Discover more from The Comma Project by Devin Baker
What is work worth doing?
Work worth doing is human. It’s an art, an infinite game, and a process
Happy Thursday to the 69 of us, up from 64 last time. I’m so glad you’re here.
Call me an idealist, but I believe work has the potential to be something more than simply the thing we have to do for money.
I believe work is an expression of who we are, and I believe we should pursue work worth doing.
I believe work worth doing changes us. I believe work worth doing is an art - done for its own sake. I believe it demands practicing the art of being in process.
Inspired by Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s musings on life’s work, I share some of my musings on a better way to think about work - not just for the benefit of our work, but for our lives.
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What is work worth doing?
I believe that our modern view of work gets it wrong.
Today, we think of work as a means to an end. A way to provide. An obligation. Something we have to do. Something we don’t want to do.
Our current view of work is new, relatively speaking. It’s about 200 years old.
And it’s doing us a disservice.
It’s robotic, systems-based, and not human. It’s painting between the lines. It’s management.
In this world of job descriptions, titles, salaries, bosses, and SOPs, we’ve somehow gotten to the point where we believe that these things are work.
We plan and strategize about these things, have meetings about them, then pre-meetings before the meetings about them. So much of our time spent today at “work” is an abstraction - removed from the core essence of what work truly is.
Work is not separate from life
Our current view is that when we go to work, we flip a switch. We switch out of “real life” mode and into “work” mode. It’s as if we pass through a wormhole that transports us to an alternate, separate reality.
When we live like this, it feels like we can’t be in “real life” mode when we’re forced to switch “work” mode on - like they’re mutually exclusive.
This implies that there are two distinct, separate versions of our lives: the work self, and then the non-work self.
I believe we have this backward.
We live one life, not two. We are the same person at work that we are at home.
When we live as if we have more than one life, we end up jettisoning parts of ourselves, and experiencing fractions of our life - not multiples. This keeps us from feeling connected and authentic, since parts of ourselves are locked away.
When we ask questions, we get closer to truth. Truth leads to clarity, and clarity leads to freedom. Freedom leads to agency - an ability to make our lives what we want. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?
We come to understand that by asking these questions in our non-work moments, we get more life. A better life. Questions like: What’s not working? What do I want and need? What’s true? Who makes me feel alive?
So why, when we think about work, do we approach it differently?
We so often ask different questions about work than we do about the “rest” of our lives. These questions are often separate, removed, and impersonal, unlike those we ask about our relationships, passions, and curiosities.
In our work, we more often look externally, into the future, rather than looking internally, into our present experience.
We rarely ask how we feel about the work we’re doing, and whether our work makes us feel more alive, more like ourselves.
We ask where to go and what to do, but we skip over the most important part: who and how will we be along the way?
This split approach to work as separate from life leaves us feeling, well...split.
We feel disconnected, ungrounded, insufficient. It can feel more like juggling than surfing - frantic, chaotic, and dis-integrated, rather than smooth, present, and intuitive.
I believe we need to rethink what work means, so that we can feel more connected, grounded, true to ourselves, and more alive, rather than simply living a life of others’ expectations.
Let’s not bring our whole selves to work, as was popular to say a few years ago.
Let’s bring our whole selves to life.
The good news is that we don’t need to make up a new version of work. I believe if we delve beneath the surface and examine what work truly is from a more human lens, we will find that the truth about work will show us a better way.
What we call “work” today is in fact the work about work - but not real work.
Work, at its core, is about humanity.
Work is human
At its core, work is not separate from life, but a part of it.
For the vast majority of human history, this was obvious.
Work was for survival.
Survival was not guaranteed, and our days demanded certain actions of us to meet our survival needs. Each day unfolded according to whatever needs were most critical. Some days that was fighting adversaries that were trying to kill us. Others demanded hunting for food.
Whatever we did, there was a clear understanding of the impact of our actions. If we had any time, energy, or resources left over, then we pursued things for less necessary reasons - pursued pleasure, comfort, beauty, curiosity.
Work wasn’t a separate activity.
We simply lived, and living included things that weren’t strictly desirable (which might be what we call work).
If those things weren’t done, we simply died.
Living - both the necessary and the unnecessary but desirable parts - was about humans, and human needs.
As we’ve evolved as a species, we’ve gotten way better at meeting those base survival needs. Through innovation, we’ve developed systems that give us such leverage on our resources that today, only a small portion of the population in the developed world is needed to carry out the actions that meet the survival needs of the populous.
(I acknowledge I’m only referring to the developed world. There are large portions of the globe that aren’t so privileged to have such access to foundational resources. This is a whole separate discussion which I won’t get into here.)
This means that the rest of us have the privilege of living lives free of the life-or-death realities of survival. We can pursue other missions and causes.
As Maslow has taught us, this allows us the opportunity to live more elevated lives of self-actualization - the opportunity to live and strive for more altruistic ideals and values. We are the most fortunate generation to ever live.
Our bodies are alive, but our spirits are suffering
The flip side of this privilege, however, is that our days are so detached from significance.
We often go through our days, busy as they are, doing hundreds of things, but with nothing actually happening. Words and numbers move on a screen, but nothing has happened to our body, our spirit, or the world around us.
Humans need to strive, to be in pursuit of a mission - of something greater than ourselves. Something that stirs our spirit deep inside.
It’s a luxury to be saved from a perpetual struggle for survival - but survival is a pretty damn good mission. Questions of higher purpose were at one point irrelevant. Survival was the only answer.
Today, we’re able to keep our bodies alive, but our spirits suffer.
Finding our mission in life is a daunting task. With so many options, and no objective “right” answer, it's no wonder that many people struggle to find one that feels solid and authentic.
Buried within this challenge, however, is also the beauty of our humanity.
The diversity of who we are, what we do, and why we do it is what makes our world so rich and vibrant.
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of finding our mission, the journey to discover it can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences we have. And when we connect with others who share our mission, it becomes even more meaningful.
The art of being in process
Once we find our mission, we realize that it’s a direction, an orientation, and not a destination.
It’s an ideal - amorphous, perfect, and perpetually just beyond our grasp.
It’s a process. An infinite game. As Boyd Varty would say, a track.
The goal is to find it. Then, once we find it, the goal is to keep moving further along - to stay on the track.
We also realize that there is no split between “work” and “not work.”
There’s simply a life.
And our mission is the glue.
We simply live in the direction of our mission, and the actions that we take are an expression of who we are as a person - our whole selves, not just the portions of ourselves we’ve been used to chaining to our desk chairs at the office.
With this realization, it’s as if the scrambled puzzle pieces of our life lock into place. The fog clears. The door opens.
We gain clarity. Clarity on who we are, and what’s true.
Then comes freedom, which is the ultimate goal anyway.
If that’s not a rich life, I don’t know what is.
The cool thing is that this is an inexact science. It’s more of an art. There’s no right answer, no final destination.
We don’t have to wait until we’re definitively on our track for something to happen. We start to feel these things - this energy, clarity, and congruence - as soon as our steps start taking us closer to the track.
Our mission is like a magnet. We feel these things first faintly. Then, the closer we get, the stronger we feel them.
So, we should follow the pull of curiosity and what gives us energy. The source is our mission, and it will show us the way.
All we’ll ever be is in process. The track never ends. All we have to do is start walking.
In starting to walk, we lead.
Leadership for humans, not management of systems
I believe that in the future, work and life will feel different than it does today.
Leadership, not management.
For humans, not of systems.
In pursuit of impact and significance, not scale and profit.
Where work is about humans and human needs, not selling, earning, and winning.
We must flip our current work culture on its head.
Instead of viewing humans as servants to the work, we must view work as service, and seek impact for humans.
First, we lead ourselves.
We start. We go first.
Then, we lead others.
We extend an invitation to connect with others on our mission. We invite the people who care about what we care about to join us on the track.
We walk together. We keep going. We go further.
This isn’t just about building something the world needs.
This is about impact, significance, and making a difference.
This is about more life. A better, richer life.
It’s about more than work.
Work is not about what we do. It’s about how we feel, and who we become, while doing it.
This is work worth doing - done for its own sake.
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