About a year ago, investors gave $40 million to the 20-person software firm I work for. The deal was typical of Silicon Valley in that no one would make out unless the company became worth about 10 figures; anything less would be a failure. So the arrival of the money felt less like a windfall than a hand grenade: Act fast or it all blows up. It had the effect, in other words, that capital is supposed to have in capitalism. It manufactured urgency.
Until that point, my job as a programmer had felt more like high minded play, a series of tough puzzles to take on with a small team of co-workers I liked. We were building a website founded by three college friends that explained rap and other lyrics with line-by-line annotations; then the website grew to annotate texts of all kinds, from Shakespeare’s plays to CEOs’ letters of resignation. We worked out of a block of New York apartments and held our meetings in each other’s living rooms.
Initially, the investment came as a relief; my first thought was that we wouldn’t have to fight anymore. It felt like a guarantee that we would have our cushy jobs forever. I did some back of the envelope math and saw that when you split $40 million among 20 people, you have enough to pay each person a six-figure salary for 20 years. I thought that’s what we might do—dole it out slowly. Go on walks, shoot the bull and, on occasion, create. A mini utopia.
But in an instant, the project took on an urgency so out of proportion to our work that it felt unreal. We’d been trying to make our website a little better day by day; now we were challenged to make it part of the fabric of the internet itself, to create something worth a billion dollars. As it turns out, it’s nearly impossible to create something worth a billion dollars. Getting an enormous check that makes the day’s idle tasks seem to suddenly matter—to be caught up in the sweep of something big—may sound like every white collar worker’s fantasy. But maybe all it did was complicate a perfectly pleasant game.
In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, philosopher Bernard Suits defends the idea that if we were free from having to meet basic needs such as food and shelter, what we’d mostly do is play games. Suits defines games broadly as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” Golf is a game because the fastest way to get a golf ball into a 4.25-inch hole is by hand; instead, golfers use clubs and tee off from hundreds of yards away. When you buy into the arbitrary rules that make a game possible—when you accept a game’s illusion—you “adopt the lusory attitude,” as Suits puts it. The lusory attitude is strong magic. It compels adults to swing metal wedges at grass as if their lives depend on it, and it transforms wastepaper baskets into sites of high challenge with Olympian stakes. For those of us whose jobs involve no tangible building, no obvious service to people we can see and touch, it may also be what gets us up in the morning for work.
It’s hard to admit that work is nothing more than a Suitsian game, one in which the score is kept in dollars, because that estranges us from the carefully guarded fiction that all the stuff we refer to as our “work” is important. The problem is that we take our jobs both too seriously and not seriously enough—too seriously to admit that jobs are, more or less, a series of arbitrary obstacles; that for many of us, the hundreds of actions obscured by the word work are elaborate ways we’ve invented to pass the time. But we don’t take our work seriously enough to realize just how much of ourselves we give to it, that passing time is all life is.
We choose our jobs because we think that through them we will garner greater respect or higher pay or because they seem to be jobs that successful people do. We invest our work with high-flown notions of progress and purpose, duty and strain. But if we’re serious about how we’re spending our time alive, we should pick the job that offers the game we most like to play, the one whose goals and rules we most believe in.
That much can be hard to justify when the stakes of your job ratchet up as suddenly as mine did. My company now has a fast metabolism. It’s willing to fire people. A countdown clock was hung in the lunchroom; it was reprogrammed several times, each time targeting a day we were supposed to unveil something new. We are constantly unveiling new things but never quickly enough, and what we unveil is never good enough. These days I worry a good deal about work. Did I forget to remind our recruiter about that candidate? Should I have spent three days doing that project? Is my code sloppy? I spend my days indoors, slightly agitated, under pressure, with the dread of failure in my heart. And I’m one of the luckiest people in this economy.
It’s tempting to find fault with a system that never lets you relax. Capitalism is restless. It presses always to the edge. It works only when—and because—firms outdo and outbid one another. The result is that no matter how much wealth you have, there’s always some reason to get up in the morning and feel stressed out. When someone invents a way to make twice as much in half the time, nobody gets twice the vacation. We get harder problems. But that turns out to be the saving grace, because harder problems make for better games.
If you imagine a job without any stress—a game with no stakes—you’re imagining one you quit. “I wish to preach not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life,” began Theodore Roosevelt in a famous speech to the Hamilton Club. “When men fear work… they tremble on the brink of doom.” If you think a $40 million investment in your company is a ticket to utopia, then you have missed the point of life, games and utopia. Forty million dollars is not a retirement fund—it’s a ticket to a game almost no one gets to play, the privilege to be stupidly ambitious. When you work for a website and you say, “We’re going to become an indelible part of the culture,” you are deluded. But it’s one of the best delusions money can buy.