Is work important to us because we need it to be important?

The ethical, practical and philosophical implications of how we live alongside robots is something we will have to address very soon. It is a point well made in this conversation between Kate Darling of MIT and the neuroscientist Sam Harris. But we’ve had parts of this conversation before. For example, while most people will not have read the book from which it came, those with an interest in work, workplaces and their links with our happiness (or perceived lack of it) will know that the British philosopher Bertrand Russell once famously said that “one of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important”. This famous quote is taken from a short book he wrote in 1930 called The Conquest of Happiness. It’s worth going beyond that quote and reading the whole thing to see it in context and remind ourselves that a preoccupation with finding happiness is not current, but eternal. In fact, large passages could have been written today, especially those which consider our relationship with work, the time and energy we expend on it and the importance each of us attributes to what we do.

Russell was obviously unaware of the technological advances to come but he was considering the constant factor at the heart of the workplace – the human being – and this is what informs the contemporary resonance of the full paragraph from which his quote is derived.

“One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.”

What is this if not a call for work-life balance? We have a solipsistic tendency to assume that such issues are modern and directly linked to the way we use technology. In fact, they have always existed in the modern world and are intimately related to the human condition. Technology is merely a catalyst for our inherent characteristics.

Russell highlights the process by which one of these characteristics  influences the way we think and behave; our need to strive, climb and develop.

“It is very singular how little men seem to realise that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which they remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level. I am thinking, of course, of men in higher walks of business, men who already have a good income and could, if they chose, live on what they have. To do so would seem to them shameful, like deserting from the army in the face of the enemy, though if you ask them what public cause they are serving by their work, they will be at a loss to reply as soon as they have run through the platitudes to be found in the advertisements of the strenuous life.”

But I believe there is one other reason why people think their work is important which he spends less time considering in his book. The teleological argument dates back to Aristotle and has been used for centuries as a way of explaining our place in the world as both a species and individuals as well as underpinning the perpetual religious belief in the idea that because we so closely fit the world in which we live, we have been put here for a purpose. It’s all for us. The flawed thinking behind this compelling idea was best illustrated by the writer Douglas Adams in a series of speeches which include the following passage:

puddle-6“Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, may have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

This kind of circular, flawed reasoning is also apparent in the way we think about work. We assume because we fit our jobs so well and because we spend so much time and energy on them then that means they are both meaningful and important and so worth the investment of even more time and effort.

This mindset also explains why so many professions feel they are not given the respect and credit they deserve for the important job they do. Read any profession’s media and it won’t be long before you come across somebody telling you about their frustration that the world doesn’t take their profession more seriously and doesn’t understand just how important it is. You can try this with architecture, design, facilities management, HR, technology, marketing and whatever. It’s always the same story.

Because these ways of thinking are hardwired, it can be difficult for us to take an objective stance on the matter. Until we can accept that the hole will exist after we’ve evaporated, then we will continue to  behave the way we do. That does not mean there should be no meaning in what we do. In fact Russell himself claims that “all serious success in work depends upon some genuine interest in the material with which the work is concerned”. But in an age in which automation means we will soon have to arrive at a new philosophy of life and work, we need to keep things real and decide what really matters.

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