The Shortest Story Ever Told
I am always telling stories.
Some are long and convoluted. Some collapse inward on themselves like a dying star, imploding into greatness. Some meander and peter out without ever really going anywhere. My stories are lived and earned, and sometimes stolen. There are funny stories, and sad stories, and other stories somewhere in between. Words that fill, and float, and beat out a story onto the page. Words for days, words for years. Words stretched through all of time, sweet and ready to be plucked.
And then there is another type of story. A story told to me and to you. It’s just two words; you probably know this one.
I did not arrive here with this story, stored somewhere in my deep reptilian mind. It was told to me, to my parents, and to theirs, and theirs before them. All the parents and all the children in all the lineages of the world told: “Work hard.”
Work hard, and you can achieve anything. Work hard, and you’ll receive all you desire — that’s a guarantee. Work hard enough, long enough, and the world — that place of fairy tale and power — kisses your fingertips, like snowflakes in July.
Try. Try harder. Put in the time. Ten thousand hours. More. Invest in yourself. Grind. Hustle. Hustle harder. Believe you can — and do it. Ignore the cost, the pain, the aches. They’re not real, but conjured up as a worthy test. It’s all those iterations of the shortest story, the story grinding up countless generations, that serve up the only, sweetest truth: Work hard.
I told myself this story, heart beating to its quickened pace. I tried, then tried harder. If I was good, I was excellent. If I was bad, I discarded whatever thing it was I couldn’t master. I lay my body, mind, and soul at the altar of work every morning, seldom bothering to collect them again in the evening. Hours slipping into sand, forever lost to the churning wheel of work.
We rested as resistance and found new definitions for our worth.
I worked hard, worked more, worked tirelessly. I saw small and big successes; failures were ignored. I hewed and hacked a road ahead, though other paths and lanes called out to me. And all in the name of that great, almighty Work.
Somewhere along the road I’d made, I turned to look at another person, a me I did not recognize. She snapped and raged and broke herself. Her focus had narrowed into a single, two-word story: Work hard.
I wrapped myself, my life, my world, in this story for weeks, and months, and years, until one day, a small voice asked, “Why?”
When I did not at first reply, the stubborn little voice asked again, “Why?” sounding precisely like little Cindy Lou Who addressing that dastardly Grinch. Or perhaps the voice was closer to the proverbial babe in the esoteric wood.
Again and again, it asked. And again and again, I did not answer. I had nothing for it and cared little for being wrong. There was no excellence in that.
The little voice grew louder and more forceful, gaining strength as I succumbed to mortal physics until finally I was forced to set my work aside.
“I don’t know, okay? This is what I am supposed to do. This is what we all do. This is how we get the things we want. There is no other way.”
That, I expected, would shut the little voice right up.
But then came its reply, “Why?”
Well, it had me there.
I did not know why I worked so hard, and insisted on exhaustion. I did not like the person I was, did not like the means it took to make her. I had not noticed when I started to tell myself this story, but I knew I hadn’t chosen it.
And so my little voice and I sought other stories. We looked around at others, and inward to ourselves. We rested as resistance and found new definitions for our worth. We stopped using words like “busy” and gave ourselves a new vocabulary. We redefined what it meant to work in craft and story, and grew from strangers into friends.
And now here we are to tell the tale of this great illusion, the greatest trick, perhaps, that capitalism (the toxic kind) ever did perform: Work hard.
The truth is that the shortest story, and all of its many guises, is nothing but a two-word lie.
This story was published in response to Human Parts’ Weekend Writing Prompt, “Pick a story you’ve told yourself a billion times, and unspool it. Challenge it. Ask yourself if this story encourages you to play it safe. If the answer is yes, let it go. Take one step closer to freedom.” To receive prompts like this one every weekend, subscribe to our newsletter by following Human Parts.