I recently listened to an interview between economist Russ Roberts and philosopher Alain de Botton, about his latest book which I might have to read, because of its uncanny overlap with some of my recent thinking. Here's the money quote:

[W]hat artists do is put labels on things, give us a vocabulary with which to discuss things and understand ourselves; words, images we can use to make ourselves less mysterious to ourselves and to other people—increases communication; enjoyment.

That's effectively what I do. I frame discourse and supply people with language, the only difference is that language eventually executes. Alain also closes with an interesting remark that I feel compelled to comment on:

At the end of the day, the human animal has complex needs, from needing shoes to needing entertainment, etc. All work is the same at the end of the day, about fulfilling human needs. Becomes satisfying when we feel we are able to bring something of ourselves, something quite personal, tied to the best of ourselves, to fulfilling someone else's needs. Unites all workers. Work for the world unites not through a labor organization but through a commitment to fulfilling other human beings' needs.

Did you catch it? Want a hint? It's the bleary use of the word need. This little semantic nugget has been driving me batty for aeons; this guy who could have exited with a perfect score in my book either misspoke the distinction or missed it outright.

First, the Remark

I want to try to pry apart the idea of work from that of activity, productive or otherwise. For a long time, work was bound to its content—what we did and what resulted would distinguish work from play, for instance. To many there also seems to be a negative correlation between work and enjoyment, such that if something is fun it can't possibly be useful, and if something is useful it can't possibly be fun.

The key to unpacking this notion lies in where Alain places the need. I submit that we work to sate our needs; the needs of other people don't necessarily matter. Necessarily. Those in particular could be needs, wants, whims or pathologies. It doesn't make a difference to us or why we're working.

What I mean is the defining characteristic of work is no longer its content, it's the fact that we have to do it. And by that I mean if we didn't have to do it, it wouldn't be work.

Need is Meaningless Without Qualification

The way we commonly use the word need and its analogue, to have to do something, suggests that a need is at least one notch stronger than a want. I disagree with this. I think that a need is simply a want with a qualifier. If you begin with the phrase I need X, you should be able to complete the sentence with in order to achieve Y. That Y might also be predicated on an objective Z, and go arbitrarily deep, possibly even into our subconscious. This ultimately regresses to matters of survival, but it's important to understand that not one of us needs to survive, it's just that most of us really, really want to.

A want, on the other hand, has no qualifier. We can want things just because we want them. We can have reasons for wanting things, to be sure, but I chalk that up to an artifact of reasoning, or possibly more pathology. A need, conversely, can always be traced to a want.

Back to Work

Given the axiom that we want to survive and do interesting things with our time, we need to work. What's more, the work we do has to work: it has to achieve results, whether it's exclusively for ourselves, like doing our laundry, or for somebody else, like what we do every day in an office, factory or shop. This doesn't preclude us, however, from doing things that we want to do that are also valuable to other people, and can therefore sustain our putative needs.

What I see is an unnecessary tying of economic—and implicitly social—value to toil. I don't believe it. Just because ugly work is valuable does not mean valuable work is ugly. This is a perennial problem in critters like us. We have a nasty cognitive bug that defaults to a symmetry that needs more information to break. Logic works in the opposite direction: just because A implies B does not guarantee that B implies A. Alain issues another salient point:

There are many jobs now that cannot be done properly unless people are happy.

Alain here is referring to service work, in which the person can't perform unless he or she is in a good disposition to deal with other people. I submit that this is also true for a category of post-service work that ultimately produces goods, or at least forms or some kind of abstract artifacts. I call this category of work highly-synthetic to eschew our cultural bias toward the word creative, although it reduces to the same thing.

What determines highly-synthetic work is that the desired result lies several conceptual degrees away from the starting point, and that a given person must proceed through several steps of synthesis in order to produce it. This entails that the person must do two things: understand the objective and agree to bring it into existence.

In order to understand, a person has to learn. In order to learn, at least in this scenario, a person has to want to learn. Upon understanding, the person has to want to cooperate. In my career, almost entirely composed of highly-synthetic work, I have observed that the biggest detriment to producing effective results is either not understanding, due to assumptions or biases about the expectations, often influenced by imposed constraints on resources, or not agreeing, but still cooperating due to the material inconvenience or social taboo of quitting.

But as Alain rightly states, most work in the category of industrial production or service doesn't require us to want to do it, it merely requires us to know how to do it. In contrast, the results of highly-synthetic work are necessarily novel, and while we may know how to carry the necessary tasks out in principle, by definition we don't know at the outset what those results ought to be.

I understand this is a blow to the canon of specialization and domain expertise, but I argue that no education or training can prepare us for the site-specific challenges of highly-synthetic work. It can only give us tools to interpret them and to express those interpretations. The rest we have to learn on-site, and carrying out our mandate successfully ultimately entails a moral alignment.

What I'm suggesting is that most people who produce highly-synthetic work, but moreover everywhere, genuinely want to create substantive value. They want to apply their understanding and skill to produce the best results those can confer. Material value is a social thing; it is the mother of all currencies. When we create value we ourselves become more valuable. It is only archaic social constructs that prevent us from doing so. I'm sure at one point these were expedient if not necessary, but now they seem not only counterproductive, but almost sadistic.

Not all of us will be able to subsist doing only the work we want to do. Per my definition above, nobody ever does. Although perhaps if we tuned our idea of the relationship between gainful work and a conventional job, such that paying and getting paid for the former didn't entail the commitment of the latter, we might be able to better encourage this behaviour. This includes erasing the shame associated with voting with our feet. Not only do I imagine us gaining substantially in productivity, but also by the observation that when we want to do our work, the fact that we have to do it is imperceptible.