The Spell of Total Work: A Fairytale

Starring the Mischievous Magician, The Clever Ones, & a Band of Merry Pranksters

Merry Pranksters, circa 1964

Casting A Spell

Once upon a time, there lived a mischievous magician in a realm just above that of upright, ambulatory, hairless creatures who’d taken to calling themselves homo sapiens.

See the key in the upper-left corner?

One day the magician, slapping his knee, said to himself, “Well, let me see how wise these top-heavy creatures really are!”

“But how?”

He thought and thought until the answer struck him: “I’ve got it! I shall cast a spell on them and, by this means, I shall test them to see how wise they really are.”

And so he did, and from that day onward homo sapiens believed and felt that they were Workers.

The Early Days And The Clever Days

In The Early Days of Total Work, homo sapiens toiled long and hard because they believed and felt they had to.

A musical based on Studs Terkel’s interviews

Many said, “We must work the good part of each day, and we must work throughout much of our lives. Aye, this is our lot in life, and besides, tis so, work builds character.”

But then came what has since come to be known as The Clever Days. Some precocious homo sapiens anointed The Clever Ones got together and said, “Let us think philosophically.”

And forthwith they invented “meaningful work,” “purposeful work,” “socially impactful work,” and “mission-driven work.”

Marvelous! And thenceforth homo sapiens searched for meaning in work and — voila! — proclaimed it when they found or concocted it.

Next, The Clever Ones said, “Let us approach the matter as an artist would.”

Thus did they invent “creative work,” “inspiring work,” “thrilling projects,” “wondrous ideation fests,” and “cool collaborations.”

Don’t tell me you’ve never done this?

Thenceforth, homo sapiens, following in their train, aestheticized work for here, they felt, was where their innate creative capacities could shine! They thrilled to Post-it notes arranged in spirals on whiteboards, shouted with glee while being vulnerable in sharing circles, and carried around moleskin notebooks where they kept their hopes, dreams, and deadlines arranged in nice, neat columns.

Finally, The Clever Ones bethought themselves, “But one thing is missing…” And one came forward and said, “Yes! Yes! We must spiritualize work.”

Calling John Calvin (left) and Mr. Melancholia Martin Luther (right)…

And so they did, and thus was it proclaimed that work was a “calling” or a “vocation,” and, what’s more, as its peak it must needs carry transcendent value.

Thenceforth, many homo sapiens saw the work they did in terms of how it connected them with the Bigger Picture, with something, as they often said, that was “greater than themselves.” Some ached to get closer to this Bigger Picture through their work while others reported to have aligned themselves completely with this glorious vision.

In this way, The Clever Days were built on top of the The Early Days, and the soap opera starring Workers got more interesting.

A Surprising Spectacle

“Wha-ho!,” exclaimed the mischievous magician with surprised delight.

“But look at how clever these Clever Ones truly are! And look at how the rest, having been allured by such spellbinding storytelling, are following suit!”

For the mischievous magician, not himself all-knowing or all-powerful, had, until then, had no idea how his little experiment would unfold nor how much homo sapiens would unwittingly help it along.

“What a spectacle!” he shouted while dancing about in amusement.

Fo what the magician clearly saw was how homo sapiens had meticulously enlisted the thinking capacity of the mind on behalf of the body to perform actions. All day long, minds — nay, the Collective Mind — raced about, dreaming up actionable ideas — projects, startups, accelerators, massive disruptors! — and the body undertook those actions all in the name of the hallowed Doer.

In those days, homo sapiens was held captive by a picture.

Pseudo-introspective Days

Then came a most curious turn of events for the mischievous magician: homo sapiens ultimately turned around and made themselves into projects.

From the time of Pseudo-introspective Days onward, agents submitted their minds and bodies to a ceaseless regime of what they called self-care — if the body was in question — and self-optimization — if the mind was the central target.

This, indeed, was a time when a thousand flowers bloomed as Instagram allowed yoginis in bikinis to bare their bodies all for the sake of “vulnerability,” “transparency,” “growth,” and “self-care” while technologists’ personal websites recounted their life design regimens, their fasting routines, and their adroit summaries of the books they’d read and shared Amazon links to.

Work, indeed, had become a spiritual quest — but for what?

“No longer,” those of the Early Days bemoaned, “is it enough for us homo sapiens to make the world into a project. Now — for many! — the Self has become a project whose aesthetic — yea, ascetic — aim is endless improvement.” The vanishing point, occasionally whispered yet rarely spoken of, had become Nebulous Perfection.

But nobody listened to those fuddy-duddies from the Early Days.

Such was how the Self become the self-enclosed feedback loop that it is today: the Self as Worker, the world as the Worker’s product, and the Self as the temple of work.

The Makers of Keys

Until one day when a Merry Band of Contemplators — otherwise known among themselves anyway as Merry Pranksters — were joking around and one of them said, “What if work were a swear word?”

Jaws dropped.

“Come on, hear me out,” the speaker went on as the spell lifted from her eyes.

“Must this multifarious thing we call work be what we do during the largest swath of each day? Throughout the biggest chunk of our waking lives? And must we work on ourselves to boot? Geez, what’s the big fuss? Isn’t the whole thing, ya know, kinda trivial, jejune, mundane, diurnal? And, besides, is this really why we’re here — is this our very raison d’etre?”

Other Merry Pranksters, after assiduously consulting the dictionary, got the joke and laughed. The spell, immediately, was broken.

“We must be mad!” one of them shouted with wild-eyed glee.

“Then let’s be boldly mad!” another rejoined.

“Yes, let’s!” they agreed.

And so, they decided that it’d be a great lark indeed to go around and stop people and hand them a key.

Most would throw it away, but some would halfheartedly humor them.

“To what?” a hurried person, caught between stopping and pressing on, would say while mumbling something to herself about vagabonds.

“To liberation from a spell, from bondage, from prison,” one would reply with a smirk. “Go ahead and read the back.”

“Work… is… not… why… I’m… Here,” would read the hurried person, struggling to make out the words. “I… am… not… the Doer….” “Then…WhoAmI…?”

“All right, what does any of this mean?” she’d reply with impatience for she was about to be late for an important meeting or workout or both.

“See for yourself. We hope to greet you on the other side.”

Would The Spell Be Broken?

Now THIS is human evolution!

And now the mischievous magician, more intrigued than ever, found that he could do nothing but binge-watch Homo Sapiens TV as little keys were sprinkled here and there about the realm of homo sapiens.

Upon finding these keys, some homo sapiens, sufficiently perplexed by what they read, just sat there in bewilderment, not knowing what to make of it.

Special thanks to Jonny Miller for planting the seed for this piece. During my discussion with him on his Curious Humans Podcast, he opens with a poem by Hafiz about a sage who keeps “dropping keys all night long for the beautiful, rowdy prisoners.”

And thanks also to Jim Rutt for his evocative essay on GameB, “A Journey to GameB.” In such circles, it’s not uncommon to hear that education is a — or the — leverage point for GameB. It seems to me that work may be a better leverage point.

Practical Philosopher, Ph.D. | Rinzai Zen Buddhist ( | Examining What Technologists Are Taking For Granted

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store