Skip to Section

The Project

Often, when people attempt to describe the most difficult work they do, they will say that there’s “an art” to it. In many ways, the Theory of Conceptual Labor is a way of answering the questions

  • what do people mean whey they say that
  • what are the common qualities of the work they’re talking about
  • how do they fit together?

This site is meant to be the first step of publication of a theory of work that is hoped to be useful to anyone who does this kind of difficult work, whether it is with their brain, their body, or in conversation with other people. It is meant to serve as a central reference point of discussions surrounding Conceptual Labor and provide public access to the main theory. Future relevant resources and projects will be announced or archived here.

You can follow @conceptuallabor on twitter or the RSS feed here and check out the Conceptual Labor Webring for related projects.

Where Conceptual Labor Comes from

This project began a decade ago when I started noticing patterns in the way that people engaged in different disciplines talk about how to do their hardest work. The subjects I was most closely studying were contemporary painting, martial arts, and writing. Much of the advice I got from experts in each field sounded strangely similar. They emphasized that some of the most important work could not be directly explained, instead it had to be cultivated and chased down. Attempts to explain the work or break it down into easy-to-follow instructions for the work were easy to find, yet they stopped short of the habits, strategies, and instincts demanded by cultivation and searching. Even trying to do the work in quiet, solitary study seemed to drift towards an inadequate yet comforting certainty regarding what one was doing and how one should do it. The vigilant self-assessment that it took to prevent that drift at first seemed like a by-product of the work, but I later understood it to be central. The pattern that I kept noticing was a type of work that combined domain-specific practices with intense, recursive analysis in an attempt to cultivate or discover novel ideas expressed through a particular medium.

I couldn’t completely describe this type of work, but I was certain it showed up regularly and unpredictably, especially in the process of learning and studying. This led me to write my dissertation on the language used by schools that try to guarantee that they can teach this kind of work. It seemed that the point of the disciplines that rely on that work wasn’t completely explicable and hid behind the parts that were easiest to teach and describe.

I thought this was a special condition of the arts until I graduated and began work as a web developer. While learning even the basics of programming, I recognized patterns of working, learning, and talking that I thought belonged in “the arts.” On the hunch that the patterns I was seeing were more fundamental to work and learning than I could understand from my own experience, I founded an organization dedicated to talking about work and ideas across disciplines. For five years, I listened to how people described how they did what they did, and encouraged them to look for common patterns in their practices. It became clear that the only special claim art had over these patterns was that when, for lack of a better term, someone said there was “an art” to what they did, they began to talk about the patterns I was looking for.

I wrote a precursor to this theory that focused on its place in what we call the arts which can be found on its own site, painting.school. While developing that essay, I taught two classes at a code school that incorporated part of my theory but focused on its expression in the tech industry. Finishing that essay and seeing my students successfully apply the ideas to their jobs and careers spurred me to develop a general theory, which is presented here.

Ním Wunnan, author


I am absurdly fortunate to have as many talented, insightful, patient, and whip-smart friends in my life as I do, and I owe each of them some degree of thanks. However, I could not have written this without the ongoing, meticulous and critical attention that Amber Case and Delphine Bedient have paid to my ideas and my writing, for which I am more grateful than I can say. Vivian Hua and Dustin Zemel also provided incisive and thoughtful feedback on early drafts. The regular quorums I have enjoyed with John James Dudek, Evan Dumas, and Nik Wise provided consistent space for these ideas to breathe, which is just as vital but more easily overlooked than direct editing. I must also single out my patient, early readers including Alex Dolan-Mescal, Claire Heacox, Alex Black, Gabriel Shalom, Van Pham, Ezra Spier and my family. Robby Kraft and Vernon Wauklyn each issued me challenges in unexpected places that led to large amounts of research and writing, and Mathew Lippincott has a talent for discussing the practical application of abstract ideas while in motion, usually on bicycles. My Wuji instructor, Jaime Tan, has been a guide and inspiration in his generosity, patience, humor, raw skill, and integrity as a teacher and martial artist.

Contributions, Use, and Sharing

The text of the Theory is available publically on Github. Interested readers are encouraged to open issues or pull requests with revisions or comments. You can also annotate this site with hypothes.is using this Annotate me link or the one found in the sidebar. Updates to the text will be made through numbered Drafts, with all previous Drafts preserved in the repository. The current draft is 1. You are welcome to download and share but not modify this material in accordance with our Creative Commons licensing guidelines.


This site is built using the Ed. theme for Jekyll. Set in Cardo, Nanum Myeongjo, and Work Sans.

The Author

The Theory of Conceptual Labor and the contents of this site were written in their entirety by Ním Wunnan