Doing The Work

To get a thing accomplished, you show up and do the work. That’s all you can do, really. Other things that aren’t “the work” don’t get the thing accomplished. And what happens as a result of your trying to do “the work”: that’s also not really your choice.

You just show up and do “the work”.

Byron Katie, though I’m only faintly acquainted with her, seems to be the source of “the work” as a unit of thought for me. For her, “The Work” means:

The Work is a simple yet powerful process of inquiry that teaches you to identify and question the thoughts that cause all the suffering in the world. It’s a way to understand what’s hurting you, and to address the cause of your problems with clarity.

I don’t specifically mean that, but I do think she’s onto something substantial. The insubstantiality of thoughts — which is one of the core messages of Katie’s efforts — is something I recently wrote about.

But whatever you count “the work” as — learning to love, building the cathedral, destroying the system you abhor — you’ve got to do it. Even when you don’t really feel like it. Even when you’d really rather just… not.

You’ve got to show up and do the work. The rest is out of your hands.


OPW: “Our Actions Create Our World”

I haven’t done this in a while, but I’ve been thinking about bringing it back. OPW stands for “Other People’s Words,” and since I moth-balled Link Banana I’ve been sharing most things I would have previously put there on Twitter. But this mini graduation/commencement/life speech from Hank Green, in the form of a YouTube video, was good enough I wanted to put it somewhere a bit more permanent.

Partial transcript:

Hello, future dead person! I have an uncomfortable truth for you: you are very likely, one of the luckiest and most powerful people who has ever existed on this planet.

Now you almost certainly do not feel powerful. It’s difficult to feel powerful unless you suddenly have more power than you once had or have much more power than the people around.

So, you don’t feel that power all the time. And it’s probably good that you don’t, because it might be crippling. But in terms of absolute, not relative, power you are basically a god. You can hold the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of your hand. If you’ve ever taken a hot shower on a cold day, you have experienced a luxury that the vast majority of humankind could never even dream of. …

There is one thing that I can definitely say about the world as it exists right now: we are, at this moment, both creating and solving problems faster than we ever have before. So your job—the only thing anyone can ask of you as a human—is to solve more problems than you create. Also, take care of yourself and and have a good time, ideally. But you are very powerful, and you can make your world and yourself better. So, do that.

… I also live in a world that was created by the actions of people. … Our culture is just the collective actions and decisions of people.

And that culture is, at this point, the single most important factor in the health and sustainability our species. And we all get to collectively decide what that culture is.

Now, it might feel like we have no control of this. That we’re at the whims of what has come before. That we’re destined to end up in a cut-throat world of ever-increasing inequality. But not if we decide to not live in that world. Not if we choose compassion.

We collectively decide what world we’re going to live in by being that world. That’s the real power you have. It’s not your job, and it’s not your bank account.  It’s a power that every human has. Every human ever has had. And it has nothing to do with immortality or fame. And yet, I think that it might be the most important thing that every person does.

The reason we educate ourselves and improve ourselves is so that we can be more effective at making these positive changes. At creating more solutions then problems. Because in the end, your actions are what build our world. So don’t take that for granted.


It’s Just About Time and Attention

It seems that we only have control over two things in our life: the hours allotted to us, and the things we put our attention on in those hours. But that’s a fact that’s easy to miss.

We worry about how pretty we are. About how smart we are. About how kind we are. About what people think of us. And what we’re worth. But none of those things change the heart fact that we’ve only got control over our time and attention.

We can spend time and attention to get smarter. We can spend time and attention to work on being more kind, or fit, or to have a bigger bank account. We can spend it being entertained by the latest novels or the dumbest television. But fundamentally what we’re doing here is taking the time we’re given and spending it on the things we give our attention to.

Want to be more productive? Think seriously about where you’re actually putting your time and attention and where you’d feel most productive putting your time and attention. It seems almost comical in its simplicity, but that’s really all that productivity comes down to.

The heart of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, for example, is a study of why people are really bad about managing their time and attention and spend it in all the wrong places. When we’re not strategic, we can easily drain of our time and attention rehashing the same decisions over and over again rather than acting. Or when we make ourselves remember tasks to do, we waste energy (which is essentially the compound form of time and attention) on the act of remembering.

I’m ever more certain that all things that matter in life are stupidly simple. But that simple doesn’t mean easy. And the fact that productivity comes down to the decisions and stratagems that we use to decide how and where to use our energy seems to fit. You don’t get to make more time, and you may sometimes find it hard to control your attention. But realize that those two things are just about the only variables you really control and you’ll find yourself ahead of the game.


The Meaning of Meetings and Metawork

A bit of a neologism, I wondered if I should use the hyphenated “meta-work” instead. To explain: metawork is simply work about work. That is: rather than making widgets, metawork consists of conversations about making widgets.

Meetings are the quintessential form of group metawork. And the popular disdain for meetings among white collar workers is mostly due to the worst qualities of metawork. Metawork, because it is not the work that you really are tasked with, can just amount to a massive and frustrating distraction. A time-suck that produces nothing but lets people feel like they’re really being productive and getting things done. After all, a worker’s calendar wouldn’t have been jam-packed for weeks if he weren’t a vital person in the company.

Before we bash it too hard, a few words in defense of meetings and metawork. Meeting are great for a number of reasons: they allow everyone to be simultaneously available to each other. This means that decisions that would have to be had in a series of small and repetitive conversations can happen quickly. This also means that the gaps in different people’s understandings of their goals and tasks can be seen and resolved much more smoothly. Meeting are great for strategic thinking and aligning of a group in a single direction. This is necessary are valuable metawork.

But meetings don’t typically move a group very far in a given direction. That’s what the real work is for. And that is the essential tension of metawork. On the one hand, it has a lot of vital functions. On the other, it’s probably not actually doing anything that’s specifically impacting the organization’s real goals. And this tension is inherent, impossible to rectify.

An organization that does no metawork loses its way, continuing to do what it’s always done because it never bothers to find any new insights. An organization that does too much metawork doesn’t accomplish its core mission because it never really does any work. It’s so diverted by discussion of how much its mission matters and how clearly it has explored the details that it forgets that it has to work to get there.

So far I’ve only talked about metawork at the organizational level, because that’s where it’s obvious. But it’s just as relevant, if not more so, in your personal life. You need to do some metawork — organization, perspective-taking (what am I doing with my life?), etc — but you can easily convince yourself that it is more necessary and valuable than it is, and excuse yourself from having to do the real things you need to to have an impact on the world.

Especially in my early twenties, I asked incessantly what my goals and purpose in life were. And I rarely if ever got useful or satisfactory answers. And during that time I did shockingly small amounts of productive work that would let me accomplish any purpose in life. I was doing too much metawork.

This is what I now see. Metawork is, in too many cases, a fun, easy, and deceptively-close-in-appearance-to-productivity activity. A certain class of people enjoys the relaxing qualities of meetings and so have far too many of them.

Metawork’s a useful and necessary tool. But it must be kept in check and seen for what it is. Because you can never get rid of it, you just need to come to it with insight. Know when you’re doing the work, know when you’re doing metawork. Reflect on the balance. And when it seems that the split is off the mark, correct it. That’s the best you can really do.


Premature Optimizations and the Tool Distraction

I do a lot of computer programming. More than that, I’ve made it my primary task of the last few years to learn as much as I can about it. One of the ideas anyone who spends a lot of time doing this will come across is this quote from Donald Knuth:

Premature optimization is the root of all evil

It may seem a bit hyperbolic, but it holds a real truth. Without diving too deep into programming theory — this is a site about doing life better, not about programming — I’ll just take it as given. It matches well with my experience of programming.

And I think it applies well outside the domain. In programming, optimization means that you have something that works, but you’re going to make it work faster and better. The reason Knuth and many others call this seemingly beneficial process “evil” is that doing this doesn’t provide nearly as much value as it may superficially seem.

We do a similar, but not identical thing with productivity. I call them “tool games”. “Tool games” are a way we spend time on things that seem like they’re beneficial to our goals, but are actually an “evil” in much the way premature code optimization is.

To clarify my meaning, let’s say you want to become a great novel writer. That means that you’ll need some writing tools to use. You start with a pen and paper. And you start a few stories that way, and you get a little fed up with the difficulty of revising in that medium.

So you seek a better way, and you find a computer program that lets you store and retrieve text files. It allows no fancy editing and formatting, but it’ll take your words and save them for later. And unlike your paper, it’ll also let you quickly correct a minor error or add a few lines to the middle of something you wrote without issue. So you start a few stories with this new text program. And then you get a little fed up with the difficulty of making your writing easy to share with your friends.

So you look around for a while and your find a different computer program that lets your take your words that it’s storing for you and makes it really easy to put them in an email or print them out to hand off. And you’re really satisfied that you’ve now solved this sharing problem, so you start to write a few stories this way.

I’ll stop this cycle, because you should by now understand what I mean by “tool games”. These are the premature optimizations of the way you actually do things in your life. You’ll notice that in my telling of your journey through three different kinds writing tools, there was never anything about writing, finishing a story, figuring out its more intricate plot points, or understanding what really makes good novels so compelling.

We’re premature optimizers in many areas of our life. When faced with a choice between learning how to do something we already do a tiny bit better and learning how to do something hard, we’ll almost always choose the first. It’s easy and alluring to think that the reason you’re not publishing great stories in great books is that you just haven’t found the right set of tools to let you do that.

But the tools are the most superficial part of almost any work. Want to be a great bike rider? I’ll tell you a secret: you’ll get a lot better riding the dusty old bike in your garage for 50 miles a day that you will by shopping around endlessly to find which of the new shiny $2,000 bikes fits your ideals of bike riding better.

You get better at doing work by doing it. You spend time futzing with your tools or shopping for better ones, and you’ll be really good at futzing and shopping. Neither of which is likely to lead to accomplishing things that are valuable and hard.


“Work is More Fun than Fun”

This quotation, whose owner I’ve seen cited repeatedly as Noel Coward, strikes me as largely true. Not completely, always, and unequivocally, but certainly for the right type of work it can be in a way we tend to underestimate.

When your wife, friend, or boss commands you “to go have some fun,” they obviously don’t mean spend time entering data into spreadsheets, even that’s your favorite thing in the whole world.

Before you go telling me that I clearly don’t know fun, I should be clear about that part too. It’s tautologically true that nothing can be more fun than fun, but it’s undeniable that we mean a rather specific subset of things when we typically say “fun.” When your wife, friend, or boss commands you “to go have some fun,” they obviously don’t mean spend time entering data into spreadsheets, even that’s your favorite thing in the whole world. Things that the culture at large considers fun are generally hedonic pleasures that fall into the general categories of social activities and light amusements. TV is fun, video games are fun, watching and playing sports is fun, “partying” is fun, gossiping is fun, (social) eating is fun.

Programming, writing, editing, compiling, even cooking, these things are all generally considered to be outside the category of fun. But they can be. These tasks, which we generally categorize as “work” can be deeply immensely satisfying in a way that almost no activity considered above in the category “fun” are. When you think your work matters, or even if you just regard it as a worthy thing to spend time on, the sense of satisfaction that’s available in accomplishing your work in a way you regard as “well” is a supreme pleasure.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s seminal work on “flow” is essentially about this very point. The Wikipedia article on the topic has this to say about flow:

It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.

It is not “work” per se, as the generalized category, that constitutes the type that is “more fun than fun”. Your dull and disappointing job which neither challenges nor can challenge you is probably never going to give you the sense of egoless immersion and accomplishment that really leaves one feeling deeply satisfied and contented with the activity they have just completed. But it’s also undeniable that because work gives you access to the achievement of things far beyond yourself, the possibility for a sense of lasting accomplishment is far greater than even the most successful and flowing “fun” activity.

I don’t believe that work-is-fun flow state is a state itself worthy of pursuit, but I fervently believe that it can be a useful tool in getting done work you care about. That is, unlike deep meditative awareness, I don’t regard flow states as inherently beneficial outside of themselves, but I think they clearly constitute a useful tool if you’re pursuing ends you know to be good and valuable. (See my thoughts on Flow Traps, for why I’m pressing so hard on that.)

The reason to share and explain this rather popular quotation is simply this: too frequently people just ignore the very real possibility it explains. We go around living our lives for the weekends, the whistle, the bell, the time when we’re free to have fun. But doing that is itself to confine yourself to prison during your working hours. You don’t need to be doing activities we define as “fun” to enjoy the way you’re spending your time. If you do your work well, achieve a degree of both mastery and learning, you can make every moment of your life, even the dullest ones, “more fun than fun.”


OPW: David Callahan on Honoring Work

On today’s “Other People’s Words,” a quote from the book I reviewed Monday, The Moral Center. I do feel the need to apologize for bringing it up again, but I can’t seem to avoid it. In this excerpt, Callahan makes some interesting observations about the how attitudes towards work and collective struggle have shifted over time.

In arguing that welfare betrayed work, conservatives offered a simple solution: Get rid of handouts and make people responsible for themselves. The solution fit naturally with American individualism and the belief that opportunity is available for all.

Democrats face a harder sales job. Most liberal solutions to the betrayal of work boil down to some form of collective action, whether it’s getting more people organized in labor unions or using government to raise the minimum wage and expand the safety net. The problem, though, is that collective thinking–the notion that we are all in it together–comes much less naturally to Americans nowadays. Institutions like government that once embodied commons hopes are now distrusted, and not just because we loathe the Department of Motor Vehicles. Given the choice, many people would rather do their own thing than compromise their autonomy to work with others.

Meanwhile, the workplace has turned more individualistic and atomized. Far fewer people work in coal mines and steel mills and big auto plants–places where it was easy to understand one’s common interest with others, and where a fusion between the ideals of hard work and shared struggle was easy to grasp. Worker are more alone now, both physically and psychologically. The same trends that have undermined the value of work have also isolated people in their own predicaments–as temporary employees or independent contractors or some other fleeting figure in our seven-jobs-over-a-lifetime economy. Unions are virtually defunct in the private sector, not just because of union busting, which has gotten worse, but because it’s harder to organize a fragmented labor force.

The more alone we are, the more alone we feel. When the screws are turned on people, their reflex these days is to pull inward and individualize their problems. The losers in America have always been told to blame themselves, not the system, but now they do so more than ever, encouraged by claims that character defect lies behind every story of economic hardship. The solution to our woes, we are taught, is to focus ever more intently on our self-interest: Try harder, get up earlier, make smarter investments, take bigger risk–and oppose taxes or social programs that cut into our paychecks. The potential for a reinforcing dynamic is obvious. And widening insecurity fans an every-man-for-himself mood, it undermines common efforts to make things better, which leads to even greater insecurity and further insularity.

It doesn’t help that the media cover the wealthy around the clock, with endless stories of the self-made rich that blot out far less sexy statistics about downward mobility. People may know intellectually that the traditional virtue of hard work doesn’t count as much as it used to, and they may know that the deck is stacked more solidly against them. Yet it is easy in the age of Powerball and the Google guys for them to imagine that they will e the one who defies the odds.