The Blog

What is Work? Part I: New Definitions

Today, when so many Americans are out of it, changing it, and doing it for themselves, has the definition of work changed?
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Last week, I got involved in a very modern three-way during a business trip to New York.

Scott, with whom I used to work, was introducing me to Judith, who I wanted to work with. Judith had worked with Scott before I did. And now, if all went well, she would be working with Raj, with whom I'd worked before leaving town.

The subject of our meeting, not surprisingly, was work. We spoke about it, as folks tend to do today, in lowered voices. The way my friends and I used to talk about sex before we had any.

Back then, my friends and I used to page through Sidney Sheldon books at the beach, looking for the dirty bits and blushing. Today the words "project," job" and "paycheck" are having a similar effect on salaried employees, job seekers and indie workers. It's as if to mention the thing is to parry with the bust of embarrassment.

Which made me wonder:

What is work?

Today, when so many Americans are out of it, changing it, and doing it for themselves, has the definition of work changed?

To answer this question, I thought we'd take a page from the Trapp Family Singers and start at the very beginning. Which, as it turns out, is a very helpful place to start.

For who better to discuss the true nature of work than folks who work with work for a living?

Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant work as professional know-it-alls. This may sound way 21st century. But it's a field that can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin in America, who used the Poor Richard's Almanack as his 18th century pay-for-access web site. And just like Franklin, who sold thousands of almanacs a year, the guys, as senior writers for Discovery Communications' web site "How Stuff Works," make a living by demystifying stuff.

About the definition of work, past and present, Josh Clark says:

Work, as it was just a few decades ago, very much resembled the definition of work in the field of physics; it was pretty much the transfer of energy from one object (the worker) to another (the front fender of a Plymouth)... You were either harnessing your body's power or you were a manager in charge of a bunch of bodies exerting force on objects. If the latter, then most likely you used the scientific management model that was predicated on the idea that the average worker was motivated almost entirely by money. Which meant that if your boss was so inclined, this model gave him license to exercise his inner jerk.

One might think things were better in the "good old days."

But as HuffPo's resident philosopher Tom Morris reveals, the Aristotelian ideal of work was no work at all. While a modern philosopher can make his living giving speeches, writing books and teaching at the university level (all of which Morris does), the Greek ideal of "manly labor"
-- sorry, ladies...this was a Man's Man's Man's world -- was the leisure to ponder Life's Big Issues.

Let's cast aside the question of whether the lucky, leisure toga'd class would choose to use its free time pondering Big Questions as opposed to the Big Game taking place in Sparta. The point is, in an ideal world of ideals, individuals would have the time and opportunity to choose.

In the real world of course, work can be the means to achieve concrete goals. To return to the Trapp family for a moment, let's imagine their work is the beginning, middle and end of a song. They're singing the song for a reason. Ostensibly, they're working to entertain the crowd. But the song is a means to a very serious end -- they're singing as a means to save their lives; to cross the border and free their life from fear. It's a do-or-die situation. But its parameters are clear.

In the movie musical version of their story, the Trapp Family sings a verse, a chorus, another verse. The songs ends. They move on.

Today, however, the rules of work have changed for many of us today. We start the song ... and no one really knows when or how it's going to end. Much less if we'll be able to sing ourselves across the border. There is a philosophical and practical upside to this shift, however.

As Tom Morris puts it:

The recent shifts in our economy, along with the general undermining of reliability in career trajectories have forced many to reassess their view of work. When work seemed more stable, and to lead to prosperity for many, it was easy to view it as of instrumental value only. Work was a means to get into the middle class, or get your kids educated, put food on the table, secure retirement, or even to attain the American Dream, variously defined.

Now, when all stability of expectation seems to have vanished, we're being forced to rethink work in terms of its possible intrinsic values."

In the days before World War II, as Josh Clark pointed out, human work was similar to the classical definition of work in physics: an exchange of energy.

But today, Tom Morris points out, "Work as an extension of who you are, not just for what it can get you externally."

The good news here, it seems, is that while we're busy looking for work, certain kinds of work may be looking for us.

Finding your calling in a time of economic mauling may not sound as lightweight-fun-steamy as a day at the beach with Sidney Sheldon.

But as I'll explain in my next post, once you know how to work with the old and new ideas of work, it can be wonderfully empowering.