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Good Work Nº 36: Why Work Distracts Us From What Matters

A hand-curated newsletter devoted to exploring how we choose to spend the 90,000 hours that will make up our careers.
Paul Millerd
▪︎ 6 minutes read time

🎶 Little By Little, by Lane 8

Our brave hero prepares to face the world of work.

This week’s Good Work is by guest author Paul Millerd, a solo creator driven by curiosity, learning, and teaching others. He is most concerned with the puzzle of how people can design a life doing things that matter to them in the modern world. He is based in Taiwan and also happens to write a weekly newsletter on work.

A wealthy man thinks that he owes it to public opinion to devote his leisure to some kind of industrial or commercial pursuit, or to public business. He would think himself in bad repute if he employed his life solely in living.Alexis de Tocqueville on America*

Why are we so bad at understanding what we want from life and why does work seem to be the thing that distracts us from trying to answer that question? When I was in business school, I would hear people talk about plans to pursue an intense 60+ hours a week job after graduation, typically in an investment bank or consulting firm. “Only two years,” they’d say. The lack of even an eyebrow raise at such statements confirmed the accepted wisdom: trading time for future success is a good decision. Is it that clear? People who have already achieved the success that my peers aspired to seem to be categorically screaming back at us, “Don’t follow my path!”

In an interview with Kara Swisher, Venture Capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya shares: “I had been exploring why, after the accumulation of all of these things… more this, more that, more everything—why am I not more happy?” What makes his confession profound is that he seems to have diagnosed the fundamental problem. He goes on, “I’ve actually really bastardized some core relationships in my life.”

In the spirit of this newsletter, I believe that being able to define “good work” is a necessary step to get back to the real business of life-figuring out what matters. Borrowing from Chamath then, perhaps we can define good work as work that does not bastardize what matters. Relationships. Love. Beauty. Spirituality. Your Kids. Caring For Others. Whatever it may be. While we may never be able to fully answer that question to satisfaction, at least we can realize that good work never distracts us from what matters.

This Week

  • "My Awakening: Quitting my Job and Starting a Second Chapter." I wrote about my own journey trying to grapple with this question and figure out how work blinded me for so long.
  • I highly recommend listening to the Kara Swisher interview with Chamath Palihapitiya.
  • In a study of 450,000 Americans, researchers found that “High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being.” It’s worth reading the whole paper if you’re interested in what actually contributors to peoples' happiness.
  • A fascinating Gallup study shows our perceptions of other people’s definitions of success are often terribly mistaken (for example, we think other people would rank fame as the #1 definition of success, but individuals rank it as the least important).
  • Kevin Durant confides that he did not find fulfillment after winning the title in 2017, from ESPN.
  • A lot of people shy away from original texts because they seem old and inaccessible. But one person’s writing I love exploring is Bertrand Russell’s. His essay "In Praise of Idleness" is not only accessible, but a fun and thoughtful read. Deep down, he seems like he just wants people to have a little more fun: “There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency.”

That’s Good Work for this week. Looking forward to what’s next.

Paul and the Holloway team

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