Something my 13 year old self knew

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a junior high physics class, and the first time I was introduced to the distinction between effort and work. Our teacher used a simple demonstration to outline the concept. One classmate was invited to come up to the front of the room and push, as hard as they could, against the wall. Another was given an eraser from the chalkboard (this was long enough ago that the idea of a whiteboard in a classroom was much stranger than the idea of a classmate practically throwing themselves at a wall) and instructed to toss it a few feet.

With a bit of chalk dust (and a few grunts from the wall-pressing classmate) still in the air, the teacher asked: “Okay, so who did more work?”

The clear answer, to us, was that the person pushing against the wall was doing more work. And yet, of course, our teacher explained that tossing the eraser, while less effort, generated more work. At least at the most elementary level, if there’s no movement, there’s no work.

The class period ended there, but that lesson has been with me in the decades since and I find that if I’m paying attention, it seeps into many areas of my life. If there’s no movement – if there’s no change – then what I’m measuring isn’t work, but rather effort. I find that I mix those two things up all the time, even though I know better. And in a more general sense, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’ve internalized the idea of “working hard” with “work.” That is to say, if it’s not difficult, if I’m not exhausted by the process – whether physical or mental or spiritual – then I haven’t really accomplished anything worthwhile. This is, I think, an example of me having internalized more of my culture’s toxic combination of Puritanical ideals and capitalist ideology than I would like. Another thing that I’ve done, even though I know better.

There are, I think, a lot of problems here. One is that by equating the amount of energy I expend with the worth of what I’ve done, I’m discounting anything that may be important but that comes easily to me. It’s not difficult, so it doesn’t count, obviously. Another problem: it’s an easy hop from “effort” to “struggle”. And so by equating effort with value, I can also discount anything that brings me (or you, or anyone) joy as not really being work. After all, if it brings a sense of contentment or rightness to my soul, then I’m not struggling, and if I’m not struggling, then the effort isn’t real, and if the effort isn’t real, then the work isn’t meaningful. Right?

What a convoluted way to talk myself into dismissing ease, joy, and work that doesn’t bring exhaustion and struggle in its wake!

Of course, as with so many things, recognizing the problem is one thing, and doing something useful about it is something else. I don’t have a remotely surefire way to undo a lifetime of unhealthy internalization,certainly. What I do have, though, is a bit of experience in turning experience into useful metaphors. So at least when I’m paying attention, to call to mind that mental image of my classmates – one throwing their weight against an unmoving wall, and another tossing an eraser across the room with ease. Odd as it sounds, it’s become a useful tool to help me look at my options and actions with a fresh perspective. To ask myself when monumental exertion is really serving, and when I’m falling into that place of conflating effort with work, or struggle with worth.

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4 thoughts on “Something my 13 year old self knew

  1. Morgan February 21, 2018

    Tremendously helpful distinction, as a translation tool from my brain to words people might understand outside my brain.

    I see a parallel to “it’s the thought that counts.”

    Sometimes a person will put a great deal of effort into a thing, that doesn’t produce much work – but I still appreciate the effort.

    • Jason Frey February 21, 2018

      That’s a really good point, I think, Morgan. For sure, effort can be a valuable thing by itself, particularly in the sorts of situations that you’re describing. It’s sort of coming at the question from a different direction, which is something I really like. Thanks for that!

  2. Paulita February 21, 2018

    Physics! 😀

    • Jason Frey February 21, 2018

      Right? Not my usual sort of metaphor, but I’ll take it.


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