Today, one of the most powerfully appealing cultural narratives is the one about the worker who loves what she does. However talented this worker may be, her success and wealth are directly attributable to the passion she brings to her work. In this story, the accumulation of wealth, experience of fulfillment, and expression of personal gifts and style are harmoniously entwined. It’s a seductive trinity, and one that exerts an especially powerful pull on a generation captivated by the allure of the fabulously wealthy, heroic celebrity tech executive (think Jobs, Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg; Silicon Valley’s “cool happy genius heroes”).
Insight into the changing nature of work is found not only in unemployment trends, but also in the rhythms of everyday working life. As longtime readers know, we have a standing interest these rhythms—including the particular challenges of over-working, work and growing old, or making it in the gig economy (on the latter, we enjoyed this recent piece from the New Yorker).
With this in mind, we bring you three pieces on work and boredom in the knowledge economy. The first is a brief interview with Miya Tokumitsu, whose 2014 piece for Jacobin on the myth of “Do What You Love” was recently expanded and published as Do What You Love: and Other Lies About Success and Happiness. Her basic claim is as straightforward as it is controversial: for all its cultural power, the imperative to “do what you love” has left American workers in the unenviable position of “doing more for less.” In addition to the willingness to endure the tedium, stress, and toil of everyday labor, workers are now expected to exude a whole host of positive emotions: passion, commitment, love, and the like. And, as Tokumitsu puts it, “If you make passion a job requirement, you can’t complain about your workload.”
This combination is embodied in figures like Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey, who are so directly identified with their work that there is no meaningful distinction between the moral values they hold and the incredibly lucrative products they create. As Tokumitsu puts it in the introduction to her book, “central to the myth of work-as-love is the notion that virtue (moral righteousness of character) and capital (money) are two sides of the same coin.”
The myth of “Do What You Love” extends far beyond the worlds of innovation and lifestyle branding. Tokumitsu, an art historian by training, makes this point by paying attention to subtle shifts in the way employers advertise available positions. In response to a question about the depth and breadth of the Do What You Love myth, she points to a Craigslist posting for cleaners.
When I found that Craigslist posting [for cleaners who were “passionate”], I was super depressed. You’re demanding that this person—who is going to do really hard physical work for not a lot of money—do extra work. On top of having to scrub the floors and wash windows, they have to show that they’re passionate too? It’s absurd, and it’s become so internalized that people don’t even think about it. People write these job ads, and of course they’re going to say they want a passionate worker. But they don’t even think about what that means and that maybe not everyone is passionate.
In fact, according to Mary Mann, the experience most people have at work is not passion but boredom. As she reports in this an excerpt from a forthcoming book on boredom, “over 70 percent of Americans, and 80 percent of people worldwide, are bored with or actively dislike their jobs.” This fact being established, the question Mann takes up is, essentially: What’s so wrong with being bored at work? Why, in other words, does a lack of passion in or excitement for one’s daily labor elicit so much angst, especially when it is so widespread?
Oddly enough, Mann turns to the church’s Desert Fathers for guidance. As she puts it:
Long before there was an English word for boredom, a group of men began their workday in silence, a complete and all-encompassing silence, unbroken by traffic or bird-song. Their offices were insulated by miles and miles of sand, valleys and hills and rivers of sand, the uniformity broken here and there by a pile of sand-colored rocks. Singing birds and lowing cattle and barking dogs couldn’t live there. Most humans wouldn’t attempt it either, which was exactly why these men had set up shop in Egypt’s Nitrian Desert. They were the Desert Fathers, and their job was communing with God.
In some ways their surroundings weren’t so different from those of a modern corporation. Free from nature noises, the Desert Fathers still had one another’s sounds to contend with, pacing and sniffling, throat-clearing and muttering, turning pages, gulping water—repetitive human sounds like those you might obsess over in an equally subdued office, the tick-tick-tick of typing or a coworker’s habitual phone-answering cadence. Many of the Desert Fathers also worked in cubicles, more or less, living and praying in tiny side-by-side cells. Other times they shared cells, kneeling in the sand in a dystopian version of the open-plan office.
What Mann finds in the desert fathers (Cassian, in particular) is a way of managing restlessness that is simultaneously spiritual in nature and practical in application. These skills are not, in fact, a way of infusing passion into the tedium of daily labor; they are, rather, a way of naming that tedium so as to neutralize its negative effects on the soul. The rhythms of prayer and communal life can offer, in this way, a model for how to both stave off boredom and work through it when it inevitably sets in.
But what if our boredom at work is not due to a lack of activity but, in fact, its opposite? This is Molly Fischer’s question in an intriguing piece for New York Magazine, “What Happens When Work Becomes a Non-Stop Chatroom?” Her interest is in the way the popular messaging app Slack has amplified and altered forms of acceptable communication “in the workplace.” As she frames it:
At some point over the last year, [Slack] started to feel, at least in a certain kind of office, as ubiquitous as those other social-media giants. Like Facebook or Twitter, Slack induces the same anxious, attention-hungry rhythm in its users, the same need to endlessly refresh, and gives off the same illusion of intimacy in an ultimately public space. It also makes the line between work and not-work blurrier than ever — the constant scroll of maybe-relevant chatter in your chosen Slack channels registers at times like the background noise of any other newsfeed. For better or worse, it makes work life more like digital life, albeit a digital life where you can also smell what everyone else is eating for lunch. The question is, what does this intrusion do to the delicate diplomacy of office life? What happens when we bring our digital selves to work?
The ubiquity and widespread adoption of workplace tools like Slack changes what it means to be “at work” in our contemporary knowledge economy, one in which physical presence is augmented—or even replaced—by an abstracted and technologically represented sense of presence. The a Slack-ified workplace, in other words, trades hugs for emojis, water coolers for chat rooms, and the occasional off-color joke over lunch into a regular stream of semi-private (but actually scrupulously recorded) gossip. Here, as in other arenas of rapid cultural change, our ethics lags behind our gadgets, leaving us with the overwhelming impression that something must be done and little more than platitudes like “do what you love” to grasp onto.