Eudaimonia: The Rich Life or Living Well
Most of you reading this are invisible, and that is as it should be. If you do your job well, the job of designing the web, building the web, running the web, rebuilding the web, you are invisible. When it breaks, you become known. Then people panic and come to find you. When an architect does her job well, the building does not fall down; the bridge does not twist in the wind. When you do your job well building that website or setting up that LAMP stack server cluster, it all just runs and no one notices. You take pride in this. You relish in your invisibility. You embrace and derive a deep pleasure from being excellent in your work and being unnoticed. This is Eudaimonia. This is an ancient Greek concept of living well, of living the rich life.
I first encountered this concept in college as a student in the philosophy department. Recently an article in Salon, by David Zweig, about what he calls The Invisibles brought the concept back to mind. For Mr. Zweig, The Invisibles are those people who, unlike much of the contemporary trend on the social web, do not seek fame or notoriety. Invisibles instead pursue excellence and the responsibility that comes with being excellent. A surgeon desires to be excellent in her specialty and she desires to be responsible, through her excellence, for the lives of others. A master carpenter desires to be excellent with woodwork and he desires to be given the responsibility of building very important things.
There is a 120-year-old covered bridge in my town. Master carpenters built it and it stands solid to this day. I have no idea who these carpenters were, but I suspect that they derived a deep pleasure from having constructed such an elegant, strong and dependable structure, a structure upon which even now, 120 years later, people’s lives depend. We web developers and designers are the architects of the online world. Done well, our work may be invisible but it provides a framework or scaffolding to support much that is visible. Our best work is invisible and this is, I think, as it should be.
“Invisibles don’t offer a formula for happiness. Rather, they embody the ancient Greek philosophy known as eudaimonia — roughly translated as the rich life. They recognize that the most intense and indelible rewards come from within, by reveling in challenges and taking immense pride in a job well done.” - David Zweig
We receive this conception of a life well lived through the Greeks. The concept was developed particularly well by Aristotle:
“From this it follows that eudaimonia, living well, consists in activities exercising the rational part of the psyche in accordance with the virtues or excellency of reason. Which is to say, to be fully engaged in the intellectually stimulating and fulfilling work at which one achieves well-earned success.” - Wikipedia
The Aristotelian version of eudaimonia requires action. It requires a regular habit of practice, a regular striving for mastery. This concept is not unique to the Greeks though. It is present in ancient Chinese philosophy as well. Zhuang Zi, a notable Taoist philosopher, taught that living in accord with The Tao, or living in consistency with The Way meant becoming excellent at a thing. He wrote about Cook Ting, the butcher, whose blade never dulled because his level of skill allowed him to never touch his blade to bone or sinew. With a few careful strokes, Cook Ting could carve an oxen with ease.
“Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.” - Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: The Basic Writings
Cook Ting went largely unnoticed by his lord. His skill and grace were invisible, but powerful. When his work was noticed, it was noticed with surprise and delight.
As web developers and designers we are regularly faced with choosing between producing something excellent or producing something merely mediocre. Routinely we choose excellence. Sometimes we choose excellence even when it conflicts with budget, timeline or client. For me, the extra time I spend refining a block of code, knowing that its excellence will result in less pain and suffering in the future, even though I may be losing sleep or money, is worth it. Excellence is its own reward. Habitually embodying this pursuit of and commitment to excellence has brought me deep feelings of happiness. I lead a rich life. I know that people who work with me, my teammates, my colleagues, my friends, share in this richness, this eudaimonia, that a commitment to excellence can bring.
No one else needs to know that you are excellent in your field for you to be pleased. This is the magic of Eudaimonia. Striving to master a skill is, all along the way, its own reward. It is not a superficial pleasure like being retweeted or followed. It is a deep pleasure that cannot be taken away from you because it is a pleasure that is not given to you by anyone. It is a pleasure earned and is therefore a good in and of itself.