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Finding the Difference Between "Labor" and "Work"

 I'm currently reading Lewis Hyde's wonderful book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. In it, he explores the nature of the "gift economy" vs. the market economy and how creative types are caught in between these two fundamentally different ways of operating in the world. 7dwarves.gif

One of the issues Hyde discusses is the difference between labor and work. He says:

Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms--these are labors. . . Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended, but only to the extent of doing the groundwork or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, the labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn't do them. . . And labor, because it sets its own pace, is usually accompanied by idleness, leisure, even sleep. . .

When I speak of labor, then, I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life, rather than by society, something that is often urgent, but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior than work.

What occurred to me in exploring these passages is how often I try to turn my labors into work, wanting them to happen according to whatever--usually ambitious--external schedule I've established to accomplish the task. I then become frustrated and angry with myself when I cannot make myself, through force of will, accomplish that labor in the time I've allotted, according to the "rules" I've established.

Clearly I could as easily turn lead to gold. Making the labor of creativity and invention conform to the schedule and tasks of work is an impossible alchemy that I'm crazy to even try.

A fundamental problem we face in doing anything that is original or creative is understanding which part is work and which is labor. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has separated the two and expects us to be able to engage in our labors as though they were work. And all too often, we buy into this notion.

Question for the Day: Do you confuse "labor" with "work"?


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When I come up with a design and process for completing a course, I am laboring. I really let it flow. For larger courses, I use a chunking workbook to help me look at pieces without worrying about how the whole is shaping up.

When I finish the creative part, the labor, I can make a reasonable schedule for the work of actually making the vision a reality. What do I need to support the process of making this thing, and how long will it take to gather, assemble, or craft those parts?

My scheduling usually breaks down due to SME availability and commitment. However, things are due when they are due, and I try to produce something that is slightly less than perfect and slightly more than my own high expectations. I like to surprise myself as often as possible.

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