At 28, Will MacAskill is likely the youngest tenured professor of philosophy in the world. His success is made more impressive by his position at Lincoln College, Oxford.
As someone that considered getting a PhD in the humanities, I was talked out of it by the number of people I met who were holding out hope to get an adjunct position at Spokane Community College – much less a tenured one at Oxford.
Listening to an interview with MacAskill, he offered a key difference between himself and other PhD candidates. A philosophy professor is judged by his best five to ten thousand words.
That’s not much. You can write that much in a week.
What he doesn’t say, but is widely recognized, is that in order to get the five thousand words that are good enough to get you tenured at Oxford, you need to write a million words and then pick the best 0.5%.
The notion that you need to do a huge volume of work to get to the good stuff has been around for a long time. In 1890 Rudyard Kipling said, “Four–fifths of everybody’s work must be bad. But the remnant is worth the trouble for its own sake.”
In the 1950’s Sci-Fi author Theodore Sturgeon coined Sturgeon’s law, an adage commonly cited as “ninety percent of everything is crap.” Most recently, it was popularized in the form of the ten thousand hour rule by Malcolm Gladwell.
Yet, I know many a smart, hardworking person. Why do some end up tenured at Oxford and others adjuncts at Spokane Community College (literally and metaphorically speaking)?
There is a second essential step.
It’s hidden in a popular quote from Ira Glass, the producer of the most popular podcast in the world, This American Life:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
The following line from Glass would seem to be more essential:
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
Stop being miserable at work: The difference between work and The Work
You need to put yourself on a deadline and ship. ‘Ship’, a term from Steve Jobs’ line “real artists ship” and popularized by Seth Godin, is an essential difference between work and The Work.
It is almost equivalent to “pull the trigger” or “go live.” That’s certainly part of what Ira is saying. He doesn’t just record his podcast, he releases it.
The essential distinction though is that shipping The Work seeks to make a change in others.
The Work is always shipped, work isn’t.
The Work appears in public, work is usually hiding.
The Work seeks to make a change, work seeks to maintain the status quo.
A project in your journal is not shipped. A project posted online that you emailed ten people about in the hope it would change how they thought, how they acted in some way is shipped.
Both components are essential. The #fuckitshipit mentality that means compromosing the integrity of a project in order to get it out the door is just as much a manifestation of the work as not releasing it.
Make work into The Work, then do right by what you’ve created and set it free into the world.
There are many aspiring philosophy professors who have done as much work as Will. I would be willing to bet that there are few (if any) that have shipped as much.
Many have written academic papers exploring exactly what seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza meant in paragraph two, chapter three of The Ethics and submitted their work for publication in a research journal read by a couple hundred academics.
MacAskill has done something different. He has written a book and co-founded two non-profits: 80,000 Hours, which provides research and advice on how to make a difference through your career, and Giving What We Can, which encourages people to commit to give at least ten percent of their income to the most effective charities.
He’s done his work in public with the express purpose of effecting a change in other people’s behavior. That’s The Work.
No one is going to do something different tomorrow because chapter three, paragraph two of Spinoza got mildly reinterpreted.
The internet is transformative because it has made it logistically easier and cheaper than ever to ship, to go live in a way that seeks to make change. You don’t need to own a printing press to ship a book or an assembly line to ship a product. Those barriers, and excuses, are gone.
The scales have tipped. It’s no longer hard to do work.
However, it’s as hard (and scary) as ever to ship, to do The Work.
The Work is scary because it’s done in public which mean someone might (will) notice.
It’s only in the last decade that being noticed became a good thing. For almost all of human history from the African Savannah to the production line at Ford Motors, getting noticed was a bad thing. You didn’t want the tribal leader to notice you and cast you out. You didn’t want to production manager to notice you were trying to put the part on in a new way and fire you for lack of compliance. Better to put your head down.
The paradox is that the work that kept us safe from the day of the African Savannah to the day of Ford Motors is precisely the work that endangers us in the post-internet era.
What a strength coach can teach us about the difference between work and The Work
Mark Rippetoe, one of the world’s foremost experts on strength training, distinguishes between exercising and training in a way that helps illuminate the difference between work and The Work.
Exercise is physical activity performed for the effect it produces today — right now. Each workout is performed for the purpose of producing a stress that satisfies the immediate needs of the exerciser: burning some calories, getting hot, sweaty, and out of breath, pumping up the biceps.
Training is physical activity performed for the purpose of satisfying a long-term performance goal, and is therefore about the process instead of the workouts themselves. And since the process must generate a definable result at a point in time removed from each workout, the process must be planned to produce this result. Training may also be the best way to achieve the goals that many people seek through Exercise.
Let’s takes some time to translate Rippetoe’s observations into the distinction between work (exercise) and The Work (Training).
1.Work/exercise is for satisfying immediate needs. The Work/Training is for effecting change.
Work, like exercise, is done for the effect it produces today, for making you feel good. Each task is done for the purpose of producing a feeling that satisfies your immediate needs. Most people spend their time doing work. It feels productive to do work, to answer all your messages on Twitter, Facebook and email.
Training is physical activity performed for the purpose of satisfying a long-term performance goal…
The Work is done for the purpose of effecting change.
Exercise is done with the express purpose of making you feel good in the moment–to check something off your list. Training is done to make change–to seek a future result.
This is scary because even if you do it, training might not succeed. Exercise always does.
If you write a paper re-interpreting the second paragraph in the third chapter of Spinoza, it will almost certainly succeed at that goal. You already know the biases of the journal you’re submitting it to. You are not seeking to affect change and you’re hardly putting it out into public.
If you go into the gym for twenty minutes and move stuff around, you will succeed at exercising.
If you try to do what MacAskill has done, you might not succeed. You are seeking to make real-world change, a much messier proposition. Though some change is certain, the change you seek may not be the change that happens.
If you sign up for a competition, you may not succeed.
When your training doesn’t achieve the change you seek to make, that’s feedback. You can adjust.
When the change you’re trying to make isn’t happening, that’s ok.
It’s logistically easy and cheap to do something else now. If his first attempt doesn’t work, MacAskill can write another book or launch another project. You can do the same.
It’s the emotional component that’s hard. The type of feedback that drives growth in the long term, causes discomfort and fear in the short term. The courage to compete – to get on stage – is a key part of The Work.
It might not work the first time or the second or the third or the fifth, but it’s the only choice left. Work can be automated. Work can be outsourced. It can be done by someone or something, somewhere else, for less.
The Work can not.
Work is in a race to the bottom.
The Work is all we have left.
The good news is that our expectations about training are as wrong as they are about The Work. Training to run the marathon or doing The Work to put out the book you’ve dreamed of sound terrifying to commit to. And, in the moment, on that last mile or twentieth mile, they might not feel as good as the alternative. But I’d argue in the aggregate the effect on your day-to-day happiness of doing something you feel proud of is unmatched by exercise or work.
I’ve never seen someone who does The Work consistently and generously and doesn’t have it succeed eventually. The only risk in doing The Work is that you have to (get to) do it again.
2. Work/Exercise is an event. The Work/Training is a process (and practice)
[Training] is therefore about the process instead of the workouts themselves.
The Work is about the process. However, there is a better word than process that applies to both training and The Work: practice.
A practice is something you commit to in the quest for a defined end. It is something you do day in and day out, rain or shine.
Dan Norris, an entrepreneur that I profile in The End of Jobs, was one of the people that taught me this. Here is a brief list of failed projects I saw Dan launch in less than eighteen months:
- ContentClub.co – don’t even remember what it did
- WebControlRoom – Dashboard for online business owners
- Inform.ly – Rebranded dashboard for online businesses. Don’t remember how it was different than WebControlRoom (or if it was)
- Some live chat software I can’t remember the name of
- God knows how many WordPress plugins (a dozen?)
The thing is though, I didn’t remember a single one of them. I had to go look through old articles to dig them out.
I only remember his best five thousand words. The 7 Day Startup movement he’s launched is powerful because it is a simple statement:
It’s cheaper, easier, safer than ever to do The Work. There’s no downside and tons of upside. Do more of it.
3. Shipping is a Skill. The more you ship, the easier it gets.
The analogy between shipping and training is important for a third reason. It’s ok to start small because you can get better at it over time (as long as you commit to the practice). Every gold medalist Olympic weightlifter started lifting with a broom stick. Every swimmer started with the doggie paddle. It was their commitment to practice that made them successful.
They did it everyday. In just the way that you can get good at any traditional skill through practice whether it’s weightlifting, swimming, writing, selling or marketing, you can get good at shipping, at doing The Work. It’s a skill developed through practice.
The more you ship, the more of The Work you do, the lower the risk and higher upside it is.
Shipping everyday is actually the lowest risk proposition. Counterintuitively, the more you ship the safer it is.
The way airplane guidance systems work is that a plane is always off course. A gust of wind or shift in weight of the cargo is always moving it off course by just a few fractions of a percent, but off course nonetheless. Every few seconds, the guidance system tells the autopilot to make a change and corrects the course. It ships.
Of course, we don’t notice this because we get there safely and on time. We would notice it if the guidance system didn’t ship as often. If it was only willing to speak up every hour, the plane would zig and zag and we would arrive an hour late or have to land early because the plane ran out of fuel.
The system knows that the plane is always starting to head in the wrong direction. Yet, because it “ships” and so that we get there safely and on time.
We often do the opposite. We start working on a project and instead of exposing it to the world early, we expose it to the world late. The plane was supposed to go from New York to Los Angeles, but instead of checking that it was on course every few minutes, it was afraid of being wrong. And so it kept going slightly off course and ended up in Miami. If it had been willing to be wrong a few miles outside of New York, it could have course corrected and we wouldn’t have noticed.
I try to ship something to someone every day.
I write an essay then I ship it to an editor. She can (and usually does) tell me all the things that are wrong with it.
I make the corrections and send it to a friend.
By the time an essay goes up on the site, I’ve shipped it two times. It’s been read by at least three smart people who I trust. I sleep better knowing that, but their critical (helpful) never feels good in the moment.
Training may also be the best way to achieve the goals that many people seek through Exercise.
The Work may be the best way to achieve the goals that many people seek through work.
We all have things we want to achieve in our careers. Those things always involve affecting in a change. A change in our lives, in our families lives, in our customers lives. The philosophy student mildly reinterpreting the third paragraph has a change he wants to make in his career and in his field.
He’s been told that if he does enough work, the kind of work other people before him have done, that he can get there.
It’s a lie. The only chance he has is to do The Work. The Work which no one before him has ever done. The Work which seeks to make a change. The Work that will lead him to his best five thousand words.
We all have a best five thousand words. Do The Work.
Thanks to Jodi Ettenberg for reading early drafts. As well as Steve Pressfield’s book The War of Art which, though not mentioned explicitly, is a tremendous part of this article.
Last Updated on July 30, 2019 by Taylor Pearson