What impressed you as Shane found what he was up against and settled to it was the easy way the power in him poured smoothly into each stroke. The man and the axe seemed to be partners in the work. The blade would sink into the parallel grooves almost as if it knew itself what to do and the chips from between would come out in firm and thin little blocks.
[My father] picked a root on the opposite side from Shane. He was not angry the way he usually was when he confronted one of those roots. There was a kind of serene and contented look on his face. Shaefer, Jack. Shane. (pp. 25-26). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.When the boy's mother, Marian, comes to see what they are doing, she is surprised because initially her husband intended to take the day off and rest. Not sure what to make of the behemoth task her husband and Shane are attempting, Marian says:
'Humph... [t]his is a funny kind of resting you're doing today.'
The boy's father puts the axe on the ground, leans on the handle, and responds, 'Maybe it seems funny... [b]ut this is the best resting I've had for about as long as I can remember.'Of the entire passage, I find these sentences to be the most interesting. Shaefer is working with a paradox here- not only illustrating the physical strain required to accomplish their task, but suggesting one can simultaneously feel "rested" within and during the task.
Obviously, work is how many turn the hot light off and the cool light on. Yet, why does some work provide meaning while other work offers only boredom or dread? Similarly, how was the narrator's father in Shane able to feel "rest" while actually doing a grueling task? Is any of this related to what Jordan experienced as an athlete that he seemingly hasn't found as an executive? I think a possible answer to all these questions can be found within the work of Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has spent decades studying the phenomenon of FLOW which he describes as a sort of hypnosis where all sense of self, time, and place drift away and only a singular focus on the task at hand remains. For Flow to occur, some fundamental components have to be in place. For one, a person's skill has to be in proportion to the difficulty of the task being performed, and as one's skill increases, so must the challenge. According to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow can be achieved within a wide variety of activities- athletes, musicians, artists, even a mother piecing together a puzzle with her child can all experience it. Within each scenario though, there are always 3 common denominators:
- A clearly defined goal as well as agreed upon rules and boundaries that dictate the terms of how this goal can be accomplished.
- Freedom for decision making and creativity within these set rules and boundaries.
- Immediate feedback for the incremental steps made toward achieving the goal and recognition when the defined goal has been accomplished.
The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.” Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (p. 133). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
As we think about the idea of work, we should look at a peculiar scene in David Lean’s WWII epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Colonel Nicholson and his men are held as prisoners of war by the Japanese army and ordered to build the bridge stated in the film's title. Initially, the men are not taking their work seriously and are even trying to undermine their enemy’s command.
Nicholson realizes this and orders them to stop thwarting the effort and begin taking pride in their work. Shortly after, Clifton, a physician, notices the progress of the bridge and questions Nicholson:
CLIFTON: The fact is, what we’re doing could be construed as, forgive me sir, collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity.
NICHOLSON: Are you alright Clifton? We are prisoners of war, we haven’t the right to refuse work.
CLIFTON: I understand that sir, but must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they can build themselves?
NICHOLSON: Would you prefer to see this battalion disintegrate in idleness? Would you have it said that our chaps can’t do a proper job? Do you realize how important it is to show these people that they can’t break us in body or in spirit. Take a good look, Clifton. One day the war will be over and I hope the people who will use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers. British soldiers even in captivity.
How is the viewer supposed to interpret this odd scene? On one hand, Clifton is
right. The bridge will help their enemy. On the other, we again hear echoes of Price’s grandfather from “Good Work” in that how one works is just as important as the work itself. Likewise for Nicholson, “shoveling shit” or building a bridge- “work is work” and the value isn’t just in what’s accomplished but in the way it’s accomplished.
Could we go a step further and suggest that Colonel Nicholson is an artist? An artist wishing to create something functional, yes, but also something beautiful; a monument to hard work and craftsmanship, independent from any military or political objective. Nicholson’s men only see the bridge within utilitarian terms- a passageway from point A to point B. The bridge isn’t a work of art at all which makes it easy to undermine and eventually destroy. Conversely, Colonel Nicholson only sees it as a work of art. Even though their enemy is using the bridge with the intent to destroy the Colonel’s own military, the bridge has inherent value in and of itself- art for art’s sake in other words.