On a recent episode of On Point, Barry Schwartz discussed his ideas about humans being engaged in their work. In the show, Schwartz makes the following points (you should listen to the whole thing, it was pretty good).

  • The modern work idea perhaps came from Adam Smith 200 years ago. He made the assumption that if you pay people enough, they will do a particular job. This means that you can redefine a particular job such that it is an efficient part of a bigger work process. You could have a human do something like turn a wheel—if that was efficient and payed well enough.
  • According to Schwartz, people will be more efficient and get more work done if they believe in some goal the company is working towards. It’s not really all about the money.
  • Oh, well it is all about the money if the money isn’t enough to provide for basic needs. This is why some workers do have concerns over minimum wage.
  • A common idea people have about work is that you aren’t supposed to be meaningfully engaged in your job. You are supposed to earn money to take care of your family.

Those are just some of the main ideas discussed, now for some of my comments—in no particular order.

Robotification. Come on. You knew I was going to talk about this. I am actually surprised that robots didn’t get mentioned on the show. The idea is that perhaps in the very near future, robots will start taking over many of these jobs and be both cheaper and more efficient. If work is really about making money, robots will be the answer for any corporation. This would really suck to be put out of work by a robot.

Basic Guaranteed Income. This isn’t a completely new idea. With a basic income, everyone would get some amount of money for doing NOTHING. Yes, everyone could have income and then decide what work to do (if any) without having to worry about basic needs. This basic income might be the best solution to the possible future robotapocolypse (where robots take most of the jobs).

What about the cheaters? Suppose you have a company and you want to let workers have meaningful jobs in which they are fully engaged. This means less micromanagement, less evaluation, less financial incentives and more freedom and independence. There are those that would worry that with great work freedom comes a greater risk of work slackness. What about those people that would use their freedom to do much less work? I think this is always a possibility. However, it seems the benefits of less control over workers would outweigh the few workers that cheat the system. People always worry about the few that work the system. But changing the system to prevent cheating just ruins it for everyone.

Grades and learning. The whole time I listened to the On Point show, I was thinking about grades and learning. It’s really the same situation. As a learning coach (that’s what I call myself), I don’t really care about grades. Who cares what grades students get? Oh right, students care. But I think that if you set up a situation so that students don’t worry about grades, you can get to the real learning. Have you ever been in a class that either didn’t have a grade or students had some guaranteed basic grade? Often in these cases you can see the classroom transform from one where students are trying to get “points” into one where they build a learning community. It’s awesome when it happens.

So, with both learners and workers I think the best solution is to have meaningful jobs and fully engaged leaners. Trying to worry about money or grades just makes everything suck. But why do we work and why do we learn? Maybe the real answer is that we do these things not because of grades and money but because that’s just what humans do.

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Why Do We Work and Learn?