Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus – these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify … Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms – these are labors.
Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense we didn’t do them. Paul Goodman worte in a journal once, “I have recently written a few good poems. But I have no feeling that I wrote them.” That is the declaration of a laborer. Like the shoemaker, we wake up to discover the fruits of labor. And labor, because it sets its own pace, is usually accompianed by idelness, leisure, even sleep.
—Lewis Hyde, The Gift