Student News

Words to Live By: When Work Is Done

Mary Ellen Friends – May 2, 2014

Better stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade and the edge will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
Retire when the work is done.
Laozi*, Daodejing

Laozi explains that once one has completed a task, one should be content and move on. He says that if one puts an excessive amount of effort into completing something, one risks ruining the very task that one is trying to finish and being too exhausted to complete further assignments. Laozi continues by mentioning that if one does too many different things at once, one will not be able to do any of these things well. He warns his readers by pointing out how easy it can be to make a habit of “overdoing it.” He suggests making a different, healthier (and in the long run, more productive) habit of stopping and resting after a job is complete.

I agree with Laozi. Knowing when to be done with an assignment is necessary in order to maintain one’s mental and physical health, productivity, and the quality of one’s work. However, I find it difficult to actually follow Laozi’s advice. Because of the pressures I put on myself, in addition to the high expectations that both my parents and teachers have for me, I feel the need to perform at my absolute best all of the time. I do not feel comfortable turning in an assignment if I have not put in as much effort as possible. In addition, thanks to genetics, I have inherited my father’s inability to relax for long periods of time. If I rest for too long, I start to think about all of the work that I can and should be doing, and feel guilty about the fact that I have not done something productive. Learning when enough is enough is something that I will have to continue working on throughout my life.
I know that I am not the only Deerfield student who has trouble following Laozi’s advice. At an academically competitive school like Deerfield, many students feel as though they need to put 120% effort into their assignments and do more than expected in order to stand out and succeed. Often, Deerfield students spread themselves too thin with rigorous academic schedules, co-curricular activities such as sports, music or dance, and an excessive number of extra-curriculars. For these students, Laozi suggests scaling back and prioritizing. Even though many Deerfield students, myself included, may struggle to follow Laozi’s advice, simply being more aware that we may be pouring too much into our cups can help us slowly make adjustments and develop healthier habits. Ideally, we will eventually be able to recognize when enough is enough, giving us more time to enjoy the four short years that we have here. As a bonus, it will leave us more time for things like sleeping and interacting with the important people in our lives!

*Laozi’s birth and death dates are unknown, but they are believed to be sometime during the 6th century BCE. Some scholars believe that Laozi did not actually exist, but the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) is attributed to him.

—Maddie Blake ’17