The Opposite of Work

I saw a good talk by Jane McGonigal at PAX East. She spoke based on her book Reality is Broken, which is about how many of the traits developed in playing games (particularly video games) are terrifically useful to succeeding at life.

One of her slides was (and I’m paraphrasing here): “The opposite of play isn’t work. The opposite of play is depression.”

I spend an increasing amount of time thinking about what it means to have a “job.” About what it means to work – especially about what it means to work “for” someone. I think a lot about the difference between doing what you’re told, adding value to an organization no matter what you’re told, and putting your own ass on the line by owning what you do. I’ve thought a lot about “compensation,” and whether time, product as requested, or results are the best metric on which to be rewarded. I also think a lot about the power dynamics of witholding money until someone does what you want them to do.

These feel like very grown-up thoughts.

It’s pretty horrifying to me that work falls so squarely on depression for most Americans. Play and work are perceived as opposites, which isn’t fair to either. Broadly, we seem to see “play” as the useless crap that you would rather be doing, and “work” and the useful crap that you don’t want to be doing. Sure, yes, I get it. The rent must be paid – but it seems like a damn shame of a way to spend a human life.

Of course, I’m insanely lucky. I work with a team that has somehow managed to stay out of that world, for the most part. Sure, we have to pay our dues – pick lucrative gigs and so on. However, I’ve seen us turn down genuinely profitable opportunities for reasons that range from ethics all the way down to “that sounds like a crappy way to spend 3 months.” It’s odd to me that the latter reason looks weird to me on the page. What sensible business would turn down a profitable gig because it wasn’t fun? I’ll tell you: It’s a business run for the benefit of the people who make up the team – not for the benefit of some imaginary “corporate good.” Still less are we run for the benefit of investors.

That’s the core of my recent thinking: Businesses should run for the benefit of the team doing the work. Sure, it’s still competitive. No namby-pamby un-american socialism here. Just – when we compete – let’s be sure that the people getting their hands dirty have some skin in the game. I’m not opposed to anything as big and vague as “capitalism.” Being opposed to “capitalism” is like being opposed to “rain.” You have to get a hell of a lot more specific before it’s a useful statement.

Actually, you don’t have to get more specific – but it helps. Otherwise you’re just whining.

What I am opposed to is what we’re doing now: Millions of people spending the majority of their lives unhappy. Longing for the chance to do some useless crap that – they think – will be better than the useful but hateful crap where they spend their days.

I think we can do better.

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