Quit Pseudowork – Work on Things That Matter

Photo © Elnur/stock.adobe.com

“Work on Things That Matter” is a quote from a keynote speech by Tim O’Reilly some 15 years ago. It stuck. So simple, direct and obvious, yet so easily forgotten. What if we make this our motto every day?

If your first reaction is ‘that’s what I do’, you can stop reading. You already missed the point. If you’re curious, read on.

‘Work on things that matter’ is another way to say ‘make a difference’. The exact opposite of the term ‘bullshit jobs’, which hadn’t been invented at the time of Tim’s speech. Yet bullshit jobs (aka ‘pseudowork’, which sounds slightly better but is the same thing) have exploded.

It has been 10 years since David Graeber coined the term in the essay ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ in Strike Magazine. 5 years later it became a full book aptly titled ‘Bullshit Jobs‘. Both widely (and often emotionally) discussed at the time, then mostly forgotten. Or – more precisely – ignored.

Until the pandemic hit, just about every bullshit job ‘moved’ home and many workers got a different angle on what they were doing. Including the discovery that while someone might notice their absence at the office, their contributions were rarely missed. Danish Dennis Nørmark and Anders Fogh Jenssen gave the phenomenon a new name in Pseudowork: How We Ended up Being Busy Doing Nothing (January 2021), and revived the focus, poured gasoline on the fire by spelling it out for everyone:

It is a journey into absurdity, where the meaning of work has disappeared and the promise of leisure has never been fulfilled. Instead, we have more rules, useless projects, forgettable HR initiatives, endless meetings and trivial PowerPoint presentations.

It is time to think and act differently. Otherwise, we may find ourselves committing the greatest act of self-sabotage in history. We risk making a mockery of our past and being seen as a laughing stock in the future. First, we must confront one of the greatest taboos of our era: Pseudowork.

A wakeup call indeed, but where’s the action? Are the danes – and David Graeber before that – wrong? Very few seem to think so. More than a few think they’re exaggerating, but most people I talk to claim to agree and want change. But no one admits to have such a job. So here’s the thing: Pseudowork exists because it’s possible and will exist for as long as it’s possible.

Sadly, what we need is another crisis. A crisis is always bad, and always good for something – as we witnessed during the first two years of the pandemic. A lot of overdue changes were implemented in all kinds of organizations because a crisis means ‘less questions asked’. But we’ve barely put a dent in the problem yet.

Now, here’s the good news – actually very bad news indeed, but good for something: As the world turns harsher, our consciousness inevitably shifts from preserving status quo to survival. Bullshit that was previously acceptable becomes useless (which it was all the time, but we pretended otherwise), even threatening. While ‘what matters’ becomes survival.

We’re not there yet, but we’re closing in, and here’s the point: Not everybody’s going to survive – professionally or literally. And those ‘working on things that matter’ have dramatically better chances than those who don’t. For obvious reasons. They are needed. By others.

A recent post on mindset3.org discusses a very relevant example. Your Medical Data May Kill You  focus on the fact that people actually die because pseudoworkers block sharing of medical records – for their own benefit. It doesn’t get much worse than that – and the ‘phenomenon’ is almost universal – with a few inspiring exceptions.

Something to think about? No, something to act on. Work on things that matter – to others. You too.

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