People Won't Work! | #225
The collective panic when people don't work enough
June 3rd, 2023: Greetings from Austin! Ali Abdaal was in town this week and I got to treat him to his first tacos as a thank-you for his support of my work. This was a social week. I went to a writing hangout on Sunday, a Nick Gray “two-hour cocktail party” on Tuesday, and then a meetup for Ali’s community yesterday. I got to meet a ton of people who before were only “internet friends.” It’s been so amazing to be in a place like Austin which has become a popular destination for people doing weird internet stuff.
#1 They Won’t Work!
Vox published an essay last week about the people who do little to no work at their jobs. The article, “How some people get away with doing nothing at work,” seems to fit into the coordinated “return to office” campaign across the mainstream news.
The title seemed a bit weird for a newsletter focused on “examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism,” but maybe they are being squeezed to write this article too?
Regardless, it was highly entertaining and you don’t really need to read it because I’m going to pull out the best parts.
It details several people who are not being squeezed at all. The article opens with Nate, working about five hours a week:
In theory, Nate works 40 hours a week in the operations department at a major fintech company. In reality, Nate works one hour a day at most. He moseys over to his computer whenever he gets an alert on his phone that he’s got a task to complete. Otherwise, he spends most of the day doing, basically, whatever he feels — he sleeps in, he watches TV, he does household chores. His only real restriction is that he can’t stray too far from home in the event he is needed for something.
Not bad! I’ve worked in multiple jobs where I did little to no work for days and weeks at a time. This isn’t that rare either. It’s just no one talks about it because we are taught to believe that this is somewhat shameful.
Some of this shame is leftover from the industrial era where slacking on the manufacturing floor really meant less output and less output could be really bad if your country was in a war or trying to rebuild or competing against the Soviets. But in knowledge work, a lot of what people are getting paid to do in knowledge work is reacting to lumpy events. There are intense periods where you really do need to be working a lot followed by down times. Many of these jobs are highly paid because of this lumpiness. You are being paid to be available for the next crisis.
But sometimes even the crises don’t take that much work. Here’s Bobby’s situation:
Bobby was brought on too soon — the division he was hired for wasn’t even remotely close to needing engineers to do actual work. So he spends his day doing research and development for his own tech projects. When he doesn’t feel like doing anything, he goes hiking or swimming or plays video games and watches movies. He gets to spend more time with his kids.
“It’s like being on vacation all the time, with occasional scrambling to do a thing, then doing the thing for a couple of hours, then going back to the rest of my life,” he says. “Even though I feel guilty about it sometimes ... it’s not really my job to tell a multinational company how to run a business or manage their employees.”
I don’t think this is a bad thing either. We just are so deeply tied to a 52 week, 5 day workweek that we have yet to come up with a better way to structure work. Think about the world’s best neurosurgeon. You definitely wouldn't mind if they have a lot of downtime. As long as they were ready, willing, and able to do surgery when needed. In fact, you might prefer that they work less in order to be a little more rested. And this is closer to the true demand for a lot of knowledge work than you might think. The best creative work in any domain rarely results from a continuous busyness but this is often how we end up spending our time at work.
Remote work has given people slack and permission to stop performing work. I used to read books at my desk in many of my jobs. People would make fun of me. “You can’t read books at the office!” But performing work meant seriously staring at a computer (where most people would scroll social media anyway), not reading a book. With remote work, many people are replacing the faux busyness of the office with actual rest and contemplation, new hobbies, or more time with their kids.
To me, this is great but it also concerns a lot of people! Especially in the US, we get very uncomfortable when we think people are not doing their best or working hard enough. What’s behind this concern? A few thoughts
Fear that we’ll starve if people don’t work?
We see our current way of work as a way to prove moral worth?
Are we afraid of being seen as a failure and projecting that fear onto others?
Regardless of the source of the concern, the collective worry runs deep and this keeps far too many people from embarking on their own journey to find work that they actually enjoy.
Remote work was always an option while working in consulting and there were many days I’d “work from home” which mostly consisted of walking over to my laptop every fifteen minutes to jiggle the mouse or respond to a message. Always testing the limits of how I could work less, I decided I would do an experiment at one of my jobs. I would decline every meeting invite for a few weeks because I couldn’t sit through another one of those check-in calls where everyone has to talk about their weekend.
Someone popped by my desk during those weeks and said, “I heard you were swamped.” It amazed me. People thought I was declining meetings because I had too much to do. I was just reading books and essays at my desk.
Lesson: Knowledge work is not visible to other people. No one really knows what other people are doing (and this probably drives a certain number of people crazy).
Marty ended up being labeled a “high performer” despite prioritizing music and reading:
Marty, a policy analyst at a federal agency, goes into the office every day, though he generally stays until about 2 pm — his boss doesn’t come in often, anyway. He uses his extra time to practice music and read. He and his colleagues, many of whom are also bored, will sometimes pick research papers to discuss to pass the time.
He’s not concerned someone will notice what he’s up to because he can just close his office door. Plus, he’s got a mouse jiggler. “What’s ironic is that I’m seen as the high performer on the team, and I’m also confused,” he says. “I think it’s because they’re also just making up stuff to do as well.”
The article is filled with entertaining anecdotes but that’s about it. There was no deeper exploration of what this means for these people’s lives except this one throwaway line: “What was most surprising was that many did not exactly love the situation.”
UH, WHAT?! WHY IS IT SURPRISING, KEEP GOING!!!
HOW CAN YOU NOT BE MORE CURIOUS ABOUT THIS!?!?
Luckily, my curiosity cannot be squeezed and I have infinite space to keep exploring this topic.
Let’s keep going.
As a retired veteran of the dark arts of underwork and antiwork, it makes perfect sense that people working very little in a job would not love their situation. In my experience, I was always a lot more frustrated when I had very little work to do.
This is because it makes it obvious that you are in fact being paid to sit around for the future potential crisis and that a large amount of work that people create is invented to help people avoid contemplating life in the non-busy space.
I jumped from job to job for ten years convinced that I would eventually find work that was fulfilling. I wanted a dream job. But I never found it and after becoming so frustrated with my failed quest, I quit.
I wanted to escape from ALL work.
But my problem was simple: Too much pointless work and more importantly, too little good work.
As David Whyte writes:
“For a human being, finding good work and doing good work is one of the ultimate ways of making a break for freedom.”
Over the past six years, I have come to the slow and obvious conclusion that you CAN like the work you do, and for me that has been the best filter on finding good work.
I design for liking work.
I don’t work too much these days. I’m hitting my third month of prioritizing time with my daughter above most other things. If I had to estimate, I’ve been “working” 5-15 hours a week. But “work” is such a hard thing to nail down. Work used to be moving against the grain of my existence for a payoff. But now work is in the flow of my life. In some ways spending time with my daughter feels just as good as writing. It is something I’m deeply connected to, something I want to be doing indefinitely, and something that gives my life meaning.
I like to say that the right amount of work is neither zero work nor 52 weeks a year of continuous full-time work. Sometimes I work seven days in a row. Other times I don’t do much for several days in a row. I’ve tested so many different ways of working and have learned to trust that work will naturally shift up and down over time. But finding and working in ways like this is incredibly hard in today’s world because we’ve been doing it one way for so long. Here’s David Whyte again:
Human beings left to their own devices a very rare event-seem to work according to the quality of a given season and learn similarly in cycles. Good work and good education are achieved by visitation and then absence, appearance and disappearance. Most people who exhibit a mastery in a work or a subject have often left it completely for a long period in their lives only to return for another look. Constant busyness has no absence in it, no openness to the arrival of any new season, no birdsong at the start of its day.
To have lots of good work you can spend your time on, you need to weed out the wrong work and learn to trust that good work will eventually emerge in the space that you create. Identifying wrong work is very easy because I had almost 10 years of experience doing things I didn’t want to do. I used to go to meetings to prepare for meetings to prepare for other meetings and that certainly was not good work.
But finding good work took me a long time and this is what is missing from this article. It looks at work in a top-down way. There are jobs and people must work jobs and people should do their best and work hard. To work less is to take advantage of the system.
I see individuals who might have more to offer the world but are constrained in job-shaped containers.
I see people that are on the edge of making a big shift because they actually hate not feeling useful and don’t feel good about it.
I see people like me that may spend years jumping from job to job hoping to feel something deeper.
I see people that may actually not change their circumstances and just mail it in for years and of course, I think that’s a shame.
So much work writing and conversation about work is filtered through the moral industrial lens of being a “good worker.” It’s as if our sole purpose on this Earth is to serve the GDP gods. But this ignores the messy reality of being a human in the year 2023 and more importantly, ignores that being a good worker does not mean that you will be blessed with good work.
It also ignores the possibility that people change over time and dropping the ball on work in the short run might be the best way for someone to eventually find a deeper connection to themselves and a work in which they are able to show up in the world more fully. Good work is something worth finding and unfortunately, it is hard to find in most of the job containers that we consider work.
#2 “It’s About Cooking But Also Not About Cooking”
This was a comment I received about my conversation withthis week. We talked about his journey and relationship with cooking. He’s had a fascinating path from Economics major to cooking in a top restaurant in Tulum a year later. From there he’s worked at food companies, shifted into tech, launched a spice startup, and more. He’s learned a ton but along the way has developed an infectious excitement for the craft of cooking and he’s leaning into sharing this with more people:
🎧LISTEN: PODCAST LINKS
#3 Nikola Jokic on Basketball
Nikola Jokic is the best basketball player in the world right now and he’s in the finals. Here’s a recent exchange he had in a press conference:
"Joker, in the past year plus, how have you grown and what have you learned from being a dad? And have you noticed any of those skills translating to being a better basketball player?"
"Nah. That cannot help you. I knew that even before, that basketball is not the main thing in my life, and probably never [will] be. And to be honest, I like it, because I have something more at home, [something] that is more important than basketball. I think that's [what I've] learned. I already knew that, but this kind of proved that I was correct"
Thanks For Reading!
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