INTELLIGENT WORK: It Means Something as it Meanders Between Home, the Office, and Starbucks like a Snake

by Bruce Piasecki, author of Doing More with Less, and 2040

Like the difference between art and pornography, work is “snakey.” Over the time of your life it slithers, with shine that looks like spit, and the value in your day’s work can hide real fast like a snake in the grass.

But like art, when you see it you know it. Intelligent work matters.


Think of these two guys: Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama. They know how to work in this swift and severe world.

Two guys on a world stage. Two modern men, following in the footsteps of flamboyant American greats like Mark Twain and Tom Wolfe, have always had a bold audacious swagger to their highly visible reach. Their forum and platforms give them gravitas, but they ride above that solemnity of fame. In a world where we come to expect “monsters” under the bed of the powerful, or “angels” in the heads of self-appointed saints, these two “renegades” are not only born in the USA but they have acquired, for good reasons, a sound global following.

Think how they work as a glimpse into what made them valid, what makes many see them as authentic and sincere.


When I watch an Obama speech, or Springsteen perform “Streets of Philadelphia,” the song about Aids, you see masterful work. They clearly love their work. They are passionate about it. Work is play, and play is work. They carry meaning with them into work.

You feel it, even though they are only performing words. The normal signs of the everyday tools of work can be felt across cultures and settings. You feel them at work, a work of courage and civility and dignity. There is no pitchfork in their hands, no handheld tablet, nothing like a fork. They embody purposeful work in the everyday moves they make, which is not easy today. Our work days, and nights are spent in a wasteful wakefulness — the opposite of the swagger of “The Boss.” For me, the first value in work is that it separates you.


We start at the top, with a President and Rock Star, for a reason. Good work made them free. This is deeper than the concept of “good trouble”, which focuses first on social justice questions rather than the biblical sense of “good work.” Nothing against being a social reformer, that is for sure. That is significant work. But I am trying to get at something more available to each of us about the independence of good work. They used to call in a “calling”, where individuals knew they were delegated actors for a greater good.

Even in our own smaller lives, you can destroy the delicate values in work if not careful. Think of all the people ranting at work, being ignored by others like senile bees. While our self-destruction is not on a world stage, there is still a key top issue damaging this world: how to become known, and keep yourself creative and free.

Truly exemplary work is what makes us free. It requires intelligence, selection, and most importantly, intense focus. It is not run by a time clock. It is run by a sensibility that knows its value in the world. It adds social value.

Here is what can be damaging at work: if you do not have the stamina, you can become a paper pusher or one who simply punches the clock.

Suddenly at work you become a title, with a staff, and they have functions, and you are no longer free and creative. I see this explains to me how work misfits, and team knuckleheads allow the pope’s descent into hell. By “the pope” I mean those well-dressed fools that accomplish nothing of social value. Work compromises, unless you learn how to stamp your signature into your schedule and make it your day! Not selfishly, but with purpose and power. Again, visualize yourself in the context of Springsteen or Obama. They can speak of family, friends, and fears with dignity.

That is the lesson in my mind, writing about exemplary lives, full of pictures of their success, their clever memories and heartfelt narratives. Their work lives exemplify their values and principles.

You can see why ranges of diverse people go to the events of a Springsteen and a Obama — even when they do not agree with their “politics.” Many read their books as if they are poems and lyrics. Thousands pay for their public performances. And we think of them at play, satisfied with joy, rather confined within the conventions of “normal” work.

My point is they know how to work. Bruce and Barack sweat trustworthiness.

They bend deep and high with civil reassurances in this swift and severe world. They embody “social coherence” in everything they do regarding family, friends, public events, and the page.

A contrast. I remember watching Al Gore get stiffer and stiffer as he rose in power from Southern Senator to Vice President, where I was one of many that served him, to Presidential candidate. Opinion polls made him stiff, and I watched a generous smart warm man become “a thing.”

In contrast, “The Boss” is still stage worthy. Our former President stands knowingly at work: we want to take a basketball shot next to him! Why is this? This short reflection and cultural essay will begin my public exploration of why. Their work wealth is in the commonwealth, not their bank accounts.


In order for me to test this theory about work — and its wealth to the human soul — , or at least its description reference to exemplar lives, I took down four books from my shelf. Each chosen because they helped me — when I was reading and enjoying them — see clearly why much waste exists in normal politics and normal work.

These books are:

William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep

James R. Clapper’s Facts and Fears

Michael V. Hayden’s The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies

Andrew G. McCabe’s The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump

Excellent Sheep documents, with some intelligent rage, how classical elite educational systems — like his Yale — make most people “excellent sheep.” By this he means — that while at work — they push papers rather than change the world with swagger, gravitas and impact. I believe this, and wrote in my Fable how Covid-19 isolation allowed me to “work” past the “Noh” masks of exclusive professionalism, trained as I was in elite institutions, and become more Springsteen-like. Yale did not make President Obama, his hard work did.

Deresiewicz notes that these intelligent sheep do nothing to challenge materialism or make improvements of lasting value in the power structures of where they live for work.

When you read Clapper’s meticulous 400 plus page memoir of his life as an intelligence executive under the constraints of section 702 of FISA, you realize our democracy maintains constant attacks and threats because there are thousands at hard work on our behalf each day like Mr. Clapper. Look at the pictures between pages 248 and 249, where you see him with hair before the Marine Corps in 1961 to his days dealing with Edward Snowden, Michael Flynn, and many other knuckleheads in the urban forests of modern life — and here in this revealing book see how law and standards and the performance of duties matter even when they must be transacted often behind closed doors. Yes, the life of James R. Clapper embodies the courage and civility we see publicly, and openly, when Obama and Springsteen are at work for us.

These books so far taught me this about work. Between chaos and order, you can find men and women at hard work to maintain the law.

Even deeper, you may recall Andrew G. McCabe was the FBI worker who was stripped of his retirement money, after decades of service, because he used evidence to question a President. This man was mostly a street agent, the kind with miles to walk near the bad people in our midst. This kind of work is different from a junkyard dog growling. Read this meticulous significant book and get a lower view, beneath the world stage, on why our Democracy survives.

Finally, Michael V. Hayden’s shorter, more disciplined Penguin Press book of 2018 is aptly subtitled: “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.” In these carefully rendered pages, you see another professional who took his work seriously. You can feel the creativity it took, how he had a multitude of tasks each week, that he handled with responsibility and grace. No strutting. No drama queen. Another type of noble work.

What does all this teach us about work?

First, work is like a snake. It takes us into many corners, many grasslands. Second, work is a way for us to remain creative, and help society during its times of confusion. You are paid to not be an intelligent sheep, but to question at work what you see, and make it real.


I never accepted the offer to become an CIA agent from Director William Casey back during my doctoral days at Cornell. Instead, I chose to work in a more public way by writing book, and being a change agent in firms and governments.

Bruce Piasecki

President/Founder, AHC Group

New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author and Speaker

For additional perspectives:




Dr. Bruce Piasecki is the president and founder of AHC Group, Inc., NYT bestselling author, speaker, advisor on shared value and social response capitalism.

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Bruce Piasecki

Bruce Piasecki

Dr. Bruce Piasecki is the president and founder of AHC Group, Inc., NYT bestselling author, speaker, advisor on shared value and social response capitalism.

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