Work

Someone clever once said, “Work is what you do against your will, and demand payment for it” (if you know the quote, please let me know who the author was, because they certainly deserve credit for it!). This is not exactly how I see things. Due to several fortunate circumstances, most of my professional life was spent doing things that I not only actively enjoy, but that I wouldn’t dream to get paid for it, since they were so fun to do, that I always felt I was cheating my employers or partners (or clients!) when they insisted to pay me!

This was also something that I learned in my past. At some point, I looked at what I was doing, and, thanks to a very close friend who sort of “woke me up” to the reality I was living in, telling me that I was weak and not really doing any risks. She claimed that life was only worth living by accepting challenges and overcoming them. I have to say that I truly had to reflect a lot on her words, but, ultimately, I think she was right, so I threw away my comfortable job as junior researcher and risked everything on a completely radical new way of life, where I would be my own boss (well, with a group of partners…) and forfeit job security in exchange of doing fun things for a living. Well, fun for me, of course; most people would get shocked at what passes for “fun” in my line of work.

I might have some trouble explaining things, but at least I guess that you will be able to relate to some aspects. On my early job experience, I had the kind of job that probably most of humankind has: a boss gives you orders, sets your limits and deadlines, and expects you to fulfil them, no matter what happens. If you fail to comply, at best, you get yelled at; at worst, you get kicked out (or not paid). Motivation is hard in that scenario, because rarely you feel a sense of accomplishment. “It’s just work”, one could say. “It pays the bills”, a pragmatist would add. So there is this idea that, in order to survive, you’ll basically do pretty much anything to get money — even if you’re tremendously unhappy during most of the day, doing things you hate. But so long as the end-of-month check comes in, you’re fine, and your family will thank you.

This split between work — doing things one hates, but in return for having enough money to survive — and leisure — doing things that you like, but that nobody will pay you to do them (like, say, watching TV or going out to parties with friends) — is a predominant model on most societies, for most people. There are obviously exceptions, but we tend to look at them as being very rare. When people say, “I love my work!” what they generally mean is just “At my workplace, nobody bothers me a lot, my boss is nice, the clients are understanding, and the daily routine is not much demanding”. The “ideal workplace” is where everybody likes everybody else, all work is respected, all bosses are nice and encouraging and motivating, all clients thank you for your extraordinary skills in dealing with their needs, and the work is not stressy. In this category we can actually find quite a lot of people! For example, most university professors I know tend to fall somewhere in this category; many professional writers (and possibly other types of artists); and several yoga coaches :)

For me, that’s not enough to motivate me; I’m far more demanding! The work in itself has to be, well, fun to do. And by “fun” I actually mean that it has to give me enjoyment. I can certainly believe that accountants can have “fun” doing spreadsheets, and some might find it so pleasing that when they return home they do spreadsheets for imaginary companies, just for fun. That’s pretty much what I mean with having fun at work: it’s when you suddenly realise that no matter where you are — at the office, at home, during vacations — all you can ever think of doing is your work. Now there is a word for these kind of people — workoholics. But the word is misleading in the dictionary definition, since it sort of implies either a disorder of some sort, or, at least, a very edge case of someone who is passionate about their job to an extent that they don’t have a “personal life” of their own.

I’m not going into the “psychology of workoholism”, since that’s totally outside my field of experience. I prefer instead to quote something written in the 1980s by Alvin Toffler and much repeated by others: he foresaw that the 21st century would finally break the barrier between “work” and “leisure”, and that they would not be separate. In the 1990s, with the huge pre-dot-com-bubble economic growth world-wide, this seemed to be the case: suddenly, pretty much anyone with a crazy idea could start a new company and become immediately famous and successful — and rich. Not only in the Internet industry, not even only in the software industry, but pretty much on all areas. While I’m sure that a lot of examples existed before the 1990s, this was clearly an epoch where Toffler’s visionary prediction came to bear fruit, as more and more people started to work on things that they had fun with, and these people, even if they never considered themselves “workoholics”, would enjoy working so much that they pretty much did it all the time.

Google’s approach to their corporate culture embodies that spirit. All developers are supposed to work four days per week “for the company” and one day “on personal projects”. They can either start a new one, or join existing projects as “paid volunteers”. This mostly means that 20% of Google’s budget is allocated to research — which is another way to describe the process of letting people do whatever they please and pay them for that, in the hope that the result is a sellable product. Well, at least in some cases. The idea is that if you have a critical mass of creative people doing whatever they please, some good ideas might come out of it and become products. It’s the reverse approach of a traditional company, where analysts, marketeers, and consultants try to figure out what the market wants and tell the employees to produce that (on small companies, of course, the boss will have “intuition” to figure out what is supposed to be best and tell the employees to work on it; good entrepreneurs just happen to have a good intuition and be “right” — aligned with market demands — most of the time).

Now of course Google’s model is pretty much the rule in crazy California, and is the hallmark of Silicon Valley. Even if we take into account that most of the products coming out of that creative pool are rarely good enough to survive in the long run as having a solid business model — most are just good enough to attract venture capital, get an IPO, make everybody rich, and get sold quickly before the press notices that nobody really wants that kind of product — a few obviously succeeded. Second Life® is a typical example — after 12 years, Linden Lab doesn’t “feel” the need of an IPO or of additional funding: they run a solid business model, and it all started with some crazy ideas thrown together by a few people that “confused” work and pleasure and created a company around that model. Obviously this doesn’t mean that everybody at Linden Lab feels that way, but it was clear that this was what kick-started LL.

They’re definitely not the only example, and these examples also not  exclusively found in Silicon Valley. I have been lucky so far to be able to jump from one start-up to another and apply precisely the same principle: doing just what is fun for me, and making a living out of it. Sometimes it works very well; more often it’s an utter failure (but I still learn from the experience!); and sometimes it’s just enough to survive. This means not making big plans and have little expectations to the future. On the other hand, the way the economy is these days, having expectations of getting “job for life” is simply naïve…