A customer mentioned how she admired my Asian (Confucian) work ethic. I corrected her and explained that my work ethic is primarily informed by New England Puritan values rather than Chinese Confucian ideals. I deliberately work toward getting employees to internalize the Puritan work ethic (also known as Protestant work ethic), and not the Confucian work ethic. While I don’t expect employees to fully express Puritan values — most employees arrive adhering to a variant of Southern aristocratic values — I would demand that my business partner be a quintessential Puritan.
The Chinese Confucian work ethic (very different from Japanese Confucian work ethic), as I understand and define it (I’m not a scholar of East Asia), emphasizes work as an expression of filial piety. Put simply, one works for family and for the respect of the elders. (Family, to many Chinese, is the extension of one self — a mini Leviathan — and not an accidental gathering of individuals). One does not work for the greater good of humanity and there is little sense of public stewardship. This is why I have a difficult time talking business with Chinese friends. For them, business is about identifying a need and meeting that need as efficiently as possible. It’s silly to create a need for something new, as Steve Jobs had. And you’re judged based on your ability to provide security and status for your family. It’s silly to worry about humanity, as Bill Gates does. Are you beginning to understand why a tainted milk scandal can occur over and over again in China, despite executions of those involved? Or why there’s so much emotional manipulation in Chinese families, “your mother is sick and crying because of your poor grades.”
The Puritan work ethic emphasizes work for the sake of working — work as an expression of one’s salvation and dedication to God — and public stewardship, where the individual is, at the behest of God, responsible for everything and everyone. That’s why there’s been so much private funding for public parks and schools and cultural amenities, especially throughout New England and New York. That’s why so many New England boarding schools cram student days with school and activities, to get students used to non-stop work, to teach them to become intolerant of idleness and boredom and accustomed to serving their house, team, school, and community. Puritanism may also be why Americans are so nosy, intrusive, and intolerant and why Google/Apple/Microsoft/X think of ways to get you to unknowingly download their app so that you do things the way they want you to do it because they’re convinced that their way is the best way.
A key distinction between Chinese Confucian work ethic and the Puritan work ethic is that, for the former, there’s a clear distinction between work and leisure, while the latter blurs the line between work and leisure. For Chinese, idleness is encouraged once obligations are met, and vacations are filled with idleness and novelties. Idleness is never acceptable to the Puritan. That’s why Puritans like to lose a toe climbing Mount Everest or sit in a bus with 4 goats, 6 chickens, a donkey, and 20 peasants for 8 hours while they’re on vacation. The Puritan vacation is just work in a different setting. Chinese work to someday not work, to no longer have to “swallow bitterness.” Puritans can’t imagine life without work, life without divine mission. That’s why wealthy Chinese can’t understand how gardening and landscaping can be a fun use of leisure time (it’s something done out of necessity), while the Puritan looks forward to such an activity after paid work. It’s why Chinese would rather lounge in a yacht than go sailing, because sailing requires too much work. It’s why sailing is the quintessential puritan, preppy sport — Puritans love to work with nature.
It’s important to define our workplace culture, not only to set expectations and goals, but to attract and develop competent and dedicated employees. I bet 99 percent of parents tell their kids to “work hard.” Well, why do some work “harder” and have a greater sense of responsibility than others? Parents have told me they “don’t know what happened, how did my kid turn out this way.” that they thought they said the right things. What these parents don’t understand is that those who “work hard” (whatever that means) do so either out of obedience (rarely) or because they have a compelling reason to do so. Parents (and employers) forget that they have to give their kids a compelling reason to work. Some — chefs like Marco Pierre White, musicians like Eminem – realized their higher calling on their own. Too many kids and young adults, bereft of philosophical self-reflection, do not and will probably never figure out why they can’t push themselves harder, why they toil for survival and vacation and purchase of novelties and status items. These are people who have little reason to live and thus, live out of habit and for sustenance.
We can’t force employees, especially those accustomed to the paternalistic and self-indulgent Southern aristocratic values (think high maintenance princess types, the Southern Belle, the chivalrous Southern gentleman) to internalize Puritan work ethic. But we can provide the philosophical underpinnings for them to reflect on their purpose in life and to get them to understand that they’re working not so much for sustenance, but for a greater goal, something more important than themselves. Maybe it doesn’t have to be for God or family — French existentialists managed to work for humanity in a godless universe — but it has to be for something other than themselves. We don’t work with an employee who feels responsible only for himself and will only work for himself.