Drudgery?

For all the reputed values, enthusiasm, and idealism reported as embodied in today’s college students and younger professionals, there’s one value far too many are lacking and whose value these young adults totally fail to grasp.

That’s the necessity of practicing certain skills until they are letter-perfect, even when such practice is boring and seems to be drudgery. A few weeks ago, I attended a professional opera convention [as a guest.  You’d never want to hear me sing.].  One of the comments that came up time and time again from professional directors in the field was the necessity for young singers to not only have a fine and trained voice, but to have mastered basic musicianship – to have the ability to play the piano well enough to accompany themselves in practice, to be able to work out the most complex rhythms, to have mastered perfect intonation and diction [and that means working to eliminate regionalisms and mispronunciations in everyday speech].  These are not the exciting aspects of opera, singing the grand arias, perfecting stage presence, and the like.  They’re fundamentals, and mastering them takes long and hard work.  Year after year, my wife sees students with great natural voices who she knows will go absolutely nowhere, simply because they’ve gotten where they are on pure natural talent, but they’ll never get any better, because, to get to the truly professional level, their fundamental musicianship has to be outstanding, and that takes work they aren’t willing to undertake, and in some cases, those skills are so lacking that it’s literally too late for such students to develop them, even if they were willing to work that hard on those basics.

This principle applies in all fields. One of my daughters is a doctor, surgeon, and senior professor at an excellent medical school.  Several years ago, more than a few would-be doctors were absolutely appalled at their additional weekend assignment – if necessary, hours of repetition in practicing stitches until these doctors-to-be could meet her standards, simply because their stitches were sloppy, uneven, and didn’t meet professional standards.  Boring?  Yes.  Drudgery?  Absolutely!  But if you’re the one they might be operating on, wouldn’t you want those stitches to be as perfect as possible? And despite surgical staples and modern adhesives, there are times and places where old-fashioned stitches are indeed necessary.

I’ve seen the same thing in writing, especially in science fiction and fantasy.  Too many young would-be writers immediately embark upon writing the great fantasy novel.  Some do not even understand, on a technical level, what a sentence is.  Nor do most understand that, to write a truly original work of SF or fantasy, a writer must actually know far more than a “mainstream” writer does. When writing mainstream fiction, a writer doesn’t have to think in any great depth about the economic or political structure of our society, but only about how it works or doesn’t. I still remember a comment Ben Bova made on one of my early stories.  He pointed out that a gadget I mentioned in the second paragraph invalidated the entire culture and setting. When you write F&SF, if you want it to be good, the magic/technology has to fit with the culture, the people, the economics, the geography, the political structure… and a lot more… and learning all that isn’t easy. Neither is applying it.  Both take work, intellectual drudgery, if you will.

The problem is that, today, everything’s supposed to be interesting, even fun. I’m sorry, but being successful in anything is going to take a whole lot of drudgery, and those who skip it may succeed for a while… before the roof – and the world – fall on them and crush them.

11 thoughts on “Drudgery?”

  1. CRM says:

    LEM–many of your published novels emphasize characters having to repeat and practice certain skills–woodworking, coopering, scrivening, painting, as well as various forms of magic. The characters are often shown going from raw materials to finished products–choosing and milling wood, mixing ink or paint, and so on.

    I really enjoy those sections of your work, which add a lot of depth and interest to the setting, and the characters’ attitudes to the drudgery inherent in their tasks adds depth and interest to their personalities.

    While I can’t realistically relate to someone having to save the world single-handedly, I can understand and appreciate someone who chooses to do their daily tasks as well as they possibly can.

    1. JakeB says:

      Certainly that’s one of the reasons I go from wanting to smack Lerris upside the head for the first half of Magic of Recluce to cheering him on.

  2. JakeB says:

    I think the inability to cope with being bored is one of the worst effects of the world we live in now. Most of the children I know spend an amazing amount of time with video games, computer, or TV on, such that the only empty times they have to deal with are when they’ve been ordered to sit at the table just before dinner starts.

    Never being forced to confront having nothing to do and finding a way of dealing with it oneself means never developing the internal resources to keep going, or so it seems to me.

  3. Steve says:

    One of the requirements that all of my children have from first grade onward is to take piano lessons and practice daily. One half hour for the younger children and one hour for the older children. There are no days off except for when we are out of town. The most important skill they developed from this practice is not the ability to play the piano, but the ability to do something they do not want to do.

  4. Sara says:

    I’ve been a writing tutor for more than 10 years. While I regularly see the behaviors you describe, I do not think this generation is especially lazy or inevitably doomed. It’s too easy to see what the kids do not have. It takes longer to see what they do have. It’s late, and this is hard to explain, but I think the kids will be alright. I think that proportion of lazy to industrious is probably much the same as in past generations.

    What makes me think so? How about the four years I spent playing on the kids’ turf, studying computing in my late thirties with the college kids? Or the old teachers’ stories I came across, years ago, that expressed the accepted belief that most students needed to be compelled to learn. There’s more but it is late, and in the morning I have to figure out how to make a failed student buckle down. He’s lazy, yes, but also probably scared stiff of his own life. Most of all, I have to get his parents to stop calling him lazy. It’s a dead end diagnosis that demands nothing from those making it.

    1. I never said the upcoming generation was doomed. I did say that the proportion of those unwilling to work harder is larger. I don’t think that people’s innate feelings about hard work have changed over recent generations, either. I do feel that a larger proportion of the younger generation has been overindulged. As for your comment about laziness being a dead-end diagnosis, you’re likely right in most cases, if you’re talking about parents. It’s their job to develop their children’s basic attitudes about work and life, not the teachers’ duty. Teachers should be reinforcing what’s already there, not having to develop it from scratch because parents didn’t.

  5. Jim S says:

    A martial arts master of my acquaintance says that “advanced techniques are just basics, done well.” The simple fact is that the hard work that it takes to reach that point is dull. Whether it’s a martial art technique, singing a note, writing a story… if you can’t put the time and work into developing the basics, your growth will be limited.

    A corollary principle is that, in many jobs, there are many tasks that aren’t fun and exciting. I’m a law enforcement officer. To watch COPS, NCIS, or any other show… it’s an exciting job, at any level. Of course, none of the shows depict the hours in court, or doing paperwork, or just dealing with the boring stuff that is day to day patrol work… The same is, I’m quite confident, true of most jobs.

  6. Graham says:

    I live in the UK and am currently in my first year at university. You have often commented on how university students don’t study for as many as they used to. Could you give some clarification for this, such as what the average used to be compared to today. We are advised, in doing a degree in history, to work 35-40 hours a week. That does include class time, but as we only have 1-2 taught hours a day (this is bad but a topic for another time) this largely involves self-study. I am disabled but have achieved high grades at GCSE’s, AS and A levels, despite having a very high absence level from school, and have therefore had to work hard and independently most of my school career. I think you’re sometimes slightly harsh on people of my generation, as most people from what I can see work very hard too. I don’t know whether the situations are different in the two countries?

    1. I’m very reluctant to comment on the situation in the U.K., as I simply don’t have the information or the access. Studies done in the U.S. do show that American college students only study [as I recall] about 14 hours a week as compared to almost 30 hours a week forty years ago. Certainly, those numbers match what was necessary when I was a student and what the professors I know observe now. Part of this, however, also reflects the fact that a number of students, at least here, are working full-time as well as attending college, and finding enough hours in the week to attend 12-18 hours of classes, study even 20 hours and work 40 hours, especially when roughly 20% of the students are married, many of whom have small children, can obviously be a challenge. When I was a college student, it was virtually impossible to work full-time and succeed academically, and I do see the change, again here in the U.S, reflected in less demanding and less rigorous course work and far easier grading standards.

  7. Graham says:

    Thankyou for your reply. I do agree that anything you want to achieve means you have to spend many hors mastering the basics, which are boring but also essential. I love your site, and find it one of the few places on the internet, or indeed in any kind of media, where there is a balanced argument on every issue. This is becoming rarer and rarer today, with many forms of media catering solely to their base, whatever that may be. I am also looking forward to reading your books, and am about to start the Corean Chronicles, before moving on to the Imager Portfolio. Thankyou again for such brilliant books and such a brilliant website.

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