each one of us must come to some kind of accommodation with it early on in life. If we have too much work we complain, if we don’t have enough, then we starve or rot from the inside out. It’s tricky.

For a long time, I was against work. When I graduated at 22 I had successfully managed to avoid doing very much of it, since my degree was in English Literature, a subject any half-intelligent person can succeed in, provided they have a gift for improvisation and blather. The downside was that I was unqualified for anything profitable. Still, that wasn’t a problem as my goal remained work avoidance.

And so I moved to Russia, where I learned that there was tolerable money to be had conversing in English with wealthy people. I did that, and enjoyed most of the conversations. Better yet, I didn’t even need to do too much talking to survive – I am a man of ascetic habits and can get by on very little. I regularly turned down work if it would interfere with time spent roaming the streets, sitting in cafes or writing avant-garde texts for fun.

But I suppose I had some ambition because I had published a book, accidentally acquiring a career as a writer in the process. I hadn’t really gambled on that, my goal was just to get the book out. Meanwhile, as everybody knows, it’s very difficult to make a living via the pen. But for a while I could coast along, turning down fancy commissions if I felt like it.

Then America intervened. In Texas, everybody works all the time. And here’s the weird thing: after resisting the call of work for many years I suddenly found myself sucked into this vortex of labor.

Sure, life in the states is more expensive than in Russia, but it wasn’t just that. I sort of… wanted to work. There was no space in which to be idle, except at home. It was too hot to roam the streets, and if I went to a café, even the Bohemians were furiously working away on some project or other on their laptops.

You may have heard of the legendary Scots work ethic. We were famous for it once, a long time ago. Now life in Scotland proceeds at a very slow pace. One of the things I love about going home is crawling down to my local shopping center where I drink tea in company with the aged and long-term unemployed, all of them silently waiting for oblivion’s warm embrace. It is very relaxing.

In Texas, however, it just isn’t possible. The environment demands work. For the last couple of years I have worked more than ever before, and certainly make more money than I used to, though I am not rich or even very secure. But as I have became more “successful” in worldly terms I have noticed dissatisfaction in other areas. There is no time to waste on the leisurely creative projects that I enjoyed so much in Moscow.

Indeed, after a few years, these all stopped migrating to the page and remained exclusively in my head. Like the great Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, I composed fantastical texts in my imagination, occasionally sharing details with friends. It was fun, but not quite as satisfying as putting them on paper. I needed more time. Perhaps, I thought, I’m not doing enough work.

Then one day I read that the Japanese author Haruki Murakami gets up at 4am every day to write his novels. Simultaneously I discovered the work of Manga artist Osamu Tezuka, who created over 150,000 pages of comics in his lifetime. Takashi Miike, a very amusing film director, knocks out six or seven movies a year.

The Japanese are famous for this, of course. They work all the time, and create many wonderful things. Maybe that’s what I need to do, I thought. And so I conducted an experiment, seeking to push back the time I rose at to 4am. I reached 5am when one day I slept in. Project: Turn Japanese never recovered.

Maybe you need to be born into Japanese culture to work like that. Or, you can take amphetamines. As for me, I am back in the middle. I definitely work a lot harder than I did in Russia, and sometimes wonder if doing so much nothing for so long was a good idea after all. It helps that I enjoy most of what I do today, of course. Perhaps that’s the key. My younger self couldn’t conceive of anything he wanted to do; my older self can see lots of things and gets frustrated when everyday nonsense gets in the way. And that’s progress, I think.

A version of this post previously appeared at RIA Novosti.
Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at
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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at

9 thoughts on “Work as if You Lived in the Early Days of a Better Nation

    December 17, 2012 at 10:30

    Keep up the good work Daniel, you pre-wrinklies must carry on topping up the coffers, ready for your turn at the threshold of the pearly gates.

    I was exposed, in the late sixties, to the awesome, if not frightening, work ethic of those toilers born outwith the shores of dear old blighty. Let’s call him Stan, the Pole, yet another refugee from those post war communist-inspired eastern bloc stooshies. These were the halcyon days of manufacturing. Man, in Hertfordshire, you couldn’t go wrong, I was operating an open twenty four hours per day policy. Stan opted for the double shift option, working twenty hours each day, times five, plus Saturday morning, with no discernible let up in output or quality. Robots? humbug! give me Bobowitzs any day, or Hungy Les, the mad Magyar, but that’s another story.

      Daniel K
      December 17, 2012 at 15:28

      The work ethic you describe is something to behold. And in Russia too, I did meet a few incredible toilers. But not too many.

      The funny thing about those coffers is that every time I toss some gold doubloons in the top of the pile, a few leech out at the bottom. Curious.

        Daniel K
        December 17, 2012 at 15:29

        And somewhat Sisyphean.

          December 17, 2012 at 16:12

          Such is life Daniel, sand dunes / running up, what is required is a congressman in the pocket as per LBJ-Charles Marsh, your Longlea awaits you.

          Ref Pole, he did make one concession, two meal breaks, forty five minutes each, lazy sod.

    December 17, 2012 at 14:03

    There is a book with a title I remember as something like “The Disappearance of the Leisure Class”, which related leisure inversely to the marginal economic value of one’s hours. One can see that there would be more leisure in Russia than in Texas.

    But I wonder about those hard-working Bohemians in their cafes. Were they drafting briefs, writing code, or just commenting on pictures of their friends’ cats (or on Dabbler postings). And even if they are working, to what end? I would have little trouble assembling a few dozen persons who work quite hard, and who would serve the mission of their employers as well or better by converting the value of all expenditures they are responsible into dollar bills, raking them into piles, and burning them as once we burned fallen leaves 50 years ago.

      Daniel K
      December 17, 2012 at 15:26

      From personal interactions with these Bohemians, I habitually assume that a goodly number of them at least are working on film/music/art/performance art/MFA type activities while paying the bills via employment in a cafe or vintage store. Austin is awash with young folk aspiring to make movies, write the Great American Novel etc.

      But it is very possible you are correct and that I am projecting- perhaps many are simply gibbering on the Huffington Post, searching for vegan recipes, hunting for cheap electronics on Craig’s List etc.

      Re: your other observation, an editor friend of mine recently went freelance and found that at home he could do in 5 hours what mysteriously took 8-10 hours when he was in the office.

  3. Gaw
    December 17, 2012 at 16:43

    The word ‘work’ covers such a multitude of activities. It’s struck me over the years that in management there are two main modi operandi: doing useful things in an effective way, on the one hand, and faffing around whilst looking busy and important, on the other. They’re both work of sorts.

    I’m suspicious of bosses who get up at 5am and work until 8pm with barely time for a salad lunch. I fear they fall into the second category. Unless you’re engaged in the hands-on management of a multinational business or have a massive one-off project on your plate, I just can’t see how such a schedule is justified if you’ve set things up properly and have a reasonably well-resourced business. But then there are obviously advantages to be accrued from creating an environment in which you can always look busy and important, regardless of the useful things that need to be done. Especially if you don’t like your family.

  4. Brit
    December 18, 2012 at 13:59

    I’m of the opinion that most office task-based jobs could be done in two and half days a week or less by most competent people. The rest is largely emailing irrelevances around in circles. That said, even defining Dabblering as ‘leisure time’ I find I have less and less of it and life is almost entirely paid work, unpaid domestic maintenance work, and interrupted sleep.

    Why can’t we use our wits as pitchforks and drive the brute off?

      December 18, 2012 at 23:59

      When he heard that Ted Heath had declared a three-day week, a wit of the time (was it Jeffrey Bernard?) said: “I’m not working three days a week for anyone.”

      Of course most office work could take very much less time than it officially does, but there is the matter of focus. It is often hard to concentrate on the dull task in hand when there are more diverting temptations on offer: elevenses with biscuits, contemplating drifting cumulus clouds across the sky, the pleasures (mixed) of idle chatter, entertaining culture blogs to read and so on.

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