Malcolm Gladwell, Happy Assumptions, and the True Nature of Work

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell offers a curious definition of what most people consider to be satisfying work:

“Those three things — autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us. If I offered you a choice between being an architect for $75,000 a year and working in a tollbooth every day for the rest of your life for $100,000 a year, which would you take? I’m guessing the former, because there is complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work, and that’s worth more to most of us than money. Work that fulfills those three criteria is meaningful.”

This simply isn’t true for “most people.” Concerning autonomy, most of the world’s working adults either want or need someone to dictate their duties, which is why we have far more followers than leaders. The same argument can be made about complexity. Those who prefer guided direction over autonomy also tend to prefer managing simpler, not more complex, tasks, and most employees tend to get angry when their tasks grow more complex, even when those increasingly challenging duties serve useful ends. Finally, I’m not so sure “most people” in the workforce care about the link between effort and reward. Many are more concerned with just the reward after logging the requisite hours. For them, the workplace is a predictable abeit low-yield slot machine. In short, while Gladwell’s positive vision of human nature seems admirable, it defies the realities that have defined the global workforce since at least the birth of the Agricultural Revolution.

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