The Philosophy of Work

Work helps us live a good life. Four stories help us better understand the philosophy of work

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Rhongrong Zhou, Esq.
June 2019
Tags: business • corporate culture • engagement• stories• work


Different kinds of work shape differing perspectives by adjusting individuals’ framing schema and analysis of the world. These shifts usually happen without consciousness. People use their freedom to choose work, while the work ‘selects’ appropriate people. To some extent, people interact with their environment by working. Work has a mutual effect on the internal challenges of a person and external changes in the world.

Story One: The Hungry  Ocean

While steaming, the passage of time is measured in distance rather than hours, miles being more powerful than so many sweeps of the second hand. And with the exception of standing watches, the crew and myself are seldom aware of the time of day. An experienced crew member never asks, “When will we be there?” but instead might inquire “How many more miles?” At sea, I am almost never cognizant of what day of the week it is but am keenly aware of how many days must pass to bring the next full moon, the concept of time twisting to meet what is meaningful.  ―The Hungry Ocean[i]

In the book The Hungry Ocean, author Linda Greenlaw tells us about her “story of a thirty-day sword fishing voyage aboard one of the best-outfitted boats on the East Coast, complete with danger, humor, and characters so colourful…”[ii]

She was the captain; during the trip they took an adventure at sea, prospecting the future and accomplishing difficult missions. Her work was a trip. The purpose was to enjoy the trip.

The Reason for Work

People have to work, but there must be some other reasons. Most people work to fulfil life needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs contains five tiers, which are physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. In order to fulfil the physiological and safety needs, people work to get money that feeds an individual, supports a family, or sustains a community (volunteer work is an exception).

To satisfy love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs, people work to achieve accomplishments: for higher reputations, higher social status, or just for fun. They work to get social recognition and earn a decent living. Different jobs have different values, but all of them are respectable.

In this capitalized society, work, social status, and money are common labels we use to evaluate a person. When people become older, they often regret that their youth was dedicated to work and they lost the opportunity to enjoy nature, the change of seasons, and arts and music, which may not enrich our pockets, but can fulfill our hearts. But when people are young, pressure often comes from society to produce meaningful work.

The Value of Work

Carl worked quickly, with an economy of motion. As the circumference of the gear on the spool neared its maximum capacity, I wondered what more I could find for Carl to do to keep his mind on business and off harassing Peter for the next few days. Once fish started coming aboard, the problem would take care of itself. Carl would be too busy working even to throw Peter a dirty look.[iii]

Aristotle once observed: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”[iv]

Different jobs have different social functions, but they all create valuable goods, tangible or intangible. For example, farmers produce corn and wheat by planting in the land; business people exchange goods and transfer wealth through diverse transactions; lawyers provide legal services by applying their knowledge and wisdom in daily life; doctors help patients recover from disease. By working, people often lose track of time and duration, but engage in solving problems and overcoming difficulties, like Carl in the Hungry Ocean novel. Through demonstration and dedication people thrive in work, overcoming tedious repetition and reaching an eventual spiritual pleasure.

A person has the feeling of surpassing tedious repetition in work, because he/she experiences individual intellectual creation through working, which adds value to the product. And by collaborating with colleagues, a worker may absorb innovative ideologies to replenish his or her perception. A person with passion and patience can experience pure pleasure during daily breath-taking sunsets, rather than complaining of a faded moonlight.

The Compensation of Work

The powers that be are known by fishermen to be somewhat whimsical in their doling out of good and bad, which accounts for our general distrust of any situation that seems remotely copacetic. Captain and crew often tiptoe around as if walking a thin line, afraid of doing anything that might upset some precarious balance and tip the scales from stability to doom. The majority of fishermen have learned the hard way not to boast, gloat, or even mention a pleasing situation for fear of jinxing themselves, summoning a flood tide of misfortune.  – The Hungry Ocean [v]

Once people start working, they follow a schedule to divide difficult tasks into everyday routine and keep their own pace in dealing with assignments. Wages are given to employees as compensation. Promotion may also be an incentive. Compensation may also be a weighting factor when people choose their careers.

In China, workers’ compensation is a form of insurance providing wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured in the course of employment in exchange for mandatory relinquishment of the employee’s right to sue his or her employer for negligence. The trade-off between assured, limited coverage and lack of recourse outside the worker compensation system is known as “the compensation bargain.” Even though wages vary between different jobs, all the employees enjoy a minimum amount of income that can sustain a decent life.

Story Two:  The Devil Wears Prada

Work is diverse; however, for a person it may be his or her whole world. What makes good work? What is the standard for a person to choose the right job? How do people make this evaluation? What are the principles that are vital for a healthy atmosphere at the office?

Pondering the point that “What job you choose depends on what kind of life you want to live”, my mind turns to another novel, The Devil Wears Prada.[vi]

In this story Miranda is a woman who graduated as a journalism major and found a job in a fashion magazine. She had traditionally worn grandmother’s sweater, dingy shoes, and cheap make-up. After she was admitted to a position as the boss’s assistant at a fashion magazine, she decided to change herself into a modern “Chanel girl”.

The boss, a sophisticated lady, wears Prada, is the queen of the magazine, and represents fame and wealth. Miranda starts to live a luxurious life herself. Her boyfriend, a baker, feels that she has changed too much, and they no longer have much in common.

Miranda witnesses the fights among business people, the masks they wear, and the lies they tell. She becomes exhausted with this kind of fake life. One day the boss called her; she did not answer, but instead threw her cell phone into the spring pool. She changed back to the normal life she had had before and found a new job in a small company.

The Choice of Work

When choosing work, people often choose a development environment. Once fixed in a position, a person becomes a member of a community, whose social function is marked according to the occupation. Different choices create different social labels.

That is why Miranda in the novel transformed so much about her life. She changed according to the environment. I had the same feeling when I was an intern in a big Chinese law firm. When I walked into the grand hall and stepped into the transparent elevator, suits and dresses replaced casual clothes; an urbane and aggressive manner replaced my mild talking style. Even people’s voices became more confident in the formal and professional atmosphere.

Choosing a job also means choosing the group of people you work with. Politicians choose to advocate for the public and work with a group of public figures. Sales people work with business managers or factory producers. Faculties of universities work with the smartest group of contemporaries and with younger generations.

If a person wants to be a professional athlete, he/she has to go to professional schools and take specific training with the experts in that profession. If a person wants to be an artist, he/she has to be exposed to the musical or visual arts and learn the required skills first. The groups of people you interact with are the basic elements of your social network.

People choose different forms of work. Sales people conquer accounts to make volumes increase; lawyers assist business people to complete transactions and solve disputes by using legal methods; scientists use experiments to test presumptions and create new theories; doctors master advanced technologies and prescribe medicine to cure diseases.

But what is the standard for choosing an occupation? Do people focus on a specific area according to their talents or interests, or just according to the market needs? The answers are diverse.

Change is difficult for a person to make. The older a person is, the harder it can be to make a change. Due to this phenomenon, it is often best to decide on a career path when one is young. However, it is hard to make a decision without experience. A slogan in China says, “one will not know what is good until he tastes the good one.”

Imagination is far away from practice, especially for a student just graduating from school. Even though change is hard, change is possible. But only if people are open-mined and hard-working enough to look outside and fill the gap between their current occupation and their dreams; then change can be made.

Gap Year

In some universities, graduate students do not directly pursue a higher degree or go to work, but instead they choose to leave their ordinary path for a period of time, which is often called a “gap year”. This pattern has become more prevalent in China in recent years, which will help students make wiser career development choices.

Graduate students often choose to travel or to apply for an internship to take a break from normal student life. They use this time to open themselves up to the world away from that which they already know. In this circumstance, they are free to experience a controversial or opposite role in life, to be a person they never before had an opportunity to be. Sometimes during this divergent change of role, they will be closer to their own interests and listen to the voice of their hearts.

In Wikipedia, a gap year is defined as “an expression or phrase that is associated with taking time out to travel in between life stages.”[vii] It is also known as a sabbatical, time off and time out that refers to a period of time (not necessarily twelve months) in which anyone can disengage from their usual work and life. This concept may actually be useful for all, and not just for the young.

Story Three: Something Borrowed

When choosing work, people are choosing a life-style. Professions mould people’s characters, more or less, both consciously and unconsciously. Legal professionals use analytical methods to solve problems and live in a legal empire. However, artists and the self-employed may live a less regular life, whose schedules are more flexible and living styles are more casual. Sometimes the “accepted” life may not be the one a person really “wants”.

In the novel Something Borrowed,[viii] the heroine, Rachael, is a female lawyer who graduated from NYU law school and started a career as an attorney in New York. She had feelings for her Law School classmate and good friend, Dex. She never had courage to tell him, even though Dex dated her several times.

Dex also had strong feelings for Rachael, but he is a ‘good student’ who follows his parents’ will at all times. He always does things he ‘should’ do, but not what he ‘wants’ to do. During a date, Dex asked Rachael out for dinner, but Rachael brought her close friend, Darcy, a ‘party animal’.

Dex was attracted by Darcy’s outgoing personality and relaxing style and they fell in love quickly in the red wine atmosphere. Rachael left the bar and cried alone, but when Dex ran after her and asked what happened, Rachael smiled and pretended to be all right. Dex thought Rachael had no feelings for him. He then dated Darcy and they got engaged.

At Darcy’s 30th birthday party, she announced the news that she and Dex were engaged. During that night, Rachael drank extensively and shared her previously disguised feelings with Dex. In a moment, they reminded each other of the spark they used to have when they were in Law School. They betrayed Darcy by rekindling their relationship.

This story was dramatic after they broke the moral baseline. They are both lawyers with ethical considerations. However, they cannot stop thinking of each other. Dex and Rachael wandered around each other’s heart, moving forward and backward, between friendship, love, and a colleague relationship. Dex finally destroyed his promise to Darcy and followed his heart to marry Rachael.

The reason I discuss this novel is because choosing a job is like a romantic relationship. Some people choose to live an easy life and a slow pace. However, when they bump into an energetic, passionate working style, they often cannot stop thinking about change.

Similarly, those who live in a financial empire, wearing Louis Vitton, Gucci, or Chanel, may be jealous of the easier life. One never really knows which is better for him/her without experience. Time is limited. People cannot experience all kinds of life. They may select the most important one according to the real voice of their heart.

Gaining Happiness

Aristotle stated: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” By working, people fulfill their economic and social needs, exert their potential, and create values. Pursuing work for survival and development may be the intrinsic value of work, which encourages generations to strive. Delving deep into the miracle ocean of work helps us better understand what makes a good life.

What is your goal? You cannot define what is good, but maybe you know what is bad. For Einstein, maybe one of his goals was to know the theory of general relativity, the other goal was to discover the theory. The goal could be that someone should have known this. But the goal also could be that he wishes to know the theory. For most normal people, working for money to earn a decent life is more important. However, once one gets enough money, what is the purpose for the next level of life? Desire for more can be endless.

In his book Protestantism Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,[ix] Weber stated,

Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, rather thrown away, five shillings, besides.

“Remember, that credit is money. If a man lets his money lie in my hands after it is due, he gives me interest, or so much as I can make of it during that time. This amounts to a considerable sum where a man has good and large credit, and makes good use of it.

“Remember this saying, The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse. He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he, promises, may at any time, and on any occasion, raise all the money his friends can spare. This is sometimes of great use. After industry and frugality, nothing contributes more to the raising of a young man in the world than punctuality and justice in all his dealings; therefore never keep borrowed money an hour beyond the time you promised, lest a disappointment shut up your friend’s purse forever.[x]

The word “professionalism” covers the work ethic, which restricted the aggressiveness in a capitalized world. A work ethic is how one gets along with others, the attitude, behaviour, respect, communication, and interaction. Virtues such as honesty, integrity, and accountability are important for a worker to live a good life.

Hunting and Accumulation

In China, there was a novel called Fortress Besieged.[xi] In this book the author Qian Zhongshu drew a big picture of the traditional intellectuals. The subject is everything we expect, just as the title suggests. The insiders want to get out; however, the outsiders want to get in.

Work is also like this fortress besieged. Every job has its merits and its disadvantages; a person should know what he or she wants when making the choice to accept a particular job. Ask yourself, “What is the most important thing?” Then that is what will be ‘good’ for you. One person’s meat is another’s poison.

All we can do is to be patient and keep waiting. Every successful person has experienced the pale Winter. Only after enduring the long and cold season will Spring come. Frustration appears frequently. What you have in hand is more important than counting on the objectives beyond. Being content will make a person grateful for their potential and help them to seize the talented future. Both normal and boring steps lead to the grand scenery. Adverse circumstances select the ones with courage, endurance, passion, and the audacity of hope.

Balancing Work and Life

Do people achieve happiness or sadness during careful work? In Immanuel Kant’s theory,[xii] this kind of happiness is obtained beyond a bodily feeling. However, in the Chinese Ming Dynasty, the philosopher Wang Yangming mentioned “Zhixing Heyi”,[xiii] which means that the body is triggered by the intellectual discovery and improvement. Practice and knowledge cannot be separated but are enhanced at the same time.

We work to live, but not live to work. Work is a part of life. If the life is not harmonious, work is not on the right track. Exercising is important, and family and social communications are also significant for a good worker.

The most important thing is happiness. Psychologists conclude that people gain happiness mostly from work. The sense of achievement and the ability to have influence on others gives a person countless satisfaction. The happiness of work can make a person more confident, gentler, and more elegant.

Story Four: The Perfect Mile

Work is like a sport; endurance and persistence help an athlete to meet the paramount goal. I became immersed in the book The Perfect Mile: Three athletes, one goal and less than four minutes to achieve it.[xiv]

In 1952, three world-class runners set out individually to break the four-minute mile barrier and to challenge the human extreme. They were Roger Bannister, a young English medical student; John Landy, the privileged son of a genteel Australian family who trained relentlessly in an almost spiritual attempt to shape his body to the single task; and Wes Santee, the swaggering American, a Kansas farm boy who believed he was just plain better than everybody else.

The three challengers had different backgrounds and represented different kinds of people doing track and field sport. In a broader context, they represent different groups of people doing sport more generally. This situation represents the spirit of sport―combining people from different cultures, different educational backgrounds, different life values, on the same track. This is also the unique merit of sport―no discrimination by gender, race, or wealth.

This spirit also applies in a work context. When successful workers share their experiences, they share a common value―the “spirit”―to struggle for dreams and never, ever give up. Demonstration and perseverance is the key point of success, which is admirable. The competition is tough but fair.

The Right Instructor

Successful people may be a small group, but they have several common virtues. Their paths cannot be cloned, but lessons can be learned from their experiences. Communication with people stronger and older than one’s self will broaden the perspective and make one wiser. Sometimes we know the result of previous attempts to achieve something, but we have to repeat again and again for the lesson to sink in. Furthermore, changes often occur during the repetition process.

Just like a sport coach is significant to an athlete, the most important thing for a person starting to work early in his/her career is to follow a good instructor. In universities and graduate schools, the knowledge is often static, while in practice one can learn from the practical experiences of instructors.

For example, in the courtroom a judge is sophisticated and familiar with the dynamic cases, the adversarial trial practices, and the structure of judgments. A ‘green hand’ should learn from zero. In law firms there are also senior associates who will teach and assist the junior associates with upcoming issues. To draft a contract, to negotiate, to meet clients and to provide persuasive legal opinions requires not only the technique taught in law school, but the interpersonal skills and communication arts. These intangible skills can be taught by an instructor in an on-the-job setting.

The culture of an enterprise is also influential. New employees learn the basic working ethics during their first job, in the work environment. Choosing a ‘big platform’ or larger organisation, can be useful, since on larger stages the directors are more qualified, and the actors and actresses are well-trained. A standardized management and detail-oriented culture will help a starter establish good working habits.

Be Yourself

In one of my favourite movies, “Dead Poets Society”, there is reference to a famous poem by Henry David Thoreau:

I went to the woods
because I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life,
and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,
and not, when I came to die
discover that I had not lived.

Walden: Or, Life in the Woods[xv]

Work provides us a path to understand the world. By working, people communicate with the environment and with society. They learn from each other and collaborate with each other. They compete with each other and respect each other. In Hugo’s novel The Miserable World there was a well-known statement indicating that one is dignified because he/she lives a happy life. Everybody deserves a good life. The good is achievable to everyone in the universe. There is no perfect life, but a proper and comfortable path to happiness.

People live in the world with dreams, passions, pursuit of knowledge and love. People cannot choose their parents, their family, and an environment of growth, but they can decide what kind of person they want to be.

Work offers an opportunity for a person to choose the life he/she wants. What is the real need for one person? What is the music of one’s heart? Only the person him/herself knows. How to approach to the bottom of one’s heart?

There is an experiment. Keep silent and forget about all the knowledge and information taught by others. Write a list of the things you want to do, keep writing, and keep thinking, until the one triggers your tears, so you cannot stop crying from the bottom of your heart.

Sisyphus had a boulder to roll up a hill. For rational people, this may be a punishment. But for him, that was the process of gaining spiritual freedom. Work is like this rolling. I believe only by practicing and experiencing can one reach the deep feeling of good life.


Life is neither an experience machine nor a heroine experiment, but real and substantial. The Hungry Ocean told us about the reason, value, and compensation of work. The Devil Wears Prada taught us that dramatic changes appear when we choose a job. Thus, the Gap Year is necessary for a student to have plenty of time to think about a future career path. Something Borrowed is a great story of finding what you really want. Sometimes we gain happiness by repetition and accumulation. It is necessary to keep a balance between work and life. The Perfect Mile helps us set a goal and be ourselves. A good instructor is also important.

I would like to end with the impressive remarks of Steve Jobs:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma― which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, please have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.[xvi]

Adapted from this original paper:

Zhou, R. R. (2016). The Philosophy of Work―Based on Four Stories. Open Journal of Philosophy, 6, 436- 445. (

Rongrong Zhou, Esq.

Rongrong Zhou is an Assistant Judge at Shandong High People’s Court. She obtained her LL.M. degree from University of Michigan Law School in 2012, and a Bachelor’s degree in law from Zhejiang University in 2010. She also has a Masters degree in Economics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.  She is currently pursuing her PhD degree in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

After graduation from Michigan, she worked as a lawyer for several years. She has published two books and more than fifty papers in publications like the Journal of Law Application, the Open Journal of Social Sciences, the Open Journal and Philosophy, and many others.  She is also a member of the Shandong Writers Association and The Chinese Institute of Prose.

email:  [email protected]



[i] Greenlaw, L. (2000). The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain’s Journey. Hachette Books., p. 102

[ii] Quotation taken from the back cover of The Hungry Ocean.

[iii] Greenlaw, op. cit., p. 111

[iv] Taylor, A. E. Aristotle. Dover Publications (2012).

[v] Greenlaw, op. cit., p. 195

[vi] Weisberger, L.,The Devil Wears Prada. Broadway Books, Reprint Edition (2004).


[viii] Giffin, E., Something Borrowed St. Martin’s Griffin (2005).

[ix] Weber, M., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2012)

[x] Excerpted from “Advice to a Young Tradesman (1748), by Benjamin Franklin, appearing in Weber, op.cit., Chapter 2.

[xi] Qian, Z., Fortress Besieged. New Directions (2004).

[xii]  Kant, E., Critique of Pure Reason. Penguin Classics, Revised Edition (2008).

[xiii]  Henke, F. G., & Tufts, J. H., The Philosophy of Wang Yang-Ming. BiblioLife (2010).

[xiv]  Bascomb, N., The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal and Less than Four Minutes to Achieve It. Mariner Books, Reprint Edition (2005).

[xv] Thoreau, H., Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, Dover Publications, unabridged edition (1995)

[xvi] Jobs, S., “You’ve Got to Find What You Love”, (2005; accessed 7 June 2018)


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