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Reflections On Work And Play

August 18, 2012

In this culture of ours, I often find my frame of mind toward work and progress to be in sharp contrast to those around me.  I’m far more in agreement with the philosopher and entertainer Alan Watts, and I’d like to share a short excerpt from one of his lectures.

…the riches that we produce are ephemeral.  As a result of that we’re terribly frustrated.  We feel that the only thing is to go on getting more and more.  And as a result of that, the whole landscape begins to look like the nursery of a spoiled child who’s got too many toys and is bored with them and throws with them as quickly as he gets them.

Also, we’re dedicated to a tremendous war on the material dimensions of time and space.  We want to obliterate their limitations.  We want to get everything done as fast as possible.  We want to convert the rhythms and skills of work into cash, which indeed you can buy something with but you can’t eat it.  Then we rush home to get away from work and begin the real business of life, to enjoy ourselves.

And, you know, for the vast majority of American families, what seems to be the real point of life, what your rush home to get to, is to watch an electronic reproduction of life.  You can’t touch it and it doesn’t smell and it has no taste.  You might think that people getting home to the real point of life in a robust material culture would go home to a collasal banquet or an orgy of lovemaking or a riot of music and dancing, but nothing of the kind. It turns out to be this purely passive, contemplation of a twittering screen.

As you walk through suburban areas at night, it doesn’t matter in what part of the community it is, you see mile after mile of darkened houses with that little electronic screen flickering in the room, everybody isolated, watching this thing, and thus in no real communion with each other at all.  And this isolation of people into a private world of their own is really the creation of a mindless crowd.

Some time ago it occured to me that a crowd could be defined as a group of people not in mutual communication.  A crowd is a group of people, that is say, in communication with one person alone.  I regret to say that you listening to me at this moment would constitute a crowd.  We’re not really in full communication with each other, though naturally it’s terribly difficult to bring about mutual communication between a large number of people, but that does seem to me to be the essence of a crowd, and thus of a community that is not a community, not a real society but a juxtaposition of persons.

No, one other thing that one notices about this anti-materialism is its lack of joy, or I prefer to call it its lack of gaeity. A little while ago I was reading a book called Motivation and Personality by A. H. Maslow, who is professor of psychology at Brandeis and he had amassed together a very amusing set of quotations from about thirteen representative and authoritative American psychologists, and they were all saying words to the effect that the main drive behind all forms of animate activity was the survival of the species.  In other words, all the manifestations of life are regarded by these men as intensitvely purposive and the purpose and value for which they strive is survival.

And Maslow commented on this, that American psychology, as a result of its contact with the culture, is over pragmatic, over Puritan, and over purposeful.  That no textbooks on psychology have chapters on fun and gaeity or on aimless activity, or on purposeless meandering and puttering and so on.  And he said they are neglecting what may be one whole or even the most important half of life.  In other words, it is a basic premise of the culture that life is work and it’s serious.  And herein lies its lack of joy.

Life is real, life is earnest.  What do we mean that life is serious?  What do mean when we differentiate work from play?  Well work, it seems to me, is what we must do in order to go on living, in order to survive.  Play is pretty much everything else.  But now you’ll notice that in this culture play is justified and tolerated in so far as it tends to make our work more effecient.  We have the saying all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but that really means dull at work.  Play is recreation, it’s something you do to get refreshed and face the great problems of life.  Now this is all very well, but that saying, even to play, that play is necessary, you must play, I remember in England we used to have the institution of compulsory games in school, as a result of which I developed an intense loathing for most of the games that we played, like cricket and football, and so on.  They were forcing you to play.

And so in the same way, the supreme value is survival value.  It’s the thought that it is absolutely necessary to go on living, and it’s a basis for life which takes the joy out of life, it is really contrary to life.  I feel that the biological process that we call life, with its marvelous proliferation of innumerable patterns and forms, is essentially playful.  By that I mean that it doesn’t have a serious purpose beyond itself.  It’s an artform like music and dancing and the point of these artforms is their present unfolding.  The elaboration of an intelligible design of steps and movements through time.

That is not to say their goal is the present, when you think of the present as the hairline of a watch, the immediate instant.  That’s only an abstract present.  As for an example,  in listening to music, a person who hears a melody, he doesn’t just hear a sequence of notes, he hears the steps between the notes.  A tone deaf person hears only the notes.  What a person able to hear music hears is therefore steps in a certain order, and this is what this diffused present, what I would call the real or physical present.  I feel life is something of this nature.  It is a play.  It is its own end.  But now if you say to a form of play, you must happen, you must go on, you turn it into work.  You immediately turn it also into what we colloquially call a drag.

Are we surviving, is it our duty to survive, in order that our children may go on living?  Well if we think that our children catch the same point of view from us and they go struggling along for their children and the whole thing becomes fatuous progress to an ever eluding future.  And it is because fundamentally that we have this compulsive view of the necessity of existence that our culture is distinctly lacking in gaeity.  Now it seems to me that this attitude rests on two further premises.  The first is the idea of God that we inherit from the European, Protestant, and to some extent Catholic and Judaic background.  This conception of God as creating the universe for the fulfillment of His purpose is a conception of God quite strangely lacking in either humor or joy.

– Alan Watts – The Unpreachable Religion

Watts’ insight into crowds was really profound.   If you recall, he defined a crowd as a group of people who are not in mutual communication.  After hearing this, I immediately began reflecting on my own life and realized that throughout most of our entire lives we live within a crowd, not a community.  We’re rarely asked to contribute to life’s conversation.   Well up into my late teens, my entire life consisted of forced passive consumption.  I sat in school and consumed lectures from my teachers.  I sat in church and consumed sermons.  Even at sporting events, I was largely controlled by my coaches and they never asked for my input.  Nobody asked for my input.  If they did, it wasn’t substantial.  There wasn’t any real mutual communication or involvement.  I was always busy doing things, but they were always things someone else told me to do.

My grandpa often visits on Sundays and has dinner with the family.  He’s particularly fond of a childhood memory from years ago when he visited our home and asked me, “Jason, what do you do at church?” to which I replied, “I sit still while Daddy preaches.”  This throws him into a fit of laughter.  Sadly, this tale sums up most of my life up to age twenty.

Maybe to some extent this is inevitable.  Children need to be guided if they’re to survive in the world.  Even still, “I sit still while teacher teaches”,  “I sit still while Daddy preaches”,  “I sit still while boss lays out corporate agenda”, Watts pointed out that this represents a lopsided and imbalanced community.  There’s only a few people who have anything worth saying while the rest of us passively consume and obey.  And strangely, even when we’re finally free from this compulsory system, we just sit at home and immerse ourselves in a fictitious reproduction of life on the television.

I feel we need a more balanced community where everyone is interacting in a meaningful way.  Take school for instance. We need less passive lectures.  Leave that to a pre-recording from Youtube.  When you come to class, it needs to be some sort of interactive thing where you get to know your fellow students, work with them, and practice team building and social skills.  Interact with your professor, asking questions, and having informal discussions.  I also think there should be less stressing of mechanical procedures, less standardized testing, and more hands-on projects.  “Work on a team and build this.”  I like those sorts of environments the best.   I’m no expert in education though. I’m not going to pretend to understand these things.  I often ponder it all and can’t seem to justify why it is the way it is.

In the business world I’d like to see more companies run like Valve software.  I think it’s Valve.  They are completely democratic.  The company is completely owned by the people who work there and they vote on everything.  Everyone has a significant say in what games they make, how their resources are allocated, and how much everyone should be paid.  It’s very open and they’re one of the top game companies out there, so it’s obviously a model that works.  That’s a community.

If you get used to being within a community, I think you’ll have no problem developing yourself.  But if you haven’t had access to these sorts of environments, you’ll probably have no idea how to spend leisure time because for most of your life you’ll have been a passive consumer who has always had someone else telling you what to do.  In school and in college your teachers and professors laid out a curriculum for you to study.  You’ve never learned how to gather materials on your own and teach yourself.  Your bosses have always gave you an itinerary and list of objectives to work on.  You’ve never had an experience where you were in complete control of a project.  When you’re finally old and retire, free from a system of control which you’ve been in for so long, you’re not sure what to do with yourself.  You’re used to coming home tired from work and watching TV, and so you do that.  If you’ve worked on bettering yourself over your life, you may be able to handle the freedom, but many people struggle with it.

I ask you, the reader, have you ever had a project you’ve done completely on your own?  Nobody is forcing you to do it. A significant project.  Something that required you to deeply research things out, make some long term plans, and execute those plans, step by step.  Something that challenged you, leaving you with a feeling of fulfillment just by doing the work.  Something that required at least six months or more to accomplish, taking up many hours a day of your time.  Something that, if it failed, you’d be devastated?  Something truly meaningful to you?  Have you ever done such a thing?

I’d like to share a little bit of my own journey.  I didn’t attend college right out of high school.  I instead earned money writing software and running my own business.  Originally I learned my own study habits from teaching myself computer programming and business.  I developed my own technique which I still use to this day — if I want to learn something, I go to various websites like Amazon.com, abebooks.com, and other sites, and order a bunch of books on the exact same topic.  I then try reading one of them, see if I understand it, if not, read another book, and continue on.  If I don’t understand it on the first go, I read it several times, but if I still don’t get it, I just put the book back on the shelf and grab another book on the same topic and read it instead.  Most of the time, after a handful of books, I find an author who explains it in a way I understand.  I don’t just assume I’m stupid, I assume the book isn’t written in a way which relates to experiences I’ve had, or how my mind works.

At first I had two primary interests, totally different than what I’m interested in today.  I wanted to learn how to be successful in business and I was interested in religion as I had grown up in a very religious household.  In the beginning, I primarily read books written by entrepreneurs who wrote about the American Dream and how you can make it if you work hard, but you just can’t give up.  They talked about the importance of marketing, building up contacts, and doing whatever you do better than anyone else.  My religious interests lead me to philosophy and theology, primarily because I had heard that philosophers talk about God.

I wasn’t a model student of any sort.  I didn’t have any interests in science or the universe.  Those things didn’t even enter my mind.  I was interested in making money and having time to think about religious issues.  But all of this started branching off into new areas.  I heard businessmen talking about the importance of understanding the economy and how the business cycle works.  After you earned your profits, you had to invest them wisely or they’d be stolen by inflation.  Life was a rat race and the system was against you, but if you worked hard enough, you could get out of it.  I felt compelled to understand the entire process.

I became fascinated by money and the economy.  How did it work?  Why do we use money?  When did it start?  Have we always used money?  Have societies existed without money?  What function does it serve?  Why are some people poor and others rich?  Why do some nations on Earth have so little while others have so much?  I learned that economies are complex and have deep ties with their historical situations.  The natural progression was to move on to studying history and read through the entire story of mankind, from the earliest civilizations to today.  What were the causes of violence?  Of prosperity?  Of poverty?  What ideas moved humanity forward, and what set us back?

While all that was churning in my mind, I was also reading a lot of philosophy.  I started off with Plato and Aristotle as they’re probably the most famous philosophers.  The internet was also starting to take off at this time so I got a list of all the main philosophers and bought their books.  Though I was initially passionate about understanding God, eventually I came to feel that the very ideas of God taught by religious people were shallow and didn’t make much sense.  So much of it seemed to be people’s own minds playing tricks on them, a sort of complicated self-deceit.  I became quite passionate about understanding the mind.  I remember reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and wondered, “What sort of data structures does the mind use?  How does it store a representation of a chair?  Of a table?  Of a bed?”  I started reading lots of psychology, neuroscience, and books on the philosophy of mind, trying to understand what I was.  I’d stare in the mirror and I saw myself as this evolving process, but what was “I”?  What was I looking at?

Being interested in computers, I wondered if it was possible to build a computer which was conscious of its environment.  I dreamed of building a little machine which could drive around on the floor, capable of detecting what was in front of it, and pondered how much of the mind could be simulated within a machine.  Were we a type of complex computer?  What exactly was a computer?  Could we build different types of computers?

Eventually I lost most of my interest in business, finding most of it boring.  Understanding the universe was far more interesting.  People became something to study and understand, and as all of this developed, I became far more passionate about life.  I realized that I had been living in a sort of box, completely unaware of this vast cosmos all around me.

My interest in science was one of the last things to develop, but it became the thing I was most interested in.  I read through the entire history man and I thought to myself, “What has made the biggest impact on the human condition?”  The answer was obvious — science and technology.  Sure, there was democracy and other great ideas, but science seemed to me to be the biggest player.  Without it, we’d still be living in dirt huts, caves, and chasing animals around the plains.  Maybe that’s how I justify it to myself, telling myself my ponderings on space and time are actually quite useful to mankind, but I don’t know if they are or not.  Truth be told, I’m just interested in the questions and am not really out to get anything.  I just want to know more about the universe and what’s going on.  But I’m also a practical man, understanding human suffering and am not afraid to work and do what needs to be done.

You see, with me it was a gradual process which took many years, upwards of a decade.  I don’t know if most people have ever went through something like this, or have had the opportunity to spend so much time reading and studying all these different things.  I’m not married and I had a business which allowed me to work from wherever I wanted to.  I could set my own hours, and as long as I earned enough money to support myself, I could devote the rest of my time to other things, and I did.  I started to flourish, but I needed to be set free to think and develop along my own course.

I have confidence that people are capable of great things, and will thrive in the right environment.  Unfortunately, our society is structured in a way which produces a crowd, not a community.

Watts also mentioned how our religious heritage plays a large role in this mindset that work is holy.  I was speaking with my mother just the other day and she specifically told me that she felt life was a sort of test which God has us in.  God is watching our every moment and is critically watching and evaluating every little thing.  My father oftentimes likes to say, “People don’t want to work anymore.”  A claim that so many people are just lazy and not willing to contribute.  Life is serious.  Life isn’t a game.  You need to survive, you need to get to work!  What’s our goal?  Who knows, but you need to be working and not goofing around.  Life is important.  Life is solemn.  No fun and games for you.

Sadly, people spend their whole lives serving some fictional purpose.  They feel they’re serving the Lord, their creator, and they have to hold things together here on Earth until He returns.  They’ll spend years traveling around, delivering sermons, walking down the streets handing out pamphlets, and serving religious functions in their chapels, but will rarely if ever spend any time thinking if about whether or not there’s any truth to their religion.  They’re so busy wasting time, they have no time to realize they’re wasting their time.

There are many people who want you to stay in line, and the world seems very uncomfortable with true freedom.  Their fears show themselves in a sort of nasty pessimism.  We’re told that if people were free from the typical social responsibilities, such as say working twenty hours a week instead of forty, we’d all become misfits and the world would fall into depravity.  Judge Posner recently wrote for the New York Times, reviewing a book written by the historian Robert Skidelsky.  Basically the book is about how we work far too much and miss out on the good life.  Posner’s response?

“But with everyone working just 20 hours a week (on the way down to 15 in 2030), few of these opportunities would materialize, because people who worked so little would be unable to afford them. Nor could leisure-activity services be staffed adequately. The implications would be social as well as individual. Productivity would fall because workers would acquire skills at a slower rate. Nations would be defenseless, with soldiers who were on duty only 20 hours a week and had few weapons because the employees of munitions makers were also working only 20 hours a week. And imagine the maintenance of internal order in a society in which police officers, firefighters and paramedics worked only 20 hours a week.”

“The Skidelskys have an exalted conception of leisure. They say that the true sense of the word is “activity without extrinsic end”: “The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time — such people have no other aim than to do what they are doing well.” That isn’t true. Most of these people are ambitious achievers who seek recognition. And it is ridiculous to think that if people worked just 15 or 20 hours a week, they would use their leisure to cut marble or struggle with a musical score. If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late. English aristocrats in their heyday didn’t work, but neither did they cut marble or explore the mysteries of space and time. Hunting, gambling and seduction were their preferred leisure activities.”

To me, this seems contrary to the entire development of civilization.  We used to have to work nearly every waking hour in order to survive.  We even had to work when we were sick.  Our story is one of increasing abundance through progressive technological improvements, and as people became free they diversified, specializing in their fields, and progress developed even faster.  We fought for more human rights and civil liberties, and our working days have became shorter, safer, and far more enjoyable. I see no reason for this trend to end, and as future technologies provide even more of an abundance, as long as we’re rational and control our populations, we can work less and enjoy life more.   There have been some slight setbacks here in America as formerly impoverished nations are rising into the global economy, but this trend will equalize with time, and we’ll all be much better off from it.  The more minds we have working together, the more progress we’ll see.

What I admire in Alan Watts is his love and faith in people.  He accepts them as they are, believes in them, and knows that they have valuable things to contribute.  Judge Posner holds a far lower opinion of those around him.  If the masses weren’t ordered around, he feels they’d just all be fighting, drinking, and robbing one another and there’d be no police force to keep them in line.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some degree of truth to what Posner is saying, but he seems too pessimistic to me.  People respond to their environment.  If they’re treated like they’re worthless, they’ll often fulfill your expectations.  But if you love them, cherish them, and educate them, you’d be surprised how quickly they’ll change.  Maybe I’m naive?

I shared my story earlier so that we could ask why I was not growing when I was a young teenager.  How did I go from a rather dull jock who spent most of his time playing basketball to a person spending his evenings contemplating the mysteries of quantum mechanics?  Why didn’t this progression happen sooner?  I think there are three main factors for progress.  1) Variation, 2) Cooperation, and 3) Competition.  My parents raised me in a home where there was no way for variation to occur.  On the walls, there were always framed posters with the scripture, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Christianity was the way and the only truth.  Since I had the light there wasn’t anything else to discover.  My mind was turned off.  No new ideas were flowing into my head.  Competition didn’t happen because nobody ever challenged my beliefs.  My school system was too politically correct to teach evolution, and I never even questioned my religious beliefs until I was in my twenties when I finally got around to studying biology and evolution on my own.  The only one of the three factors for success I had was cooperation, which entails having people to support and help you in your endeavors.  I’ve always had friends and family to support me, and for that I’m grateful.

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