Work: Ask Less To Get More
“You shouldn’t be here.”
I am sitting in a sweaty classroom when I hear the voice again.
I sigh. Not now please. I am not in the mood for this.
I am attending the umpteenth conference talk I feel I couldn’t care less about.
“You have made the wrong choice.”
The voice is my own’s. It’s in my head, urging me to re-evaluate my move to Budapest for a PhD in philosophy, because it notices that I don’t seem to be particularly engaged by this philosophy conference.
The talk is done. Robotically, I produce a clapping sound with my hands.
This is the life I chose for. I should like it, but I don’t. That’s bad.
“You screwed up.”
I slowly break down as the next speaker opens his mouth.
Work versus fun
We spend a large part of our waking hours on work, so not enjoying your job means you’re losing the game of life.
Or so it’s natural to think. The voice in my head certainly believes that. Accordingly, it strikes alarm when it catches me bored during those hours.
In this essay, I want to look at this assumption.
Should we like our work?
Fulfillment versus enjoyment
After another conference day, we went for drinks in one of Budapest’s so-called ruin bars and I shared my worries with a smart-looking colleague.
“Philosophy isn’t fun”, she was kind to point out.
That wasn’t the response I expected. Also, it didn’t quite succeed in alleviating my concerns.
She continued: “I don’t enjoy writing papers. It’s not easy. It’s hard.”
However, she didn’t see that as a problem:
“Work is not in your life to provide fun, because it’s a performance-domain. Work is not about having fun, but about accomplishing something difficult. If you want your work to be fun on top of it, you’re asking too much.”
Because work is a “performance-domain”, enjoyment is not that relevant for assessing it’s value. Other areas of life, that are less related to performance, should provide the fun in your life.
She gave me some advice:
“If there’s not enough joy in your life, change what you do in your free time, not what you do in your work time. If there’s not enough fulfillment in your life, then you should adjust how you spend your working hours.”
This was one of the best conversations ever.
Let me summarize.
The idea that it is no good when your work isn’t that much fun presupposes that work should be fun. Hence, when it’s not, that’s bad.
However, enjoyment is the wrong measure for evaluating the time invested in work, because work simply isn’t about having fun in the first place — we don’t spend all these hours on work for the sake of entertainment.
Interestingly, we neither do so purely for the sake of achieving a goal. If I could push a button that would get me a PhD-degree and all the intellectual development for free, right now, I would not push it.
This might sound counter-intuitive, but think about it for a second.
Imagine your greatest goal — whatever it is.
Now imagine instantaneously achieving it.
Would you be happy? Perhaps in the beginning, but not for long.
Why not, you ask? Because you would soon find yourself needing something else to struggle for.
This little thought experiment suggests that the satisfaction of success doesn’t come from achieving your goals.
So where does the happiness of success come from?
It doesn’t come from attaining your goals, but from struggling well.
Satisfying that need is what justifies the time-investment we make in work.
We suck at struggling well
Allow me to digress for a second.
A lot of people are not struggling well right now.
They don’t pick their battles because they forget that not all goals are worth fighting for.
Our culture values effort and personal sacrifice, but that something takes up a lot of time, does not automatically make it worthwhile.
Secondly, they don’t pick the way they fight. Plenty of people in the world work hard without reaping much reward for their effort, because they do the wrong things — it doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction.
Blind effort by itself is worthless and does not justify the time we invest in our jobs. No pain no gain, as they say, but from that it doesn’t follow that pain always means gain.
Work is about meaningfulness
Back to the main point.
The final question to ask is how we can make sure that we struggle well.
To be clear: struggling well does not mean making the biggest possible difference in the world. Rather, it means ensuring that your struggles add to the quality of your life.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that work needs to fulfill three criteria to be meaningful: autonomy, complexity and a clear relationship between effort and reward.
Struggling well means being responsible for your own decisions and direction (autonomy).
When you struggle well, it will engage your mind and imagination (complexity).
And finally, there needs to be a close connection between the effort you put in and the outputs you receive.
Notice that enjoyment is not one of the qualities that make work fulfilling. According to the criteria that matter when evaluating your work, whether you have fun doing it is largely beside the point.
The point of work is to be meaningful, not to be enjoyable. Its purpose is not to provide opportunities for joy, but to provide opportunities for struggling well.
There’s more to that
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