A Job Well Done

Today I will write about a topic I consider to be very important but is often neglected. First I will define some terms I will use:

  • Work: the process one undertakes in order to accomplish a goal
  • Work Feeling: the emotion, akin to “A Job Well Done”, that one experiences upon accomplishing a goal

From these definitions it is clear that one will often experience Work Feeling after completing Work.  In fact, that is often the motivating force for doing Work.  I can’t help but remember a great Calvin & Hobbes comic:

But is also clear that Work and Work Feeling can be dissociated.  Imagine you are leaving to pick up your sister from the airport.  Right as you drive away from your house, she calls you and tells you that her friend picked her up instead.  I think many of us would feel some amount of Work Feeling (“Good for me, I did what I needed to do.”), even though we did no Work.

Or imagine the case where you are selling a massage chair in a furniture store.  You identify the potential customer as somewhat hesitant to purchase it, so you persuade this client from all angles, using your full salesperson expertise for twenty or thirty minutes. The customer ends up buying the chair.  But what you didn’t know was that the customer loved the chair, and would have bought it without any salesmanship whatsoever.  In this case you think you did Work, and hence you get the Work Feeling.  However, since you were not actually involved in the process that led towards the goal (the sale), you didn’t actually do Work by my definition.  You have Work Feeling but did no Work.

As a third example, consider the gambler who makes $200 in an hour of playing online poker.  From experience, the gambler will almost always have Work Feeling, and will brag to his friends how good he is at doing Work.  However, in that same session, had the coin flips fallen differently, the gambler would have lost $200.  In that case the gambler would not have Work Feeling, even though he did the exact same Work as in case where she wins the $200.

Upon reflection, it seems intuitive that Work and Work Feeling are dissociated.  Why would the emotional component of a task necessarily line up with the calculated process towards the goal?  Since these two systems involve separate neural circuits, we could even imagine a drug or implant that would trigger the work feeling circuit without involving a work circuit.  Someone well versed in evolutionary psychology could probably explain how the link between Work and Work Feeling evolved, and how that relation functions differently now than it did in the ancestral environment.

From this I conclude that getting the Work Feeling is not sufficient justification for doing Work.  There are too many ways to experience Work Feeling without having done any real Work.  One cannot infer with much confidence that experiencing Work Feeling implies that they did Work.  So we must look for other ways to verify that we did Work.

This, as it turns out, is not a terribly difficult problem in most cases.  After completing a cool-headed analysis of what one did, I believe most of us can calculate both the degree to which we accomplished our goal, and the degree to which our process was the goal’s causal antecedent.  Of course the difficulty of this analysis will depend on the type of Work we imagine that we did.  If I write a computer program to calculate a value that I need, it should be relatively straightforward to verify that accuracy of the value, and for me to conclude that I needed to write the program to find the value.  If I sell a massage chair to a client, however, it will be more difficult for me to verify that I did Work.  I might infer based on the number of sales I complete compared to the company average, or perhaps based on the emotional priors of my customers, whether my salesmanship was effective. This process is error-prone, but significantly less error-prone than going by Work Feeling.

Note that I am not arguing that Work Feeling is bad or that we should ignore it.  Like most emotions, Work Feeling provides useful information.  My point is simply that we should not rely on Work Feeling to determine if we are doing useful work, in the same way that we should not rely on anger to motivate our action.

This discussion has particular relevance for those of us trying to decide what Work we should do in the immediate future.  If we pick occupations by optimizing for Work Feeling, we may deceive ourselves into doing less Work than we would optimally do.  And, at least for people who are interested in improving the world, our goal is Work, not Work Feeling. Work Feeling is just a convenient reward to keep us motivated, and an indicator that we’re on the right track.

To close I will mention a thought experiment by eminent philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  Imagine that a neuroscientist offers you the ability to hook up to his experience machine.  You can have any experience you’d like, such as writing a great novel, making a new friend, or eating chocolate cake.  But you wouldn’t actually do these things – you’d be in a vat with electrodes attached to your brain.  The question is: what would you do with this opportunity?  Would it be sufficient for you to experience accomplishing all of the things you want to accomplish, or do you want to actually accomplish them?

I will address this question, and the role of this thinking in long-term life goals and meaning, in my next post.

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