August 11th, 2005

Work vs. jobs

Paul Graham writes about jobs as normally constituted

The basic idea behind office hours is that if you can't make people work, you can at least prevent them from having fun.

and the possibilities of doing better
Things are different in a startup. Often as not a startup begins in an apartment. Instead of matching beige cubicles they have an assortment of furniture they bought used. They work odd hours, wearing the most casual of clothing. They look at whatever they want online without worrying whether it's "work safe." The cheery, bland language of the office is replaced by wicked humor. And you know what? The company at this stage is probably the most productive it's ever going to be.

Maybe it's not a coincidence. Maybe some aspects of professionalism are actually a net lose.
Another good quote:
I suspect professionalism was always overrated-- not just in the literal sense of working for money, but also connotations like formality and detachment. Inconceivable as it would have seemed in, say, 1970, I think professionalism was largely a fashion, driven by conditions that happened to exist in the twentieth century.

And here's the Washington Post on boredom in high-level jobs.
Bartlett had a secretary, staff, an important-sounding job and the paycheck to go with it. But, like many workers, he found himself underemployed and bored out of his mind.

And here's the Megan McArdle article I got the WashPost link from

But even my friends who live and breathe finance find a large portion of their work intensely boring. They are doing it because they hope that if they spend long enough proofreading powerpoint presentations and scrutinising IPO prospectuses, they will one day be paid really gargantuan sums of money to fly all over the world and tell CEO's how to finance their companies. This job is so fun and exciting that most of the people who do it retire by 50. But until they reach that halcyon horizon (and, with banking's military-inspired "up or out" model, only a small fraction of freshly-minted MBA banker larvae will ever get to that level) most of them are bored for much of the time.

It seems insane to me that so much human effort is wasted on wheel-spinning. While I think we're rich enough to be stupid, this just says that we can manage more elaborated and expensive stupidity than most societies, not that we have to behave that way. I suspect the root cause is actually conventional schooling which has teaching children to endure boredom as a primary purpose. Now, some of the work that needs to get done is boring, but the schools only teach the endurance of boredom--the assumption is that enthusiasm is not worth protecting or cultivating and furthermore gets in the way of scheduling.

See for the idea that boredom can become addictive--people can get so hooked on boredom that they're uncomfortable when it threatens to go away.

More to follow when I've got some coherent ideas about ways out, though I suspect that the biggie is capital goods (the tools you need for making something worth selling) getting cheaper. Google happened because it was no big deal to own computers. Blogs happened when it was no big deal for people to be able to write for the world. Things could get really interesting as manufacturing gets cheaper/smaller/cleaner.

The other thing to watch is the effects of home schooling--some of it is devoted to the idea of learning without boredom, and I'm expecting there to eventually be enough people who grew up that way to make a difference.

Linkage: Paul Graham writes really good essays--it's worth checking his site every month or two for new ones. I was reminded to do so by a post on the FLOWidealism mailing list.

Megan McCardle usually writes for her blog, Asymetrical Information. I recommend her articles (written as Jane Galt) over her co-blogger's pieces (Mindles H. Dreck).