17-Nov-2020-work-perceptions

This comment by Tzunamitom on Hacker News (reproduced at the bottom of this post) led me to suspect that there might be a problem with our jobs and the way that we work. It suggests to me that though our jobs may indeed be significant, purposeful, or meaningful, they may nonetheless feel insignificant, purposeless, or meaningless to us because they lack things (experiences) that we feel are significant and purposeful.

He suggests that our jobs "seem to lack purpose because we [the workers] are so many levels removed from the output and effect of the things that we do." I interpret this as suggesting that our work may in fact have purpose but that we are doing it in a way that leads us to mis-perceive that it lacks purpose (such as that its purposefulness it is abstract or too subtle).

In his comment, he mentions that "As Dan Pink notes in Drive, to be motivated, we humans need 3 things - autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Our bullshit jobs are (for the most part) giving us autonomy and mastery more than any grunt jobs since the Industrial Revolution began, but what is lacking is [a sense of] purpose."

While referring to a project that he worked on that "likely saved quite a few customers from card or identity fraud", he said "Did I make a difference? Yeah probably. Do I emotionally feel like I made a difference? Nope. Not a bit. I was far too detached from the outcome to feel that." He went on to say "I have no idea if [the project made a difference] - I'll never meet these guys or hear their stories, hell I barely left the office, and most of the things I did were in Excel or PowerPoint."

He suggested that part of our sense of purposelessness in our jobs may be rooted in human genetics and that our present-day way of working is quite different from what our ancestors dealt with: "our bullshit caveman short-term brains ... haven't yet caught up to the 21st century highly-optimised economy in which we live."

I am intrigued by this idea that though we may work effectively and have impactful work, we may be doing it in a way that is leading us to feel like it's the opposite and to want to seek out alternative opportunities that might make us feel more effective and impactful despite being objectively less-so. I am wondering:

  • What can we do in our current workplaces or ways of working to help us feel that our work is as effective and impactful as it truly is?

The below text is from this comment by Tzunamitom on Hacker News.

First let me start by saying I am someone who has worked almost exclusively doing a "bullshit job", in fact if there were a scale of bullshit jobs, I think that Management Consulting would probably be placed at the apex of bullshit. I have felt the pain described, and was with the author right up until the point where they started talking about the tube workers, which struck a nerve. Tube drivers can bring the system to its knees because they are highly unionised and can (and do) choose to strike en masse whenever they're not happy with working conditions, salary, proposed changes etc. What is one of their strongest oppositions? Automated tube driving systems. Systems that would make the tube network cheaper to run, increase capacity, improve speed and safety, and yes, make tube drivers redundant.

So here we are, and the TGWU (transport union) et al are basically ruining my day-to-day commute to keep tube drivers in their cushy positions, maintaining an inefficient situation that makes the tube drivers "indispensable". I'm gonna call bullshit on that.

Now let's say that some miracle happens and somehow the TGWU racket is broken and progress is allowed to happen. TfL (Transport for London) decide to replace all of their train drivers (why the hell are humans driving trains in the 21st century anyway???) with computerised systems. Who's gonna do that? Who's gonna plan, design, build, test, implement and maintain such a massively complex system? The tube drivers? Don't think so. I'll give you good odds that you're going to be calling in the Management Consultants to do this. All of a sudden my bullshit job isn't seeming like quite such bullshit when it is saving the taxpayer millions of pounds each year and reducing your morning commute by 20 minutes.

So here we come to the crux of the problem of this article. The yardstick by which you've chosen to determine if a job is "worthwhile" is whether anyone would notice if those workers disappeared. Given this definition, it is unsurprising that those jobs that have a very direct reward will seem the most worthwhile (i.e. nurse treats patient, patient feels better, patient happy, sees value in nurse). This feels right because it fits in nicely with the short-term worlds that most of us humans live in.

Unfortunately, the problem is not necessarily (or just) the bullshit jobs, but our bullshit caveman short-term brains that haven't yet caught up to the 21st century highly-optimised economy in which we live. As Dan Pink notes in Drive, to be motivated, we humans need 3 things - autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Our bullshit jobs are (for the most part) giving us autonomy and mastery more than any grunt jobs since the Industrial Revolution began, but what is lacking is purpose. We feel our jobs are bullshit precisely because they seem to lack purpose. They seem to lack purpose because we are so many levels removed from the output and effect of the things that we do.

I'll give you an example. I worked on a project that improved information security standards at all of the petrol (gas) stations for an oil giant worldwide. This project changed how things worked at 45,000 petrol (gas) stations worldwide, and statistically speaking, likely saved quite a few customers from card or identity fraud while refuelling their cars. Except I have no idea if it did or not - I'll never meet these guys or hear their stories, hell I barely left the office, and most of the things I did were in Excel or PowerPoint.

So there's the problem. Did I make a difference? Yeah probably. Do I emotionally feel like I made a difference? Nope. Not a bit. I was far too detached from the outcome to feel that. Looks great on my CV (resume) though for when I apply for my next bullshit job.

So to me, the answer isn't rushing out to quit our bullshit jobs and becoming tube drivers, or building houses in developing countries, although we'd probably be happier doing so. The answer is re-attaching the purpose element to the highly-productive "bullshit" jobs that we do, and reprogramming our caveman brains to realise that Excel really is mightier than the sword, and that we can be of far more use to the world by adapting our highly-optimised productivity systems to be more meaningful, rather than dismantling them and returning to an enjoyable but unproductive primary-secondary economy.