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Lewis Hyde on Work vs. Labor and the Pace of Creativity

On the osmosis of willful intention and flow.

After last year’s omnibus of 5 timeless books on fear and the creative process, a number of readers rightfully suggested an addition: Lewis Hyde’s 1979 classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, of which David Foster Wallace famously said, “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

One particular quote seems to resonate deeply with those of us who work in the loosely defined creative field.

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.

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.”

What seems to be the defining characteristic of labor, the differentiator that sets it apart from work, is that it involves, or can induce, a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow — a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for a pet project, or even spent 20 consecutive hours composing a love letter, you’ve experienced flow and you know labor.

Now, the question becomes, how do we bring this to work.

Published January 24, 2012




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