What Is “Honest Work”?

James Walpole/ February 18, 2020

I’ve heard the term “honest work” a lot in my life, and it’s always had an appeal for me. Now it’s something I want more than ever – but I’m not sure exactly how to define it.

Here is an attempt.

I would think honest work would at least meet these criteria:

  • Honest work is honest – For starters, honest work must involve no deception. It must be consistent with a life of integrity and mutual trust. That seem pretty straightforward.
  • Honest work changes (or aids a change) reality instead of just a change in perception – “Honest work” should make a real or material change to create value for someone somewhere. If the work consists solely of manipulating people’s impressions of a reality (without any material change to match), it’s not living up to the ideal. Pure information activities like day-trading may be necessary in a market, but it’s not the ideal of “honest work.”
  • Honest work cultivates character – When we talk about “honest work” it’s interesting that we typically talk about blue collar work. Jobs that require resourcefulness, independence (and loyalty to teammates), hard work, and a grounded ego seem to be closest to the ideal. It’s possible to find this in white collar work, but white collar environments tend to deemphasize or even corrode the virtues we associate with “honest work.”
  • Honest work creates sustainable value – Technically speaking, all work creates value (even the hitman or the drug dealer) if someone is willing to voluntarily pay for it. But that doesn’t mean all work is sustainably valuable. If it harms the doer or the recipient or someone (innocent) outside of the transaction, then it is not sustainable in the long run. Doing that kind of work will ultimately cost more than it’s worth.

These criterion rule out a great many jobs – I’ll let you decide which. Not all work has to meet all of these rules to be worth doing (someone presumably has to do day-trading, say), but by this definition I do think all humans should have some form of “honest work” in their lives.

Photo by Ümit Yıldırım on Unsplash

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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