NPR On “The Meaning of Work”

It’s about as dysfunctional as it looks.

Last October NPR had a roundup of various TED talks about work and how we derive meaning from it.

Fortunately/unfortunately, I’ve already commented on a lot of these themes and even responded specifically to one of the folks who are mentioned, Barry Schwartz. There’s a few things from him in the TED talk that I may not have responded to before so I’ll briefly comment on what I found interesting.I

In particular he mentions how dividing it into “classes” of folks (rich interested capitalists and disinterested workers just doing it for a pay) leads to presumptuous cynicism towards work.

Well first off, there’s nothing wrong with being cynical and there are many ways to be cynical. And some things deserve this presumptive cynicism to begin with. Structures that have proven to be largely oppressive throughout their existence in many different ways should be viewed de facto with skepticism, not approval.

And while it’s true being primarily negative about a relationship can then damage it, the relationship has to actually be something that’s not worth being negative about for this to be a bad thing. But Schwartz doesn’t try to prove that these things are true or not with regards to work. He just presumes that a de facto cynicism (which seems healthy to me) is bad because the goal of work is for the workers and bosses to get along.

He lists some examples of hospital workers putting in more effort than they would otherwise. But those workers (custodians in this specific example) have different incentives than most workers. Most of us aren’t working for potentially terminally ill patients. Even working in a store where we have a pharmacy, the most sick I see is people heavily coughing with face masks on. And none of that makes me want to make me work any harder or gives me any more meaning to my work.

I’ve talked about this a few times but one of the problems with deriving meaning from things like retail is that the actual affects of your work is rather hard to discern. Sure, you make the people who are buying the product happy and perhaps they say, “thank you” or pleasantries to make you feel nice, but that’s usually about it.

On that same note, I’m going to guess that when you’re working in a hospital, people will tend to be more thankful of extra work. Though, as Schwartz inadvertently points out, that might not even be true either.

Schwartz uses the example of a custodian who got yelled at by a father of someone who was in a coma for not seeing him wash the floor (by the way, they had). The custodian then went back over and did it twice and Schwartz decides that this exchange is, for some reason, worth celebrating. To me, my first reaction was, “wow, that dad was a dick!”

I don’t know if I really need to point this out, but do people in comas really care if their floor has a few spots that the custodian missed? I’m not saying no one should come by and just leave the patient stay in squalor or whatever but it seems to me that this would be a much lower priority on the totem pole.

Maybe a little higher on that pole should be, I don’t know, making sure the patient doesn’t die?

Anyways, all of this is just to say that Schwartz’s examples aren’t very compelling and don’t give me any good reason to really support having some sort of gleeful optimism about work beforehand.

Dan Ariely also had some interesting videos on BigThink about work and motivation lately (here and here) and his TED talk is sampled throughout the NPR segment. Ariely is still positive about work but he’s also coming from a different angle than Schwartz and asking a more objective question which is: What gives us meaning in our work?

I take “work” here to mean any or all projects that we find worth our time.

So I don’t necessarily have an inherent problem with this type of work. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people putting effort into projects that they find it worth putting time and energy into. There can of course be things wrong with them. Imagine that a serial killer has put a lot of effort into meticulous killing of their victims. Their act wouldn’t be any more right just because they put more time and energy into it, but it might be more wrong because it shows much more foresight and intent.

In any case, he cites several examples where the work of someone goes up in smoke. He references examples of people having built Bionicles and then having them disassembled and given a different one for a certain amount of money. In this situation people see some amount of meaning into what they’re doing. But in another scenario where the subjects are given back the same Bionicle they just creates and it’s disassembled in front of them they decided to make far less Bionicles than the other group.

As someone who has had a terrible month in technology (my laptop’s HD broke and more recently my smartphone has as well) I know very well the idea of losing all of your hard fought gains in front of your eyes. When my HD died I realized I had lost almost 20 hours of a video game I was still playing. This was a completely demoralizing event for me and I thought I might never play the game again (I hate starting things over in video games).

In this case however, I probably would have been upset whether the HD had broken in front of my eyes or someone else had done it to me and offered me another computer with similar data and specs. On second thought, I guess I would be more bemused than upset, because if someone had the funds to endlessly cycle laptops like that…can I get some of that money?

The other two TED talks aren’t very interesting to me.

The one on the “pecking order” I’ve already addressed here.

And the last by Dame Stephanie Shirley is pretty awesome, though I’ve talked about liberal feminism and how it won’t really get us to where we need to get in the long-run, here.

It’s always nice to see subjects I’ve either indirectly covered or (better yet) directly covered.

Helps me with my sense of purpose about the work I do.


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