December 5, 2023

Spending a large part, if not most, of our lives working isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – as long as it means we don’t enjoy it. In the Big Think video above, London Business School Professor of Organizational Behavior Dan Cable cites Gallup polls showing that “about 70 percent of people don’t engage in what they’re doing all day, and about eighteen percent find it repulsive.” It may sound normal, but Cable calls this perception of work as “something we have to get through on the way to the weekend” a “humanistic disease”: a bad state for people, of course, but also for “…organizations that are underperforming.”

Cable traces the civilizational roots of this workaholism to the decades after the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-nineteenth century, a shoe merchant used to go to a local cobbler. “Each of the people in the shop would watch the customer walk in and then they would make a shoe for him. But by the end of the century, “we got this different idea, as a species, where we shouldn’t sell two pairs of shoes every day, but two million.”

This huge increase in productivity meant “breaking down work into extremely small tasks where most people don’t meet the customer. Most people can’t make this shoe up. Most people don’t actually see a shoe made from start to finish.”

In other words, it meant “removing meaning from work” in the name of ever-increasing scale and efficiency. The nature of the tasks that result from this do not sit well with a part of our brain called the ventral striatum. It always “prompts us to explore the limits of what we know, to be curious,” it drives our minds away from work that no longer offers us the chance to learn something new. One solution is to work for smaller organizations whose members tend to play multiple roles closer to the customer; another is to engage in big-picture thinking by being aware of what Cable calls the “why of the work,” its larger impact on the world, as well as how it fits with your own purpose. But then, boredom at work isn’t such a bad thing: after all, her bout is what drove you to read this post.

Related Content:

The benefits of boredom: How to stop being distracted and regain creative ideas

The philosophy of “optimistic nihilism” or how to find purpose in a meaningless universe

How to use boredom, the secret ingredient of creativity

Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life: Living for What Matters Most – Free online course from the University of Michigan

Lynda Barry on how the smartphone threatens three components of creativity: solitude, uncertainty and boredom

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopian Office Movies: What Matrix, Fight Club, american beauty, Office space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Common

based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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