The Wholeness of Work

Modern work lacks a sense of “wholeness”. At least this is how I feel designing software in corporates. What I design is only parts: a component, a flow, or a feature of a product. That particular product however, is not my design. There’s nothing adequately complete that I can claim as of my making.

This is distinct from some traditional creative activities such as writing, composing, and painting. Even though there might be team sport involved in production and distribution, the authorship in these activities is unambiguous—unambiguous in the sense that had the author not existed, the work would not exist either (or become entirely different).

While in corporate design, the authorship is so distributed that no one makes a critical difference and almost anyone can be replaced without any significant impact on the outcome. This holds true at least for individual makers, if not managerial positions—a concession that is pathetic to make. Granted, the loss of wholeness in the context of software design is in part due to the virtuality and impermanence of software that make it infinite in space and time. But I’d like to speak of wholeness in a broader term.

The wholeness of work simply means one person makes a complete thing on her own. She is solely responsible for the full process of creation, from the emergence of ideas to the fulfillment in forms to the final production.

In fact, there can be little to no “idea” involved. The wholeness doesn’t necessarily limit to fields with great creative latitude, but can be found in any craft work such as pottery, sewing, or woodworking. Taken to the most extreme, even the instruction-following Lego-building resembles the process of creation and exemplifies (in limited respects) our psychological inclination for the wholeness of work.

A person cannot help but feel something ineffable by working with her hands. Through directly playing with basic materials she obtains a tacit understanding of their qualities, or rather her hands feel their qualities. In such a conversation she breathes life into materials and brings forth something tangible. Whereas before there’s nothing, now there’s something. One not only gains a sense of achievement but more acutely she feels herself alive to the fullest.

On a lower level, this sentiment is no different from a toddler’s ecstasy when she makes a sound out of a toy and realizes her action indeed has an impact on the world. On a higher level, this inexplicable satisfaction is the freedom and agency experienced by the working man whom Hannah Arendt calls “homo faber” (Latin for “man the maker”):

Homo faber is indeed a lord and master, not only because he is the master or has set himself up as the master of all nature but because he is master of himself and his doings. ..Alone with his image of the future product, homo faber is free to produce, and again facing alone the work of his hands, he is free to destroy.

It won’t be long until one realizes that her work defined in this way is naturally limited in scale as the wholeness of it repels mass production. However, it is important to distinguish the scale of production and the scale of influence. A common sense is that the limited scale of production circumscribes the scale of influence: if you want to reach more audience you will need more people, more processes, and more structure—you will need to scale1. This in some respect is true, but hardly comprehensive.

First of all, it’ll be only a mistake to assume large impact as a universal desire. The answer to “what kind of scale do I work well with?” varies for each individual. For instance, Craig Mod mentions in an interview how making a meta-book about the team’s app-making process moved him so much more than making the app itself (despite its success):“I realized in that moment that scale is secondary to grace or movement.” He poignantly delivers this inquiry for the rest of us to ponder:

Does affecting one hundred lives turn you on? A thousand? A million? A billion? Why? What does it mean to have a positive impact on a life? How intimate does that connection need to be? Understanding your scale—the scale that moves you—is critical to understanding with whom and how you should work, how you should live.

Second, it should be no longer a surprise in our time that one person or a small group of people can have a disproportionate impact. Look no further than the podcasters and YouTubers who bring joy and knowledge to people all over the globe. It is not a savior narrative where a few elites “make the world a better place” for the rest of us, but a narrative of plurality and locality—many distributed small groups around the world change their local communities2 for the better. Few people, scoped influence, but with multiplication.

It might be hard to conceive a satisfactory alternative to the gloomy reality, but should we not forget sometimes it’s worthwhile to break away from making a small part of a big thing (presumably with many people), instead to make a small yet complete thing on our own either for self-satisfaction or however niched a group of audience—just to experience that individual agency, autonomy, and sovereignty in the wholeness of work.


  1. Funny that even though technically you can scale up or down, when we use the word scale alone it usually means scale up (as in “we need to scale the business”) or large scale (as in “economy of scale”).

  2. Of course, with internet the locality no longer needs to be geographical.