Thursday, December 06, 2007

Defining "Work"

What is this thing called work?

Is it anything we don't want to do? Often, I do not want to answer my front door. If I deign to do so, most of us would not regard the action as work, but if I hired a person to do so, opening the door would be work.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines work as: "Physical or mental effort; labor. A task or duty. Something that has been produced as a result of effort."

The effort part is pretty broad and could include skiing down a mountain to get a drink at a lodge. The task or duty standard is also troublesome. I've gone to many a social event that could fall under that category and, although I may have deserved an award for doing so, it wasn't work.

At least, I don't think it was.

Our personal definition of work can have enormous impact on our attitudes. Those of us who are prone to guilt (raise your hands!) may suffer unduly if we think of work as the mental or physical equivalent of ditch-digging. Anything less strenuous or less painful is regarded as goofing off.

As a result, we throw ourselves into tasks with the notion that an activity does not really qualify as working unless it hurts or is exhausting. Once an action is or becomes fun - oops! - we've slipped out of the work zone. Work and fun are wrongly thought to be mutually exclusive. [Work is not like the famous definition of obscenity because many of us do not know when we see it.]

The association of work with pain almost guarantees a lack of appreciation for much of the work that is accomplished. That problem in itself illustrates the need for a clearer definition of work. Some items for consideration:

  • Work can be any task depending on the circumstances.
  • Work can be fun, difficult, painful, easy, exhausting or exhilarating. Much depends upon the attitude of the performer.
  • Work is usually related to significant effort, either during or before the task. You may perform a task that seems easy but which took years to master.
  • Work is not automatically linked to compensation. A great deal of work is unpaid.
  • Work is linked to obligation. That obligation may be to another person or organization in order to obtain compensation or favor or it may be the result of personal desire or ambition.
Perhaps the simplest definition is a dodge:

Work is what we call a task to distinguish it from play. No more. No less.


pawnking said...

Your post touches on the theme of "Do what you enjoy and you'll never work a day in your life." This idea bothered me for years before I fully realized why. The thing is if we truly have the idea that work is always supposed to be fun, we avoid doing things which aren't fun.

While this might be a noble career goal (one I myself follow) the truth i have found is that we are often required to do things which aren't fun. Sometimes there is no one else who is able to do it, or it needs to be done immediately, before you can delegate it. Sometimes it's the price you pay to spend most of your time doing fun things. But if you always treat work as fun, you might fall into the trap of thinking non-fun things are not work.

I expect I will never reach the time where 100% of my "work" is fun. I go for incremental improvement. Currently I spend about 50% of my work time on fun stuff, and 50% on stuff I have to do in order to get to the fun stuff. It's the best ratio of my career so far.

Michael Wade said...


Good point. One of the great mistakes of teachers is to announce that learning is fun. The students quickly see that as pure foolishness. A lot of learning is immensely unenjoyable.

My usual rule is to do the most disagreeable task first so the enjoyable chores can be fully appreciated.

Wally Bock said...

Nice post, Michael.

First, as usual, mom had it right when she said that "the only difference between work and play is attitude."

Second that doesn't make career choices simple. I had the great good fortune to spend some of my college years at a Jesuit university where Fr. Davitt taught me (a non-Roman Catholic) about the Roman Catholic doctrine of vocation.

As I recall it, having a vocation for something meant that it was a fit for your life's work. Fr. Davitt said that you could recognize such a thing because it would be something you love to do so much that you're also willing to do the scut work that goes with it. But you don't just get to do the thing you love, you have to do scut work, too, and you can't outsource it.

The idea that if you find something you love to do you'll never work a day in your life is flawed because it's incomplete. You need to find something that you love and that you're good at, and that you can make "enough" money at.