Work wants to own your soul

Work wants to own your need to grow, and your need to build, and your need to love.

Work wants to own your soul
Photo by Stefano Pollio / Unsplash

A few weeks back I asked on Twitter why folks thought that burnout was so common in the software industry. There were a couple of recurring themes, but one response in particular really stood out to me, and I've been thinking about it ever since.

I'm not well-read enough in Marx to confidently summon the correct quote, but this is, surface-level, Marxist alienation. We are alienated from our labor. We don't meet, see, engage with, commune with, the people who are helped by the work we do on software systems. In many cases the work we do never helps anyone; much of our work is thrown away, either as a result of positive learning, a result of incompetence, or both.

The work is a means to an end: the paycheck, and the things we can purchase with it. This compounds with the cognitive dissonance of corporate incentive systems – the gap between what our own senses tell us would produce value, what we are directed to do, and what we are incentivized to do. Whether we perceive that gap clearly, the gap exists, and it nibbles at us.

Human beings run in cycles. At a reader recommendation, I just finished Burnout, which identifies "uncompleted" stress cycles as a cause of burnout. A stress cycle is "completed" when we encounter a stressful situation, get a big dose of stress chemicals, resolve the situation, and then do the physical things that signal to our body that we are safe, the threat has passed, we can clear out those chemicals and reset our system. When we don't perform that final step, stress builds up, and damages us.

Alienated work is a rich source of these incomplete cycles. We expend effort, focus our will, develop our skills, solve problems, work through frustration – and then in many cases never see the results of our work, never mind benefit from them. We never get satisfaction, completion.

When there is work we find interesting, and its output compelling, it's almost worse. Instead of focusing on that work, serving those people, we spend huge amounts of time on... waiting for tests to run. Arguing about PRs. Configuring networks. Debugging YAML spacing errors. Watching training videos. Getting interrupted.

And we're supposed to be grateful for it, thankful to have the opportunity to waste our time contributing to the minor enrichment of some idiot billionaire, because we're being paid so much damn money.

Construction workers on top of a building, with plants in the foreground
Photo by Kin Li / Unsplash

My partner used to hate the word "compensation," when used in conversations about pay. "You're not compensating me," he would say, "You're paying me. Compensation is something you get when you're injured."


Work injures us. That's part of what we're getting paid for.

Writing software, for money, can't satisfy our need to build things, our need to be useful to society, our need to be useful to other humans. Work may be an arena in which we can get those needs met, but it's not what we're being paid for.

We're being paid for our time, and our attention, to show up at a particular time and a particular place, to do what we're told, to make the person who manages us happy, to make the person who manages us look good.

We are not being paid to satisfy our need to build. We are not being paid to build.

This is part of what bugs me about software engineering management. When I was a manager, when I was being managed, I got a lot of talk about "meeting people's core needs." Mastery, autonomy, and purpose. I was supposed to help my reports with that. Work was supposed to help with that.

It's bullshit. The whole point of work is, I give up a little bit (or a lot) of autonomy, and in exchange, work gives me money. If I can also find some mastery, and some purpose, in and amongst the daily tasks of work, that's great, that's a bonus. But for me at least, seeking "purpose" at work, being guided towards that by my manager, was a trap. "Purpose" blurred the boundaries between me and my work, me and my coworkers, led to attachment that didn't serve me, to things outside of my control. Confused the essential nature of the transaction.

I've been reading Where's Your Ed At, by Ed Zitron, and while there's a lot wrong with in the usual way that things are wrong with writing that's published daily, there's one idea that Ed hammers on that's really, really right: Work wants to own your soul.

Work wants to own all your time, and all your attention. Work wants to own your recovery time, and your shower thoughts. It wants to own your need to grow, and your need to build, and your need to love.

And I don't know a way out of that, you know? I don't have One Weird Trick for holding onto myself inside of wage labor. I'm trying to find one. Let me know if you've got any leads.