What is Knowledge Work?

One winter, I traveled to Colorado for a snowboarding trip. Feet of fresh now had fallen in a matter of days and the weather forecast looked beautiful. We met up with friends who lived minutes from the ski slopes and planned a few days on the mountains. 

I learned a few important life lessons on this trip. The first was the value of experience. My friend had spent over 60 days on the slopes that season and knew each mountain like the back of his hand. Our trip was exceptional, largely due to the insight and insider knowledge he possessed.

I also learned the importance of precaution. Before this trip, my experience snowboarding was limited to smaller mountains on the East Coast. There, the snow is mostly artificial and the ski-runs are a fraction of the length. Either due to the beach-like weather or carnival-esk lifts, everything felt low risk. Few people wore heavy winter gear and almost no one wore helmets.

Gearing up in Colorado, my friend turned to me and asked, “Where is your helmet?” I hadn’t even considered it. Judging by the look on his face, it became clear my thinking was flawed. My friend, a fellow software engineer, proceeded to explain, “We gotta protect our brain. As knowledge workers, our minds are essential. It’s the only way we produce work. I could figure out how to work without my hands. But I am useless without my mind. Trauma to our head could jeopardize our entire career.”

And if you’re reading this, you too are a knowledge worker. Our minds are our greatest asset. Coming from outside of tech, this line of thinking was new. The jobs to which I was most accustomed involved manual labor. Previously, I worked in lawn care, dinner theater, physical training, and food service. They operated under difference norms. Within physical jobs, hard work looks like long hours, sweat, and physical fatigue. The hands were more important than the head.

In knowledge work, effort looks different. There may be no signs of outward exertion. There is little movement. The value comes from the problems we solve. It’s our minds that matter.

A year into my tech career, my dad visited our office. Hearing about the creativity and problem solving required in my work, I underestimated the glamour he anticipated. The reality was very different than he imagined. His interpretation was, “I thought I’d see people on whiteboards or immersed in conversation. Most of what I saw was just people staring at screens.”

In technology, the outward appearance fails to represent what’s happening within the minds and imaginations of those in front of the screen.

The underlying concept of the topic of knowledge work is “Flow”. Popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book by the same name, Flow is a period of deep focus. Our minds’ become consumed by the task at hand. It’s a form of being ‘in the zone’ and emerges as we think deeply about a problem or task.

Knowledge work, and the value it produces, it part of what contributes to larger salaries paid to software engineers. Writing code is valuable, but the broader expectation involves solving problems and overcoming obstacles. Software is one of the tools that enhances our ability to solve problems.

Consider the expression, “Work smarter, not harder.” The phrase highlights the value of applying our minds, not physical labor, to a given task. Protecting our minds and applying our knowledge is important, but that’s just the beginning. Within knowledge work, continual learning is just as important.

Speaking with an expert for even a few minutes will quickly reveal the value of learning. They are full of recommendations, references, and insights to glean from the study of their craft. The value of a knowledge worker corresponds to the consistency and speed with which they’re willing to pursue, acquire, and implement new information.

Leaving the mountain days later, my legs ached. For days we road up and down mountain after mountain exerting massive effort. Physically, I was tired but my mind was still racing.

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