Work, Liberty and the Pursuit of Pleasure
January 04, 2007
I blogged a bit about Living Without A Goal recently and went down a path I didn't originally anticipate, focusing on utility and value and appreciation in life. I'd intended to say more about James Ogilvy's views on work, but once I was plumbing the depths of what makes life meaningful, valuable and worthwhile, I wasn't in the mood to write [more] about work.
I suppose this may be an example of what poet David Whyte calls investigative vulnerability, a term he attributes the term to Dante. An example he shares (on Disc 2 of his Clear Mind, Wild Heart audiobook) is when he was composing the poem Sweet Darkness, he wrote the line "You must learn one thing..." and felt tremendous excitement and anticipation to discover what he would actually write next ... which turned out to be "the world was made to be free in" ... although I think the more poignant revelation comes a few lines later: "anyone and anything that does not bring you alive is too small for you" ... a sentiment very closely aligned to ideas expressed more prosaically by James Ogilvy.
And coming back to Ogilvy, in his book on Living Without a Goal, he notes that
[T]he worthiest works of all often reflect an artful creativity that looks more like play than work.
Unlike my resistance to his rejection of being useful to others as a worthy Goal, this notion of work as play is something I embrace wholeheartedly (and even practice occasionally). Work that is intrinsically motivating is indistinguishable from play, and work that is solely or primarily motivated by extrinsic incentives (money, titles, prestige, manager approval) can never be as ultimately satisfying and fulfilling.
Writing this now, I'm drawn back to the issue of [work] being useful to others. When I am playing, do I care whether or how my play affects others, or do I play with reckless abandon? Am I goal-oriented in my play, or do I play just for the fun of it? It seems indulgent, even extravagant, and downright risky, in applying this attitude [explicitly and openly] to work ... but I know from past experience that there also risks in not following my heart, working on things that have been assigned to me that I do not see as intrinsically worthwhile, and feeling the energy draining out of my body day in and day out.
Ogilvy notes these (and other) risks:
Creativity relies less on goal-directed labor than on a subtle mix of discipline and play. The artist suffers under an imperative to delight, an obligation to bask in pleasure. Someone must scout those frontiers of bliss and discover the pitfalls. There are risks. It is not an accident that artists suffer accidents. It is the nature of the case that they take risks. But if one must take risks, what better place than in pleasure's paradise?
A little further on, he presages Web 2.0:
people who explore the outer reaches of human delight, then learn how to bottle and sell some of their ecstasy, end up being far more successful than the drudges who are convinced of their duty to defer gratification forever
He then contrasts this approach to the typical process by which research is "managed" (!), especially within large organizations:
Just look at the administration of big science -- planned creativity -- and then look at its track record for innovation. On a dollar-per-dollar basis, big science doesn't do as well as the less bureaucratized passion of garage inventors.
At budget time each year I would be asked what I planned to do the following year and what it would cost. It always seemed to me that I was being asked what I planned to discover ... It was as if the only time genuine discovery would be allowed would be during the month or so of the budget cycle.
Having been working at Nokia Research Center for three months now, I'm struck by a curious tension: the organization is the most process-oriented I've ever encountered, and [yet] it also emphasizes the importance of taking risks more than any organization I've been a part of. NRC Palo Alto, the newest facility (and the one where I work), is experimenting on a number of dimensions, organizationally and with respect to research trajectories. Thus far, I've experienced a great deal of liberty and happiness in my time there, and have enjoyed both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.
Popping up a level (or two), I'm reminded of some ruminations that occurred to me while listening to another audiobook, The Ultimate Anti-Career Guide by Rick Jarow. What would life be like if everyone only worked on things that were intrinsically meaningful to them? What kinds of work would we see more of, or less of? What kinds (and sizes) of organizations would we see? What would the world be like if everyone followed Rumi's prescription:
Let yourself be drawn by the silent pull of what you really love.