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90 hours a week. And loving It!’ Do you know where this quotation comes from? It’s pretty famous. If you identified it as the inscription on the sweatshirt worn by the Apple Macintosh team in 1983, you win a point. Now, on to question 2, which is multiple choice. When you first heard about the Apple Macintosh team wearing a sweatshirt which read ‘90 hours a week. And loving it!’ Was your immediate reaction

  • A. ‘Only 90 hours?! Tim Cook does 130, you lazy toe-rags! It’s no wonder you had time to idly sit around designing sweatshirts.’ 
  • B. ‘Lucky things; I wish my job were that fascinating.’
  • C. Really? I don’t think you are loving it. I think you’re wearing those sweatshirts as a cry for help.’

If you answered ‘C’, congratulations! You win a point! 

That is now the end of the quiz. If you scored 2 points, and we really do depend on honesty here, then click here to claim your prize.

Let’s analyse this a bit. When you genuinely love something, do you normally declare it in writing on your clothing? I mean, yes, you might wear a t-shirt announcing your fandom of a cartoon but it would just feature a logo or a picture; you wouldn’t actually have it printed with ‘I’ve seen Dora the Explorer 90 times this week. And I love it! You wouldn’t do that, because people would think you were insane. Not insanely great, just insane. Or they might think that you were being forced to watch Dora the Explorer by an aggressive toddler and you had ordered the t-shirt as a subtle signal to other adults that you were in need of rescue; is that what was going on here? Another possibility is that they were suffering from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. What we do know is that something compelled them to have these sweatshirts made and show just how much they were loving their awesome jobs! 

There are lots of taboos in the world of work. There are so many elephants in so many rooms that it can be almost impossible to book a meeting. The most obvious of these taboos is that we might not love our jobs. We know it must be the case for many people but we all collude in the collective pretence that we genuinely get a kick out of being part of a team with a mission to leverage key synergies for all stakeholders. There are probably many plausible explanations as to why we do this but I think, certainly in anglophone countries, Calvinism has a lot to answer for. 

Max Weber was a German philosopher and economist and is widely regarded as being the first writer to promulgate the argument that Calvinism was an important precursor to capitalism; it certainly looked that way when he published his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism in 1905. It seemed that wherever protestantism had taken root (Northern Europe), capitalism had soon followed. His hypothesis was slightly tortured because Calvinism was pretty antithetical to the acquisitiveness of capitalism, but he rationalised that away by invoking predestination – the idea that whether you would end up in heaven or hell was determined before you were born. With predestination, there are clues about whether God favours you or not, clues such as material success, so if you managed to attain wealth, you could be sure you were in His good books. Capitalism, then, wouldn’t change your destination, but it would make it clear to you and everyone else where you were going. Seems like a bit of a gamble to me but I suppose capitalism is often associated with risk-taking.

As I said, the argument looks flimsy in places, but whether or not Weber had the cause and effect down pat, it does ring true that we live in a culture that celebrates work for the sake of work. ‘Hard work is its own reward’ is a well known proverb and was once echoed by Michelle Obama when she said that ‘how hard you work matters more than how much you make’. There’s nothing especially wrong with that but, well… is it not ok to just value the product of work? Is the work itself supposed to be fun as well? Is this really what John Calvin wanted? I think the messaging may have got a bit confused at some point. When he proclaimed, ‘you must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy’, he wasn’t saying there should be ping-pong at the office, he was saying you will only really enjoy table tennis if you’ve experienced true suffering. He was right, of course; table tennis is only fun if you’re the sort of lost soul who goes around high-fiving people. We don’t need to have fun at work; we need to leave work at a healthy hour, with our dignity intact, to go and have actual fun with people we love.

Productivity is wonderful because it really is its own reward. There is alchemy in a few lumps of wood becoming a beautiful cabinet, words forming poetry, people collaborating across borders and oceans to produce the world’s first free encyclopaedia. Work is sublime when it is combined with vision, tenacity, artistry and collaboration; without those things it is just drudgery. Adding mandated fun to drudgery doesn’t make it better but worse, like spraying deodorant on rotting meat; it’s inappropriate and futile and sickening.  

This is what I find so incongruous about those Apple sweatshirts: that group of twenty-somethings was in the process of creating what they believed, even in those early days, would change the world. How accurately they foresaw the future of Apple back then, of the graphical user interface, of computers in every home (let alone pocket) is uncertain, but they must have had some idea. So why did they feel the need to sink to the desperate, grinning sycophancy of those sweatshirts? Maybe it really was a cry for help. I don’t know, but the best riposte was made by the Apple II group. A week later, as competition between the rival teams continued to intensify, they were to be seen on the Apple campus wearing their own t-shirts, which were emblazoned with these long forgotten words:

‘50 hours a week. And making profits.’

Well, amen to that.

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