by Valentin, December 30 2020, in random

The Inanity of Work

I work 40h per week, which means that I spend 24% of my living time working. That number absolutely doesn't mirror the amount of my time it feels work is taking. I can start by excluding sleep from the calculation: I spend 36% of my awakened time working. That still doesn't really feel like it. To be fair the one hour of breakfast and shower before work isn't valuable free time because my mind is already focused on the fact that this is going to be a workday, and because I can't take my time. Same deal for lunch. And while I'm at it, same deal for the entire freaking evening, because then I'm tired from the day of work, I'm on a tight schedule before I need to go to bed, and, if I'm unlucky, I'm working on a stressful project that's actually still occupying my mind. So the only true statistic is that I'm working 5 days out of 7, and so, work is taking 71% of my time.

Why is it that I'm spending that much time at work in 2020? I can understand that in the era of cavemen, there wasn't any infrastructure to stabilize people's quality of life and everyone had to be constantly on the lookout and hurry for food, and that they were working towards this goal most of the week. But why is it that in 2020, with all the civilization, and all the modernity, I'm still spending 5 days out 7 working my ass off for the day and that our entire citizen lives are still basically organized around the concept of work. Shouldn't we be resting up a bit at this point?

Why do I work? I work to produce some value, so that someone else who enjoys this value can consume it. Part of the money this person spends to consume this value comes back to me in the form of my salary, so that I can myself consume stuff I enjoy that some other people worked to produce. That being established, it becomes clear that we actually control the amount of work that needs to be done with the amount of stuff that we decide to consume. And that is the problem: people definitely like to buy all sorts of stuff, as it is being clearly established that the holy grail is 🌟 purchasing power 🌟. However, many people also dislike work. They don't like mondays, they like fridays, they complain about their bosses, and so on.

For many people, it's worse than that, because they have more responsabilities than just work, like a house and children. At this point, there is so little free time remaining that you've learnt to make the most efficient usage of every minute of the day, and you've become a machine whose time is partitioned into work, other responsabilities, and enjoying your consumptions.

I'm not sure we're fully realizing the compromise that we're making. We could just decide to grab some books to read and some coffee to drink and chat with the people we like and take some walks in the woods and make drawings and shit, and we definitely wouldn't have to work that much. But oh no we want cars, we want pools, we want playstations, we want holiday trips, we want big bang weddings, we want to go to Mars, we want to order miriads of wondeful things from the Internet. And that brings up so much fulfillment in our lives that we're perfectly willing to work 5 days out of 7 to produce all that stuff, even though it mecanically shortens the window of time that remains to actually enjoy aforesaid stuff.

It's not all back or all white. We could just decide to slow down, work less, and take more time to appreciate things. One of the life lessons I've come to learn those last months is that taking my time and enjoying the immediate present is an incredible medicine against stress. First, it forces you to recognize and fix the elements of discomfort that you would ignore if, instead of being focused on the now, you would just be gliding over it. Second, it abstracts time away, as there is only one place in time you're existing in: now. Third, it doesn't require any spectacular activity, because even the most mundane things become enjoyable and noble when you do them with focused application.

When we're not in the moment, we tend to either focus on the past or on the future. We look at everything that we have accomplished, and plan on accomplishing more. The problem is that if we never stop in the middle to take the time to watch around and enjoy, then it all becomes useless. We're just hamsters running infinitely on a wheel, contemplating how many revolutions we've made so far, and planning on running even faster. I would argue that the consumer society doesn't really goes into the direction of "taking the time to watch around and enjoy", as the key for success is considered to be 🌟 growth 🌟. Just as you think you can take your time and rest, you need to get back to work.

And work, there is. There is so much work to do, because everything is so complicated. Whenever you scale up a project, layers of abstraction start to appear that need to be maintained and the maintenance itself needs to be maintained and work is popping up exponentially like wild fire, to the point where it becomes hard to identify how one single piece of work in the whole system is accomplishing anything for the end goal. Look at any software company that has a popular product, for which it seems to require years for one feature to be added, and yet they have hundreds of engineers. What are they all doing? Well, I can answer that. They're reading the documentation of their testing tool to try to debug a test, or they're fixing their local or staging environment, or they're preparing a migration to move one piece of data from point A to point B, which will make their situation slighty better after, and so on.

This is why side projects are so fun and liberating. They're free of all the bullshit that needs to be done to make something production-ready, and give the illusion that you can accomplish so much with so little. Your productivity on a side project seems to be orders of magnitude bigger than your productivity in an enterprise environnement. I guess there is some sort of Pareto principle of work which would be like: 80% of a project (its "meat") will require 20% of the work. The other 80% of work cover all the details and technicalities to actually make it production-ready. This why you can make a demo in 2 days for a project that will take 2 months, or make a side project in a week-end, that would require a big corporation 2 years to ship.

There is a certain glorification of work, especially in enterpreneurs at the transformative stages of their projects. This idea that the key to success is to work long hours and week-ends so that you can produce much wealth and change the world. In fact you're just dealing with the labyrinth of inane complexities that arise whenever you're making a project, and there are so many of those complexities it feels like they should all be quickly taken care of in order to accomplish something that actually looks meaningful. Most likely, it's being done in such a hurry because of an artificial deadline, or just to keep up with the competition, because you don't want to be the one that bails out on velocity.

There are obstacles on the road towards less work. The first obstacle is capital and its expected returns. Rents and mortgages need to be paid, and so, money needs to be obtained. It doesn't matter whether the wealth you're producing to win this money is actually relevant or not, the only thing that matters is that this money is going to the capital's owner (your landlord or your bank). The solution to this obstacle is to own capital oneself, that is, buy a home and finish paying the mortgage. Hopefully, you do it before retirement, since at this point you effectively don't work anymore.

The second obstacle is the structure of the world of work, where it's not always easy to find meaningful part-time work. Even if you as an individual would like to slow down because you're anti-consumerist and anti-work, the rest of society isn't, and so you would be swimming against the flow. It's hard to justify working less for no reason without being considered lazy, it's hard to socialize if you don't work in a society in which everyone else is working, and it's simply hard to find a good job opening that operates out of the standard 5-days week.

Work is so foundational to the way our lives are organized that it's hard to imagine a life without work, or simply with less work. Starting from there, only some marginal foolish people like me lose their time writing articles about the absurdity of work, as the others are either occupied with something else, or don't understand at all, because they like work. So, to end this article, here is a list of the 5 types of workers in this world, and why only one of those types doesn't like work :

  • Survivors. Survivors have a salary that barely match their lifestyle. That is notably the case of many parents with a low-to-medium salary who have a mortgage on a home, children, and one or two cars. Survivors need to pay the bills and feed their children and they don't have much time to get their spirits entangled in philosophical crap about work.
  • Time bookers. Time bookers are afraid of free time. Any empty slot on their schedule is a slice of their lifetime that is wasted and could have been spent on some activity instead. Time bookers like (or at least don't mind) work because work is chunks of 8 hours a day 5 days a week of pre-allocated time they don't have to be anxious about filling with something.
  • Achievers. Achievers like the idea of climbing the ladder. They enjoy the concept of work itself, and make it a part of their identity. What they're building above all is their own career.
  • Vocationists. Vocationinsts have a calling to do something, and they get paid for it (not always as much as they would like). They often do jobs which result in direct improvements of people's lives (doctors, teachers, trade jobs, etc) or they found a way to monetize their passion or ideas (artists, entrepreneurs, etc).
  • Lazy valuable bastards. Lazy valuable bastards are the remaining bunch. They're not survivors because their skills allow them to be well-off financially. They're not time bookers because what makes them happy is an ocean of unscheduled free time. They're not achievers because they're not interested in the career video game. They're not vocationists because they don't have a calling (or they find the monetization of it too lame or industrial). lazy valuable bastards are waiting for their lifetime to be wasted on work before they can be reincarnated into domestic cats, and in the meantime they try to have as much rest as possible in the little free time they have.