All Work, All Play

When I was in college, a long time ago, I tutored a fellow student for the one mathematically-themed compulsory subject in our major. Our relation was complicated somewhat because she hit on me, which, normally, I wouldn’t mind; but she smoked, was twice my age and a complete nervous wrack. Not sure what put me off most. Anyway, perhaps because of her age she took it upon herself to tutor me back with what she thought were the important lessons in life. As long as these lessons remained non-physical, I didn’t object. Maybe I should have, as I was easily impressionable. Even at that age.

Before going back to college, my ‘tutor’ had worked as a journalist at a local newspaper. These years had provided her with much of the wisdom she now ventured to part on me. (Hopelessly failed relations with numerous men were another endless source of wisdom). One day we were strolling across the campus grounds, talking about life after college. At that point I was still determined to stretch my time in college as long as possible. College life was a near perfect starting point for the writing career I envisioned for myself. I was winging most of the tests they threw at us (there weren’t many) with a minimal amount of actual studying. It was the time of my life. I didn’t do much writing, but I figured that would come when the time was right.

“Work is like prostitution,” she said. “You’re selling your body to somebody else to do with it as they please.”
“I see what you mean… But surely there’s a difference between selling your brains, or your hands… and selling, well, your body?”
“Doesn’t matter, bottom line is, in both cases you give away control over your body, over your actions.”

At the time it was exactly what I wanted to hear, so I probably didn’t object much more. Work is like prostitution. Somehow it became a fundamental adage to me, fixed tightly among the most basic values and beliefs I’ve held over the years. Even when I started to work, much sooner than I foresaw at that moment. Even when work actually turned out to be not that unpleasant at all. My first ‘real’ job was so much fun that studying soon began to suffer. A writing career seemed even further away now. Never mind, I was sure that would come when the time was right.

Still, however much I enjoyed work, the idea that I was doing something wrong never really disappeared. I was selling my body, giving away control. I felt guilty for enjoying it. I decided to make the most of it at least, to keep working till my 40th birthday; then cash in and live quietly somewhere, finally become a writer.

My 40th birthday came and went. By then I was already working for Trivento, where work felt more like a group of friends making money with what we loved doing: making people happy by building software. I remembered the deal I made with myself, twenty years earlier. “Ten more years,” I thought. I liked working but still I kept feeling I should really be doing something else. Something more meaningful. Something for myself instead of someone else.

It wasn’t until last week, when I was reading The Year Without Pants, by Scott Berkun, that I was able to shed this crazy notion at last. This book is his account of working at Automattic for almost two years. Automattic is the company that created WordPress, the software that powers many blogs including this one. Berkun describes how the Automatticians manage to work almost completely distributed and are still able to get things done, forge teams, form friendships. His reflection, near the end of the book, on the nature of work, hit home with me:

“The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own.”

“Many people believe that throughout history, work has rarely given people meaning, but that’s not true. The history of work is rooted in survival. We hunted and gathered in order to live. Little distinction was made between work and the rest of life. Rather than this making life miserable, it likely made it more meaningful. Every action, however hard, had personal significance. Working with your own hands to catch a fish or build a shelter gave deep satisfaction that few high-paying jobs ever will.”

“[…] the denial of joy as a central element of quality work is a mistake. Humor, storytelling, and songs are social skills we developed thousands of years ago around fires while we did the critical work of staying warm and cooking food to survive. It’s a shockingly recent notion that work and play should be mutually exclusive things. We learn about ourselves and each other through play, which helps us work together.”

I can’t say I make a living by catching fish or building shelters; nor am I saying that Trivento is much like Automattic. But working with a group of people you know well and trust implicitely, building something together that will ultimately give people the pleasure of doing their job more efficiently: that’s what gives me satisfaction. Why would I ever want to do something else?

2014-01-21. No responses.

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