What is Work?

“Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.” —Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

I was reminded of this quote recently, from Russell’s 1932 essay. While it was likely spot-on at the time, referring as it did to manual labourers, office clerks, and factory workers, I’m wondering how it holds up in the knowledge era. I can think of many who move (virtual) matter and greatly enjoy it—and are well paid!. Likewise, I can think of many managers, still perhaps better-paid than their “first kind” counterparts, but not necessarily finding their work pleasant. Indeed, as the agile mindset penetrates our organizations this role can be a very baffling one, and often fraught with fear.

Does this shift indicate a business-cultural revolution? Is this the start, or are we deeply within it? And what is good and bad about what we see today, and what Russell saw 80 years ago? Just some food for thought—okay, snacks 🙂

The whole essay is well worth reading too. It’s a classic of its kind, and I was happy to discover it online. I can imagine it influenced the work of Tom deMarco, and even more likely that of Ricardo Semler.

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