‘ain’t that work?

“Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”
Tom wheeled suddenly and said:
“Why, it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”
“Say — I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work — wouldn’t you? Course you would!”
Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:
“What do you call work?”
“Why, ain’t that work?”
Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:
“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”
“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth — stepped back to note the effect — added a touch here and there — criticised the effect again — Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:
“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

Clever Tom Sawyer.

But it’s not like he discovered anything revolutionary. He’s simply highlighted the fundamental difference between work and play — that work is something that you must do, and play is something that you choose to do. It’s a concept that’s enshrined in any number of clichés and one that we learn really quite early on in life.

So why do we all (well, 87% of us) dislike going to work so much? It’s certainly not becuase we don’t like doing things. Have you ever actually tried doing nothing for more than a day or two? I’m not talking about just not working, but actually sat doing absolutely nothing, achieving absolutely nothing. The sort of nothing that you do when you finish an exam early.

I have. It’s awful.

We’re driven by our very nature to be productive, to achieve something with our time. So why do so many of us have this instinctive aversion to work?


Well, over on TED, Barry Schwartz tells us us the following:

…one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith — was convinced that human beings were by their very natures lazy, and wouldn’t do anything unless you made it worth their while, and the way you made it worth their while was by incentivizing, by giving them rewards. That was the only reason anyone ever did anything. So we created a factory system consistent with that false view of human nature. But once that system of production was in place, there was really no other way for people to operate, except in a way that was consistent with Adam Smith’s vision.

So, it’s all Adam Smith’s fault. He built a revolution around this principle of human behaviour which we all at some level know to be false.

Yet we continue to let ourselves be motivated purely by incentives. We allow oursleves to be driven simply by financial rewards, all the whilst knowing that fundamentally it doesn’t actually make us any happier. it just allows us to exist. When we compare job offers, we compare the salaries, how many days off from doing this boring work we get, what (ultimately financial) health benefits and pension contributions we get.

You know how they say that when the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail? Well, from a company’s perspective, it strikes me that the only tool they have is money. A little lateral thinking here I suspect would go a long way.

So not such a long one from me this time. I feel like there are bigger forces at play here. I suspect that there are wildly different motivations, and that everyone’s personal circumstance will be subtly different.

Given the opportunity, what would you spend your days doing? If we allowed the world’s population to spend their days doing exactly what they want, would every that needs doing even get done?! If Tom Sawyer can convince passing boys to paint a fence, then maybe the answer isn’t as resounding a ‘no’ as it might first seem.