zondag 20 maart 2011

Must work be fun

Should work really be fun? Wouldn’t it be enough for work not to be maddening, humiliating, mind-numbing, infantile, or enslaving any longer?

At times the gap may be very large, between the fancy rhetoric about work as selfrealization and the reality that we offer each other in organizations on a daily basis. Probably a more than two and a half thousand years old, classical dichotomy plays us tricks here. Namely the dichotomy between things that are respectable to do and things that are not respectable.

Actually, rather than a dichotomy this is a tripartition, as Hannah Arendt makes clear in her book The Human Condition. It lists 'labor', 'work' and 'action', in which sequence labor stands for activities that always comes back and are never finished, such as cleaning, caring, feeding. Work is the activity of making something, always new: writing a book, building a house, making a deal. Action is done in decision-making and politics.

I take this tripartition as a bipartition because, according to that venerable but overrated classical tradition, two of these activities are more or less respectable, and the third - labor - definitely not. Hence, in our Western culture since antiquity, we do our best to keep the right side of the division line. The white collar is held in higher esteem than the blue collar.

The echo of that hierarchy of values I come across in my own organization, the Amsterdam Municipality. A foremost, widely disseminated striving with us is that people practice their daily work with passion, joy and in full self-realization. Perhaps that striving is precisely the reason why in daily practice the atmosphere within the organization can get so sour. Because by focusing on ‘passion’ we feel justified to ignore labor. Indeed, labor offers little chance for self-realization.

But, of course, such a labor-less situation cannot exist. In Amsterdam streets should be cobbled, bins placed, digital address books cleaned up and invoices sent. Not the right things ‘to make flourish your personality’. But certainly things you really suffer from when they are disregarded.

Actually, in Amsterdam we are hampered a lot by, for instance, messed up digital address books. I am convinced that this situation is rooted in the hierarchy of action-work-labor that Arendt describes. By the way, Arendt in her descriptions can hardly disguise her own aversion to labor. So it is not surprising that people in organizations are trying to escape it. But the impact of that escape remains devastating, because this predilection for fun and self-realization bites in its own tail. If we all just want to have fun the adressbooks get messed up, and the working atmosphere as well.

Also see Nice Work