I spent last weekend power-watching the show “Silicon Valley.” The latest project from director Mike Judge, it tells the story of five lovable computer programmers living and working in the show’s titular California community. One of them writes a compression algortihm that possesses the potential to change computing technololgy forever. Next thing they know, they get endowed with thousands of dollars to use to develop their software further.
There is a scene in the fifth episode that provoked my thoughts. In it, an expert on business development uses a visual aid and sticky notes to demonstrate a productivity method that will add structure to the way that the programmers operate so as to make things more professional overall. As the programmers observe, they get intimidated, and one of them speaks out what they were all thinking:
“This just became a job.”
The programmers have always done things their own way on their own time. When a large sum of money and influence from corporate giants comes their way, their paradigm changes. What awlays was a personal project for them suddenly became a task assigned to them by someone else. They went from being artists to contractors. Play turned into work. This phenomenon is know as “The Sawyer Effect.”
The Sawyer Effect is when certain things are introduced into or removed from the environment and play becomes work. It basically means that when somebody is given a task along with specific instructions on what to do, when to do it, how to do it and with whom they are allowed to do it, the task will feel like a chore. It will take the fun out of it. Without these instructions and if instead the person has complete control over the task, work will become play. The chore will feel more like a leisure activity. It will feel even more like a leisure activity if the person believes that the task serves a greater purpose and doubles as an opportunity to improve his skills. You should check out the book Drive by Daniel Pink for a detailed explanation of the Sawyer Effect.
Lately, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the Sawyer Effect. There has been much going on in my life; I am changing and things seem different. Some things that seem different are things that I once thought of as play that are beginning to feel more like work. Likewise, there are things that have felt like dreadful chores for years that are now starting to lose their repulsion. I was able to relate to this scene from Silicon Valley.
How familiar are you with the Sawyer Effect? What tasks have you taken on that felt like work or play? And how could the circumstances have changed to make them seem different?
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