Human innovation and the creative agency of the world in the age of generative AI

My newly published paper on the relationship between creativity, innovation & novelty, generative AI/LLMs, future potentials, and the creative agency of the world:
Peschl (2024). Human innovation and the creative agency of the world in the age of generative AI. Possibility Studies & Society, (online first, open access)

With the advent of Large Language Models, such as ChatGPT, and, more generally, generative AI/cognitive technologies, global knowledge production faces a critical systemic challenge. It results from continuously feeding back non- or poorly-creative copies of itself into the global knowledge base; in the worst case, this could not only lead to a stagnation of creative, reliable, and valid knowledge generation, but also have an impact on our material (and subsequently our social) world and how it will be shaped by these rather uninspired automatized knowledge dynamics.
More than ever, there appears to be an imperative to bring the creative human agent back into the loop. Arguments from the perspectives of 4E- and Material Engagement Theory approaches to cognition, human-technology relations as well as possibility studies will be used to show that being embodied, sense-making, and enacting the world by proactively and materially interacting with it are key ingredients for any kind of knowledge and meaning production. It will be shown that taking seriously the creative agency of the world, an engaged epistemology, as well as making use of future potentials/possibilities complemented and augmented by cognitive technologies are all essential for re-introducing profound novelty and creativity.

Keywords: AI, cognitive technologies, creative agency of the world, creativity, 4E cognition, embodied cognition, engaged epistemology, future potential, innovation, large language models, possibility, radical novelty, World

Download here: (online first, open access)

#AI #cognitivetechnologies #creativeagencyoftheworld #creativity #4Ecognition #embodiedcognition #engagedepistemology #futurepotential #innovation #LLM #radicalnovelty

The transformative and creative power of walking. Walking as co-becoming with the world

© M.Peschl

„Rather, it seems that I become my walking, and that my walking walks me… And with every step I am not so much changed as modified, in the sense not of transition from one state to another but of perpetual renewal. I am indeed a different person when I arrive… Walking is itself a habit of thinking. This thinking is not however an inside-the-head, but the work of a mind that, in its deliberations, freely mingles with the body and the world… I do not so much think while walking as think in walking… Perhaps the meditative power of walking lies in precisely this: that it gives thought room to breathe, to let the world in on its reflections. But by the same token, to be open to the world we must also surrender something of our agency. We must become responsive beings.“ (Ingold 2017, p 23)

Walking is not just moving from one place to another. Tim Ingold offers a perspective on this activity from the inside out by relating it to a habit of thinking, and even more, to an existential dimension. Cognition, no longer understood as capacity bound to the brain only, is embodied, embedded, and extended. In the activity of walking it enacts our mind (and body) through engaging in a relationship of correspondence with the world. We co-become with the world and the world is transforming us, enabling renewal and re-generation. The world becomes a source of novelty for us.
In the context of innovation and future-oriented work, we might think of walking as an activity of exposing ourselves to and engaging with the creativity of the world by giving our minds room (and time) to breath the fresh air of novelty. Surrendering parts of our agency and projections from past experiences proves key in this endeavor. Correspondence with the world means responsiveness to emerging future potentials.

Ingold, T. (2017). Anthropology and/as education. Oxon, New York: Routledge.

Emergent Innovation — joining forces with the world to enact the unpredictable

„Performers, based on their well-trained skills, and well-formed habits (which involve a heedful flexibility rather than automaticity or repetitiveness) are able to move beyond controlled engagement to the point of not-knowing (embracing a kind of uncertainty or surprise) about what precisely will happen—letting the system (brain-body-environment) move in unpredictable, surprising ways—without a prediction of what happens next. What happens next is that brain-body-environment couple in a novel way—they join forces to enact something unpredictable—they create cortical patterns, and behaviors, and new affordances that are unique to each event. Enactivism explains the possibility of breaking habits (declining usual affordances, resisting predictions) across the various timescales of performance, generating higher degrees of uncertainty about what will happen.” (Gallagher 2022, p 8)

Although the above quote is about improvisation, it offers important insights into an alternative perspective on innovation. Instead of understanding innovation as a purely brain-bound activity that is based on extrapolating past routines and knowledge, this text invites us into a somewhat paradoxical situation: on the one hand, to make use of our well-formed habits that do not primarily mean blind automatic responses and repetition, but that enable us to be adaptive and open to coping sovereignly with uncertainty, unpredictability and unfamiliar situations. On the other hand, it suggests to let go of control and prediction and to engage in interacting with an unfolding reality, as in a dance. In such an act, we enact both our world and our mind in a co-creative manner. This is achieved by making use of potentials that are continuously unfolding and emerging in a process of transforming possibles into actuals. Novelty is created by establishing new affordances and patterns of interaction. Innovation becomes an emergent process (Peschl 2020) that is driven by future potentials in the environment rather than by our own pre-defined (past) ideas.

Gallagher, S. (2022). Surprise! Why enactivism and predictive processing are parting ways: The case of improvisation. Possibility Studies & Society 0(0), 1–10. |

Peschl, M.F. (2020). Theory U: From potentials and co-becoming to bringing forth emergent innovation and shaping a thriving future. On what it means to “learn from the future as it emerges”. In O. Gunnlaugson and W. Brendel (Eds.), Advances in Presencing, pp. 65–112. Vancouver: Trifoss Business Press. |

On the “creativity”​ of AI — Preliminary critical remarks

Praise for the creative capabilities of recent developments in AI technologies is ubiquitous in the media and relevant blogs.

Although really astonishing (as an example, have a look here [and the examples in the article]), creating novel ideas by using AI seems to have intrinsic limitations.

To us humans, these results sometimes seem really “creative”, “novel”, or surprising. However this is mainly due to the limitations in our own imagination, which is simply not capable of processing such huge amounts of data.

In essence, AI’s creativity is the result of hyper-complex processes of learning and adaptation that is based on an almost endless ocean of data/”knowledge” (without meaning). This has several implications concerning the underlying premises of such an AI-driven understanding of creativity and bringing forth novelty:

  1. These systems are based almost exclusively on already existing knowledge. Hence, their learning algorithms apply a strategy of learning from the past.
  2. This leads to a form of creativity that is grounded in the idea of (re-)combining already existing concepts/things. This is an accepted and valid strategy well known from creativity and innovation research. However, we have to keep in mind, that the results will remain in the realm of the predictable, or, from a Kuhnian perspective, within the paradigm of what already exists.
  3. It is a purely “brain/mind-based” form of creativity that does not take into account the world and its potentials (e.g., affordances) as a possible source of novelty (e.g., by interacting and engaging with it).

If we are interested in really “ground breaking”, radical, or disruptive innovations, these strategies will not suffice. As we show in our research, we will have to follow a strategy of Emergent Innovation, “Learning from the future and future potentials as they emerge” as well as acquire futures skills and a perspective on innovation that is grounded in an enactive understanding of cognition.

Will AI be able to sense the future by learning from it, its affordances and potentials, and from interacting with and enacting its environment?

How the future can drive innovation | Markus F. Peschl | TEDx Med Uni Graz

TEDx talk by Markus F. Peschl: How the future can drive innovation (April 1, 2022)

Innovation entails anticipating and shaping the future.

Why is it that most innovations are not so much about the future, but about extrapolating the past and coming up with more of the (almost) same? Taking a closer look at our cognitive capacities reveals that our mind has great difficulties dealing with a future that is highly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (i.e., today’s VUCA world).

This TEDx talk shows how assuming a radically future-oriented perspective will change the game. It is about actively engaging with future potentials and co-creating thriving innovations by making use of an unfolding future.

This talk was given at the TEDx Med Uni Graz event (April 1, 2022)  | #TEDxMedUniGraz #innovation #perspective # neuroscience

Joy @ Work | Part 3

Joy @ Work — on the relationship between joy and work (in the 21st century)

This is part 3 of a first draft of an explorative paper on the relationship between joy/joyfulness and work.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Implications for organizations and leaders

The main conclusion from our considerations can be summarized as follows: in order to make work (more) joyful, it is necessary to bring back purpose to work. As we have seen, joy is not just/so much about feeling well, having fun, satisfying superficial needs, etc. Rather, joy is about engaging in meaningful activities that contribute both to one’s own self-actualization and to bringing (new) meaning and purpose to the world (be it the organization, the user, market, etc.). 

It has become clear that material or financial rewards are not the final word and do not ensure lasting and sustainable satisfaction as well as loyalty for/of employees. What has turned out to be more important is that their job provides purpose and meaning to them (personally as well as in the context of their organization). Such a working environment makes employees give the best of their efforts, lets them grow beyond their possibilities and limits of their “official” duties and job descriptions, as well as empowers them to become highly creative and innovative, because they know how their work contributes to the bigger whole and that they are part of a larger purpose.

As leaders, we have the responsibility to not only care about the (financial) performance of an organization, but also to make it a joyful place to work for everybody working there by focusing on purpose and self-actualization. Here are some guiding principles:

  1. Being alive and agency: Being alive is one of the most fundamental experiences of every human person. It implies a sense of agency, I am capable of changing something (internally and externally), I experience myself as the author of my actions and my actions have an actual impact. Leaders have to provide an environment in which employees are not only allowed to engage in pseudo agency, but must both take responsibility and earn recognition for their (successful) actions. This is part of an approach we refer to as creating Enabling Spaces (Peschl and Fundneider, 2012, 2014) that support agency and that are alive in every dimension.
  2. Creating a sense of ownership and autonomy: Related to the previous point , it is important to give employees a sense of ownership and autonomy in their tasks and daily work. Both contribute to an experience of being in control leading not only to employees’ self-actualization, but also to a higher level of identification with their company. While giving up control sometimes is difficult for leaders, many studies/papers show (e.g., Cable and Vermeulen, 2018; Peschl and Fundneider, 2014, 2017) that replacing a control attitude by an enabling mindset has positive effects on performance, creativity, and innovation.
  3. Creating meaningful workplaces and purpose: As we have seen above, creating a meaningful workspace is closely linked to the human longing for eudaimonia. This implies that leaders have to organize work for their employees in such a way that they may actualize and realize their potentials and their capacities. In the best case, employees find a connection between their own deepest purpose and the purpose of the company they are working for. It is the leader’s task to support their employees in this process and to connect their work with the larger goal of the organization. Ideally, each employee should have an understanding of what is his/her personal contribution to satisfy the user’s need/demand, what is his/her particular (added) value for the user in the overall value creation process. For that, a leader has to offer orientation and direction, for instance, by clear and transparent communication of the company’s purpose and objectives as well as on an integrative, holistic, and eco-systems perspective covering every point in the value chain/network. Some kind of personal coaching, well designed onboarding processes, stakeholder specific workshops, etc. are additional means to achieve this kind of engagement and alignment leading to employees’ more joyful work experiences and higher levels of job satisfaction.
  4. Healthy social interactions and sense of belonging: Apart from purposeful work, social interaction and a healthy social environment are critical for a joyful work environment. Humans are not only cognitive beings, but first and foremost social beings. In this context, trust and (strong) social ties are key drivers leading to a sense of belonging (both on a personal and organizational level) as well as to an experience of being accepted, welcome, and valued, that, in turn, increase the level of employee well-being. Participatory sense-making is one of the key activities of humans (De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007); and, it is also one of the key activities of every organization. It has both a cognitive part (“sense-making”) and a social aspect (“participatory”). Leaders are in charge of creating an environment in which the combination of these aspects can lead to joyful and inspiring forms of collaboration, creativity, innovation, decision making processes, etc. A is shown by De Jaegher (2019), it is the harmonious and thoughtful integration of these aspects as well as an open mindset that lead to deep insights and interesting results both on an individual and on an organizational level.
  5. Being confronted with the unexpected (in a safe space) and creativity: One of the reasons why we fear uncertainty is that we did not expect it and we lack knowledge and understanding of a specific (unexpected) situation or phenomenon. As a consequence, we cannot predict the future and the implications of our actions. Observing closely and listening carefully does not only bring about a more profound understanding of the current situation, but also prepares us for the future.
    Although the experience of uncertainty can sometimes lead to a sense of anxiety or loss of control, it can be transformed through direct confrontation with this uncertain reality in a safe environment by closely engaging with it. Trying to make sense of what is really happening around us on a deeper level and reflecting on our patterns of perception are all instruments leading to a more profound level of understanding. In most cases, this understanding will reduce the level of uncertainty and anxiety. It will bring forth alternative and creative perspectives opening new ways of dealing with uncertain phenomena or situations. Uncertainty becomes a source of creativity. If this happens in a safe (organizational) environment, employees will not only regain their sense of agency, but also experience self-actualization. They will feel alive and fulfilled (“eudaimonia”), as being creative is both a highly challenging and at the same time satisfying activity (it is satisfying because they will bring novel meaning and purpose into the world). Again, it is the leader’s job to create such a safe and enabling environment where mistakes, failures, or sometimes risky decisions are seen as learning experiences rather than something to be sanctioned.
  6. Pro-active and future-oriented mindset: In most companies one can find a mindset being driven by highly standardized processes. While standardization per se is not a bad thing (they provide stability, security, and efficiency), one has to keep in mind that these processes are mainly determined by past experiences and are mostly reactive. They are not only the result of reacting to changes in the environment, the market, in technologies, and/or user needs, but the way, how these processes have been designed, is mostly driven by past experiences (Peschl, Fundneider, and Kulick, 2015). They are extrapolations from the past into the future. In a sense, how such a company operates and innovates is based on a mindset that approaches current (and future) changes as problems that have to be solved by applying patterns from the past.
    As we have seen above, in most cases this leads to an alienation from purpose, because activities are mainly automatized and standardized. They can be executed without knowing why and there is little motivation to truly tackle the challenges of the future. Obviously, such a mindset is not in line with what eudaimonia is about and does not promote a fulfilling and joyful work environment. In a sense, eudaimonia is always oriented and pointing towards the future; it has a lot to do with actively co-shaping the future by realizing its potentials.
    Eudaimonia is, similarly as innovation-driven companies, about future making (Wenzel, Krämer, Koch, and Reckwitz, 2020). „More recently, actors have begun to experience the future as a problematic, open-ended temporal category that they could not fully master through planning practices alone. This renaissance of the future as a prevalent and unknowable temporal category in organizational life is what we refer to as the ‘rediscovery’ of the future. This rediscovery… has been produced through a pluralization of the ways in which actors engage with the future, with planning being just one of many approaches. Yet, very few, if any, of these activities and practices are well understood in organization studies… ..future-making practices are the specific ways in which actors produce and enact the future.“ (Wenzel, Krämer, Koch, and Reckwitz 2020, p 1442f) Hence, eudaimonia is about employing and engaging in a future-oriented mindset of both an organization and its employees that pro-actively “learn from the future as it emerges” (Scharmer, 2016). 
  7. Re:creation & slack time/space: Being efficient might boost the performance of a company in the short term. However, as we have seen, purposeless activity that is performed for the sake of itself, might lead to a contemplative and restful state, a state in which one is in resonance with him-/herself. Results from neuroscience and cognitive science have shown that such a state is a powerful source of creativity and contributes to bringing forth novelty and innovation. Even more so, if it is not explicitly directed towards a product or an outcome. As an implication, leaders should provide their employees some slack time and space for re:creation—it will not only boost their creativity, but also establish an atmosphere in which employees do not feel that their creative activities are directly instrumentalized for the company only.

Isn‘t it one of the most joyful moments when one has accomplished something where he/she realizes his/her highest potentials for the good of the world? In such moments a human is not only in resonance with his/her highest inner self (cf. Scharmer, 2016), but also with the world and with what wants to emerge. Ideally, it brings out the best of a human person (“self-actualization”)  as well as the best of the environment he/she has an impact on. In most cases, this accomplishment is characterized by going beyond pure functionality or expected requirements. The difference that makes the difference is the surplus, the unexpected, and the gratuité of the result. When work processes, environments, and outcomes reflect these qualities we can speak of joy and eudaimonia at work.


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Joy @ Work | Part 2

Joy @ Work — on the relationship between joy and work (in the 21st century)

This is part 2 of a first draft of an explorative paper on the relationship between joy/joyfulness and work.

The next parts will follow in the next blog entries

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Joy and/at work

The activity of work(ing) is an intrinsic part of our human being (e.g., Arendt, 2001). It is about our capacity to design and shape (“gestalten”) the world (and being shaped by it). In other words, giving our world a shape according to and in co-operation/co-creation with our mind is an essential activity of the human person (“homo faber”). As is suggested by the 4E approaches in cognitive science (e.g., Newen, de Burin, and Gallagher, 2018; Hutto, Kirchhoff, and Myin, 2014) or by Material Engagement Theory (Malafouris, 2013, 2014, 2020) actively engaging with the world and enacting it is one of the key activities of a cognitive system. Work or art can be considered as behaviors that realize this engagement.

Vita contemplativa, vita activa, and vita automatica

While (non-intellectual) work was not highly valued in ancient Greece (political action had the highest value), this has changed dramatically since the beginning of modern times. The traditional hierarchy of vita contemplativa and vita activa (i.e., contemplation vs. action/theory vs. practice) was turned upside down (e.g., Arendt, 2001). Producing, making, and fabricating have become key characteristics of homo faber and enjoy highest priority and social recognition. Productivity, efficiency, optimization, and the principle of utility are the ideals and goals of working. It is no longer a purpose or usefulness (of an artifact or product/service) that counts, but it is productivity/work for the sake of productivity/work and, as a consequence, personal well-being experienced in producing and consuming. 

This is especially true today for our capitalist, technology- and knowledge-driven society and economy. Division of labor as splitting and assigning different parts of a production process or task to different people in order to improve efficiency has led to losing purpose in the activity of working. In complex work environments, workers can no longer see and understand their particular contribution to the overall artifact, product, or purpose of the organization they work for. This alienation from purpose (e.g., Arendt, 2001; Smith and Fessoli, 2021) has increased even more in modern working environments that are driven by automation, hyper standardized and uniform work processes and workflows, excessive division of labor (e.g., in globally distributed value chains and production networks), as well as cognitive technologies reducing human original thinking to its minimum.

Far from eudaimonia, work and productivity have become ends in themselves. While contemplation is considered superfluous or even an obstacle to productivity, our most valuable human activities, such as cognitive processes, individual and original (deep) thinking, (participatory) sense-making, reflection, social capacities, etc. are outsourced to cognitive machines (Vidovic and Peschl, 2020). In some instances, they are even regarded as undesirable.

Will our future working society run out of work and purpose? For most persons whose work is still needed, work activities (have) become highly standardized, repetitive, specialized, etc. They become “human automata”. In other words, their working tasks and patterns will not contribute a lot to their self-actualization (rather to frustration or depression). In a future scenario (concerning the future of work and economy), „automation should be pushed “beyond the acceptable parameters of capitalist social relations” into a future of fully-automated luxury communism (FALC)… Accelerating automation provides the technological means for transcending contradictions already evident in capitalism… for moving automation over to a post-capitalist political economy better equipped to manage structural underemployment and unemployment, worsening ecological degradation, diminishing costs and falling profitability. FALC argues socialised automation will deliver an abundance of socially useful goods and services at diminishingly marginal cost. Automation will finally liberate people from labour and enable them to enjoy flourishing and meaningful lives. Abundant automated production provides the material basis for transforming ideas and expectations about work, income, leisure, and sustainability…” (Smith and Fressoli 2021, p 3) Universal basic income, reduction of working hours, an increase and shift to more personal development and fulfillment could be key ingredients of such a scenario. However, such a scenario in which (classical forms of) work will disappear has to be seen critically as well: it will not only have a crucial impact on the economy, but above all on a societal and personal level; “work” is one of the most fundamental activities of a human person and it is far from clear what could take its role (and how), if it is abandoned.

Only a very limited number of people will have the privilege to work in a job (in the classical sense) that offers them purpose and an opportunity for self-actualization, and that is intellectually and/or socially challenging and inspiring. Apart from jobs in the social, hospitality, and caring industry (which are in need of social, empathic, emotional, etc. capabilities and attitudes; Smith and Fressoli, 2021), these jobs will require highly sophisticated thinking/cognitive and creative skills (Frey and Osborne, 2013; OECD, 2021; World Economic Forum, 2020; BBVA Open Mind Book, 2019).

Work, eudaimonia, and re:creation

In contrast to an economy and social dynamics being primarily driven by efficiency, productivity, and speed that is induced mainly by automation and digital technologies, we propose an alternative approach to work and how to relate it to joy/eudaimonia. It makes use of the theoretical concepts having been discussed above and is compatible with a digital humanist approach (Doueihi, 2011; Peschl and Vidovic, 2020). Above that, it offers interesting new perspectives for the fields of knowledge work, creativity, and innovation.

In this context, we introduce the concept of re:creation. In its everyday meaning it denotes an activity that is done for one’s enjoyment, for instance, when one does not have to work. We propose to dig deeper, however, as there is much more to it than these aspects of wellness, pleasure, play, or entertainment (see our discussion above). Actually, going back to its Latin roots we can find some hints: re:creation is derived from the Latin word “recreare/recreatio”; “re-” is a prefix and means “again”; “creare” can be translated to create, bring forth, bring into being, beget, or give birth to. Etymologically speaking, recreare has various connotations, such as to restore, recover (from illness), refreshment of strength and spirits after work, to make new, or revive.

There is a clear relationship between re:creation and joy, leisure, and play. However, we do not want to limit our understanding of re:creation to well-being, relaxing, or just amusement. In the context of eudaimonia, creativity, and innovation, we want to focus on the aspects of renewal and bringing something to life, of bringing forth novelty, and of making something new as an activity that is not necessarily driven by and embedded in a paradigm of functionality and efficiency.

Going one step back further, brings us to the concept of leisure that is closely related to joy and re:creation; Aristotle describes it in an illuminating manner: “We should be able, not only to work well, but to use leisure well; for, as I must repeat once again, the first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure?“ (Aristotle, Politics 8 (3); italics by author)

The role of re:creation, joy, and leisure in the context of work

Aristotle makes an astonishing remark that might sound a bit counterintuitive for our time: he claims that we are working for the sake of leisure, and that leisure is the final cause of work. In a way he has reversed today’s order that—as we have seen above—is driven by the imperative of working for the sake of working and productivity. In such a context, leisure is reduced to a means for increasing our productivity in the domain of work (think, for instance, about work environments or coffee lounges that foster wellness at work, that invite for “informal” meetings, that are cosy, etc.). Leisure gets instrumentalized, it is no longer an end, but becomes a means. 

Aristotle warns us that leisure should not be confused with amusement or „doing nothing“, however. Rather, as we have seen in our discussion above, he shows that leisure is related to a more contemplative activity, to eudaimonia. It is a „purposeless activity“ for the sake of itself leading to a state of internal rest, “contemplation”, or resonance with oneself. Prima facie, it is not instrumental. As an example, Aristotle mentions intellectual activities that are valued for themselves. In other words, leisure understood in such a sense does not (directly) aim for a “product”, an “outcome”, or some accomplishment in the first place. If something interesting or purposeful arises out of these activities this product or outcome should be considered rather as a “by-product”.

If we consider the focus of the future of work to be on high end, joyful and cognitive/knowledge work, creative activities, dealing with and bringing forth novelty, and on innovation, this has interesting implications for our discussion on the relationship between joy and work in the context of digital technologies and digital humanism. What Aristotle suggests is a change in attitude and mindset: intellectual work, creativity and creating novelty cannot only be brought forth through a purely functional and mechanistic regime. Rather, deep insights and novel knowledge have to be seen as a “by-product” that have emerged from a state of leisure or re:creation. It is not primarily the result of working for the sake of work. Leisure and contemplation are required for meaning-/purposeful work/occupation in order to bring about a meaningful world.

Evidence from cognitive/neuro-science

Such a perspective does not only have support from classical philosophy, but also from recent findings in neuroscience and cognitive science. Just to name a few, there is evidence that creativity has its roots in resting states and meditative activities (Tang et al. 2015), or that creativity emerges from a subtle oscillation between divergent and convergent thinking, between conscious and unconscious brain processes and relaxed brain states (Maldonato et al. 2016; Dietrich & Kanso 2010), or that the level of creative problem solving is increased in natural and silent environments (e.g., Attention Restoration Theory and activation of default mode networks that are active during resting; Atchley et al. (2012)), etc.

Joy @ Work | Part 1

Joy @ Work — on the relationship between joy and work (in the 21st century)

How joyful work (environments) contributes to personal and organizational self-actualization and purpose

This is part 1 of a first draft of an explorative paper on the relationship between joy/joyfulness and work.

The next parts will follow in the next blog entries

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


In this paper we explore the role of joy and joyfulness in the context of work; more specifically, we will take a look at the relationship between the human activity of work and how it may contribute to joy. Talking about joy, we do not have in mind superficial forms of fun, happiness or well-being that are driven by a hedonistic or pleasure-seeking attitude. Rather, we will follow Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia that consists in a life of virtuous activity leading to the fulfillment or self-actualization of our human capacities and potentials by identifying, following, and realizing one’s final good and purpose. In this sense, (self-)agency (in the service of eudaimonia) becomes one of the key drivers for joyful (work) experience.

Based on these considerations, we will develop a perspective on work as a joyful activity rather than being a purely standardized process without deeper purpose. We will show that work is an important factor contributing to self-actualization, if work environments as well as co-workers, peers, and leaders support this goal. Experience of (self-)agency and being connected to a purpose play a crucial role in this context. In the final section we will develop concrete guiding principles for leaders on how to make work a joyful and fulfilling activity by providing a joyful and enabling place to work by focusing on purpose and self-actualization.

Keywords: work, joy, eudaimonia, self-actualization, future of work, automation, purpose

Joyful work — Introduction

In this paper, we are going to have a look at the relationship between the human activity of work and joy. From an everyday perspective, this might sound contradictory, as work is considered not very joyful in most cases. It is tedious, exhausting and often not experienced as being a joyful activity. We want to show that, if work is done as or becomes a joyful activity, this contributes to a purposeful life, to personal self-actualization, as well as to possibly making the world a better and thriving place and even to increase the innovativeness, impact, and success of an organization.

When we talk about joy, we have in mind a form of happiness in the sense of well-being. However, in this paper, we do not mean happiness or “fun” in a superficial sense that is grounded in a hedonistic or pleasure-seeking attitude. Hence, joy, for us, is not so much about having a specific desired experience, pleasure, or getting or possessing what you want or desire. Rather, we think of joy or happiness in the Aristotelian sense as things, persons, phenomena, etc. that benefit us independently of our attitudes or feelings/emotions. We follow an Aristotelian perspective of understanding well-being as eudaimonia: it consists in a life of virtuous activity leading to the fulfillment of our human capacities and potentials (Aristotle 1991) “A passive but contented couch potato may be getting what he wants, and he may enjoy it. But he would not, on Aristotelian and other objective list theories, count as doing well, or leading a happy life.” (Haybron 2020).


Final good/purpose

It seems to be undisputed that every human being strives for living a good life. Living a good life in “happiness” turns out to be a final good. So, what does a good life, the ultimate purpose of human existence, or a human final good consist in? Aristotle (1991) develops several criteria in his Nicomachean Ethics: first of all he emphasizes that the final good has to be pursued for its own sake; i.e., we wish/desire for other things for the sake of this final good and we do not wish for it because of other things. This final good has to be complete in the sense of being always choiceworthy (“the best thing to choose from”) and it has to be self-sufficient in the sense of when being present one does not wish/desire for anything else and, consequently, one does not lack anything else. It is the final cause of one’s life. Most forms of “fun”, pleasure, or happiness do not satisfy these criteria as they are—in most cases—not pursued for the sake of themselves (e.g., drinking a cold beer, any kind of (superficial) pleasure, seeking wealth or reputation, etc.), they are instrumental, they are—at best—a means for a final good.

Eudaimonia, agency, and self-realization/actualization

Aristotle shows that eudaimonia satisfies these criteria. It can be translated as “happiness”, living a flourishing life, “living well”, or as living a “good life”. Although the concept seems to be very general, eudaimonia is, in its essence, achieved by fully actualizing and realizing a human person’s potential and his/her capacities. It is an activity leading to profound happiness consisting in living a life in accordance with virtue realizing one’s (latent) deepest purpose. In a way one could say that eudaimonia can be seen as living in positive resonance with oneself and his/her surrounding/context and one’s highest potentials. So, it does not suffice to “have” a specific capacity or disposition, but one has to actively live and realize it, to actualize these potentials, bring them to actuality in concrete actions. If one has, for instance, a disposition of being an outstanding artist, it is necessary to develop and execute one’s artistic capacities by engaging in concrete artistic work in accordance with the virtues and excellency of reason.

So, eudaimonia goes far beyond having short-term fun or quick satisfaction of some needs. Being a final end/cause, purpose, or goal it encompasses one’s life in its entirety. It is not a matter of hours or days that one can achieve this final goal or eudaimonia, but it takes the whole lifetime, because it is the ultimate value providing direction and orientation in a process of engaging in realizing one’s potentials.

From these considerations one can see that the concept of eudaimonia is closely related to the experience of (self-)agency: it is the capacity to engage with one’s (physical and social) environment in a purposeful manner; instead of reacting only, one experiences oneself as the author of change and of having impact on specific aspects of one’s external and internal environment/life.

Innovation learnings from Google’s ATAP lab

One of the main goals of Google’s ATAP lab (Advanced Technology and Projects) is to make Google hardware as smart as Google software. It is one of Google’s (secretive) innovation factories working on a wide range of hardware innovations for the Google ecosystem. Apart from presenting inspiring hardware gadgets, such as the “house mouse” or a micro radar for gesture recognition, the head of the lab, Dan Kaufman, gives some insights into the lab’s innovation strategy:

  1. Even if one has a zoo of fancy gadgets, you need to develop a cohesive and coherent vision or strategy for a future of smart devices.
  2. Sometimes it is necessary to “re-invent” technologies that seem to work well.
  3. Prototype and iterate.
  4. It is not the head count of the lab that matters for the success of innovation activities, but the fact that one can tap into 100.000 smart engineers of the whole ecosystem the lab is embedded in.