Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Rhythms of Work vs The Rhythms of Creative Labor

Though I am guilty of using it from time to time, I’ve never particularly cared for the word “productivity,” which is defined as (1) the “quality of being productive,” and (2) the “rate of output per unit.”While it’s easy to imagine how to control for output in certain contexts — say, turning out 100 widgets of equal quality from your factory each day — it’s much more difficult to guarantee that you’ll write 10 pages of exactly equal quality for your novel each day.
In other words, all work is not created equal. Willing yourself to suck it up and make that client call or do that distasteful admin task is one kind of work (very controllable), while pushing through a creative block to give something new to the world is another entirely (less controllable).

Which is why I want to share a wonderful passage I recently discovered in Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, wherein he makes an elegant distinction between “work” and “creative labor”:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus–these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… 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, labor has its own schedule.

[Hyde closes with this striking footnote.]

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

As creative professionals, it’s easy to confuse “work” and “labor” — both are a regular part of our everyday. But when we confuse one for the other, we create the illusion that “creative labor” can be willed, managed, or measured, when, in fact, it can only really be, as Hyde points out, beckoned.

We can do much to create the time, the space, and the expertise that lead to incredible creative work. But there is no silver bullet; there is no “time-saving device” or productivity system that is going to alter the rhythm of invention.

Sometimes we’re better off accepting that certain processes can’t be rushed. Then we can set aside the accomplish, accomplish, accomplish mindset of willpower, and find the stillness that will help us move forward.

What Do You Think?

Do you approach regular work and creative labor in different ways?

How do you find a natural creative rhythm?

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Time Management

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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