Minimum Impact, Maximum Time, and the Goodness of Work

Is ambling antithetical to success? Is a life of purpose the only path to happiness? And is Gen Y really all that different from previous generations in wanting meaningful work?

On Marx, Meaning, and Materialism

I think often on Marx’s theory of alienation; namely, that under the capitalist system of increasing specialization, workers become alienated from the fruits of their labour, and from their own capacity as workers to work/produce things and grow in doing so. Instead of seeing work as an end in itself, and gaining feelings of fulfilment from seeing the fruit of one’s labour go from raw materials to completed items, according to Marx work had become but a means to an end as workers were increasingly slotted into automated lines of production. Instead of creating the whole shoe, they would nail in a piece of the sole, as it were, with no satisfaction in seeing the “end-to-end process” (as we might say in today’s corporatenewspeak).

Certainly, with the rise of the industrialization, Fordist assembly lines and globalization, the idea of work as a means to an end gained popularity as a way to describe life in the twentieth century. And in some ways, this was acceptable. In the 1930s, one was fortunate to have a job at all – any job. One did not pick and choose. The generation after that (those ubiquitous Boomers) observed their parents’ work ethic and adopted it without thinking, as a means to gain material prosperity. Nice cars, big houses, creature comforts, holidays in Boca Raton, and well-educated children became status symbols, ends worth working for. A life of middle management drudgery and rarely seeing one’s children was, for many, an acceptable trade-off.

But we expect so much more from our work today. Making a living, and a living that will support the lifestyle we’re used to, is mere “table stakes” (more corporatenewspeak). Because, with good education and attentive parenting and the opportunity to develop our skills as children, we have so many options for a career. Consequently, we expect much, much more out of the time we spend at work. (And before someone brings up 40% unemployment among global youth, yes, the recession has, to an extent, made Gen Ys a little less choosy – but only for now.)

The theory of work as an end in itself – and a means to happiness and fulfilment – has important research to back it up. A study out of California a few years ago remarked on the importance of hard work and purpose in achieving happiness in life. The conclusion is worth quoting at length:

A central presumption of the ‘‘American dream’’ is that, through their own efforts and hard work, people may move towards greater happiness and fulfillment in life. This assumption is echoed in the writings of philosophers, both ancient and modern. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (1985) proposed that happiness involves engagement in activities that promote one’s highest potentials. And, in the Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell (1930/1975) argued that the secrets to happiness include enterprise, exploration of one’s interests, and the overcoming of obstacles. …Our data suggest that effort and hard work offer the most promising route to happiness.

Wow. Good work, it seems, is the answer to all our problems. The only thing left to do is find work that contains enough meaty, purposeful, interesting, content – related to our skills, of course, and with excellent “work-life balance” and good benefits – to meet our needs. Simple!

But is this expectation reasonable?

Really, it’s a wonder anybody finds jobs like this, let alone the majority of people. Even Marx’s (clearly idealized) autonomous, cottage industry shoe-makers (or soldiers, or second sons forced into trade…) no doubt achieved very little of this all-encompassing fulfilment through their work. Yet today we pile the expectations on our jobs. While there are certainly those out there who caution that work will not make anybody happy all on its own, the prevailing narrative remains that fulfilling work is the surest route to happiness. Consider: it’s just not socially acceptable for anyone able to participate in the “knowledge economy” to opt out and instead choose to make money solely as a means to an end with no other agenda – let alone anyone under 30. Do you know anyone? And do they want the situation to be permanent?

Minimizing Impact: Lowering our expectations? Or relieving the pressure?

While I was vacationing in the vineyards of Mendoza (rewards for a life of corporate drudgery?), I got to thinking meta thoughts about what people tend to expect from life. We use a lot of language today that revolves around impact. We want to “make a splash.” We long to stand out in interviews, on dates, and in applications. People everywhere seek to be famous for something (anything! Jersey Shore, anyone?) or to leave a legacy, something that will let current and future generations know they existed as individuals, and left something behind. Modern society refers to the more noble side of this feeling as the desire to change the world, whether through volunteering, winning a Nobel Prize or raising well-adjusted children. We have, as I have pointed out before, a strong bias to action which makes us want to do good and make things “better.” Most of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves, a vague kind of weight that is associated with the Victorian ideal of the innate goodness of work and the possibility of having a hand in making a better future. The idea of finding work that allows us to, as the above-quoted study notes, “promote [our] highest potentials,” is tied up in this pressure.

At the same time we are acutely aware that life is, as an honourary TED talk I watched recently put it, fragile and vulnerable – and short. (This fact creates a very un-Hobbesian empathy, the talk argued, not only for those with whom we share blood ties, but with other humans, other creatures, and the biosphere generally. Worth watching.) It is little wonder that, with the perception of the sand in the hourglass ever running out, we feel pressed for time, overwhelmed, and run off our feet. We try to make every moment count. We multi-task and are always tied to a communication device of some kind. Most things are done for a purpose: we educate ourselves in order to gain employment, money and “success”; we sleep and eat for our health; we watch our health to extend our lives (so we can keep doing it all longer). It has been often noted with bitter irony that with all the myriad time-saving devices we employ on a daily basis, we find ourselves busier than ever before. Trying to do things in the minimum amount of time has not made us happy.

So I decided to try an experiment in reverse-thinking. What if we sought to – even just for a day – minimize our impact, and maximize the amount of time we spent doing things? What would this look like? What does “counter-urgency” feel like in practice? Would it lessen the pressure?

Experiments in living “Slow

I suspect that it would in many ways resemble the slow movement, which has grown exponentially in popularity recently in response to the speed of life and destruction of the environment and local communities in the name of convenience. It must also be a response to the pressure of the purposeful life. The slow movement includes slow food, which is (in contrast to fast food) grown locally, often organically, and savoured. Slow reading is similar, and involves savouring text instead of skimming or summarizing, or any other kind of speed-reading I learned about in university.

A minimum-impact day would also result in fewer outputs (and here I use a very corporatenewspeak word deliberately). We would do purposeless things: ambling with no direction, daydreaming, journaling, writing poetry, reading fiction. There would be no book club to report to. No destination. Poetry, lyrics and plays could be memorized for the sake of the words themselves, lines savoured like chocolates instead of potential “gobbits” to drop into future conversations or be recalled on trivia nights.

Sadly, my brief experiment in slowly minimizing my impact was a failure: I wanted outputs. I wanted to write about it, to share it on this blog. I wanted to tie it into my life’s work and be fulfilled by it.

I sense I would not be unique in feeling this way. Is our desire for impact innate, or learned? Here we have contradictory evidence. An article in the Economist a few months ago referred to a study that concluded that the desire for good, hard work actually isn’t all that innate, particularly in Britain. But if learned, if part of the Marxist legacy we hold that says that fulfilling work is an end in itself, how do we handle the pressure of finding such fulfilment?

Perhaps the idea of work-as-end is a way to rationalize the short time we have on Earth, and that we spend most of it working. But are we destined not to find all we seek in our jobs? Is it possible to use work only as currency to “buy” time for our true passions? Should we seek to maximize the good in our work (whether employment at all, a means to material comfort and status, or even autonomous shoe-making) — even if we hate it? Do you amble purposelessly?

I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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5 Responses to Minimum Impact, Maximum Time, and the Goodness of Work

  1. Alex Willis says:

    Our generation — well, Gen X and Y — must appear insufferable to those that came before us. Not only do we want work, as you say, but we want it to be important, and we want to BE important, at the same time. Having important work and being important ourselves are not necessarily the same thing, however.

    Work-life balance is, it seems to me, to be a concept that is relatively young. For example, the very notion that one would choose a line of work to counterbalance a “life” would probably have seemed ridiculous to someone of our grandparents generation: you had work, and you did that work, and you made the best of your life with what you were doing when you weren’t working. All of a sudden now we’re talking about choosing the kinds of work that will give us MORE of a life outside of that work. What a luxury! Not only do we want to be the Most Important Person in Our Field, but we want to Travel, Write, Volunteer, Play Sports, Have Children, Not Have Children, whatever.

    Of course, this is all premised on the idea of making us all happier. It’s a dog and pony show, from what I can tell. The happiest people I know have 9-to-5s, three kids, go to church, own a house in the suburbs, and lead relatively unimportant existences. Put that scenario to an urbanite, over-educated, upper-middle class Gen Yer, and they will probably balk and tell you to keep them away from that prison of an existence.

    Let’s call a spade a spade: our generation wants it all, but isn’t willing to work for it. I’m not saying that our generation doesn’t work hard; clearly, many do. But not in the ways that “working” meant in former times. Now, we want lateral mobility — the ability to move between kinds of work, different jobs, firms, careers. What’s the unofficial stat? We all have seven careers or more in our lifetime? I’d say that’s getting higher. Nobody wants to feel trapped in one slot, because we feel that would somehow crush our delicate souls, and deny us the position of importance that is our due. This kind of professional and career ADD is a symptom of a greater malaise: a reluctance to face the reality that work might actually fall outside of the categories of self-realization that we, the grandchildren of capitalist humanism have come to expect.

    • Kathryn Exon Smith says:

      I wonder if it’s a question of expectations. I know a lot of 9-5 people who seem happy too, because they expect that life means being a corporate hack and rarely seeing their kids or spouses outside of weekends, when they’re busy with laundry, grocery shopping, running kids to soccer practice, etc. That’s just what life “is” and “should be” until retirement, which is the great unknown. They’re all over 30.

      I’m not saying there aren’t people who wanted and expected what we now call work-life balance and challenging work, and got it, but do you think younger people were brought up expecting something different from this vision of life? Were we “promised” fulfilment if we worked hard and got good grades and were on student council? Aren’t those the things we were supposed to be doing to set us up in life? What the hell is this lack of options we’re being presented with? etc.

    • Kathryn Exon Smith says:

      Also, do you really think Gen Ys are unwilling to work hard for the “all” you’re talking about?

      I’m of two minds here. I fully believe that they (we) think “hard work” can be happily zoomed up under “fulfilling work.” Like the idea of slaving away user testing video games all day or something. But at the same time, avoiding some of the silly workplace ideas out there (such as “paying your dues,” or only getting a job if you have 5 years experience with data entry instead of 2) isn’t an unreasonable expectation, is it?

      • Alex Willis says:

        I don’t think we were “promised” anything. But maybe, at some point, the mythological narratives we all absorbed — “You can be anything, do anything! — aren’t actually contributing to happiness or fulfillment.

        And I’m not so sure those “dues” expectations are silly. It’s hard to deny our generation’s sense of entitlement — “Don’t they know how smart we all are? I don’t need to jump through those hoops. Those rules don’t apply to me!”

        Why shouldn’t they? Why should an employer care that I got an A+ in 18th Century Poetry, or that my IQ might be higher than his average employee? What net effect do high expectations and a fully-realized sense of self have on an organization’s bottom line?

        I say this as someone who is negatively affected by those “dues” expectations. I KNOW I am smart enough to do the best jobs. I KNOW I’m capable of improving a company through my work. On the other hand, everything about me — my resume, my career path — screams someone who is likely to jump ship after a few years in pursuit of another aspiration.

        So the question becomes, is this “challenge” one faced by the companies — “We need the best and brightest!” — or one faced by the over-educated and self-entitled Gen Xers and Yers? Like I said, I do think these generations are willing to work for their dreams. But I’m not sure those dreams are jiving with the employers’ expectations or, quite frankly, time.

  2. […] the external world. Instead of savouring text or indulging in slow reading, as I wrote about in my last post, we skim, knowing we can go back later if we need to find something. Knowledge is largely […]

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