What Does it Mean to Work Hard?

by Venkat on November 29, 2010

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I tried, and failed, to relax. I am sure I am not alone, and that many of you had the same experience. But I failed in a very revealing way, that led me a very interesting definition of work.

What happened was this:

I was reading a book to relax (Robert D. Kaplan’s excellent Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the future of American power). It was pure relaxation in the sense that the subject has nothing to do with either my work or subjects I normally blog about (my other “job”). But a few chapters in, something very interesting happened: I suddenly decided I might want to blog about the book. And just as suddenly, a relaxing experience turned into “work,” and within a half-hour, I felt I needed a “relaxation break.”  So what happened?

Consider what hard work used to mean. If you worked on an assembly line 40 hours a week, cranking widgets, you were working. If you put in 20 hours of overtime to make it 60 hours, you were working hard. Get up to 80 hours, and you were killing yourself.

The point is, crank-widget work is easy to define and measure in objective terms. Information work is different. Drucker offered the correct, but mostly useless idea that part of information work is defining the work to begin with, which makes it very ambiguous. Call it define-and-do work.

Crank-widget jobs do exist in information work too. Making sales calls for products with a proven sales script, or routine types of trading on Wall Street are crank-widget jobs because there are measurable, tightly self-contained units of work (calls/trades) that have already been defined. And those professions tend to have a “work hard/play hard” culture because the boundary between work and non-work is clear. You can actually decide to “stop work for the day.” There may be no punch-clocks, but it is punch-clock work. And this can be true of even very complex types of information work, so long as it is formulaic (which is a synonym for “pre-defined” if you think about what “formulaic” actually means). The formula may take a PhD and lots of specialized knowledge to execute, but if there is a formula, it’s crank-widget work.

But when you are doing define-and-do Druckerian work, it is basically impossible to decouple definition from execution a priori in useful ways (“my job is to define my job and do it” — sounds like a GNU recursive acronym, doesn’t it?). “Work” is whatever the hell you need to do to “get the job done.” A non-constructive definition.

But even if you can’t define this kind of define-and-do  information work, you can detect when you are doing it.  Here’s how you detect it:

It is work if there is a customer other than yourself.

Or to put it more explicitly: It is work if it will impact something that will be evaluated by others, and if their reactions will have consequences for you that you care about (If you don’t care how they react, they are by definition not a customer).

That’s why I experienced the sudden attitude shift while reading the book. Suddenly, I went from not caring how sloppily or carefully I read the book or what ideas I picked up, to thinking in terms of the needs of a blog post that others would evaluate.

It has nothing to do with whether or not you enjoy the work (as I do blogging). People who claim they love their work so much “it doesn’t feel like work” are deluding themselves. They’ll still be work-tired and need to “unwind” when they quit.

This definition can lead to some very surprising conclusions. George Lucas said, a few years ago, that he’d made so much money now that he could “afford to make bad movies for the rest of my life.” This illustrates one surprising conclusion. Finishing the Star Wars franchise was “work” for him even if he didn’t need the money, because the evaluation of the audience mattered, since in a sense the original trilogy was part of publicly-owned social capital, and if they rejected the prequels he was attempting to tack on, he’d have felt a personal sense of failure. But now that’s he done, he really can afford to ignore the audience.

By the same standard, you sometimes need a  vacation to recover from a vacation if the original vacation involved meeting family expectations. I am sure that’s especially true for many Americans who are returning after stressful family weekends. That’s a “work” vacation because between the turkey and the pumpkin pie, you may have had to justify your career/life to your Dad, and the reaction mattered. If this is true for you, then for better or worse, your Dad is your customer for a product you are creating called “my life.”

The level of apparent hard work and enjoyment is irrelevant. I once went on a hard 10 day hiking trip, where we’d cover miles of mountain trails every day, for 6-7 hours at a stretch. I’d be exhausted, but when we camped for the night, I felt relaxed. I felt unwound, rather than feeling a need to unwind.

There have been times when I’ve written some simulation code just for the hell of it, to have some fun for myself. For example, I once wrote a little simulation of a sky-writing airplane that would fly around and write any text string I gave it on the screen; thing took hours, and I never properly finished it, but it was relaxing. And I could abandon the project halfway precisely because there was no external party in the loop who cared.

And on the other end of the spectrum, I often have entire days now when I do absolutely nothing except sit around/walk around and think. No observable output. Sometimes not even working notes or scribbles. Just thinking. And at the end of the day, I am utterly  exhausted, because I’ve been thinking about work-related problems where any decisions I take as a result of my thinking will have consequences to be evaluated by others.

The definition “others will evaluate the consequences, and their reaction will have consequences for you” basically says it is work if there is a feedback loop that matters, that goes through an external party.

What causes the stress that makes it “work” is a combination of two factors. First, since you define what to do, there are no natural limits. You can define your work to be as simple or complicated as you like. Second, since the reaction of an unpredictable external party is going to determine how you feel about the work, there is a reason for you to endlessly work to try and lower the anxiety about the unpredictability. In other words, there is an infinitely-stretchable component to the work (the definition), and a fundamentally unknowable component to its consequences (the external reaction).

When crank-widget work fails to satisfy the customer, you can say “not in my job description” and pass the buck.

When define-and-do work fails to satisfy the customer, that’s not possible.

This definition gives us the easiest way to measure how hard you are working. Take 24 hours, subtract sleep time, subtract the time you are focused on doing something where there is no customer. The rest is work. It’s far easier to spot the negative space than to spot the positive space.

And by that standard, many of us are working 80-90 hour weeks, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

This also gives us the best way to relax: shorten all feedback loops as much as possible, and stop work when a round of feedback is in, and before you begin the next define-and-do iteration. If you routinely work in 3 month loops, you’ll never sleep.

Unfortunately, for truly complex work, there is a limit to how much you can shorten the customer loops for the things you are doing, no matter how much agile iteration you build in.

dybyedx November 29, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Agree mostly with what has been said but I would slightly differ in the definition.

“work is an activity that delivers value and is always associated with a transaction; it could be a transaction with your self or another party”

We sometimes do not realize how much work we do to satisfy our toughest customers — ourselves. In that sense, it is much easier to define relaxation and not work. Anything that isn’t relaxation is work. To relax is to not produce value for others directly. Customers could indirectly benefit if you are relaxed as you can potentially produce better output. In that sense, relaxation is a type of work that benefits only the self.

In general parlance, work is determined by remuneration as in units of currency in response to value generated by the work. When you mix 9-5 office-work that has clear remeuneration terms and consequences if “agreed value” is not delivered to blogging which is self-enforced-work with the currency being unmeasurable and optional “social-cred,” we might be mixing concepts. If both were true, then bloggers would sustain purely on blogging all over the world. But we know it isn’t true. Work in general parlance is a clear social norm with attached boundaries.

Jim in his blog creates pancakes for his three year old daughter irrespective of whether she appreciates the shapes of these pancakes and the significance of these structures. He however takes pictures of them and blogs about them. It is still work. He probably doesn’t care what the viewers think, he is more interested in his customer – his three year old daughter eating these pan cakes.

Venkat November 30, 2010 at 9:33 am

I agree we sometimes work really hard to satisfy ourselves, but because we control the acceptance criteria as the “customer” there is very low uncertainty about our own “reaction” (or if you like, as our own customer, our feedback loop is extremely short, since it is inside our own head and live all the time). The stress and anxiety is much lower/absent even if the work is hard.

Relaxing and indirectly improving your work for others… that seems a little too indirect to me, but perhaps the definition just needs a ‘directly’ adjective.

The little girl/pancake example is the trickiest. I think if that’s not work, it’s because the pancake-making is a side activity. The main activity there is spending time with the daughter, and you can’t really go “wrong” there. All you have to do is not be distracted by others (like checking your blackberry while ostensibly spending time with your daughter). And there might be dads who don’t really like their kids much, for whom even that is not easy and feels like “work.”

The money angle does matter, but not as much as you suggest. Blogging does add value in more substantial ways than an ephemeral street cred for example… lots of non-monetary types of wealth to be earned out there :)

Josh W December 10, 2010 at 9:17 pm

This is so true, in an interesting way; from a very different angle I have seen people do things “for me” when they are actually fullfilling some desire of their own somewhere between OCD and art.

A stereotypical example of this is family members who put on “a nice family meal”, that is enjoyed by none of the members of the family because of the pressure they are put under. The classic responce to this is to refer to the amount of work you’ve done or some measurable qualities of what happened and demand gratitude.

To me this is just a failure of abstraction, and a failed attempt to do away with feedback loops that are far too slow acting or vauge to be helpful; you model what people want, filling in the gaps you don’t know with yourself and a few basic transformations on that, or by borrowing the models of people who have had a bit more feedback in similar situations, and then you go for it.

The absurdity and the humour of the failing version of this comes when the actual learning loops that are available are rejected and the plan rolls on like a 17th century machine! Maybe because they don’t get those loops, maybe because they just prefer doing it for fictionalised versions of the participents who are basically themselves!

So with the pancakes, those details may not be appreciated by his daughter, but she may still appreciate the effort, and the fuller mark of love comes when she starts asking him for particular kinds of pancakes; and when he starts to change the designs to suit her expressed preferences. Or even give up that little craft and express the same motivation via means that better suit her interests. That can still feel like work, just easy and rewarding work.

Sebastian Marshall November 29, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Good insights in this one, I like your definition of work. Yeah, knowledge work is tough because of having to define it – especially running your own business, you can get grabbed and dragged into “work” at any time if you’re not careful (or even if you are). You can be hanging out on the beach when you meet someone who is in the same industry, and then – bam, just like that you’re working.

I like your definition, but I also think it’s more than just about whether things are for others or yourself. I think it also matters if you have your identity wrapped up in it. For instance, someone on a weight loss program 100% for themselves might feel like exercise is work. But someone going out running because they like running doesn’t have it feel like work.

Either way, it’s only for the person themself, not anyone else. But the person trying to lose weight has their identity wrapped up into it. The same could be true of making art or writing, even if it’s not for anyone else. As soon as you feel like you’re going to judge yourself based on your actions, it starts to feel like work – even if no one else is involved, though of course any time someone else is involved you’re likely to think you’ll be judged.

Venkat November 30, 2010 at 9:36 am

I thought about the weight-loss example while writing the post and concluded that there IS a customer there…it is far easier to exercise when you are single and trying to find somebody than after you’ve locked in a customer via marriage, and the main customer is your future retired self.

But I agree, that’s a pretty tricky one. I feel like I am pushing it with that view of exercise.

netpaths November 29, 2010 at 10:29 pm

I like the definition of work as something done for others, and fun as something you do for yourself. Creating a complex piece of code can be more challenging than working for a client but it is done with no requirements and just for fun.

jld November 30, 2010 at 1:17 am

Creating a complex piece of code can be more challenging than working for a client but it is done with no requirements and just for fun.

Strongly disagree, you can be your own customer and he is the most demanding.
Lucky you if you are never your own client.

Eric | Starcraft 2 Strategy November 30, 2010 at 1:41 am

Interesting post that makes a lot of sense. I always liked Mark Twain’s definition of work – “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” but in today’s age I like your definition better.

Josh W December 10, 2010 at 10:03 pm

I wonder if I knicked Mark Twains definition then! I can’t remember if I said this here before, but coming in to reading this article, my definition was
“Play is what you want to do, work is what other people need you to do”
because our own known needs sort of fade into the background in most adults; brushing your teeth and doing the washing isn’t work, it’s below the waterline of your life in some autonomic region near breathing. It’s other people’s needs that are weird and complex, and computationally hard, and also that require control and focused attention.

That was my to-hand defintion, but I’ve realised looking at the hiking example that this is actually wrong; an important element of work is unnatural pacing:

I have worked myself pretty seriously on something that was supposed to be fun, because I followed the intrinsic structure of the problem rather than matching my activity to my own ability. It felt the same as work, and I needed to be easy with myself afterwards. The constraint structure was not another persons needs, but it still was alien to the way my body worked at that time.

Ever read a book in chapters and felt like your chugging slowly through the last pages? Make a bookmark and let yourself re-read stuff, and those ends of chapters may feel like play again.

Venkat, before that walk you took, did you conceptualise the walk distance and consider if it fitted your comfort zone, or did you go for it not knowing the distance? Did you walk with a friend or a small group or were you walking with a huge party?

That work definition thing sounds like a pretty solid source of personal insight, providing you define customers broadly enough, but I think it would still miss a certain kind of task which you might class as “activities that tend to make themselves bigger than I thought they’d be”.

Things that have hidden towers-of-hanoi moments, things where you can’t pause them because you’ve had to unpack them all over your mental space, and must either discard them or keep going, things that lock you physically into completing some transformation circuit (which is everything from hiking too long a loop to little computer hacks that you have to get back to working). Those things tend to be bad choices for relaxation, unless even at the highest expansion they still stay within your physical exertion power, attention span or unstretched working memory.

Saen November 30, 2010 at 1:55 am

> Consider what hard work used to mean. If you worked on an assembly line 40 hours a week, cranking widgets, you were working.

Some of us are stuck doing just that, actually. I was originally the systems administrator. I still repair the PCs, though I have things set up so that we very rarely have computer problems. Then they asked me to “help out a little” on the production line and…

Stupid economy.

derefr November 30, 2010 at 5:49 am

“Fun” is work done within a Magic Circle—a demarcation of space and time, where consequences inside the Circle do not affect consequences outside of it, except as agreed by the players through a social contract (e.g. a bet placed on the result of the game.) Both work and play can be defined as “actively pursuing a goal with real consequences”; the difference between stress and fun is simply whether those real consequences occur inside or outside of the Circle. Note that this actually implies that, the more stressful an activity would be if it had outer consequences, the more fun it is as part of a game, and vice-versa.

derefr November 30, 2010 at 5:56 am

On “fun”: fun is work done within a Magic Circle—a demarcation of space and time, where consequences inside the Circle do not affect consequences outside of it, except as agreed by the players through a social contract (e.g. a bet placed on the result of the game.) Both work and play can be defined as “actively pursuing a goal with consequences”; the difference between stress and fun is simply whether those consequences occur inside or outside of the Circle. Note that this actually implies that, the more stressful an activity would be if it had outer consequences, the more fun it is as part of a game, and vice-versa.

This definition also places no restriction on whether fun or work can be done for oneself or for others; you can both work for yourself and others, and play by yourself or with others. Running is work when you’re doing it to lose weight, because losing weight is connected somewhere to your Big Graph of Life-Tasks, probably under “become more attractive,” which is itself under “find a romantic partner”; or under “become more healthy,” which is itself under “live longer.” The existence of this path up the chain of concerns is what causes stress, not whether you are doing it “for yourself” or “for someone else.”

Venkat November 30, 2010 at 9:38 am

A ‘magic circle’ is a nice way to think about whether or not the consequences are significant enough to count as work.

ionavideo November 30, 2010 at 6:59 am

“It is work if it will impact something that will be evaluated by others, and if their reactions will have consequences for you that you care about.”
Really. So it is work when you bake a birthday cake for your son/daughter/father/mother/sister/brother. What a mechanistic, non-humanistic definition. Any expression of fraternity or enmity becomes “work.” Making the dinner or writing the rant to the newspaper’s Editorial section is work. Making love is work. It’s all work. And what is “not work” / relaxation by that definition? The opposite of effort? Non-effort? Stasis? Immutable contemplation of the void? I perceive but do not act, therefore I relax. Quite Zen. Quite unreaalistic. A Swiss cheese theory of work.

Venkat November 30, 2010 at 9:49 am

Well, unsociability is not the same as non-humanism/mechanism, since the solitary are human too… but you are right. Taken too literally, this definition does turn sociability into work to some extent, and it takes some nuanced interpretation to redeem “social leisure.” That may be partly due to me projecting my own personality. I am pretty unsociable, and most forms of socializing/fraternizing feel like work to me.

But think about the specific examples you’ve offered. Most expressions of fraternity are not ‘work’ because the consequences of the ostensible work don’t matter. The point is to spend time together. You KNOW that the reaction to a well-intentioned dinner attempt that ends in disaster will be sympathy and commiseration and even help cleaning up. If you produced the same performance in an upscale restaurant kitchen, you’d be fired.

And if the work or play is a sideshow, and the main point is spending time. Well, it is “work” if the time spent is not dreaded, as time spent in some relationships is. If you look forward to hanging out with a friend with pleasure, it’s because the reaction of the friend to your very presence is going to be predictably positive, because they are not judging your ‘output.’ A real customer on the other hand, is unpredictable in their reactions, because it depends on the quality of your work.

Maybe in V2.0 of the definition I’ll try to capture the idea that when solidarity and true empathy are involved, you actually get a sense of mutual belonging so that there are effectively no longer two distinct people, but just one new “us.”

As for non-work, looks like you didn’t read my examples…you are misunderstanding the definition at some basic level.

Amara Poolswasdi November 30, 2010 at 4:17 pm

“What causes the stress that makes it “work” is a combination of two factors. First, since you define what to do, there are no natural limits. You can define your work to be as simple or complicated as you like. Second, since the reaction of an unpredictable external party is going to determine how you feel about the work, there is a reason for you to endlessly work to try and lower the anxiety about the unpredictability. In other words, there is an infinitely-stretchable component to the work (the definition), and a fundamentally unknowable component to its consequences (the external reaction).”

I enjoyed your position overall but I most appreciate your dissection of what stressors are present when someone decides to work for themselves. “Working for myself” really just means “heeding to the whims of twenty or so clients” from my experience in running on own business.

Great post!

Dr. Pete November 30, 2010 at 4:18 pm

I’m not sure sure if I 100% agree (not that I 100% agree with anything :) ), but really interesting food for thought. Oddly, I sometimes think a similar thing about relaxation. Sometimes, the things we have defined as “relaxing” (like watching TV) don’t really relax us at all. We just assume they’re relaxing because we aren’t “working,” even if we don’t enjoy them and only feel more tense and unempowered.

The irony is that we have more freedom than every before, but we’ve barely figured out how to use it. To make matter worse, we don’t even really know where work ends and “relaxation” begins, especially those of us who work from home and/or run our own shows. We’re making it up as we go along, because we don’t really have many good examples to follow.

Stephan November 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Besides my work days, i don’t spend THAT much time on working but i do spend a massive amount of thinking about it. This is very dangerous and drives me crazy sometimes. On one hand i’m feeling excited and passionate about the work, on the other hand i want to ban thinking and possibly stressing about it outside of work. It’s definitly a sign that i work too much, maybe not fysical but certainly in my mind. So relaxing activities should not be related in any way to work. Reading, just browsing the web or maybe even watching television triggers work-thinking for me. I guess activities like going to the cinema, playing soccer or doing a puzzle are better ways of relaxing. Conclusion: you work too hard when you can’t unwind anymore. (which will lead to not being able to work anymore)

Cynthia November 30, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Are we defining what work is or what hard work is?

Rohit December 1, 2010 at 1:08 am

Great post…
I agree to the definition of work… work to me is is never truly finished unless you somehow stop thinking about it… Any idea or moment… thats drives your attention… initiate thinking process… is an invitation for work…
Therefore, the desire to blog about the movie you recently watched (and hated/liked) or the book you just read… is a work…irrespective of the audience to your blog…
I liked the conclusion by Stephan in the earlier comment : you work too hard when you can’t unwind anymore. (which will lead to not being able to work anymore)

Rob Bennett December 1, 2010 at 10:29 am

It is much better to work hard and provide for yourself and your family, than to work hard and not be able to provide. Disney employees that have worked there for 3 years still make 8 dollars an hour. That means you would need a second job, and you still could not afford vehicle or health insurance. Many of them are in desperate times. One Disney employee was rationing his diabetes medicine so that he could feed his family instead. This is what we like to call economic slavery. If I was in that position, I would appreciate being called a slave, because no one seems to appreciate the hardship otherwise.

If you need to work extra hours to keep a decent living, do that. The alternatives are much worse, and people are dying every day out there. There is no alternative really…

Bill Seitz December 1, 2010 at 11:35 am

“Take 24 hours, subtract sleep time, subtract the time you are focused on doing something where there is no customer. The rest is work.”

Then I guess (non-AlphaDog) husbands work all the time.

Andy Mortimer December 1, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Think for a moment about what makes people happy. Often it is socialising, spending quality time with friends, and doing things for/with your friends that make them happy, thus feeding back on you.

This is certainly something where “others will evaluate the consequences, and their reaction will have consequences for you.” You might have fairly high confidence in those reactions — these are your friends, remember — but you can never be 100% sure, and getting negative feedback from a friend can be even worse than getting it from a stranger.

So I think you’ve just defined socialising as work.

You are probably right, in some sense. It is hard, it takes a big investment, and (speaking as an introvert) I need time to recover afterwards.

But doing nice things for/with your friends has direct and tangible benefits in terms of your own happiness, in a way that “work”, as most people define it, doesn’t.

venkat December 1, 2010 at 5:50 pm

andy:

Right on, as far as your take on socializing goes. I basically hold the same view, but probably have even less social stamina.

See my other responses, for more details on how ‘social’ fits into the model. Probably worth a separate post.

RG December 3, 2010 at 5:13 am

So far, I have mostly found the fundamental ideas in your post solid and tried to discuss views or extensions to related aspects. For once, I like many points made and the post overall but found the definition unsatisfying, incomplete. IMO some of the comments bring this out.

If anxiety about consequences of any customer’s feedback includes family, then Bill Seitz is right, it will narrow down non-work to a negligible nothing. Feeling relaxed without worrying about specific goals is a useful criterion but as Dr. Pete points out, TV watching can be unrelaxing but is definitely not work. And this does not even involve meeting some general socializing expectations.

dybyedx’s point about economic remuneration needs to be somehow incorporated to arrive at the definition.

The post and many comments provoke me to question which of the below would fall under what degree of work-relaxation:

-Spouse hands me a To Do list for the coming weekend that includes “Call the electrician” and “Dispose off those old files you said are no longer needed”. Is this work? Would it make a difference depending on whether I am a classic procrastinator who does not like these tasks or I eagerly take on these enjoyable tasks of domestic efficiency?

-I constantly find my mind going over the details of a forthcoming family ceremony that I am organizing. It sometimes makes me feel stressed but I am all charged up and look forward to the responsibility?

-I am thinking of my weekend schedule that needs to squeeze in two weddings to attend, one of which is an unavoidable obligation, and meeting with old friends at a dinner

-At work I have identified an opportunity to initiate an exciting project idea that keeps developing in my mind 24X7. No one knows yet about it so it is not even an expectation but I can and want to impress the higher-ups with a well-crafted proposal

A couple of directions I would like to explore on this subject are:

-The sense of unwinding or taking a break depends on the stamina one has for the task on hand. If one is in a flow state one is able to enjoyably continue for longer periods without feeling exhausted at the end of it. Operating in a strength area (as defined by the Strengths Approach) that is built upon innate patterns and tendencies (“talents”) does not feel like work even in one’s official job. So yes, I do believe it possible for someone to say this is not work at all about a job task.

-The amount of discretion one has to continue or stop or redefine the objective seems to be the clinching factor to decide where in the continuum of work – relaxation an activity falls. With such a definition, my planning for a family vacation may overall be a non-work/relaxation but once I have booked flights and hotels, any adjustments needed due to changed circumstances mid-way through the vacation would tilt more toward the work end of the scale because of necessary goals to meet involving others. On the other hand, getting delayed at the zoo and realizing that the museum visit has to be rescheduled or dropped may not.

Venkat December 3, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Yes, this was a very sloppy piece by my own standards, and more a set of casual working notes than a fully thought-through piece. I was taken aback myself by the volume of reactions it has evoked. Looks like a fat-fingered a raw nerve here.

Your criticisms and many of the others, are all very valid. Am working on a more careful follow-up piece.

dybyedx December 5, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Yes, this was a very sloppy piece by my own standards, and more a set of casual working notes than a fully thought-through piece. I was taken aback myself by the volume of reactions it has evoked. Looks like a fat-fingered a raw nerve here.

@venkat: I thought the piece was perfectly fine. The volume of responses is a measure of how relateable this topic is as opposed to being a reflection of your work. Also, the piece was short and most likely, many people read it end-to-end. This brings up another question, have you ever wondered about the number of words that a person might read in an opinion piece? The volume of responses might also have to do with that. Now that I have asked you this question, I am wondering about it myself. What is the optimum number of words for an opinion piece on the internet?

Alex December 6, 2010 at 11:48 am

Interesting. Based on your definition, sex is work :)

Venkat December 7, 2010 at 3:44 pm

:) I am not going there…

anthony December 7, 2010 at 12:06 am

we in the east think in terms of states of mind. work and play are states of mind, and have nothing to do with the nature of the action. there is some correlation with how much absorbed you are in the work. the more you lose yourself in the work, the less of a burden it is. generally, i think humans lose the ability to play, with the passing of childhood, but not completely. it comes and goes, but the capacity is greatly diminished.

Seb Paquet December 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm

How about ‘It is work if you don’t feel that failing is OK’?

Surio January 25, 2011 at 5:26 am

“Work is Worship” has permeated the collective consciousness of modern society. That’s the sad and bitter truth. It hasn’t helped that generations of writers and thinkers have tried to outdo each other in terms of coming up with a more and more elevated, exalted, overarching (running out of superlatives here ;-) ) definitions for WERK all the time.

IMO, work is way too overrated. Indeed, taking it one step forward, I have always argued against the “WASP work ethic” (as I used to term it then) of “compulsive productivity” for a long time, with anyone that cared to listen! I would like to offer two “antidote to work” definitions for the benefit of all :-)
Bertrand Russell said this in his seminal essay: “In praise of Idleness”

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work. First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.

Indeed!
Herman Melville’s biography (Him of Moby-Dick fame)

Whoever is not in the possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence. They talk of the dignity of work. Bosh. True work is the necessity of poor humanity’s earthly condition. The dignity is in leisure. Besides, 99 hundredths of all the work done in the world is either foolish and unnecessary, or harmful and wicked.

Having gone through mental loops of my own (similar to yours, I will add) I’ve since realised that we need to “chill out” for a while and stop trying to keep doing things, “Because it’s there”(4th para)!

At the risk of repeating myself, I wrote a slightly detailed blog post, defending The bare necessities & why chilling isn’t so bad, here.

Sebastian February 2, 2011 at 6:03 pm

The difference is the difference between “autotelic” and “exotelic” activities, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, i.e. the difference between something done for its own sake and done for purposes exterior to the activity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autotelic, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29). That is a core part of what makes “play” (cf. magic circle) different from “work”. In terms of intrinsic motivation, it is an activity high in *autonomy* – providing you with the sense that you (rather than others) are in control of your own actions.

parikshit August 26, 2011 at 11:18 am

i think people who go for hard work first have to well get with their purpose in life.
then make their values clear, and then the hard work comes automatically.
hard work means not giving 100% but 200%, which is hard but never impossible

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