“I do not dream of labor. But I do dream of my mere existence being beautiful and interesting enough for a small child to stare and wonder for hours.”
Let’s think about how our work differs from our labor. Let’s think about how we build bridges and buffers and install drivers to ease communication between different people in our organizations, just like we use those devices to ease communication between different places and different machines. Also, let’s talk about the true mother of invention: irritation.
Transcript and notes:
You can find Dr. Emily Garside and her substack here:
Marge Piercy’s poem “To be of use”:
The Rube Goldberg Institute for Innovation and Creativity:
Recorded 5 December 2023.
I do not dream of labor.
I do not dream of labor, I do not dream of wearing myself out in service to somebody else's dream or somebody else's pocket. But I do- I do dream of doing good work.
This morning before I got out of bed I was reading a substack post by Dr. Emily Garside called "end of year job hunt: Dread," in which she reminded us that she does not dream of labor.
It is not a new idea. It is not a new line. I have seen it over and over and over. What's your dream job? I do not dream of labor. But what I dream of is making a difference.
Marge Piercy has that poem about being of use. And while I don't want to be used up, I do want to make the world a better place. I do want my existence to permeate things in a good way. So if that is my work, I do dream of work but I do not dream of labor. I do dream of creation, but I do not dream of manufacture. It's different.
And yet manu-facture; just last night, I was making a pair of pants, a churidar. Literally "manu" with my hands "facturing," creating. Taking measurements, watching the YouTube video closely, extracting the half understanding of Hindi and laying it over the images.
This is my second run at making churidar. The first one was so successful that I just started wearing the muslin the rough draft instead of using it to make a pattern. But that's partly justifiable because in India, the tailors just lay out the measurements on the fabric over and over every time. They don't keep a pattern. They keep a shortlist of measurements five or six, for churidar. There are probably a similar number for kurtas.
And this is the traditional tunic and pants situation that almost every culture has. When people ask me, "Can I wear the kurta pajama or kurta churidar?" I say "your relationship with the culture matters".
I say "that's between you and you." I say "no matter what you pick, somebody in the diaspora is going to be mad about it." I say "we don't agree." I say "if you're going to make it yours, you have to embrace the whole culture, in my opinion." But everyone is different. Everyone believes differently.
My grandmother is just delighted that anybody understands that Indian clothes are as good as jeans. And all of my cousins are perplexed about my minor obsession with saris. But there are people who understand what it means to wear something that is of you, that belongs to you, in an irrefutable way.
I love jeans for who they are and what they do. But they are not the only expression of myself.
I do not dream of labor, but I dream. I dream of being in the world in a way that affects change for good. I dream of representing myself, and my people, and the people who are cousins of my people in the street and the grocery store. I dream of being myself just for the sake of being myself.
Do you know what a relief it is to be able to be yourself? Without having to worry about pretending to be somebody else to meet somebody else's expectations and standards.
And I do not dream of labor and all of the expectations and the standards that come with it. I dream of something else. Of something where we appreciate one another. Where we love one another. Where we witness one another. Where we engage one another. Where we find the places where we fit together and the places where we shouldn't really try to fit together and all of that is fine.
In fact, all of that is delightful. In fact, all of that is how we get where we are going.
I had someone recently say to me that who she is is how her company got where it is. And so she doesn't want to change it and I said "yes, yes, yes. Do not change who you are. This is how you got here and how you got here is beautiful. Instead, instead, let's find ways to connect these two sometimes dissimilar shapes. Or six, or sixteen, or twenty."
When you have two gears, and they aren't the same frequency of teeth, you have to put something in the middle to help them talk to each other. That's all. Bridges and buffers. Ways to make it easier for these two things to work together. Sometimes it's lubricant, sometimes it's glue, sometimes it's oil. Sometimes, it's a straight bar with a couple of little legs on it that are hinged in just the right way.
My mom loved Rube Goldberg machines when I was a child. Rube Goldberg machines are these elaborate ways of doing a simple task, like getting the toast into the toaster. And they're ridiculous. And they're funny, but they're also studies in physics and mechanics. In my mind, ideally, they also don't require electricity. They require that first ball drop, that first steel orb rolling along the track, picking up speed and then dropping into something that does something.
There used to be this beautiful Rube Goldberg machine that did nothing except exis. Except operate, in one of the many, many corridors of JFK Airport in New York City. And I used to stand and watch it for hours.
I think it must have been in the international terminal. Because I associate it with waiting for Indian relatives to arrive. I do not dream of labor. But I do dream of my mere existence being beautiful and interesting enough for a small child to stare and wonder for hours. And what does it mean?
What does it mean to turn our places of labor into places of work? Our work, our rich, wonderful work. Even if our rich, wonderful work is just existing. And even if we need to create these spaces, these buffers, these bridges, these connections, these interfaces.
My first job out of college was doing computer Technical Support at this tiny little newspaper in Southern New Hampshire. And one of the things that I ended up being assigned to do- probably because I had the people skills as well as the technical skills- was to explain how computers worked to the compositors.
The compositors were union guys, they had come over from the press side. And what that meant was that they had very good job security, which was wonderful. And it meant that most of them were quite old. They were in their sixties. Sixty-two; three years away from retirement.
And the company had decided to switch over from light tables and exacto knives for assembling the pages of the paper to QuarkXPress, which was kind of like Adobe InDesign. It was the very first top-of-the-line computer layout program that got wide distribution.
And so these guys, who had spent their entire lives working with physical manifestations of typefaces, now had to learn to use computers that for the previous ten years they had been told they shouldn't touch, because they might break them.
Mostly it was class warfare in the newsroom.
So one of the things that would happen is that somebody would send something, an article, an advertisement, to the printer from the computer. And on the computer, it looked fine, but the printer would spit out gibberish. Everything Courier New. Nothing working right. If you remember the days when you had to manually embed fonts in PDF files- that wasn't happening. And they would look at me confused.
They'd say, "look, it looks right on the computer. But that thing did not produce what I was trying to produce. Can I please have my light table back?" And I'd say "Well, no. Unfortunately." Although we did have a couple of light tables and a few drawers of type and sometimes, at the last minute, that was the fastest way to fix a problem.
But they would look from the computer screen to the printout, and they would say "something is not right." And I would say "that is true.
"Something is not right. Imagine that your computer speaks English and your printer speaks Japanese. And in order for what is happening on your computer to come out of the printer appropriately, you need a translator and the translator"- by which I meant a driver- "is messed up or missing. So let's see if by installing the translator again we can get your computer to speak fluently to your printer." It needs a driver.
Our world is full of places that need bridges and buffers, things that ease the communication between two dissimilar objects, or machines, or people. That's all. That's everything.
So one of the things that I do in my workshops is I talk specifically with leadership teams about what bridges and buffers. What specific bridges and buffers they need, so that they can ease the gaps between the intensives and the expansives on their teams. So that they can ease the gaps between this way and that way to get a whole thing that operates smoothly. Organically, even. That has access to everyone's skills, that has access to everyone's abilities.
The computer couldn't print, the printer couldn't compute. We needed both of them to get the thing out so that we could make the paper happen. This is no different. This is who we are.
We are toolmaking creatures, we humans, because we need tools. Not because we are meant to labor all day with the same tool over and over and over again, doing nothing but the same thing like a machine. There's a sort of temporal efficiency to it. But that's all we get.
And what we lose is so vast. Everything from mobility, and ideation, to possibility, and interest. And engagement. And when we're not interested in what we're doing, you know what happens? When we're not interested in what we're doing, we stop doing it well.
So it is up to us to do it well. It is up to us to make sure that our environments are enriching enough. You know that meme about how we need more enrichment in our environments as humans? Yeah, we need more enrichment in our environments as humans. And it is up to us to be our own caretakers. To be our own enclosure enrichment inviters. To create smoothness and interest.
Variety. Variation. Not too much for everybody. Some people like a certain routine, a certain sameness, those expansive things are important. So not to discount those, but to recognize that we make our tools so that we can use them so that we can do something else. They're a means to an end. And we deserve all the tools we need to make our ends easy. Necessity is the mother of invention, but so is just irritation.
We do not dream of labor. Sometimes we dream of work. Sometimes we dream of work as an expression of dedication or love. Sometimes we dream of possibility. Sometimes we dream of another world. Sometimes that other world requires some amount of labor but we do not dream of labor.
We dream of doing our work, our work in the world. At least I do. I dream of doing my work alongside others doing their work. And by our mere existence and dedicated curiosity advancing the world.