The Theory of Conceptual Labor


  1. Work can be modeled with fundamental components
  2. Individuals experience work through a unique mental model
  3. Conceptual labor is required when all components of a model are dynamic
  4. We tend towards models with static and well-defined components
  5. Conceptual labor requires actors to continuously update their models
  6. Part of conceptual labor is understanding and explaining why it is necessary
  7. Conceptual labor tends towards abstraction but is rooted in specifics


Tenet 1

Work can be modeled with fundamental components

Preliminary Definitions


It is the nature of our attention that we subdivide large jobs into smaller jobs, so whatever conditions that guide our labor at any given stage of work define the job being done. A model is a dynamic theory of work that is meant to thoroughly represent the behaviors that occur within all jobs related to the work at hand.

However complex these models are, their significant components can be categorized as one of following three fundamental components.

1. Actors

Actors are anything performing work or work-equivalent actions. An individual at work is the typical actor within a job.1

2. Labor

Labor is any action taken by an actor that is intended to contribute to work, or that can be defined as work by its results2.

3. Context

Context is the total of all conditions that the actors believe to be relevant to the execution of labor as part of a job 3.

In this theory, then, work is when an actor labors within a context to complete a job, following their model to do so.

Tenet 2

Individuals experience work through a unique mental model

Given any description of a job, we cannot assume that everyone who does the work it demands will understand it in the terms and structure used by that description. Nor can we assume that the description is exhaustive for all circumstances. Even when work is thought to be “brainless” and routine, we review the conditions of a job and load them into our own mental model. Though this model may refer to external instructions or materials, our models are what we directly engage with.

“What am I trying to do here?” is a classic statement to initiate a new model. We ask this question of ourselves and our circumstances, and then work according to the best answer we can get.

Tenet 3

Conceptual labor is required when all components of a model are dynamic

Though work involves change by definition, it can still be systematized, described, and predicted in effective ways if at least one of its fundamental components can be treated as a known quantity. This is Type 1 work — the work we do when we think we know what to do. In this type of work, being confused about the job is not part of the job.

However, work behaves much differently when all significant components are dynamic. When the Actor, Labor, and Context are all able to change on their own accord, and if changing the conditions of any one component will meaningfully change another, the work takes on another dimension. In this type of work, solving one’s confusion, coming up with new instructions, and executing them are all considered part of the same job.


Any non-plumber who has fixed a discrete problem in their bathroom has an intuitive understanding of the difference between these modes of work. They may have solved a plumbing problem, but they’re not going to start work as a plumber the next day. That work would require them to walk into bathrooms they had never seen before, imagine the problem quickly and accurately, and draw on their theoretical understanding of plumbing to furnish an appropriate solution, repeating the whole process if their initial theory of the problem was incorrect. It would seem that “being a plumber” involves so much more than just “doing plumbing.”

Tenet 4

We tend towards models with static and well-defined components

When our understanding of a mental model changes significantly, we have to engage mental tools like analytical thinking and self-examination. The concepts of System 1 and System 2 thinking which come from modern dual-process4 theory support this tenet. System 1 “operates automatically and quickly” 5, and we rely on System 2 to challenge assumptions and conduct systematic efforts. A robust body of research overwhelmingly shows that this is a taxing mental process which we only engage when absolutely necessary. System 1 is our default mode.

Tenet 5

Conceptual labor requires actors to continuously update their models

Conceptual labor is more than simply moving back and forth between the two poles of understood work (Type 1) and the analysis of work (Type 2). Dual-process theory is useful again here if we allow a rough equivalence between Type 1 work and System 1 thinking, and likewise with Type 2 and System 2. Conceptual labor is a dynamic pattern of thinking and behavior that integrates the automatic processes of System 1 thinking with the self-monitoring work of System 2, while also performing the meta-work required to switch between systems and update the assumptions that System 1 brings to the context. Even in disciplines that are highly attuned to the demands they make on System 2 thinking, crucial forms of meta-work such as judgement and time-management are often considered to be as separate from the “real work” as confusion is considered to be separate from Type 1 work. One could make a case for using “System 3” as shorthand for conceptual labor.

Tenet 6

Part of conceptual labor is understanding and explaining why it is necessary

There is work involved in understanding why conventional labor won’t work or why a narrative of how one should be working is wrong. When the conditions of work meet Tenet 3, conventional labor is no longer effective, but it is the mode we will employ by default (Tenet 4). Therefor, attentiveness and sensitivity to the changing requirements of a job can be considered a skill in its own right.


The radio owner’s change of opinion about young Feynman6 illustrates the crucial role of this skill — he interrupted a necessary part of the process because it didn’t match his unexamined model of “fixing a radio,” and only updated his model after he saw proof that it was incomplete.

Tenet 7

Conceptual labor tends towards abstraction but is rooted in specifics

When confronted with the shifting circumstances described by Tenet 3, an important, instinctual response is to look for patterns in the uncertainty. At the same time, Tenets 5 and 6 require awareness of the specific and contingent conditions of the work as it happens. Therefor, effective conceptual labor embodies general, portable concepts in the materials and language of a specific practice.


The infamous quip that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” paints a vivid picture to suggest that this is not true. The vivacity of dancers doing their work seems to underscore the futility of communicating between disciplines which have their own vocabulary. But it only works if we believe that dance has nothing to say outside of the world of dance. Otherwise, we have to accept the unlikely circumstance that architecture, specifically and wholly, is a topic dance may not speak about. A much more interesting and useful reading spurs one to imagine all the new things that could be said about music or architecture using different modes of knowing and communicating, dance included. Architects, dancers, writers, and musicians all absorb things from the outside world and attempt to encode them in their work. This tenet simply declares that decoding is possible and necessary.

> Summary

  1. Other parties that appear to be relevant to the outcome of the job may also be considered actors. This includes automated equipment, materials and their properties, other humans, software, corporate policy, and even a set of instructions such as the rules of a game. ↩︎

  2. This includes actions that are taken with little confidence in their effectiveness or relevance in relation to an expected outcome. Poorly-directed or exploratory labor is still labor. ↩︎

  3. It is worth noting that erroneous assumptions about the conditions of a job are, by definition, treated as true until disproven. Likewise, unknown but important information cannot be part of the context until it is known. A captain sailing into an unknown storm is sailing as if the storm does not exist. As soon as they become aware of the possibility of a storm, the context of their job changes. If they believe a storm is on the way, they sail accordingly, even if the storm never arrives. ↩︎

  4. Dual Process Summary From Wikipedia: “The dual-process accounts of reasoning posits that there are two systems or minds in one brain. The theory of two distinct kinds of reasoning has been around for as long as documentations about theories of reasoning go. The current theory is that there are two distinctively separate cognitive systems underlying thinking and reasoning and that these different systems were developed through evolution . . . These systems are often referred to as “implicit” and “explicit” or by the more neutral “System 1” and “System 2,” as coined by Stanovich and West.” ↩︎

  5. Kahneman states in Thinking, Fast and Slow: System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. ↩︎

  6. See the Introduction ↩︎