When I was a junior in high school, my mom wanted to know what my summer plans were. I told her my plan was to lift weights and do football drills with fishing and mowing lawns on the side. She was not amused, “Football won’t help you pay for college. You need to get to work, make some money, and start studying.” Later that day my dad quietly told me I had a long life of work ahead of me and I should spend the summer having fun. Six months later I had a full-ride scholarship to play football.

Go no further than the 2016 Rihanna pop song ‘Work’: “He said me haffi work, work, work, work, work, work” — the monotone repetition of ‘work’ says it all. Our cultural expectation of work in America is controversial. Work is key to our national economy, personal income, and a prime source of our happiness or depression given the percentage it consumes of our daily lives. At the same time there are few to no physical guides for how we should be most effective at work aside from working harder. The more we understand when we work, and what we should work on, the better we’ll all be.

Work is a cornerstone physical concept of thermodynamics. Hence it is a natural outcome of our social thermodynamics framework. This role leads to new insights on the emerging area of ‘agency’: when you decide to take action to produce a particular effect. The framework also shows how different people will work to produce different outcomes and provides physical limits on how much work is possible. Here we go!

Work and Thermodynamics

Classical thermodynamics was invented at the dawn of the industrial revolution to explain the mechanical power production from steam and other engines. The first law of thermodynamics, also known as an energy balance, is the mathematical expression of this work. Here is the energy balance I teach in thermodynamics for analyzing a system:

Energy_into = Energy_out + ΔEnergy_stored

The energy flow into a system is equal to the energy flow out of a system plus the change in energy stored within the system. Expanding these terms while neglecting kinetic and potential energy:

Q_in + W_in + m_flow (u_in + P_in v_in) = Q_out + W_out + m_flow (u_out + P_out v_out) + (u_final + P_final v_final) – (u_initial + P_initial v_initial)

Where Q is the heat (information), W is work, m is mass flow (people/agents), u is internal energy of the fluid (values), P is pressure of the fluid (stress), v is specific volume of the fluid (inverse of density). For a given amount of heat a given amount of work is possible subject to the changing properties of the fluid in the system. Often this equation is simplified further until:

W_out = m_flow [(u_in + P_in v_in) – (u_out + P_out v_out)]

Which says you will do work on something when you have the people (m_flow), values you need bestow onto something (u_in – u_out), and are under pressure that will be relieved by doing so (P_in v_in – P_out v_out). You can also derive equations that show how much work you have to put into a person to raise their values (See this discussion on heat capacity).

All of this math says that if you see a problem, have values/knowledge that you know will solve it, and feel some pressure/stress to do something, you’ll get to work. This doesn’t mean your work will be received well or that you’ll be effective. That’s coming in a moment. First we need a way to relate values relative to one another.

How different values do different work

We’ve all been there before. We see a problem, we know a solution, we do a bunch of work ‘solving’ the problem, only to have the solution rejected, and our hard work wasted. You’ve likely been on the flip side too. You need work done, someone proposes a solution, and you have no idea what they are talking about. Generally, different value systems do different work. Values come in many different forms and systems. To make this problem somewhat tractable I use the Spiral v-Meme value taxonomy. Here’s a summary of what each v-Meme values and how they’ll work to achieve those values:

  1. Survival: If it gets you fed, sheltered, and not suffering you’ll work on it and nothing else. Most don’t see this as a useful form of work as it affects little but the person trying to survive. For example, many can’t understand why homeless people don’t just get a job not realizing the incredible difficulty caring about anything other than survival.
  2. Tribal: If one of your tribe is in trouble you’ll work to protect them and the clan. It’s all in the family here and nobody else. Laws are foreign. Science is magic. If it gets the family/clan/gang the resources to get to the next day, you’ll do it.
  3. Authoritarian: If it increases your power/control over others you’ll work on it. Consistency? Nope. Quality is foreign and arbitrary. It’s all about you in that moment.
  4. Legalistic: If it preserves or increases the sanctity of the rules/standards everyone is following you’ll work on it. And so must everyone/everything else. Nobody is special here,,, except the person who is legally determined to be so.”Why are you following the recipe when you’ve done it a 100 times — because we always follow the recipe.” It’s all about whether everyone is safely following the rules.
  5. Performance: If it gives you a new ability that’s valued or impressive to others you’ll work on it. If you’ve been there, done that — not so much. You care a lot about efficiency and quality. With so many new things to work on in the world you don’t have time to waste! But it’s all about you and your ability to work.
  6. Community: If it increases the connections and sustainability of the community you’ll work on it. Unless it’s being consumed by one of the lower memes, then you won’t. It’s going to take a lot of talking to get the community behind this. But hey, whatever helps the community.
  7. Systemic: If you see the system is in imbalance of the above, you’ll work on whatever is necessary to restore a natural harmony in the system.

We could keep going. Remember these levels are nested layers. You can down-select but up-selection is hard. Most approach a problem with a v-Meme stack that is a composite of several levels. Work by a level more than 2 removed from the current/desired level just becomes too alien or subtle to have noticeable effect. Also notice that there is a hierarchy here. A systemic person can work on any of the lower vMemes, but it’s difficult to imagine a person in a survival state suddenly mastering the performance based principles of lean manufacturing.

As exemplar: I chose to work on my physical fitness that summer in high-school because I knew I had the performance metrics to play at another level, which would be a more efficient way to pay for college than the traditional/legalistic approach my mom wanted me to take.

To really quantify work we need to figure out the fundamental changes in real energy units required to move from one value system/structure to the next — which won’t be an easy problem to solve.

A new understanding of ‘agency’

The National Science Foundation and other organization are currently trying to develop/scaffold ‘agency’: when you take action to produce a particular effect. This is especially important in STEM majors where often societal problems are left un-remedied despite having known solutions due to a lack of agency. Agency has also been shown to be a key factor in retention of women in STEM majors. Much of this comes down to metacognition — or thinking/imagining yourself in the role you are seeking to become. Obviously, experience is key here. If you’ve done it before, it’s much easier to imagine yourself doing it again, and you have the values that you know will work for the situation. See how work works with values in many ways? You’ve got to have many value systems reinforced by experience and pressure/stress to become agentic.

Availability of work in social space

How effective you are at producing work is known in thermodynamics as ‘Availability’ or ‘Exergy’. Just because there is the potential to do work doesn’t guarantee you’ll be effective. The example I use in class is rubbing my hands together. I can do work rubbing my hands together to produce 5 Watts of heat. Can I do as much with that 5 Watts of heat from rubbing my hands together as 5 Watts of heat from a fusion energy machine? Not even close. The 5 Watts from that fusion energy machine could break down molecule chains, weld tungsten, or just about fuse or bond anything. I’d be lucky to bond bread dough rubbing my hands together. Moreover, if I’m careful not to waste it, I could transfer the 5 watts from my fusion reactor to a lower temperature and safely add 5 Watts of heat to my hands. The temperature (resources) that the heat (information) is provided at plays a key role in the number of ways and efficiency that work can be done. Is this starting to relate to the v-Meme hierarchy above?

Here’s an equation for calculating the availability/exergy of work:

X_in = X_out + X_destroyed + ΔX_stored

Unlike pure energy, our potential to do work can be wasted or destroyed, if we do nothing or act foolishly. Here’s what each Exergy term equates to:

X = m_flow [(u – u_0) + (Pv – P_0 v_0) – T_0 (s-s_0)]

There are two important introductions here, the first is the dead state (denoted with the 0). The dead state is usually the pressure and temperature at which all gradients to produce work are minimized, and the system is dead in terms of it’s ability to do work. The second introduction is the  entropy/empathy term. You can see here that the availability of work is counterbalanced by the empathy production. If it’s going to take a large change in empathy to get others to where they need to be to solve the problem, you’re not going to get a lot of work done. Another way to write this incorporates the Carnot efficiency (maximum theoretical efficiency possible) of the process into the exergy equation. As the temperature (resources) you are working from approaches the dead state temperature, your efficiency approaches zero in classical thermodynamics. At this point, you’re not doing much work and are just generating an increased understanding of everyone you are working with.

This is all relative to the v-Meme level above that the problem exists at. With more resources (T) and empathy (s), you have more v-Memes you can access. But to be effective in working on a problem solution, you need to work from a value level more advanced than the level that created the problem. You generally can’t use more legalistic governance to solve problems with legalistic governance. Hence Einstein’s famous quote: Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. Now we have math that explains why. Sure you can spend energy and resources trying, you just won’t be efficient or effective because there simply isn’t work available to be done with the current value sets.

Takeaways: When and how to work

Look at your problem. Does a solution come to mind? Do you have confidence and experience? How far removed from a value standpoint is the solution from the problem? Wait for when the pressure is sufficient.

And if your work really is work, work, work, work, work, work, as Rihanna suggests and she well knows, the machines are coming. Time to work for change.