083. The Lumberjack Paradox
What are the three characteristics of stress-free and meaningful work?
Working as a lumberjack doesn’t seem particularly meaningful. Additionally, it’s a physically tiring and dangerous job.
Yet in a recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, lumberjacks come out on top in terms of happiness and meaning while lowest in stress.
How might we explain this? Here are three factors to consider:
The main takeaway from the Washington Post is that being outdoors is a huge factor to happiness and meaning.
“Even on your worst day — something has broken down and you need to get wood to the mill — the wind’ll blow and you’ll inhale a familiar scent — that pine sap — and it’ll just take you to a place of peace instantly,” Chandler said. “It’s therapy. The woods is therapy, the forest is therapy. You can have the worst day ever but when you get out here? The forest just takes it all away.”
Being outdoors reminds you of the scale of the world and how we are connected to it, providing a deep sense of meaning. From an interviewee who works in forestry:
“There’s a point where you are now planting trees that you are not going to see harvested,” she said. “It speaks to something larger than yourself. … Your work is living on, and someone else will benefit from your efforts in a tangible way.”
How do we explain the low stress levels of such a physically strenuous job? Let’s reverse and first look at the lowest-ranking industries from the list:
A common thread through these three industries is context-switching. Whether you’re a waiter or a software engineer, you’re constantly juggling an onslaught of urgent tasks.
As a lumberjack, you have a singular task: cut down them trees.
The restaurant industry at least gets the benefit of a clear metric: did you serve the customer or not? In comparison, white-collar work is cursed with ambiguity. That’s arguably what you’re being paid for: your ability to figure out what to do in a landscape of unclear next steps.
But success is not within your control. Did you really bring in millions of dollars in revenue for your hedge fund? Or was it actually because of your coworkers or simply a bullish economic climate? As a middle manager, did you “exceed expectations” because of your performance or because you’re on good terms with your boss and employees? On the flip side, if you fail, you can always bluster a narrative that hides your flaws or shifts blame to someone else.
When you work in a trade, there are no interpretations to vindicate one’s worth — you just point at the tree you cut down. Success and failure are unambiguous. This is described in Shop Class as Soulcraft as “satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world though manual competence”.
This dichotomy is literally captured in the film Office Space, when you look at where Ron Livingston’s character ends up.
The obvious advice based on this data is that we should all be lumberjacks. If that doesn’t seem realistic, we can figure out how to apply lumberjack-esque characteristics to our current work situations.
In terms of environment, prioritize jobs that allow you to commute via biking or walking rather than taking a car. Outside of work, make time for “forest-bathing” (Shinrin-yoku), Andrew Huberman-style sunlight exposure, and taking advice from sage Twitter folk.
In terms of focus and clarity, set one clear metric for success with your boss/client and aggressively deprioritize the rest. It’s easier said than done, but these factors could go a long way when deciding on your next job.
Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow from my new work setup:
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