“Man is an agent … a center of unfolding impulsive activity “teleological” activity … seeking … some concrete, objective, impersonal end. … he is possessed of a taste for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort. He has a sense of the merit of serviceability or efficiency and of the demerit of futility, waste, or incapacity. This aptitude or propensity may be called the instinct of workmanship.”

Thorstein Veblen 1899


Remember, we don’t come from nowhere. We have roots.


Personally, I don’t envision a future of work where people don’t work. The entire “automation/robots will replace people so they can pursue their passions” seems a bit farfetched to me mostly because I think most people like doing things in which their ‘doing’ produces something, or as Veblen suggests, we ‘possess a taste for effective work.’


Let me talk about “instinct of workmanship.” In business we spend a lot of time talking about engagement, authenticity, empathy, psychological safety (all worthy things to talk about), but maybe we should be talking more about facilitating the instinct of workmanship. Maybe make it an objective (or intention).

Let me tell you why I think it’s worth considering.

Industrialization fucked up work in a variety of ways, but mainly it separated people from pride and shifted them to productivity. That sounds simplistic and I meant it that way. It certainly brought some management issues into play (consent versus command), but for today I am thinking about ‘the instinct of workmanship’ so hear me out. As industrialization began its inevitable climb in an increasingly materialistic world the worker , even while working in shit environments, felt like they were part of something. Part of a better, and bettering, world. sure. They may have felt like a small cog in a big wheel but the shit they were helping make was reshaping the world. In other words, the working world was shifting from pride in craftsmanship and production (agriculture) to pride in reshaping the world. And this is where things began to go awry. The workmanship value, contribution, resides in an arm’s length distance. The work itself was shit but it was making the world less shitty. So as Taylorism hit its stride, making workers even more miserable, and sucking any ‘instinct for workmanship’ out of the daily work life (unless you were now one of those new things called “managers”) the world actually stopped getting better. Or maybe the things the non-instinct workmanship was being asked to miserably work on began to take on appearances of not really what people needed but feeding an almost insatiable consumerism. The arm’s length contribution was now so far away that even if the worker squinted it was tough to see how their machine-like rote work was doing anything but making the guys in the ivory tower richer and richer. So, while people had an innate ‘instinct of workmanship’ nothing about their daily work suggested what they were actually doing was ‘workmanship’ in addition to the feeling that the work they were doing could, well, pretty much be done by any halfwit. And, in fact, while most simply wanted to enjoy some modicum of ‘instinct for workmanship’ they were seeing more and more half-wits being promoted to manage them!

Yeah. All of that sucks.

Circling back to my opening quote, work dispensed with the taste for effective work and injected a good dose of distasteful futile work.

To make work not suck it seems to me we should revisit enabling the instinct of workmanship in, well, the workers and the workplace. I actually believe this, in and of itself, if achieved increases a sense of meaning and establishes a sense of contribution (both incredibly important if we desire to increase the value of work in a Maslow-like sense). I am not going to invest the time and energy today sharing how I think that could be done because today I just wanted people to think about this. Think about the fact we, people who go into work day in and day out, don’t come from nowhere. We have roots. And if our roots are as miserable as I walked through, where we are ain’t so good. And that’s the esoteric point I am trying to make. If we come from somewhere, wouldn’t facilitating the instinct of workmanship be a good place to start to grow better citizens, better society and better business? Ponder.

Written by Bruce