Tag Archives: work

With Thoreau in the bean field (Walden 108)

“I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus. But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows. This was my curious labor all summer — to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work.” —Henry David Thoreau, “The Bean Field,” Walden

Henry is hoeing beans. Without herbicides, he has to chop weeds with his hoe, hour after hour under the summer sun. In earlier chapters of Walden he talked about avoiding work. That’s why he lives so simply, after all, to avoid having to work so much. But here he is, standing in his little field, doing hot, hard, mindless work. Isn’t this the sort of backbreaking toil that distracts a person from the “higher” things that Henry is always rhapsodizing about? How does he find satisfaction in such a task? Continue reading


Doing what you love… and the “curse of trade” (Walden 39)

“When formerly I was looking about to see what I could do for a living… I thought often and seriously of picking huckleberries; that surely I could do, and its small profits might suffice — for my greatest skill has been to want but little — so little capital it required, so little distraction from my wonted moods, I foolishly thought.  …I also dreamed that I might gather the wild herbs, or carry evergreens to such villagers as loved to be reminded of the woods, even to the city, by hay-cart loads.  But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

Some people tell you to find a way to do what you love for a living. That’s what Henry was trying to do. He loved writing, but hadn’t made any money at it. But he also loved nature. He loved wandering around in the woods — why not find a way to make some money doing that? Continue reading

How to get by working only six weeks a year (Walden 37)

“For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

He made it on six weeks of work a year, in an 1840s economy in which an hour’s labor didn’t buy much. On the other hand, an 1840s worker didn’t expect as much, and Thoreau’s expectations of material comforts were set low even by those standards. It helped that he had no family to support, and no health insurance premiums (or taxes to support health care) — after all, medicine was still mostly quackery anyway. You were probably better off without a doctor.

What would you do if you didn’t work, but had just enough money to get by? What would be your priorities?

“The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.”

That’s not how most people would use the time, but I can think of two things to note about it:

1) By “study,” Henry isn’t just talking about books. His whole world, woods and village, was his textbook.

2) I don’t think Henry was ever bored. That’s why he didn’t have time to work much — everything around him was so interesting that he had to give it his full attention. Listening to him talk, his neighbors must have thought he was living in another world. Which in many ways he was. He transformed his world simply by looking at it deeply and being fully present in it.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

What we give up in exchange for money (Walden 6)

coronet-half-eagle-no-motto-goldThe first chapter of Walden is titled “Economy,” but it’s not really about money. It’s about what we give up in exchange for money.

“It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live…” Thoreau writes in one of his turns of phrase in which he comes off as arrogant and self-righteous.

You don’t have to read far into Walden before you figure out that Henry can be pretty full of himself. But a lot of that is passion. He’s experienced some things about life that he doesn’t think the rest of us are getting, and he really, really wants us to. Continue reading

No time to be anything but a machine (Walden 4)

“[T]he laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

Ever feel this way? Does it make you feel better or worse to know this is from a book published in 1854?

Henry goes on to say a strange and remarkable thing in the next sentence: Continue reading

Traveling in your hometown (Walden 3)

“I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

Is it possible to “travel” in your home town? Have you ever done it? Remember what Henry said in the previous post about writing about your life as if writing home from a distant land. He learned to see his home town as if for the first time, as if newly arrived from some distant shore. He took nothing for granted and experienced it fresh.

And what did he find? People doing “penance” (Henry was not a big fan of the workaday world, to put it mildly.) He follows this up with a vivid catalog of mythological tortures, which he compares to the lives of his fellow townsmen.

“I see young men, my townsmen,” he goes on to say, “whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of…”

And he treats us to a startling word-picture of a “poor immortal soul… well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty….”

What his neighbors would call good fortune he considers a great misfortune. It’s as if Henry is standing on his head and looking at the world upside down.

Are desired possessions such as homes, cars, businesses, or careers also burdens in a way? Of course they are. But is Henry serious about how bad they are, and is he trying to get us to give them up and join him in the woods?

Or is he using hyperbole to get our attention? Maybe he only wants us to join him and stand on our heads, looking at the world upside down for a while, as a starting point for a discussion about what really matters in life.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

How to do what you love — don’t be fooled by prestige

As a child you learn, (1) Play is fun, and, (2) Someday you’ll grow up and work, and that’s no fun. To prepare for this dark future they send you to school. School can be dull and tedious, but that’s good, because school is a preparation for work. It’s sort of mini-job to get you used to sitting quietly at a desk and working on pointless tasks.

This is the scenario with which Paul Graham opens his brilliant essay, “How To Do What You Love.” Graham is a programmer, writer, and investor, and though his essay seems to be directed toward young people, it’s good reading at any age. He presents a way of thinking about what you do and how to do more of what you love. (An excellent summary, along with excerpts from other writers, is at Brain Pickings.)

Here are a few quotes to entice you to read the whole thing. Graham talks about career day presentations in which adults come and tell kids how much they love their jobs — but do they really? Graham says of kids: Continue reading