Would I be an iconoclast if I lambast this motto? It was Augustus Caesar who inspired this Latin phrase, he desperately needed his Roman subjects to return to the land, to become farmers. Labour Conquers All, that was the catch cry I grew up with. We would stand at attention, puff our chests out and proudly recite our school anthem. Did the stewards of my school for twelve years, St Xavier’s Institution in Penang, realise that the motto originally was a call for ancient Romans to become farmers? Agriculture then was a necessity, (perhaps even more so now), and so it was romanticised by the social elites. Cicero considered it the best of all occupations, none more profitable and more delightful. What my teachers didn’t teach me was that labour during Caesar’s time was carried out mostly by slaves and servants. Labour conquers all? No, they should have said all the conquered, labour.
From my youth to early fatherhood, I held in high esteem the importance of hard work. My father’s story was respectfully retold to anyone interested in his rags to rags story during the early years of his indenture. He left his Shaoxing home at age 9 to work as an apprentice in a laundry workshop in Shanghai. In the 1920’s, that was a distance of over four hours, a frightening distance to the unknown for a child. After almost two years of hard labour, he returned home penniless, the boss simply didn’t pay him a cent. The warning signs were there, but I failed to pay any attention. Hard work does not necessarily reward us.
Unfortunately for my kids, I was complicit in instilling in them the same erroneous teaching that had been drummed into my psyche. As a young father, I wanted to teach my sons by setting good examples. Words can be misinterpreted, easily misunderstood, readily forgotten. Actions, on the other hand, they can see with their own eyes. Sweat and tears they will remember. I left for work early and came home late, just in time to bid them goodnight. I brought them to my office on Saturdays, the extra hours worked didn’t bring home extra pay. Labor Omnia Vincit, I sang proudly and repeatedly in my heart. The importance is in demonstrating to them the romantic concept of hard work. Effort is always rewarded, it may not be a financial one though. If we apply ourselves, there is nothing we can’t achieve.
Practice makes perfect. Everyone is taught that. Isn’t that just so awful? I knew from young that it is simply wrong to believe that. Yet, I kept reciting Labor Omnia Vincit. I started learning the violin when I was 9. My father had already left home at the same age. He would have been taught to practise his laundry skills perfectly. I didn’t ask what would have happened to him if he didn’t. A world of difference, I was merely concerned about practising my violin. Echoing inside my head, Labor Omnia Vincit, Labor Omnia Vincit, practice makes perfect. Does practice make perfect if you play the violin wrongly? No!
My complicity luckily was short-lived. My sons too learned music and they soon found out for themselves it is perfect practice that makes perfect. But, why be perfect? That’s boring and predictable. Why labour away like a slave? Work smart, that’s smarter than to work hard. Especially with the AI Revolution upon us soon. The Industrial Revolution brought about change that delivered great benefits to humans but that cannot be assumed with AI. Many may share the fate not of late 19th century drivers of horse-driven carts who switched to driving trains and cars, but of 19th century horses, rendered totally irrelevant. Be smart young urghhlings, work hard at finding yourselves a cushy political sinecure now!