Doing important work

August 02, 2020 • 2 min read

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to Do Important Work, and there two quotes in particular that have stuck with me. The first is from Visa's The Prestige Trap. With his classic wit and charm, Visa breaks the problem down in the opening sentence:

I’ve had several conversations with friends who’ve been incapacitated by the burdensome bullshit obligation to Have A Meaningful Life / Be Remembered / Do Important Work.

And though the details differ, the second is a tweet from Michael Nielsen that I think is closely related:

I try particularly to push back on the efficiency mindset with work (where it’s strongest). Asking “What’s a much more enjoyable way” to achieve some outcome (even if inefficient) has been very good for me. Amusingly, though not the point, it often makes the work much better too

I think they’re very much speaking about the same thing. Many of us want to Do Important Work, including, in my opinion, Michael and Visa. That’s fine. A natural follow-up is to try to make it concrete with a question: What important work can I do?

But here’s the problem. Measuring the importance or meaning of an action is really hard. I’m not sure it’s even possible. From a pragmatic perspective, we might say that important work is recognised through reward, perhaps monetary. But, as Visa reminds us, ‘nobody really knows what the world needs! The world itself doesn’t quite know either, often until on hindsight!’.

So what do we do instead? Well, what seems to have worked empirically is to ‘enjoy the piddling’. To be playful and curious. To prefer the more enjoyable way. Feynman, Jobs, Wozniak, and Newton are all examples cited by Visa. It’s okay to want to Do Important Work. I think both Michael and Visakan really do want that. And I know I do. The trick is to rejig the way that you think about it away from the destructive default to a more constructive, and amusingly efficient alternative. I’m delighted by the similarity between Visa’s and Michael’s descriptions:

Visa: Wonderfully, it seems to me that lots of people who end up Doing Important Work often got there by being playful and curious.

Michael: Amusingly, though not the point, it often makes the work much better too.

It really is both wonderful and amusing. It feels like the gist of a koan: to Do Important Work, you must forget about Doing Important Work.