Catching the magic fish

Perceptions of Hard Work vs. Luck in Russia

There is always a duality in the Russian soul. Attitude to work is no exception. From one point of view – Russia was an agrarian country for many centuries and people worked hard to get food, from the other point of view – there is some inner laziness and a strong belief in luck. Lets try to solve this tangle.

Russian proverbs about work

Most proverbs and sayings do talk about the virtue of hard work, such as:

 The man, who does not work, does not eat.

Without hard work you won’t even catch a fish.

Patience and hard work will grind (overcome) everything.

It is the feet that feed the wolf.

No water flows under the lying stone.

There are however some bizarre sayings, such as:

Work is not a wolf; it will not run from you to the forest.

Horses die from work.

There are many interpretations of the latter sayings, some of which tell that the original meaning did not imply laziness and skipping work. But the modern meaning certainly does imply exactly that.

In general, I would say that Russian people treat work as a necessary evil. Everyday hard work does not bring us inner pleasure. Unless there is a big idea behind the work in question, in that case we can do wonders. Important, meaningful work is a huge motivator, sometimes bigger than monetary reward.

Attitude to work through Russian fairy-tales

Fairy-tales always reflect nation’s mentality. Typical plot of the Russian fairy-tale is the following:

Resting for 33 years

Resting for 33 years

A guy is literally doing nothing (resting) until he is 33 years old. Then he catches a magic gold-fish or a magic bird, which can fulfill any wishes. Or, there are three sons in a family and the youngest is considered to be not the smartest guy in the village. And then there is some hardship or war or battle for the princess and the youngest son becomes a hero. Not because he secretly trained to be a best soldier in the last 20 years and not because of other skills. Because of luck and a kind heart. Needless to say – princess has all the more reason to sit tight and wait for her prince. Country is very patriarchal, so traditional fairy-tales do not have strong female characters.

Beautiful illustrations by Ivan Bilibin:

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Take home message from these fairy tales is that Luck is a big part of the success if not the crucial one. Russians are very fatalistic and believe in luck and fate. If it is your fate – you will achieve the goal. If you will not achieve the goal – that just wasn’t your fate.

Input of the country history

As I said earlier – Russia was an agrarian country and everyday work in the field is a hard work indeed. There are lots of proverbs along the lines of – how well you work is how well you eat. Nobody can accuse old Russians of being lazy. Some playtime was always acknowledged though. There are many sayings telling us that after you are done with work, you are entitled to have fun.

However later, things started to change with the change of the society. Industrialization has brought new challenges, but in the same time made life a bit easier. Work and food still were directly correlated, but you did not grow your own food and life in the city was a bit easier.

Then we move to the Soviet era, during which everybody had a guaranteed employment and there wasn’t much income gap. There were no opportunities for private business and superb performance at work did not result in a significant salary increase. That situation did not stimulate hard work. A popular joke of that time said: “We pretend we work, they pretend they pay”. Of course, there were many brilliant people at that time as well, but they worked hard because they loved what they did, not because of money. Soviet people had a very good work/life balance. Combine a lot of free time with the scarcity of available entertainment and you get people engaged in sport, hobbies, tourism and arts.

I may be wrong, but it seems that the attitude towards work as the necessary evil and a shift in focus towards holidays, comes from the Soviet time. I think I hear the trace of those times every Friday from my car radio. DJ congratulates everybody that the hard and boring workweek has ended and now everybody can go play. 

Heroic act of work

One key advantage that Russian people have and in which we may outrun the rest of the world – is our ability to do “move mountains” (do an enormous amount of work)  in a very short time.

glass bridgeWe are sprinters, not marathoners. If justified well – we can do a massive amount of work overnight. Sochi Olympics is one example; the way students study the entire course in last 3 days before the exam is the other. Even our fairy-tales showcase that – in many of them father of the princess demands a glass bridge to be build overnight by the potential son-in-law. And the guy always manages to fulfill the wish.

Soviet regime was not dumb. Psychologists have captured that national trait and used it to the full extent. The most popular example of that was a movement to achieve 5-year development plan of the country in four years. We, Russians, love such challenges and are always game to participate in them if we agree with the goal. Such heroic acts of work do make us happy.

Work series vs. one time exceptional job

Put-horseshoe-on-a-fleaContinuing the previous topic – nothing makes us more happy than working on the one-time extra cool and challenging project. A popular Russian legend tells about a craftsmen, who managed to put a horseshoe on the a flea. Not that we needed an army of fleas in horseshoes, it was a one-time deed.

We love innovation and the idea to be first in something that has never been done before. Take a man in the space for example. We often loose interest in the project once it goes into the boring implementation/mass produced phase, but we are fully engaged at the initial phase.

Having in mind these intercultural characteristics may be quite useful for business. If you motivate people in a right way – you will see glass bridges build overnight!




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