Work and Life and The Work
It seems like you can’t turn on any form of media these days without running into someone with a feeling about the ‘workplace’.
Some people are demanding we return to the old days with cubicles and dress codes and those god awful ‘engagement’ events. Some people are demanding that we drop the idea of a physical office altogether (but please continue to pay me as though I live in NYC and not rural Vermont).
Okay, we can admit both sides have their bad examples. Let’s pull back a little and focus on the real problem.
The real problem is that work sucks. Always has. Always will.
So, like imagining Sisyphus happy, we reframe ‘work sucks’ in a way we can live with. We find joy where we can.
For some people, that joy is in the morning coffee with their coworkers. For others, it’s making a change in the world because they work at an NGO. Some people get a thrill from being the ‘go to’ person in their department. Others from being the smartest person in the room.
And to add insult to injury, the workplace itself is a minefield of things that must be done but are not directly related to our work. How much time has been spent figuring out the correct lunch order for a meeting? What about birthday celebrations? How many people want their coworkers involved in their personal lives? And how many put up with it, ‘because that’s what you do’?
If you’re an introvert, do you learn to promote yourself so that your work reaches more people? Do you instead have faith that the strength of your work will speak for itself so you don’t have to? And, hold on a second, why should you have to? You weren’t hired to be a marketing rep for yourself, you were hired to be an accountant!
And then SARS-CoV-2 hit.
Some people, after decades of rolling the rock up the hill and being crushed by it on the way down, had a chance to step back. And they saw, with shocking clarity, how much work sucked.
“So I did the math and daycare costs X and that’s exactly how much I make. Soooo, if I quit and got a job I could do remotely? We might be able to get out of this debt. What do you think?”
Those people are horrified at the argument that the office is a good place.
But others saw it differently.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to brainstorm an idea when half your team has really bad Wi-Fi?”
And, as time goes on, there will be a wider and wider gap between the stay at home and return to the office camps.
The modern workplace is an artifact of society’s inability to reconcile the productivity gains of technology with the rudiments of human specialization and cooperation. In fact, most measures of productivity are based on the old fashioned production lines that gave us the Model T Ford!
But core of ‘the workplace problem’ is how we’ve conflated our lives, our jobs, and The Work.
From the top-down, the inability of management theory to progress past Industrial Era models has resulted in mutations of Taylorism into the nightmare scenario of modern Agile. From the bottom up, stories of pensions and ‘working your way to the top’ has resulted in decades of putting up with inefficiency because it guarantees job security.
There are some people trying to figure out how to fix this. Stowe Boyd and Andy Polaine are two I’d recommend. (Note: Andy was kind enough to interview me for his podcast so I’m a little biased)
It’s a huge complex puzzle for business owners, investors, thought leaders, and so on. If that’s not you, then this isn’t worth a second of your time.
Instead, you have a far simpler thing to do.
Stop looking at your life as a thing that requires work.
Yes, bills must be paid and money must be made, but your job is not you. It is the thing you do to pay those bills. It is just work and not The Work.
Your life is an opportunity to find The Work. What is The Work? Well, that’s what you have to figure out. The Work is your edifice, your project, your fist being shaken at the finality of physical existence.
It is the thing that you would drag yourself out of bed to do. It is the thing you would stay up late to do. Its something you’d do, even if you weren’t being paid to do it.
Maybe it’s music. Maybe it’s painting acrylics. Maybe it’s finding the most elegant Excel formula. Maybe it’s blacksmithing or zoning laws or shoe repair or cosplay or debugging PHP.
What would you do for the rest of your life, even if no one else ever found out about it and you never made any money doing it?
What if your job gets in the way of The Work? The hours are too long and they keep you from your pottery. The constant interruptions on Slack make it hard to focus on your debugging. You spend more time in meetings about meetings than you do learning more about the newest marketing research. Well, you might have to find another job before this conflict makes you go bananas.
If you find a job that doesn’t get in the way of The Work, that’s great! You are now working to live, not living to work. You are finding meaning in The Work, not the job.
But if you happen to find a job that aligns with The Work? And that job requires being physically around other people? In an office?
Well, then you might not want to work remotely.
At least not yet.