How Good a Job Can You Do?

—Andy Hunt

Published in Andy's Blog

I’m reading Mark Twain’s classic novel Tom Sawyer to my son as a bedtime story, and right after the classic “whitewashing” scene where Tom tricks his friends into painting his fence, the author notes:

If [Tom Sawyer] had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

That’s how Tom conned his friends into painting the fence for him; he made it sound like fun, not work. Instead of paying his friends to paint the fence (which would have been work) he extracted payment from his friends for the privilege of demonstrating their prowess with the paintbrush.

There’s a couple of interesting observations here. First, as soon as you turn play into work, it’s not fun anymore. Maybe this explains why some folks who code all day for pay go home and code all night for free on some Open Source project. Coding for free is more fun.

The other interesting aspect to Tom’s con is craftsmanship. Tom sold the idea that not just anybody could paint a fence well. Maybe only one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, had the talent to do it well, he claimed.

So now there’s some competition involved, both against Tom and against oneself. Suddenly we have a very different situation; the other kids jumped at the chance to prove themselves, to face a new and unknown challenge head-on.

They were posed the question “how good a job can you do?” and jumped to answer it with great fervor.

Don’t we all tend to react that way? My favorite clients are those on an absolutely impossible deadline, with nothing else in the way. Just you and the code. It tests your mettle.

So ask yourself this afternoon, “how good a job can I do?” Forget about the fact that you’re getting paid for it, that’s work. Rise to the challenge of doing your very best work, no matter how mundane the task, and now it’s play.

And it’s fun again.

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