Counter-Productive Work, Torture, and Meaning

Self evidently counter-productive work has been used as a form of torture. Why?

In some of the Nazi concentration camps they would have prisoners carry heavy bags of gravel across the yard to the other side. When they were done they would have them carry the bags back to the original spot. What's so torturous about this?

Obviously there is the fact that they were sleep deprived, underclothed, underfed, physically beaten, and that carrying bags of gravel is hard physical work. But, it's more than that. The fact that you're working hard to accomplish nothing, working hard to do nothing, is a form of mental torture, and I would suggest spiritual torture.

This is the same type of punishment that Zeus gave to Sisyphus. To roll a boulder up a hill for all of eternity. But, when Sisyphus gets close to the top the boulder gets away from him and rolls back to the bottom. Then he must begin again. It's hard, and it's futile. It's torture.

Humans orient themselves in the world according to values. We seek to create things of value, experience things of value, and acquire valuable attitudes. Without a value to direct our actions toward we are lost in a world of endless and pointless possibility. Without the pursuit of value there is no reason for a person to stay alive. They feel that their life itself is pointless, worthless, futile. And, to a large extent it is in these types of circumstances, because it was designed to be that way.

To a smaller degree this same type of thing is common in corporations. When I was working at OfficeMax in Austin, Texas a decade or so ago I had just finished setting a planogram one morning. The store manager came in after I had just completed it. She said that I wasn't supposed to do that planogram yet and told me to change it back. (She was a poor manager. She took two months off at one point and every single store metric improved while she was gone and then went back to normal when she returned. No one has to wonder why OfficeMax went bankrupt.) After I finished setting this planogram back to what it was, even though I knew she was wrong, she told me that some planograms needed to be changed and gave me a stack of papers. One of them was this same planogram. So I changed it back to what I had already done that morning and she said it looked good. That, my friends, is futile work. This type of thing is especially common in large bureaucratic corporations, which is one of the things that allows smaller companies to take market share away from them in free markets. That's also why large corporations usually try to get more licensing, regulations, and restrictions passed in their field, to protect themselves from being replaced by someone better.

Jim Lundy has the best information on what these issues are and how to resolve them in organizations that I have seen. For instance, here's his wonderful Subordinates' Lament.

- - - - - - -

We the uninformed,
working for the inaccessible,
are doing the impossible
for the ungrateful!

- - - - - - -

But, most of us can't change these corporations. So, what to do? That's a good question.

When you're feeling that type of frustration it's this lack of progress toward meaningful values that you're feeling. The solution is then to pursue and make progress toward meaningful values. This can be done outside of work. Many people do that. They just see work as a means to an end. I think that's an okay solution.

A better solution is to change the situation so that you're pursuing worthwhile values while at work. But, maybe that's not always possible. It's certainly not always possible immediately. Does that make your life futile, meaningless, and pointless then? Is there no meaning or value possible for Sisyphus or the concentration camp prisoners?

There is a type of value possible, attitudinal values. If you cannot create value, nor are allowed to choose valuable experiences, you can still choose the attitude with which you approach your circumstance. The last value is wholly within you. This is one of the key points from psychologist Viktor Frankl, who was in those concentration camps.

The antidote to the torture of futility is value. That's what makes life meaningful. Whether you create, experience, or transform - pursue value.


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