Nothing vs. something useless

Is it better to do something useless than nothing at all?

An experiment once asked workers to spend half the day digging a trench and the other half filling it back in. They got paid fairly well, their salaries doubling every day they continued on the job. Still, it didn’t take long for everyone to quit.

I like this experiment because I think it highlights a few concepts worth learning.

  • The value of feeling useful: Lots of jobs probably aren’t useful, but this one in particular made it painfully clear to the workers each day that the actual work they were doing was absolutely useless beyond the money they made from it and perhaps their exercise for the day.
  • The marginal value of money: Maybe the workers just worked until they had earned “enough” from the job, say two weeks worth of doubling pay, and then walked with their wages.
  • The value of doing nothing: Maybe some of the workers quit once they’d lined up other work. I imagine, though, that some of them, especially those who quit early in the experiment after only the first few days, probably didn’t have anything else lined up. They probably went from doing something useless to doing nothing.

It’s this last one that I’ve been thinking about lately.

Doing nothing opens space for doing something useful. It creates a kind of urgency, like something should be going on. Like right now for me. I don’t have a job anymore. And it’s Monday. I can feel that space, that urgency. I think it’s good for me right now.

But there’s a danger to it too. Doing nothing can quickly turn into depression or apathy, depression when no new options present themselves and apathy when we become okay with that.