"Work smarter" isn't enough.

  1. … because the wrong work, done optimally, is still the wrong work.

  2. And because we avoid the work we were not made for, “work smarter” is leaving us bored and diminished and scrolling.


It’s a modern-day adage, universally prescribed: “Work smarter, not harder”. Do more with less, effectively. Not to do less overall, necessarily, but to make the best use of the time you’ve got.

“Work smarter” addresses how you do your work. It’s compelling because its application has a quick turnaround — I can work a little bit smarter by degrees, starting right now, and I can feel good about that immediately.

But if I’m reading that statement as an individual, it does not acknowledge this: regardless of how smart you might be working, you may be doing the wrong work.

I don’t mean “wrong” as in “technically incorrect”. I’m talking about the innate: by nature and nurture alike, each of us finds growth in some kinds of work, and finds harmful stress in others. I have two brothers, for example — one is made to build at a keyboard, and one is made to build in a forest, and to force one into the other’s context would be unkind.

This matters because the right work for you is energizing, restorative. It engages you, and as you grow with it, you improve your surroundings, letting you be even better at what you do. The network effects compound: an environment where people are doing what they’re made for is fantastic.

The wrong work is unavoidably draining, and you know exactly what I’m talking about. And when the wrong work is wearing you down, “work smarter” lets you work less. Broadly speaking, you will work less. It’s natural. You’ll protect yourself, using the tools available, and you’ll coast rather than suffer. If you’re lucky. If you’re not, “work smarter” lets you double down, and you’ll suffer accordingly. And so will everyone around you.

Now, imagine an entire culture where each individual is pinned to a career they maybe got to choose in adolescence, in roles so defined that career-hopping is almost impossible. It’s so normal to be committing your years to the wrong work, to reduce the stress by “working smarter”, that the highest accomplishment is the escape of work completely.

Take that in. Vacation, paid time off, unpaid time off, retirement, or figuring out how to look busy: the universal goal, in a culture of the wrong work, is no work.

Now. Imagine another culture, where we default to giving people the right work, work that aligns their talents and personalities and purposes, a culture where changing your work is okay because people change and that reality is respected. Imagine what we could do.

Do you see what we’re missing?

This strip hurts. Because, in fact, the tech community is working on this. We (I’m part of it) have the ability to build a single thing today that’s used by millions tomorrow, and that makes us responsible. Markets like Etsy and Thumbtack, even apps like Lyft, we-the-engineers are trying to get y’all to your personal right work, collecting the data, testing the algorithms.

You could say we’re trying to work smarter. *headdesk*

I’ve already talked about work in two dimensions: smart vs not, and right vs wrong.

There’s a third, and it deals with the future, running from negative to positive with a stop-over for neutral:

  • Negative work: labor that damages the system of society.

  • Neutral work: labor that doesn’t touch the system, allowing the system to continue in its current direction.

  • Positive work: labor that heals.

This dimension gets at the substance of the cultural shift we imagine. … and also now we have a three-dimensional fabric of work, and that’s totally worth exploring. Later. But we can get this far right now: a healthy society is one in which its members are well-suited to where they’re at; and so, positive, healing work moves us, by degrees, to having the right work be the norm.

And this is where we come full circle: working smarter is not enough.

Because you can do the wrong work really well (and you’ll probably hate it, and work less if you can).

And you can do the right work really well (and you’ll probably really enjoy it, and work more if you can).

But if you want the system of work to change, you have to choose how you work in the system.

This idea comes the closest I’ve seen to an applied ethical standard for engineers. We’re totally capable of building really smart tools that give people what they’re made for, but still result in damage to the system of society. Overgeneralizing to make a point, that’s Facebook. It’s a truism at this point: nobody signs off happy.

I keep a running list of things I want to write about. It’s mixed up with the list of post-hoc recipes. The prompt for this post:

as an engineer, my goal isn’t that you work less, it’s that you work on what you were made for

I stand by that, utterly. And I’ll do everything I can to give you the best tools, and to heal the system that has so much say over what work you do.

But we all gotta heal this thing together. Yes, the engineers and the politicians (geez, that’s the first time I’ve grouped those two together) bear a larger share of the responsibility, by dint of their (our) influence. That’s a thing. If you’re in that group, focus up. Build with heart, build to heal. Smart is not enough. Care for the tomorrow that we share. If you’re not in that group, work with heart, work to heal. Be your best, be thoughtfully kind. Everything matters.

And regardless, hold us all accountable. Watch critically for apps and tools and platforms and persons that might solve your problem now but leave us collectively worse off tomorrow. Avoid even the neutral — prefer the things that are actively improving tomorrow, not those that do nothing.

Smart is not enough, right is not enough, the things we use and do and make must steer positive, and you get to vote with your choices, your time, your dollars.


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