While it didn’t make the VCTalk links for this week, Paul Graham’s essay on work generated the expected discussion on Hacker News. To distill from his short parable:
If something that seems like work to other people doesn’t seem like work to you, that’s something you are well suited for.
By objective definition, work is exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something. Subjectively, if given the choice, work implies something people would rather not do. The assumption is that they would instead favor some other activities, considered as either leisure or play. If what you do doesn’t seem like work, yet other people find it valuable, then you can regard “work as play”.
Naturally, this resonates with programmers, mathematicians and others who solve problems in and of mental abstraction or engage in artistic creativity.
When free thinkers, religious figures or proponents of self-improvement talk about work, they also imply toil and suffering. Work is imbued with deliverance from evils, development of character and discovery of happiness.
It seems worthwhile to work through the various perspectives on work. To not do so would be a willful and self-serving blindness on the part of programmers and investors, when our work, in the form of software, is impacting every industry and every person and their work.
It seems that Paul posits work-as-play as a definitive end-state. Not just one we can all reach, but can also foresee, and thus use to guide what we should do. Historically, this was seen more precisely as an ideal mind state to strive towards. To “blur the line” or “make no distinction” between work and play, was the supreme accomplishment, an attribute of a master.
Work-as-play can be a useful test for choosing certain professions over others, provided you do not forget that anything worthwhile requires schlep. Many activities, including those considered “play”, such as skiing and piano, become enjoyable only after tedious work.
In reality, many kinds of work require surrendering autonomy and control. Even outwardly fun work can become dreary due to external forces and imposed requirements. Playing video games might be entertaining, but not if that is your job.
The past several hundred years have seen the deskilling of labor along with increased automation. Compared to artisans they replaced, assembly line workers found their fragmented work to be less satisfying. Their industrial workplace was more demanding even as it turned them into easily replaceable commodities. Nor has this transformation been limited to physical labor. Whether in the warehouse or at the bank, systems circumscribe vast swaths of work.
The trend seems inexorable, with Uber and others making work even more fungible, where the even the chance to perform work is auctioned off second by second, task by task.
For many people, work not only takes up the majority of their waking time, it also shapes their identity. Whether in occupations as doctors and journalists or through titles such as assistant manager and vice president, people adapt themselves to the norms of the work and identify themselves with their professional status.
In fact, aspiration towards an identity is itself quite powerful in how and how much people work. Being a CEO, holding an elected office or running a non-profit is seen as desirable by many who work towards it, despite the long hours, exhausting schedules and other sacrifices involved.
Quite a few people have been motivated by sanctifying their work, ignoring titles and eschewing economic rewards. Driven by theological doctrines or other ideologies, some work on grand schemes to open new possibilities, while others find new meaning in everyday work.
Beyond working for a goal - however selfless - is to act without attachment to the work and without desire for a particular result. Not everyone may have such a calling, but those acting upon it may see it as a way to attain self-actualization.
Not a moment goes by without engaging in what someone would call work. A vacation can be a lot of work before, during and after. A good meal may require cooking and cleaning at home, or driving to and from the restaurant.
It seems better then to consider all these aspects of work as simultaneous and even necessary. They may be multiplexed based on our state of mind and external concerns. Some may act to propel while others help steer the course of our work.
What begins as play, might become servitude even as it shapes identity and provides resources to work on larger goals.
But as we traverse the hierarchy of needs, whether over decades or on a daily basis, let’s hope that we find in ourselves the ability to work with detachment.
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