As Mr. T and I have been actively DIYing our own windows, hot water heater, attic insulation, etc we’ve heard several versions of the phrase: “That looks like a lot of work.” People are so impressed that we’re willing to work so hard to save some money. As a society, we’ve become programmed to shy away from something that will be hard. The decision between spending two weeks in your crawlspace working on insulation and paying someone $1000 to do it instead seems obvious. The default answer is to spend the money and let someone else do the work. How did we get here?
Culturally, work has changed significantly in the past 200 years. At my youngest, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said “Farmer.” Yes, I liked the idea of hay mazes, tractor rides, and having animals around, but more importantly, I assumed farmers made the most money. Everyone eats food. Farmers grow food. It was an obvious supply and demand situation to me. (When someone told me that Bill Cosby made way more than a farmer, just by telling jokes, I started saying “Bill Cosby.”) In 1810, 81% of the United States labor force worked on a farm. By 1890, less than half of the labor force worked on a farm. This decline continued rapidly with only 12% of the labor force in agriculture in 1950 and by 2012, less than 2% of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture.
Farming is unarguably “a lot of work” and the work is directly correlated with the output. Farmers labor in the fields and keep the crops alive. At the end of the season, the “fruit of their labors” are literal as they harvest their crop. With the rise of the factory, labor was disconnected from output. There were no seasons in the factory and there was no harvest. The assembly line was the same yesterday as it was today. Decades later, the computer became a ubiquitous part of the labor force. Manufacturing and farming both declined giving rise to a labor class that is completely devoid of product. Stores, books, and even money have all become digitized. All of the occupations introduced to us as children by Richard Scarry seem to be in the minority. Now people maintain databases, troubleshoot apps, and update widgets. We’ve made up words and occupations. But there is rarely any concrete output.
When we worked on farms, we felt the satisfaction of our labor. We produced something and saw the tangible benefits of all that work. As a result of our labor, we valued our product much higher because we “made” it. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely and his colleagues labeled this the “Ikea Effect” and performed a series of experiments to study it:
- In one study, 52 participants were randomly assigned to either build a basic IKEA storage box with instructions or inspect one that was already built. They were then asked to make a bid on the box. If their bid was under the random price that would later be generated, they would not get the box, but if their bid was equal to or higher than the price, they would pay the price and take the box. The builders bid much higher on their box than those that merely inspected the same box. Conclusions from this first study stated: “while both groups were given the chance to buy the same product, those who assembled their own box valued it more than those who were given the chance to buy an identical pre-assembled box. We observed similar effects for subjective ratings of liking for the IKEA box, with builders reporting greater liking than non-builders.” In a follow-up study, they performed the same thing but had the “control” group build boxes as well instead of merely inspecting, but didn’t give them enough time to complete the task. The finishers bid more on their boxes than the non-finishers. We feel satisfaction and worth when we see a project through to the end and can see the tangible rewards. When we only work on part of something or do not finish it, we do not value it as much.
- In a separate study, 118 participants were given a small Lego set with only 10-12 pieces that made a helicopter, a bird, a duck, or a dog. The first group was given their set already built, the second group was asked to build it, and the third group was asked to build it and then disassemble it. Each of the groups was asked to bid on their set vs. another person’s set. Adjusting for the fact that people liked helicopters more than animals (!), only the group that built their own Legos and didn’t disassemble them valued their own Lego set over the others. Researchers concluded: “labor leads to love only when that labor is successful.”
Mr. T and I are creators. We love to turn an idea into something tangible. We find immense satisfaction and value in doing so. We don’t find the same value and motivation in our jobs for the same reason. Our work is not connected to anything tangible. Doing our own work around our home has saved us a considerable amount of money. (We saved $3-4000 just from installing our own windows!) It is a lot of work, but because of that work, we value our home so much more. I love my windows so much more because they are a tangible reward of our efforts. Successful work feels good. If we always avoid the work, we also forfeit the rewards. Consider that next time you have an option to work for something tangible. If you’re successful, you’ll value the product so much more than if you had paid someone else to do the work. If someone says “that looks like a lot of work,” you’re doing something right. You can tell them “Thank you. It is a lot of work. And it feels good.” They’ll definitely be speechless.