All Work and No Play, Per Gray

MUST read this piece first to play along: Instead of “Job Creation,” How About Less Work? Increased automation has not reduced our workload. Why not? What if it did? Posted Nov 26, 2016 Peter Gray

This is such a utopian view of a “what if” future perfect that most sane and logical people immediately pooh-pooh it. That’s why I like it. Most of the “we can’t because” boo-birds bring up are excuses, not reasons. But it does take some incredibly visionary thinking to see the possibilities. And it will take some serious work toward big changes to seize the big opportunities.
Gray traces our devolution from hunter-gatherers to beasts of burden serving the 20th century economic model, through the ever-evolving current reality and re-birth where a hunter-gatherer society of child-like play may make sense again.

So, what’s wrong with work?

Start with the disappearing concept of “adding value”. Value to what? Value used to be defined as a product or service that someone would be willing to pay for. But “stuff of value” is more and more produced with high-efficiency automation and very little human labor. What good are we if we aren’t kept busy making or doing value-adding “stuff”?

People must still work for a paycheck to support their families, right? A new generation of work has come along—IT, bottom feeder leisure industry (computer-based games, home entertainment… most folks can’t afford high-end diversions), service jobs (root word: “serve” as in subservient). Financial and insurance sectors have huge numbers of people doing administrivial work—collecting and analyzing mountains of data, creating and issuing all kinds of reports for unknown “users” who immediately delete the work, pushing all kinds of non value-adding info that is intended to help manage something somewhere that actually has “value”. But what value does money and information by itself have? It’s the use of those things that adds value. Armies of other administrators’ existence is somewhat justified because it takes an army to make sense of inefficiencies, disorganization and an overkill of rules and regulations, and it takes a badgillion customer service reps working 24 / 7 trying to keep customers from becoming mass murderers because of those inefficiencies. (why am I thinking “Idiocracy”?)

Huge corporate law firms with huge staffs help huge corporations get away with working huge loopholes in the system to make huge profits so they can pay huge legal fees. The whole loop exists to enable generating non-product with no value. Another army—hired hitmen, lobbyists whose purpose is to grease gears and palms so all that artificial non-value is easier to generate and hoard. A famous longhaired progressive activist once chased money-changers out of the temple. We need another. Oh, just one more army: market researchers, the advertising industry and feet-on-the-street (and cyberspace) sales folks hell-bent on manipulating markets (people!) and packaging and selling non-value stuff.

One of the fads of the process improvement world was “customer focus”–identify customers and what was important to them—their expectations, needs and wants. Then do what’s needed to meet those criteria. The idea was that it would make workers more conscious of what they were doing if there was a real person at the end of their process chain. But what if there was no real person at the end of the chain? Or what if the customer really didn’t care about what you produced, but they had simply been conditioned to buy, buy, buy anyway?

Too many working adults are stuck in a job they can clearly see has no real value in furthering the greater social good, or impacting the grand scheme of things in any way. Work with no purpose. But humans need purpose, need meaning, need to feel they’re making a difference. When there is no purpose, it’s natural for people to get jaded, cynical, uncaring, worn down, worn out, quit, die. We’re dying. What if those stuck in no-value, no-purpose work were redirected toward providing something the world wants and needs? Their individual mojo would be rejuvenated, as would the world’s.

If the Goal is Less Work and More Play, Then What Needs To Change?
Not Much–Just a Few Silly Attitudes and Minor System Tweaks

A few thoughts for starters….

  • Redefine “work” as something with real purpose that adds real value for others and / or improves the condition of the world and / or society. As technological advances and automation takes care of the menial stuff, working on further technological advances adds value because it frees up humanity’s time!
  • No more “I am my job, I am nothing without my job” thinking. Work is a means to a greater end unless a person’s work is something they enjoy that happens to make the world, society, others better. (remember the old Venn diagram on “job happiness”?) My life’s work is to eliminate violence and bullying by championing social-emotional development.
  • Rethink and expand the meaning of “value” from being only a thing / material $$$ transaction-driven concept. Social value and artistic / aesthetic value, environmental and ecological value!
  • Redesign the monetary distribution model of “work 40 hours (or more) to earn your paycheck”. Why does 40+ hours of “work” constitute “full-time employment” anyway?
    There’s not enough meaningful work to go around, because our priority and our passion is profit-generating work. But there’s tons of meaningful “work” opportunities– community, social, environmental, infrastructure things needing attention. Engage people in doing good things, and pay them accordingly. While we’re at it, reinvent “pay”. Money has no value on its own but we literally kill ourselves and others over it. Broader: “currency” is something that is used as a medium of exchange. Exchange of what, for what?
  • Redefine “affluence” from having a lot of stuff for its own sake, to having what you need to be happy…how about “sufficience?” Move past the mindless pursuit of a high standard of living and focus on quality of life instead, starting with defining the individual’s values-based vision of “fulfilled” then right-sizing needs accordingly. Prerequisite: redefine what level of “success” is socially acceptable. So it comes down to an individual values and social perception shift;
  • Rethink brick-in-the wall forced education and the standard curriculum that makes school labor –tedious, compulsory work. Learning should be fun, should come naturally. Same with work;
  • Ditch crass capitalism and profit for its own sake. Demote the 1% and elevate the 99%.
    Scrap our material and transaction-based economy and the norms that go with it, norms like “work hard, get paid, get lots of stuff, support family, be a prolific provider”. Break the trance-the marketing / advertising-driven thirst for conspicuous consumption, material affluence, accumulating stuff that has no real value (see Jagger Consulting’s “Satisfaction” piece);
  • Re-invent corporate entities with the sole purpose of generating profit for investors, corporations with no value-adding meaning justifying their existence! OOPS, need to re-think investors and the investments industry, and making money playing “the market”. There’s those money-changers again! Thinking out loud: how about a reinvestment tax credit, investing in and diverting corporate profits to an approved fund to be used for the greater good?
  • Reinvent government by the people, for the people with people and planet as top priorities;
    Bring back the institutions of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy…

This sound like capitalism must go. I agree, partially—capitalism in its current form is destructive. Money is OK, money does no evil. What people do or don’t do with it is the issue. Let’s get our really smart business people and economists busy reinventing capitalism!)

Gray closes with a challenge: So, instead of trying so hard to preserve work, why don’t we solve the distribution problem (getting paid for a 40hr week as the only way to do things), cut way back on work, and allow ourselves to play?
Good question.


“Solving the distribution problem” isn’t a cakewalk and there’s lots of other stuff that needs to happen too. I’ve shared my quick take of what needs to change just for starters. What’s missing? And how in the world are we going to do all that? Think about these bullets as goal statements then brainstorm: “what’s it gonna take?” And remember, one of the ground rules of brainstorming is “never say it can’t be done.”

(BONUS) Sneak Peek at Klitgaard: a look at basically the same thinking, slightly different angle.

Many people, affluent and poor, lead hectic and harried lives, struggling at jobs devoid of meaning and often socially and environmentally counterproductive (such as weapons manufacture, hydraulic fracturing, or financial speculation) in order to command a paycheck. In a sustainable society, work should be meaningful as well as steady and productive. Meaningful work allows people to unite their heads, their hands, and their hearts. People should have a say in the design of what they make or do, a variety of challenging tasks, and the opportunity for self-direction.
Unfortunately, the logic of capital accumulation has created work that is much the opposite—routine, without mental exercise, let alone purpose or joy—all in the name of producing more goods and services at ever-lower cost.
The Struggle for Meaningful Work

UPDATE: Johan sent a graphic with his reply (below). Since pics cannot be included in replies here it is! I’d like to suggest that on the “Child” side “work” and “play” are more overlapping and very possibly concurrent!

Johan Work and Play



11 thoughts on “All Work and No Play, Per Gray

  1. Pingback: School and Work—One Big Prison System? | One Pond-Ripples

  2. creativeinterchange

    Hallo Craig,

    I’ve first read P(et)er Gray’s article and I agree on most of what he writes. Some thoughts though:

    1) The cultural ethos that says “people must work for what they get” is much older than the industrial revolution. I could even argue that it can be traced back to the expulsion of Adam & Eve from the Garden of Eden, where ‘work’ is the reaction of the source Creative Interchange (i.e. God) to Vicious Circle behavior of Adam & Eve.
    2) I fully agree that we are designed to play and not to work (Garden of Eden story before the Vicious Circle did set in).
    3) Peter Gray is a bit too optimistic regarding the hunter-gatherer bands. I have the intuitive feeling that some cruel wars were sometimes going on between bands and tribes and that was definitely no play.
    4) And like so many before him – for instance Sir Ken Robinson – Peter Gray seems to miss the point that the playfulness of little children diminishes already before they’re send to school!

    Your “No more ‘I am my job'” made me think of the paragraph ‘Labels’ in Anthony de Mello SJ ‘s remarkable book “Awareness: a de Mello spirituality conference in his own words’ (New York, Image book published by Doubleday, 1992). If you don’t find it on the internet, I can send it to you by email.

    Finally ‘Work and Play’ was an item of Charlie Palmgren and Stacie Hagan’s three day work shop: “Re-minding People To Change Their Minds” (1995). I’ll try to attach a picture that explains beautifully the difference between the ‘Work and Play’ in de case of a child and an adult. BTW, the periods between work phases are not called ‘Play’ in the ‘adult’ world. Those periods are called ‘Break’. If I can’t insert the picture here I’ll send it through LinkedIn DM.



  3. Craig Post author

    Johan–thanks for the graphic! Since pics cannot be included in replies I edited the post to run the picture! I’d like to suggest that on the “Child” side “work” and “play” are more overlapping and very possibly concurrent!

    1. creativeinterchange

      Craig, Indeed and for the sake of cleanness of the comparison child vs adult the picture is as it is. One could even argue that for the child all work is play; even the play that produces a tangible outcome, that we tend to call ‘work’. This untill … the Vicious Circle sets in!

      Thirty years ago I created out of my ‘hobby’ my new ‘job’. Splendid, the problem was … that I had no hobby any more…


      1. Craig Post author

        Where is the “like” button? Oh, that’s for Facebook and LinkedIn….

        Regarding the Vicious Cycle, are all of those components (in your gear diagram, Johan) inventions of the “grown-up” world? Children are naturally inclined to prefer the opposite of those traits. You noted earlier, Johan, that “the playfulness of little children diminishes already before they’re send to school!”
        But,,,why? In my opinion it’s because our child-rearing practices are based on what we learned as “the right way” in school, which is FULL of vicious cycle elements.

        For the child, all work is play….WHY can’t we be more child-like? Because the vicious cycle is perfected as we get older!

        SO–the solution! Elevate those Vicious Circle elements–make people aware of the serious damage the V.C. is doing to their emotional well-being, thus their HEALTH and long life. Attack the V.C, eliminate the elements. And, by the way, realize a HIGHER level of performance excellence. Plenty of studies have validated that!
        As Spock would say, “Live long and prosper” and also go forth and do good work!

      2. Craig Post author

        Johan…”Thirty years ago I created out of my ‘hobby’ my new ‘job’. Splendid, the problem was … that I had no hobby any more…”
        What a terrible problem to have–doing something you enjoy for a living! The ideal ” work sweet spot” is (1) doing something that you love, (2) that the world needs, (3) that you are good at and (4) that SOMEONE is willing to pay for.
        Wouldn’t that kind of “work” be “play”?

  4. creativeinterchange

    Regarding the components of the Vicious Circle:
    Not ALL components are inventions of the ‘grown-up’ world, in fact one is not and that is WORTH
    Charlie’s definition of ‘Intrinsic’ Worth: It is the capacity to participate in transforming creativity. Worth is innate, Worth is a constant. Your worth is unconditional. In truth, your worth is a given.
    So, Craig, worth is inherently in every human being! And, Craig, you never have been and you never will be worth more than you were at the moment of your birth.
    The Vicious Circle starts the moment your worth becomes ‘conditional’ and that’s an invention of the ‘grown-up’ world. And I guess that starts when the child is not even one year old. So it’s not the school who’s first to blame, Craig! Stop with that nonsense. Worth becomes conditional the moment the parents make clear to the child – that can’t speak yet and has known unconditional worth till then – that the child is worth while IF … the child stops pouring your orange juice on the floor (the child is creatively discovering Newton’s law – gravity and wonders if this law is always valid). The patience of the parents has its limits and …. the unconditional worth becomes conditional…Off course the child continuous its play untill…. it’s rejected by the parents, grandparents, …;

    So the VC starts its devastating work at the age of 8 months (my guess). And the VC is perfected when we’re getting older (the parts inadequacy, Roles and Culture Game) and when the child is growing up the demands and expectations raise… Please see The Chicken conspiracy for the full story. Indeed the VC is perfected when we’re getting older and older (the right side of the VC).

    Regarding your ‘solution’ that’s what I’ve been doing the last twenty years! And please understand that what you call ‘attacking’ the VC = living Creative Interchange from within.

    Regarding my job (since 1988 till last year) it encompassed ALL four characteristics of your ‘sweet spot’! And … even playing can wear you out!!!

    1. Craig Post author

      Clarifications coming! Too bad we can’t just ring up and talk about this.

      I’ve been confused by the gear diagram. Maybe I am viewing it wrong? I’m NOT trying to reinvent things-this is just how I was intuitively seeing the diagram. This is how it appears to me….
      The right gear is the Creative Interchange, with positive driving energy coming from Appreciative Understanding; Authentic Interaction; Continuous Improving; and Creative Integration.
      The left gear is the “vicious circle” that is driven by negative forces like rejection, inadequacy, demands / expectations, frustrations etc. These negatives are opposing forces working against the Creative Interchange It is these that I referenced as inventions of the “grown-up” world
      Both gears are pictured traveling counter-clockwise…you SBE, we both know that doesn’t work so well!

      Last, to me it would make more sense if “Worth” was the label for the positive energy gear on the right—Creative Interchange

      My thought about parenting – parents are not born with the knowledge of what they need to expect of their children and how they need to raise their children. They learn through socialization, which a good part comes from peers, schools and parents. The evil vicious cycle is deeply rooted!

      1. creativeinterchange

        Why shouldn’t we be able to ring and each other? Don’t they have Skype or ooVoo in your part of the world?
        In a comment on one of your recent columns I gave an explanation of the two gears and I thought I have advised you to read the ‘chicken conspiracy’.

        The right gear is indeed the Creative Interchange process and the left gear the Vicious Circle process.
        And indeed the Vicious Circle explains how we get disconnected from our Intrinsic Worth through the ‘domesticating/parenting’ of the child, first by its parents and afterwords by nannies, teachers,… Therefor the place of WORTH is definitely on the left gear!
        Both gears are working backwards to make sure that the reader get’s out of his comfort zone.
        Their working backwards because it ain’t so easy to stay into the FLOW (another word for Creative Interchange).
        If more energy is put into the Creative Interchange Process its’ gear is forcing the Vicious Circle gear to travel clockwise until hopefully we are re-connected (finally!) with our Intrinsic Worth, which will help us to live Creative Interchange more easily from within!
        Our Intrinsic Worth is an element of our Creative Self. Unfortunately we are not our Creative Self any more, we have become our Created Self.
        That parents are not born with all that knowledge (re. raising children) is an evidence. The real problem is that they have never learned to raise children due to the Vicious Circle.
        BTW to become an Engineer I had to study a decade, to become a parent no study was required…
        Hope this helps you to understand the sophistication of the picture of the two gears…

      2. Craig Post author

        “They” have Skype and other hi-tech communication methods in my world but I am technologically challenged, limited to either this, or smoke signals / Morse code!

        One of my little enjoyments in life is to attempt my own interpretations of diagrams or text, then check to see how close my intuition is. But I never assume that I have it all right and the “creator” has it all wrong!

        If thinking doesn’t evolve and if knowledge doesn’t grow things get boring. To me the real value of any diagram is that a picture is a means to self-discovery and group ownership of learning. When two people or a small group looks at the same thing, then discuss “what do you see”? there will be differences in perception, and a good deal to learn from others. The real danger is that people can have conflict…. “I am right and you are wrong”. With that danger, I am STILL going to share my impression of the gears based on your clarification! Here’s what I see….

        To me, both gears depict “worth”. On the right (CI gear) is positive forces, or Worth Generators. On the left is the nasty Vicious Circle gear with Worth Detractors / Disruptors / Destroyers depending on how strong each force is.

        The two opposing gears are in direct conflict, shown by the impossible direction of travel of the two gears. Here is the most important statement I have seen so far, Johan…” If more energy is put into the Creative Interchange Process its’ gear is forcing the Vicious Circle gear to travel clockwise until hopefully we are re-connected (finally!) with our Intrinsic Worth”. Now, about forcing…. FORCING!
        Is the “best” solution to apply more FORCE, more energy and effort into the CI gear, make it work harder resulting in the CI gear being stronger / wearing down the resistance caused by the VC gear? Or, is it more appropriate to relieve some of the opposing Vicious Circle force, to allow the movement of the CI gear to be more free-more flowing? At minimum the two gears must be synchronized or eventual mechanical failure is unavoidable.

        The ideal would be to eliminate the VC gear altogether…or would it? Maybe the VC gear serves as a brake, so the CI gear does not travel completely and dangerously out-of-control?

        I’ve done enough damage for now…this is fun!

      3. creativeinterchange

        That you’re technologically challenged IS pity!!! Although challenged by him, the Mehrabian rule (myth) contains some truth. That’s one of the main cornerstones of my statement: ‘Dialogue and Social Media … no good marriage’. The fact that we have only words in our conversation – words that contain a minority percentage of the full meaning of the message – we always blow them up to a full hundred percent adding our interpretations. This brings sometimes joy and more times misery.

        Regarding my daughter’s diagram (the ‘gears’). She basically joined two of Charlie Palmgren’s diagrams into one. So for a good understanding the CI diagram and the VC diagram are Charlie’s not mine, nor Daphne’s. And diagrams are like models and you certainly know George EP Box quote: “Essentially, all models are wrong and some are useful”.

        If we want to learn from diagrams we should have more than only text and as been said this seems not possible in our conversation, which is a same. And, if we don’t have what we love, we’d love what we do have!

        And since my latest book called Crucial Dialogues was based on another book ‘Crucial conversations’ (4 Americans – you certainly know that book) and on a second one of a Dutch fellow (Lex Bos) and on a third one ‘Man’s Ultimate Commitment’ (HN Wieman) and on a fourth one ‘The Chicken Conspiracy’ (Hagan & Palmgren) – I do know that a discussion (your conflict) stems from different interpretations of the same reality AND the fact that both of the two are claiming “I am right and you are wrong”. BTW, I wear a tattoo on my forehead: “I do not own the truth”!

        And of course, Craig, both of the gears depict ‘worth’. Did you not see my other clarification regarding Charlie’s definition of “worth”?

        Furthermore, I hope my meaning
        Won’t be lost or misconstrued
        But I repeat myself
        At the risk of being crude
        Paul Simon – 50 ways to leave your lover

        Charlie’s definition of ‘Intrinsic’ Worth: It is the capacity to participate in transforming creativity.

        And participate in transforming creativity is living Creative Interchange from within!

        Please do understand that two gear’s do NOT function at the same time, or at least, the force delivered to the axes of the two gears is not the same. That’s why the direction of the travel of the two gears IS possible and both directions of course NOT at the SAME time. One (CI/VC) has more energy than the other (VC/CI).

        Regarding your comment on my comment “If more energy is put into the Creative Interchange Process its’ gear is forcing the Vicious Circle gear to travel clockwise until hopefully we are re-connected (finally!) with our Intrinsic Worth” I think that you have finally appreciatively understood the ‘functioning’ of the two gears since you paraphrases what I intended to convey as follows: “Is the “best” solution to apply more FORCE, more energy and effort into the CI gear, make it work harder resulting in the CI gear being stronger / wearing down the resistance caused by the VC gear? Or, is it more appropriate to relieve some of the opposing Vicious Circle force, to allow the movement of the CI gear to be more free-more flowing?”

        Both are possible solutions to the gear problem and please remember Yoda’s name for CI: “The Force”!

        And may I closing underline, Craig, that
        a) The ideal world does not exist, thus the VC gear will never be fully eliminated;
        b) The CI process can’t be controlled from the outside in. We can engage in Creative Interchange and we cannot steer it to one or other ‘outcome’. If you’re trying to control Creative Interchange you’re acting from your Vicious Circle!

        And as you can see, you did not do any damage!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s