On Commanding Your Own Work
Thoughts on personal autonomy in work and its imperative for psychological health
My daughter was swimming Saturday morning, and I was spectating. A forty-minute period where ideas have a chance to propagate in my mind without interference and distraction. It’s like waiting for a bus or any other situation where there’s nothing we can do about it but be patient. I find that I’m conducting mental acrobatics with things I “need” to do at most other times.
So I took the opportunity to clarify for myself what I mean when I say, "command your own work." If there is a central message in all that I write, it is that. It is an attempt to convince you not only of its importance but its imperative for personal growth, development and psychological health.
So, I opened the Peak app on my phone and began to write. Then disaster struck. I received a phone call, answered it, and lost my draft.
I couldn’t believe it. I was in the flow, and then the product was disappeared. Inside I was raging. But what could I do?
Now, several hours later, I'm attempting to reach back into my thoughts, reconnect with the state in which I found myself and retrieve that which was so clear and concise at the time.
So here goes.
What "Command Your Own Work" Means
The central tenet of the message "command your own work" is that in order to find true meaning and purpose in life and be happy, healthy, engaged, and fulfilled, you must work from a place of intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic. This seems obvious and straightforward, which it is, but it requires clarification.
When you control your own work, you work not because you are carrying out the commands of an apparent superior, adopting an ideal worker image, following a social or cultural imperative, fulfilling some moral obligation, listening to the echo of your mother or father in your head, or indeed, meeting financial obligations. Instead, you move and act from a position of interest, curiosity, and personal autonomy. It is want to do rather than must do, and it seems to me at least that the older we get, the more obvious this is.
All forms of motivation that originate outside the self are imposed —they demand your conformity. And you comply whether you realise it or not. However, better to be bound by one's curiosity and interest than by the needs and wants of others. And, indeed, of soulless corporate bodies. But this is easier said than done. Our hegemonic common sense about it suggests that this is simply the way it is and how it has always been. How can it be any different?
The modern workplace and, indeed, the workplace of the past one hundred and fifty years or more, was and remains an assault on the freedom and integrity of human beings. It seems like an over-the-top statement. Ok, but don't take my word for it, read Chomsky on the matter for example. He suggests that when we work, we effectively rent our bodies and minds to others who profit from it. It’s a Marxist idea, and as much as neoliberal propaganda shits all over the socialist ideas of Karl Marx, there is a fundamental truth to it. The fact that we (in the Northern Hemisphere) enjoy a comfortable life resulting from our engagement in the Capitalist system does not undermine the truth of Marxist philosophy. The few control the minds, behaviours, and purses of the many. In fact, most people just about get by. Although conditions are markedly improved from our grandparents' time, a prison is a prison regardless of how plush it looks and feels.
The Work-Life Balance Spoof
Anxiety and depression are never too far away, and the answer to the inherent problem of contemporary work? You’ve got to find a balance between work and life. Today, the neoliberal machine speaks of work-life balance as if life and work are separate realms of existence—but they are not. Whether you receive payment or not, whether you regard it as work, a pastime or otherwise, you take yourself with you and what you do as work is as much a part of your life as any other activity.
There is no separation,; all attempts to convince you of such are merely smoke and mirrors. The concept of work-life balance is constructed by those who wish to maintain the status quo. Indeed, many of my peers and compatriots in work psychology who are, it must be said, in the pockets of the corporate machine, promote this idea in the misled belief that they are doing good.
But they are not.
Maybe they don’t believe it but they hard-sell it nonetheless.
This message is merely the means by which we maintain the restriction on our minds, bodies, and creative output. The modern workplace might have foosball tables, free coffee, lunches, and haircuts, but these things are designed to mask the inherent problem with contemporary work—they want your energy, time, and commitment and they are not good for human beings long term. We are living, breathing organisms placing ourselves in fake plastic environments that demand our conformity...how could we possibly be healthy under these conditions!
We might become assimilated and adopt the ideas, concepts, rules and demands of work as our own (self-determination theory calls this process external, introjected, identified, and integrated forms of motivation. They originate from extrinsic demands and are not the same as intrinsically derived motivation) but they are not our own. We are, as such, complicit in our own imprisonment.
According to researchers Judge and Watanabe in a study of job and life satisfaction (1993), work and life are "significantly, positively, and mutually related". In other words, when people report their satisfaction with work and life as separate constructs, they are inseparable. Work and life are the same, and work-life balance is a nonsense concept.
How Things Change
There must be discomfort enough to make current working conditions unbearable for our work situation to change. In contrast, comfort makes us soft and vulnerable, and organisations understand this impeccably. When the time comes, they cut the workforce, give us a cheque and say thanks but no thanks. We are no longer of use, and like an aged piece of equipment, we're retired. We spend the best years of our lives investing ourselves in work under the command of others, forging meaning and purpose, and then without any say in the matter, they take it away.
Working conditions and the bright and shiny aspects of it are designed to appeal to our comfort and safety needs. But the contemporary workplace is not safe despite their pandering to our desire for it.
So bottom line...
Realising and accepting that we are entitled to better, that work should not be a means to an end, opens our eyes to the possibility of something else. This something else is taking command of our own work. Feeling our sense of autonomy, deciding for ourselves how our working lives should look, setting out to do work that commands our interest and curiosity...
This way of living and working is not beyond us. We don't have to work on command. We can take back that choice and finally do work that we decide is worth doing, for its own sake, and even make a decent living from it.
Think about it.
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