Understanding (and avoiding) Shit-Work

Many academics stay in their academic positions because they see other kinds of work as “shit-work”. They understand that their current positions enable them to spend time working on interesting problems, reading thought-provoking work, discussing ideas with colleagues, and so on. Many other jobs would not give them the time and freedom to engage in interesting activities. Instead, they involve doing “shit-work”. And nobody wants to move from a non-shit-work job to a shit-work job.

Of course, there are plenty of other occupations that are not shit-work. And let’s not forget that a good deal of the day-to-day work of academics is shit-work. But if you’re going to avoid doing more shit-work, you’d better understand exactly what shit-work actually is. That’s what this post is about.

The Dimensions of Shit-Work

There are several distinct factors that determine whether an activity or job is shit-work. If you want to know whether a job is shit-work, you should ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does someone else determine the desired outcome of this work?
2. Is the outcome of this work known in advance?
3. Is there a known (or even mandatory) method of doing this work?
4. Is success fairly certain?
5. Is the work simple?
6. Do you give zero shits about the end-product?

If your answer to all of these questions is “yes”, then you’re doing shit-work. Take, for example, a ditch digger. Someone else tells the ditch digger that they want a ditch of such-such-such length and depth to be dug in a specific location. The outcome is known already: that there will be a ditch there when the work is done. There is a method for digging ditches; this involves shovels. Barring disaster, we can be quite certain that we can successfully dig the ditch. Finally, the work is about as simple as it can be, and it’s very unlikely that the ditch-digger really cares about the ditch. This is why digging ditches is shit-work.

It’s important to bear in mind that even highly skilled occupations requiring a lot of education will meet some of the conditions for being shit-work. For example, even a highly-skilled criminal defense attorney gives up some autonomy insofar as she must seek a (more or less) specific outcome — the desired outcome of her work is that her client received the least possible punishment. In addition, many of her day-to-day activities will be spent following very specific, mandated procedures for various tasks.

Let’s consider another sort of example, which is quite common. These are jobs in which the satisfaction comes mainly from its complexity. An engineer, for example, may be tasked with designing a very complex system; and that task may satisfy almost all the criteria for being shit-work. I’m thinking here of tasks that have well-understood methods, and which are fairly certain to be successful if those methods are followed appropriately. But the sheer complexity of the work can be quite satisfying to an intelligent person with the right temperament. A lot of professional jobs fall into this category.

There’s another important case where all but one criterion for shit-work is met, but the work can be satisfying anyway. These are jobs that might otherwise be unpleasant or unsatisfying, were it not for the fact that the person places a lot of value on the end-product. For example, I’m sure there are plenty of people doing charitable work that’s unpleasant, repetitious, predictable, and so on. But the cause might be good enough that it’s still satisfying. And of course, there are gradations along this scale. I happen to know an extremely smart and talented lawyer with top-flight credentials who could easily be making a fortune on Wall Street, working with a gigantic business, or having wealthy clients. But he takes on a lot of shit-work-ish tasks because it’s important to him to be a public defender. I’ve known people who are in a professional trade that involves a lot of unpleasant work, but they derive great satisfaction from seeing the end-product of their work — whether it’s a road or a building or what-have-you. It’s easy to come up with examples like these.

As jobs become more experimental in nature, various dimensions of shit-work begin to fall away. I’m thinking here of jobs that might involve a lot of exploratory data analysis, for example. A person with this sort of responsibility probably doesn’t know in advance what they’re likely to find in their business’s data. Their job might be to explore their company’s data looking for features that could be of value. Given such an open-ended mandate, it’s less likely that there are well-understood methods or any guarantees of success. And a domain expert with this sort of position will probably have greater autonomy than in a typical job.

Speaking for myself, I really enjoy work that’s open-ended in this way. I like to embark on a project that doesn’t have a clear outcome, and for which success is uncertain. In the long run, I don’t think I’d be very happy doing anything that had a clear and predictable outcome. This work frequently involves a lot of repetitious (and sometimes boring) tasks (e.g. writing computer code that enables some uninteresting function that I need). But this is more than offset by the pleasure I get from exploring a problem that’s not well-understood.

Academics I’ve known have all-too-often looked down their noses at people who do what they would call “shit-work”. But shit-work is a multi-faceted category, and it’s not the same for everyone. Former academics I’ve known have told me that they are satisfied by work entailing trade-offs that are different from what they were used to in their academic lives; many were surprised by what they did and did not enjoy doing once they left academia. I certainly feel this way, myself. Discovering your own definition of “shit-work” is crucial for finding satisfying work outside the ivory tower. More importantly, you have to learn to accept your own definition even if it’s not what the academy says it should be.