At Least What You do Means Something

At least what you do means something.

I had someone tell me that, partly to compare themselves to me (in a purposefully unflattering manner for themselves) and partly to make me feel better -- to make me feel more fulfilled and less stressed, trapped, and stagnant.

But it got me thinking.

So, what I do does mean something. I design a significant part of major infrastructure projects that will last for many years. People will be driving over them, safely, on their way to vacations or work or delivering goods for half a century or more. That is objectively cool.

But it's also true that what I actually do every day doesn't matter in the same way. As we gain experience and get more adept at the engineering, learning how to complete our tasks more quickly, the balance of our time gets filled with new tasks. Notably, most of these new tasks do not seem to be centered on our goal of designing a safe, efficient bridge, but rather they facilitate some sort of administrative or leagalistic CYA process.

Now, I don't want to be just another guy complaining about the bureaucracy. That's old and lame and not particularly productive. I get the value of the administrative aspect of our projects because that's how they actually get done without too much graft. That's how they get bid fairly and how we ensure that they get built with the quality materials we designed for. But it just feels like it is getting out of hand (especially when I interview my predecessors who worked, successfully, in a very different world).

I wonder if this administration inflation is actually a thing, almost like a fact of nature. It's as though we make sure to keep each man-hour as complicated as it ever was: Even as we simplify or automate processes, we make sure to add new things to do. And those new things are invariably boring. They are things like generating paperwork, reviewing checklists, reformatting margins, sizing type, and so on.

Is it some failing of our human minds that we can't just enjoy the benefits of progress without burying them in new, extraneous filler? According to Keynes, we were supposed to be working four days a week by now. But as we got more productive, we just did more stuff in the same time (more stuff of, I suspect, marginal utility toward the end goal). I think these are related. And, perhaps optimistically, I think it is a matter of psychology and not nature per se.

Hopefully some day, as a species, we can escape the rat race we built for ourselves. And, in the meantime, perhaps I can free myself and my family while I wait for the rest of us to catch up.

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