I recently learned the difference between “intrinsic” value versus “extrinsic” value reading Philosopher Mark Rowland’s Running With the Pack, his wonderful treatise on the joys of running. If something has “extrinsic value” then the primary reason we do it for the sake of something else. For example, if the main reason we work a job is to get a check so we can pay our bills, then the value of that job is extrinsic. However, if we do something primarily for the sake of doing it, that something has intrinsic value. An activity that has intrinsic value is valuable for what it is in itself, and not because of anything else it might allow one to get or possess.
A mother may read to her child at night to help the child develop or fall asleep, but if the main reason she does so is the pure pleasure of it, that is intrinsic value. When a father tosses the football with his son in the backyard, nothing is being “accomplished.” They’re doing it for solely for the pleasure of doing it. Intrinsic value.
“Play” is defined as being engaged with something of intrinsic value.
“Work” is defined as being engaged with something of extrinsic value.
In the western world, we spend a disproportionate amount of time on activities that solely have extrinsic value. The 20th century German philosopher Moritz Schlick wrote in 1927 “I do no know whether the burden of purpose has ever weighed more heavily on mankind than at the present time. The present idolizes work.” Not much has changed in ninety years.
There is nothing wrong with working hard. It’s the reasons behind the work that have often gone astray. We need to find time to do more things solely for the sake of doing them. That’s where the joy lies.
I get this when I “play” soccer. Yes, I get exercise, I enjoy the competition, but that’s not why I do it. I love the sense of being in the flow, lost in the moment, the movement, the event of it. I would do it regardless of any other benefit. I get this sometimes when I write, when I get lost in the idea or story I am conveying. I have been trying to bring this more to my law practice as well, by pulling my attention away from “getting things done” and the billable nature of the work and instead focusing on the ultimate good I hope to provide my clients by helping solve a problem or improving their lives in someway. This makes the act of doing it much more rewarding.
We all need more play in our lives. Here are some steps to make that happen:
- Find things that you would do solely for the sake of doing them, regardless of any benefit to you and anyone else.Make these activities a priority. Force yourself to find time to do them and let go of the idea that everything must have a “purpose.” As Rowland wrote, “it is a necessary condition of something being truly important in life that it have no purpose outside itself—that it be useless for anything else. Worthlessness—in this sense—is a necessary condition of real value.”
- And when you do your “work”—i.,e., the activities that you do to earn money, make your home livable, etc., savor it. Do it for its own sake, not just to get it done or get it over with. As Monk David Steindl-Rast advises, “even people who have to do jobs they don’t like and find meaningless can still be free within them by reminding themselves why they do them. As long as we do our work out of love for those whom we love, we do it for a good reason. Love is the best reason for our labors.”
Rethink why you do what you do. Play more and work less. That’s where the joy and meaning can be found. And appreciate those moments when you get them. Now get out there and play.