DRMacIver's Notebook

Fulfilling work

Fulfilling work

It’s almost certainly apocryphal, but there’s a supposed quote by Gandhi that goes as follows:

Journalist: What do you think of Western civilization?

Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.

Anyway, this is what I feel about the enobling power of work.

There’s a thing I’ve noticed on and off which is that people who have never worked, in some generalisable sense, are weird, in a way that I do not intend to be as complimentary as I often do when I describe someone as weird.

I don’t necessarily mean “had a proper job”, and there’s all sorts of other things that count as “work” in my book here. My central example of someone like this is not someone on unemployment benefits, but a trust fund kid. People who are rich enough that their life hasn’t ever really required them to work for things. They may still have had a hard life in other ways, and I’m sure they have myriad nice problems to have, but there’s something that feels very dysfunctional about them - a sort of purposelessness and failure to engage with the actual reality of the world, or their relations with other people, because they have never really had to test themselves against the former and have always had the resources to avoid relying on the latter.

This is a problem that, to some degree, I can relate to, and feel like I’m struggling with a bit myself. To the degree that I have not fallen into this trap, my history of actually working seems to be a large chunk of the character I rely on to avoid it.

I’ve not really had a “proper” job for the last 6 years - I’ve had projects, and I tried doing a PhD, and I’ve picked up freelance work on and off (which I’m properly taking seriously now so will be more on than it has been), so it’s not like I’ve been idle or had no money coming in, but it’s definitely felt more like being a NEET than like being in employment.

And there are aspects of employemnt I miss a great deal, even if there are other aspects that I do not miss at all.

To me it feels like there’s some sort of central human experience which has all of the following components:

  1. A group of people, working together on a problem.
  2. The problem has an actual (even if small) impact on the world.
  3. The problem is difficult and without working hard on it they will fail.
  4. All (or most) of the people in the group actually care about the problem and want to succeed.
  5. No member of the group could succeed at the problem on their own.
  6. Each member of the group is an active participant in the process, and the end result depends on how well they fulfill their role.

Possibly this list isn’t sufficient, but it all seems necessary to be an example of the thing I’m pointing to, which one might as well call something like “fulfilling work”.

For me the optimal examples of such things are research and development, but they don’t have to be. Renovating a house or working in a garden, for example. Hosting an event to some degree counts (it depends a lot on the event - certainly running something like a conference does. Throwing a party seems to be lacking something, probably the impact aspect).

I think many people have roughly zero experiences like this in their life, but their job is the thing that comes closest. Some people even have this in their jobs, although I think it’s not the norm.

Certainly, jobs being fulfilling work is not my experience - my jobs have all failed on (4), in that I think roughly nothing I have ever been paid to work on as a software developer has felt like something I cared about for its own sake. Some have reached the heady heights of “Oh yes I guess that might be good to exist”, some of them have been intellectually neat problems to work on (which I then reluctantly went and worked on the boring engineering they obviously actually needed rather than the neat problems they hired me for), but none of them have been things I would have considered worth my effort if, well, they weren’t paying me a lot of money for it.

It was also a bit lacking in (6) - generally the end result wasn’t bottlenecked on how well I fulfilled my role because the nature of working at startups is that the thing that will kill you is whether or not the people with power are competent to run a company and choose a product direction. Spoiler: They usually aren’t.

It does, however, have all of the other characteristics, to a much larger degree than really anything else in my life.

(Hypothesis is a close second, but I sortof failed at working on it around the point it was starting to become truly collaborative, for unrelated reasons)

Yesterday’s post was partly me coming to terms with the fact that hobbies and personal interests also don’t fill this role, and the other people are a necessary part of it.

There’s a lot of discourse that one could handwavily frame as “work vs leisure”. Obviously you need both and the strawman versions of both of these positions are idiots, but I feel like the thing that is missing from both the pro and anti work discourse is that the sort of work you need is not just any work but fulfilling work, and that much of what people experience at work is a cruel caricature of that experience.

And I do think that we need something of this nature, not just leisure. People create themselves in concern with other people, and test themselves against reality, and this sort of shared project that actually matters is our best tool for doing so.