How to Tell When You’re Tired

A Brief Examination of Work

A fabulous little book, written by a lifelong worker. Theriault came from a family of fruit tramps—migrant workers who travelled the country picking fruit wherever it came to harvest—and later became a longshoreman. His insight into the working life is profound and lovely—as relevant to those on the docks as to those at their desks.

Reading notes

Go to hell

At present on the West Coast of America when a gang of longshoreman working breakdown cargo start a shift, they divide themselves into two equal groups and flip a coin. Depending to some extent upon the port and the work situation, one group goes into the far reaches of the hold of the shift and sits down. The other group turns to and starts loading cargo, usually working with a vengeance, since each one of them is doing the work of two men. An hour later, the groups change places. In other words, although I and my fellow longshoremen are there and get paid for eight hours, on occasion we work only four.…If there is someone reading this with a swelling sense of moral outrage because we are sitting down on the job, I am sorry, but I have searched my mind in vain for a polite way of telling him to go to hell. Further, I would recommend that he abandon his outrage and begin thinking about doing something similar for himself. Probably he already has, even if he won’t admit it.

Theriault, How to Tell When You’re Tired, page 96

Emphasis mine.

The value of work

The Buddhist view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.…To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of passion, and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of his worldly existence.

Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, page 58


Regarding work and leisure, people who call themselves humanist philosophers concern themselves, like trade union leaders, with a more equitable balance, that is, more leisure and less work for the worker through a greater share of the “abundance” created by the machine. But none of these humanist philosophers are tending a machine. Certain forms of escapist entertainment aside, leisure in itself is worthless without direction or content, and creative work can be more rewarding and fulfilling than many kinds of leisure. What is needed, it would seem to follow, is to rethink and readjust work to this end. Which is what all workers attempt to do daily on the job.

Theriault, How to Tell When You’re Tired, page 122