What is 'Work'? And What is 'Good Work'?

a gloomy oil painting of a farmer tending to a field with a horse-drawn ploughshare, made with DALL-E

I've long held the believe that it's impossible for knowledge workers to just have "a job". While the factory floor of Taylorism pretty much demanded workers to leave themselves at the door and hang their personality right next to their coat, most modern working environments demand us to show up as complete persons, with everything that makes us us. Hannah Arendt's Vita Activa (The Human Condition in english) has been a tremendous help to me in navigating the mess that results from deliberately dissolving any separation between me and my work while avoiding a second burnout.

Arendt defines Labour, Work and Action as distinct activities.

While labour and work deal with either satisfying basic human needs for self-preservation or creating things, Action ("Handeln" in german) takes place exclusively amongst and between humans and includes both actions and speech. It is this action that allows us to distinguish ourselves as different and unique from everyone else.

In this sense, my job is Action, and performing it means disclosing myself to others, in an act of self-actualisation. As a result, most ideas of what work is and how it works don't really work for me. (Thank god I don't have an editor so I can work sentences like this one in and keep them)

So, in the context of Action, how can we look at work, and specifically work that is worth doing? In a short essay about Immanuel Kant's ideas about labour, Tyler Re describes how Kant would see 'good work': It differs from the labour animals perform by the deliberate nature of human work. Animals are programmed to just do what they do, but humans perform good work when they decide to do it, and to which standards they want to do it.

Good work is inherently purposeful, it requires judgment and creativity. If these elements of purpose are limited to "management", with execution left to "labour", work stops being good and starts to resemble the toil of animals.

Taylorism, or its younger incarnation "Scientific Management", want to put the creativity behind the work in the hands of a select few, leaving everyone else to "do what they're told".

But if we are robbed by our ability to take Action, then what are we? I think we have no choice but to reject the notion of division of labour based on class and rank and instead demand "good work" for everyone.

Good work gives you the autonomy to decide. Good work lets you grow as a human being.

Published 2023~09~29