What Is Good Work?

There is a remarkable amount of good television around these days. The huge investments that companies are making in streaming services seems to have led to smart, witty writing and engaging storylines that deal with important themes. As one of the characters in the series “Superstore” says, “We’re living in a golden age of TV.”

In the series “Space Force” the leading character, a four star general played by Steve Carell, talks about how “there are no small jobs.” What it says is that for the force to function what janitors do matters and what rocket scientists do matters – all these jobs need to be done to get things done.

That idea, that all jobs matter, has depth to it. Some people look at developing countries and thing that they need technology. They don’t. What they need are jobs, they need work that pays enough to live and school their children and change their fortunes over generations. Few people become rich in one lifetime. If they work at it, however, their grandchildren may have a very different life to the one they started off with.

Take the problem of dealing with insurgencies. We often think that the answer is to send in troops, to win a battle. You rarely hear about other approaches. I came across a story that described how troops in a region of India operated a program where people who surrendered their weapons were helped to set up businesses. They exchanged their guns and became business owners instead, starting things like small manufacturing firms. I don’t know if the story is true without spending some time verifying it – it’s social media after all – but the general principle is interesting. And one assumes it’s been tried in other places but perhaps successfully integrating rebels into an economy is not really news and so we don’t hear about it.

The idea that jobs matter is well understood in government. So you get targets to create more jobs – but what is the right kind of job? What is the right sort of work to do?

This is a hard question to answer because at one extreme any work is good when someone has little to offer other than labour. People around the world struggle to get an education for one reason or another, and that shouldn’t exclude them from being able to do meaningful work – or at least to get meaning out of work. Sometimes it’s may be wiser to forego a return to give people a chance.

Once you get beyond the struggle to survive, however, things don’t get much better. There appears to be a widening gap between the capability of the systems we have and the ability of people to produce using those systems. Cal Newport’s book A world without email suggests that we increasingly spend our time in a hyperactive hive mind allocating so much of our time to communicating that there is none left to do deep work. Doing work takes time – time when you need to get to your workspace and spend uninterrupted time on a project.

Another issue some face is that as they rise in their organisations they start doing less and managing more. A friend of mine who always has the perfect phrase to hand says, “first you’re paid for being the resource. Then at some point you start getting paid for allocating resource.” That second point, when you point to the work and get others to do it, is a disquieting time. There are people who are now better than you at doing things that you once did. I cope with it by having projects that still engage the technical and creative sides of me – this weekend was spent trying to program arduinos and figure out if the principles of junkbot robots can be used to design data collection devices.

One of the things I like about Action Research is this recognition of the interplay between theory and practice – between thinking and doing. Thinking deeply helps improve your practice and reflecting and learning from practice helps develop better theories.

Good work is the kind of work that helps you do both.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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