duty

EnglishmanSince watching BBC’s Parade’s End, I’ve been musing about Christopher Tietjens’ passion for “duty.” It’s already an anachronism in WWI England. Poor Chrissy’s adherence to an expired moral code makes his behavior more arse-like than gentlemanly. So I’m curious what, if anything, “duty” might mean in today’s world.

The word “duty” has a homely sound. I associate it with the dullest aspects of marriage and family (fidelity, washing dishes). Also with administration (filling out forms, pulling one’s weight on committees) and boring supervisory tasks (“yard duty”).

But maybe “duty” can be nobler than that? Consider Francisco Dao’s recent post about the difference between loving what you do and taking pride in your work. Dao makes the old-fashioned sounding claim that “love doesn’t push us to be our best.” Contrary to what we’re always told, it’s not all about feeling good. What’s more crucial than loving our work is holding ourselves to a standard and caring about the quality and impact of what we do.

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Dao is a startup/tech/media guru and could hardly be accused of being old-fashioned. Maybe pride in one’s work is today’s equivalent to “service to above and below” (the English gentleman’s code), or even the kind of patriotic duty that once prompted men to enlist by the thousands. Pride in your work requires discipline and perseverance and maybe- *gasp*- even sacrifice.

Education researcher and MacArthur Fellow Angela Duckworth believes that “grit” is the key to student success. Grit, not intelligence or aptitude or motivation. That elusive quality of character for which we barely have a word. Stick-to-it-iveness, volition, grit–the capacity for staying with your commitments and keeping the long view. Is this the virtue we’re scratching around for when we talk about, or don’t talk about, dutifulness?

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