The Case For and Against Striving

It's not so clear whether to aim to live up to your potential or do the minimum.

Posted Feb 22, 2018

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

From childhood, we’ve been urged to strive, to live up to our potential.

A counterargument is often made for work-life balance. The claim is that it’s healthier and certainly more family-friendly.

But rarely is an argument made for doing the minimum, the least you can get away with. Yet a perhaps not-foolish argument can be made for that.

So here, I make the argument both for maximum striving and for minimum. Sure, it’s possible you’ll come away opting for the golden mean but perhaps not.

The case for striving

Your life is worthy to the extent that you make maximum contribution: It ensures that you’ve benefited your sphere of influence as much as possible. Even aiming for work-life balance, not the minimum, gives less to the world. And that’s true whether you're an intellectually limited but physically robust person whose best contribution would be as a ditch digger or you're a highly analytical, sophisticated scientist working long hours to find a cure for cancer.

Indeed, making a difference is what really matters, certainly more than the pursuit of happiness. I could be happy spending all my days hiking, playing with my dog, and watching Netflix while stoned out of my gourd, but my life would be much less well-led than if I strove maximally to live up to my potential.

More selfishly, maximum striving feels good, virtuous, empowering. You walk the earth feeling like a mensch, a person of character. And at the end of each full day of focused work that uses your best abilities, you put your head on the pillow with a feeling of contentment.

Strivers have hope. There's always the possibility they'll make an even bigger difference.

Striving distracts you from life's problems and fears.

Wise people will respect and like you. Yes, lazy people will be jealous of you and perhaps try to tear you down, but they're not worth bothering with.

The case for doing the minimum

If you're an average or below-average worker, someone else could probably do your work as well or better than you can. Alas, most of us are fungible. And if you do just the minimum, say 20 hours a week, you make room for someone else to have some work and some money.

Striving is, by definition, hard. Do we really need to be that calvinist? So self-abnegating?

If you do the minimum, you’ll probably have less stress and thus live longer.

Besides, you’ll have a more pleasurable life. Pleasure matters, no?

The takeaway

So, do you want to opt for the middle, the conventional goal of work-life balance? Or might you want to aim for something else?

I read a video of this on YouTube.