Toil Endlessly and Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor
September 9th, 2019 | I went to a farm and "did labor"
I volunteered at a local(ish) farm yesterday. The farm is awesome; it uses permaculture practices, is small-scale, uses all manual tools, and everyone seemed to be generally positive and friendly. I honestly felt a little out of place, I'm kind of standoffish by default. Me volunteering was something I've wanted to do for a while, and I really enjoyed it. Hopefully it's the first step towards both a long-term working relationship with the farm, and a potential new life change towards something of being a modern day farmer. More on that later. Or never, if I don't write about it more.
While eating lunch during the mid-day break, two girls recounted Tinder dates they had gone on recently. Silently eating by myself approximately three feet from them, I couldn't help but overhear everything, and I don't think it mattered to them much that I overheard. One of the girls retold a recent date she had with an engineer, who specialized in automation. He kept bringing up "macros" to her, suggesting they could be used to have her work automated and simplified. I didn't catch what she did exactly, but she remarked that "sometimes my job only takes five minutes, sometimes I can stretch that to be all day. That's kind of the point." I really liked that mentality.
I worked at my old job to improve performance and efficiency for about 50 colleagues in the planning department. Complicated 3rd party software was made easier by moving the output to automated spreadsheets in Excel via macros and queries connected to our database, which was continually updated by me. Virtually anything any of the planners did or needed to do could go through my group to be made faster, easier, and sustainably reproducible. I lived half of my time grabbing, exporting, formatting, and uploading data from one of a few systems to our database, and then refreshing certain tools to be updated with the new data. The other half of my time was coding new tools, troubleshooting current ones, and reviving old ones that people created years ago and then left the company and for some reason like half the team uses that one Excel sheet for calculating their supply needs and without it we're kinda fucked so I have to now dig up the dead and figure out how to fix this thing that I initially had nothing to do with but everyone is relying on me to fix. I'm sure real programmers do shit like this all the time. I'm not a programmer. I learned everything I know on the fly for the job.
I never really felt like my job actually improved performance for the greater team. The info and tools I put out were at best used by three or four colleagues. Everyone else just glanced at the numbers and went about their day. Some people explicitly went against recommendations my team put out, or deliberately used bad practices because they didn't want to learn how to use our new tools. I spent 20-30 hours working every week to get these tools out and they were largely ignored by my audience. In this sense, my job felt futile. I was increasing the efficiency of a useless thing. It was this very unfulfilling practice for me to work very hard at something week to week that really no one benefitted from. The tools and reports existed mainly so the mid-level management groups could say to their bosses "see, we're using these tools to improve X and Y performance." But we never did improve that performance. It was all lip service.
Back at the farm, after the lunch break I was assigned to use a tool called a broadfork to till about a dozen beds that we had spent the morning covering in compost. A broadfork is two handles wider than shoulder length distance apart, connected at the bottom by a metal cross beam which has long metal tines at the bottom of it. You shove the tines into the ground, step on the crossbeam to get the tines deeper into the Earth, and then pull down the handles to dig up the land a bit. It's slow, physically taxing work. Having to do it across multiple beds for several hours made my brain quiet down and enter a meditative state. It felt great. There is no macro to make this work easier; no way to automate this process at this farm. I can't spend a day coding a query in SQL and a macro in Excel to work the land for me. The land demands sweat and muscle.
What felt better was to have a very clear and concise target to hit. "We need these 12 beds broadforked by the two of you. Ideally you'll finish this before we head out for the day. Good luck." Immediately I know that I have two hours to work six beds. That's the goal. Let's get this shit done.
Targets at the old big bad corporation were a lot more abstract:
"We have to reduce inventory by 12% year over year for the entire company, but we haven't figured out exactly how to calculate 12% reduction yet, but get started anyway.
• And we don't know how exactly that works out to your department, so try to figure that out.
• And within your group we have even less of an idea how that breaks out between teams, so figure that out too.
• And when you do figure this out, ask finance if the numbers are correct.
• And if the numbers don't match finance's figures, just align the numbers to what they have.
• And don't ask finance how they calculated their numbers, they won't tell us.
• And then figure out how to actually achieve those needed reductions on a team by team basis.
• And you have no authority for any methods to be implemented, you have to just hope the teams act on them.
• And these goals are directly contradictory to a more important fulfillment rate goal we have.
• And when asked how to navigate between these two goals, management will only say "we can do better."
• And when pressed, management will say "we need you to come up with creative solutions for how we can do this."
• And when we miss the target, you will have to capture the scope of the miss, and explain how/why we missed.
• And then we will reset the targets for the next year, in the exact same way.
• And eventually you will die in a fiery sun-death but the targets will still be there, waiting for you.
Spending a few hours broadforking vegetable beds, feeling my hands develop blisters and my shirt becoming soaked-through with sweat was a comparative dream job versus the obfuscated nonsense of corporate KPI-chasing. It's also nice to know that my hard work will go towards growing organic food that will feed people within my community, as opposed to a soulless corporate entity gaining market share, plowing forward with the mass-production of needless garbage, marketed to people to make them feel like they are incomplete without buying this one thing, like life will be better once they buy this new face cream. Buy our $15 bottle of lotion, join our #squad, and laugh at all the poor fucks who don't use our life-changing product. Make sure to buy another bottle every two months forever. Forever.
I don't even use shampoo anymore. I think I'll stick with carrots and kale for now and see where that takes me.
Thank you for reading.
Filed Under: Essays