Work ethic is at the core of becoming a fulfilled person. If you're somebody who pursues work as a way to fulfillment, failing to have good work ethic will make it impossible for you to truly become fulfilled. If you're somebody who doesn't care for work for fulfillment, failing to have good work ethic is going to make it difficult for you to get the resources you want to be happy.
Even if you are somebody who despises work and feels that the good life is one lived in leisure, you'll have to develop a strong work ethic at some point in your life in order to provide yourself that life of leisure. Building a 4-hour workweek takes some work at first.
But to say that work ethic is central to a good life takes justification. The statement reminds us of the Puritan Work Ethic and old beliefs that only those who work hard are welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven. That is not what I am saying. I am not making a religious case for work ethic. Rather, developing a strong ability to set goals, develop a path to those goals, and stick through on the execution of that path -- even when it gets really hard to do so -- is integral to any conception of the good life.
This also isn't to say that work ethic is sufficient for a good life. There are plenty of people who work hard and are extremely unfulfilled -- from Wall Street bankers to McDonald's cooks -- so there is clearly another element to being fulfilled. But having a sense of work ethic is necessary for fulfillment and is directly connected to how one understands one's own self-worth and how one can live a life worth living.
Work Ethic and Self-Worth
Self-worth is how we view our own relationship with ourselves. If we have high self-worth, we view ourselves as worthy of investment, time, energy, and risk. If we have low self-worth, we don't believe that we are worthy of these things. People of low-self worth tend to look to outside institutions and individuals for their own self-worth, while those with high self-worth find it from their own endeavors.
People with an attitude of high self-worth don't see themselves as failures even when their ventures fail. They don't identify themselves with their work, but they understand that their work has an element of risk to it. In order for their work to succeed, they have to put in the time and energy to make it succeed. If it fails and they contributed a high level of work ethic, they can rest assured that it is not because they have poor work ethic -- they know they don't have poor work ethic -- but that exogenous factors contributed more heavily to its failure.
People with an attitude of low-self worth take the opposite disposition towards their projects. They view themselves as failures when their projects fail. One of the factors that can contribute to somebody viewing themselves as a failure when their projects fail is that they don't have an attitude of good work ethic. They know that they could have done more but slacked off when the opportunity to work more (whether through effort, innovation, research, or cashing in social capital) presented itself. If it fails and they didn't contribute a high level of work ethic, they are caught questioning themselves about what more they could have done or why they were failing at that.
Work Ethic and Self-Improvement
Work ethic also contributes to self-worth through the process of self-improvement. Those with an attitude of high self-worth are almost always people who are engaged in the process of self-betterment. They know that they have high worth but also know that this is not something that is bestowed by a worth king, but is something for which they must constantly work. The process of self-improvement is itself a type of work. If you go all-out and engage in a regular personal development project (or PIE) or if you just go to the gym, putting the motivation and work into both actually following through on your betterment and making it worthwhile takes work ethic.
Lack of work ethic may make self-improvement harder, and failing to work on self-improvement may lead a person of even moderate self-worth to feel themselves falling into a rut. This is where work ethic seems like it might have a circular nature. In order to work on self-improvement one must have a good sense of work ethic, but one must work to develop a good sense of work ethic. Starting with little things like cleaning up, making a bed in the morning, or reading a few pages of a book every day is a good start -- in starts to develop the habits that underlie a strong sense of work ethic.
Those with low-self worth invariably don't have a strong work ethic -- they may work hard professionally but lack in the area of self-improvement. Think of the miserable doctor who chain smokes and never goes to the gym -- it took a lot of professional work ethic to become a doctor, but in the pursuit of that he lost his self-improvement work ethic. Or think of the Wall Street analyst who carries a high-status job but is absolutely miserable. He certainly worked hard to reach that point, but lost track of what he was ultimately pursuing.
On the other end of the spectrum, imagine an almost-cartoony Silicon Valley mogul. At any event in the Valley where successful founders talk about their daily routines, you'll hear stories about waking up and doing yoga, going for a walk, or meditating before getting to work. It sounds funny and odd at first, but once you realize that these habits are part of the broader importance of self-improvement and work ethic, you realize that these are individuals with high self-worth that allows them to keep persevering through failure.
There are also those individuals with a low professional work ethic and high self-improvement work ethic. These people focus heavily on their hobbies or on their personal state while letting their professional lives languish. Think about the guy who goes to the gym in his spare time when he could be completing that report that would help him get that promotion, or the self-help book hoarder who returns home from his soul-crushing 9-5 to run through the exercises in his copy of the latest Malcolm Gladwell book. These people aren't necessarily unhappy, but there is a good portion of their lives that prevents them from doing any other things they like.
Work Ethic and Living The Good Life
Work ethic also plays another obvious role in fulfillment -- it helps us achieve our goals that we set for ourselves. Without a strong sense of work ethic, we are unable to reach the goals we set for ourselves and what defines "living the good life." As noted above, our self-improvement work ethic is what keeps our professional work ethic in check, so we can have individuals who imagine that what they want is to become a wealthy banker or a renowned brain surgeon, but they leave any non-professional aspirations by the side -- they lack follow-through on their life-vision as a whole.
Work ethic is integral to our ability to live out our conception of the good life. If we don't enjoy work in the traditional sense (i.e., professional work, career work), then we need the work ethic to set down a plan of action to minimize this kind of toil in our lives. If we love professional work but have other plans for our lives (i.e., starting a happy family, traveling, etc.), then we need the personal work ethic to guarantee we don't become subsumed by our work.
Even if our goal is to just sit around and read philosophy all day, we need either the work ethic to become a professional philosopher or the work ethic to design a life in which we can support ourselves financially while reading philosophy all day.
It doesn't matter what your relationship to "work" is, you need work ethic to live a fulfilled life.