If you’re travelling around Ireland, you may come across some odd pieces of 19th century architecture—walls, bridges, buildings and roads that serve no purpose. They date back to The Great Hunger of the 1840s. These “famine follies” were the result of a public works scheme.
The thinking went something like this: people are starving so we should feed them but we can’t just give people food for nothing so let’s make people do pointless work in exchange for feeding them (kind of like an early iteration of proof of work for cryptobollocks on blockchains …except with a blockchain, you don’t even get a wall or a road, just ridiculous amounts of wasted energy).
This kind of thinking seems reprehensible from today’s perspective. But I still see its echo in the work ethic espoused by otherwise smart people.
Here’s the thing: there’s good work and there’s working hard. What matters is doing good work. Often, to do good work you need to work hard. And so people naturally conflate the two, thinking that what matters is working hard. But whether you work hard or not isn’t actually what’s important. What’s important is that you do good work.
If you can do good work without working hard, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s great—you’ve managed to do good work and do it efficiently! But often this very efficiency is treated as laziness.
Sensible managers are rightly appalled by so-called productivity tracking because it measures exactly the wrong thing. Those instruments of workplace surveillance measure inputs, not outputs (and even measuring outputs is misguided when what really matters are outcomes).
They can attempt to measure how hard someone is working, but they don’t even attempt to measure whether someone is producing good work. If anything, they actively discourage good work; there’s plenty of evidence to show that more hours equates to less quality.
I used to think that must be some validity to the belief that hard work has intrinsic value. It was a position that was espoused so often by those around me that it seemed a truism.
But after a few decades of experience, I see no evidence for hard work as an intrinsically valuable activity, much less a useful measurement. If anything, I’ve seen the real harm that can be caused by tying your self-worth to how much you’re working. That way lies burnout.
We no longer make people build famine walls or famine roads. But I wonder how many of us are constructing little monuments in our inboxes and calendars, filling those spaces with work to be done in an attempt to chase the rewards we’ve been told will result from hard graft.
I’d rather spend my time pursuing the opposite: the least work for the most people.