A (Short) History of How We Work

Photo Credit: Anticap
“Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune. But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born.” — K. Gibran

The future of work is not another gimmick or framework. The future of work is about how well you hone your own craft and become better than 99% of the population. Craftsmanship, says NYU Professor Richard Sennett, is an “enduring basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”

One of the most extraordinary and yet quietly routine features of our age is the assumption that we should be able to find work that we not only tolerate, or endure for the money, but profoundly appreciate, for its high degree of purpose, motivation, and values. We see nothing strange in the remarkable notion that we should try to find a job we love at an organization with a greater purpose, working with a collaborative team.

Yet for most of history, the question of whether we love our job or companies would have seemed laughable or peculiar. Our agrarian ancestors tilled the soils, herded animals, worked down mines and emptied chamber pots for the better part of the last 7,000 years.

And we suffered. The serf could look forward to only a very few moments of satisfaction and these would lie firmly outside the hours of employment: the harvest moon festival, the wedding day, or the first snowfall. The corresponding assumption was that if one had sufficient money, one would simply stop working.

The ancient Greek god Hephaestus may have carried a hammer, anvil, and pair of tongs, but Greece’s elites could not have a job. They remained free from economic tasks, instead using slaves to tend their lands and fortunes. Only with that could those men have time for things such as government, war, literature and philosophy.

The educated classes among the Romans considered labouring and farming work to be inherently humiliating. Apart from the plots and politics, members of the Roman upper class faced little work or real responsibility and were blessed with a relatively charmed life. Tellingly, their word for business was negotium — literally, “not enjoyable activity.” Leisure, doing very little, hunting, and hosting dinner parties were the sole basis for a life of happiness.

Then, at the close of the Middle Ages, an extraordinary shift began: a few people started to work for money and for fulfillment. One of the first people to successfully pursue this highly unusual ambition was the Venetian artist Tiziano Vecenilli, dubbed Titian (1485–1576).

On the one hand, he delighted in the pleasures of creativity in his work, experimenting with new pigments or refining his brushstrokes. But to this he added something very odd: he was extremely interested in being paid well. He was highly astute when it came to negotiating contracts for supplying pictures, and he upped his output — and profit margin — by contracting assistants who specialized in different phases of the production process.

Titian was the initiator of a profound new idea: that work could and should be both something you love and excel at doing, and a decent source of income. This was a revolutionary concept that spread across the world.

Nowadays it reigns supreme, coloring the ambitions of young millennials and helping to define the hopes and frustrations of an accountant in Bangalore, or a software designer in Mountain View.

Yet throughout most of human history, being a farmer, or a blacksmith, wasn’t meant to be glamourous. And this shouldn’t matter, because the specifics of the work are actually irrelevant.

The meaning uncovered by such efforts is actually due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship — not the outcome of their work.

“Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil. Nay, he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.” — K. Gibran

In 1923, author Khalil Gibran published a whole poetic essay to talk about why we work. This particular verse further explains the symbolical relationships on the nature of one’s purpose of labor. That one must put all his commitment and dedication on one’s work. To Gibran and the rest, men and women in all labor are equivalent. What sets us apart is the level of dedication, enthusiasm, devotion and loyalty espoused in the work.

All of these examples point to a work philosophy that puts use at ease with difficult tasks through focused and deliberate efforts to master hard things and transform them into tangible results that people value.

Whether you’re a coder, customer sales rep, surgeon, or lawyer, your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.

It’s not easy, but there are certainly a few simple ideas that can help you begin looking at your work through a new lens.

Change Your Mindset

As with most things, it all begins with a change of mindset. If you can transform the way you think about work from a distracted, draining obligation into something satisfying, a portal opens towards cultivating the values we see in craftsmanship. A craftsmanship mindset means having a commitment to honing difficult to master skills and then applying at an elite level.

Focus On The Problem (Not The Tools)

We live in a culture where we are quick to embrace the next revolutionary rhetoric that will make us better at work, more productive in meetings, and faster with our task list.

Slack, Google Docs, Trello, WhatsApp, BaseCamp, Box, Zapier… they’re just tools. No different from a blacksmith’s’ hammer or an artist’s brush, used by skilled laborers to do their jobs.

Instead follow the mantra popularized by Waze founder Uri Levine where you fall in love with the problem, not the solution. That is, dedicate enough time to be able to clearly and specifically articulate the problem you’re trying to solve (rather than the ingenious solution you are developing.) This process also allows you, your team, and your organization to consider multiple solutions and ideas without the emotional commitment you might have made to one creative solution.

Deliberate Practice

This is what Cal Newport calls embracing the “craftsman mindset,” where you deliberately focus on how you can find satisfaction in the development of your skill and how you can leverage that skill to further the next steps in your working life. For centuries, this is what it has meant to be a real amateur — a person pursuing an activity for sheer pleasure, not solely pursuing a goal for the sake of their profession. This type of focused deliberate work ethic is key in building innovative and valuable future work careers.

We live today under the false premise that only those who are bold enough to follow their passion can derive some meaning from their work, while the rest of us languish in mundane tasks. This flawed thinking puts a lot of emphasis on job description. If only a small pool of jobs can be a source of satisfaction, then all others are soulless and bland.

A lot of what the future of work stands for can be found in the history books. All the noise and kerfuffle around new communication tools, and productivity hacks seems to lead back to a long known connection between depth and meaning.

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