Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Work, part 1: What is it?

What is work?

It seemed so easy in physics class. Maybe that's one reason that I majored in physics, after assuming that my first, English degree was not quite the right thing.

"Work: a transfer of energy from one object to another by applying a force over a distance."

Oh, so sweet and simple. And understandable. And quantifiable. Even amenable to use on multiple-choice tests, or to probing by means of electronic calculator. Define the problem using a couple of variables, enter the numbers and get a result. Check your work, and then write down the answer. Problem solved.

There is a lot of discussion every day about what work actually is, for the rest of us, we who have moved outside the classroom and have had it hit us in the face. Some say things like "All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind." (Aristotle)

That's one point of view, perennially espoused, sagely followed up by another thought: "When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: 'Whose?'". (Don Marquis) We've barely gotten started here and we can already cut the cynicism with a knife. Even worse, we have to carry that knife in self-defense.

But soon we begin to drift, if we keep listening, keep thinking, toward sentiments like "Getting fired is nature's way to telling you that you had the wrong job in the first place". (Hal Lancaster, in The Wall Street Journal) Then this: "Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else". (James M. Barrie) Both of these sentiments are also familiar to everyone.

But it goes beyond that.

"Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it". (Henry David Thoreau)

"The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work". (Richard Bach)

And one more, out of another famous life: "Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing". (Theodore Roosevelt)

And summed up by "Whenever it is in any way possible, every boy and girl should choose as his life work some occupation which he should like to do anyhow, even if he did not need the money". (William Lyon Phelps)

So what is work? We still don't agree. It can be agreeable or not, for pay or not, long, short or in between. It's something or other, but seems to divisible into two entities, sort of related, like second cousins who barely know each other.

One kind of work is forced onto a person's life and the other kind grows out of it. Let's assume that both types are compensated in some way. We can assume that all work is compensated in some way, even if it's only a payment in food and shelter and a cessation of the beatings.

Let's also assume that work is a more or less directed activity that has a tangible result.

Hammer a horseshoe out of a lump of red hot iron and you have a horseshoe. No disagreement there, it's tangible.

But so is a poem, even if unwritten. You know it's been produced because you can encounter it: it's either written or recited.

So work is more than just thought, more than daydreaming, more than idle planning. Albert Einstein produced magnificent thought experiments but they weren't done until he had shared them, and at that point they joined the body of his life's work.

So work has a result, and it generates some kind of compensation.

(Quotations found at http://www.quotationspage.com/subjects/work/)