David Heinemeier Hansson

April 11, 2024

Enough problems to go around

The worst kind of company is usually not the one where there's too much real work to do, but the kind where there's not enough. It's in this realm the real monsters appear. Without enough real problems to go around, humans are prone to invent fictitious and dreadful ones.

This is the root of David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs analysis. That a shocking percentage of people work jobs that they themselves see little to no meaning in, because the work that's being produced makes no difference, has no essence. It's enough to make anyone mad.

Now part of the problem is clearly one of perspective. I'm always amazed by the pride and duty it appears most Japanese workers put into the most mundane jobs. I forget where I read this, but it's the difference between being a happy zoo keeper who think of their job as "tending to the welfare of the elephants" rather than just "shoveling shit all day".

But it's not all subjective either. We are biologically tuned to conserve energy while being cognitively tuned to crave a challenge. So when the load is material, we often wish it was lighter. But if we actually succeed in lightening the load, we wonder why we're unhappy.

This is one of those contradictory aspects of the human condition, and one that's foolish to attempt to resolve. The trick I've found is to believe both things to be true at the same time. Yes, occasionally there's a need to rest and conserve energy. But equally so, there's a need to get back into the arena, and wrestle with something significant. Mojito island, all the time, is a curse, not a blessing. 

And in fact, it probably is worse, for most people, to have too many stretches of too little to do than the opposite. Tales of workers dropping dead a year into retirement is a common folklore expression of this knowledge. 

All this to say: don't slice the few, meaningful problems you have at work too thin. The worst injury you can inflict on knowledge workers is leaving them with too little of consequence to contest with.

Meaningful problems are the most valuable human motivators. Made-up problems are a blight. Ensure you have not quite enough time and people available to tackle the former lest you start inventing the latter.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.