Rebel Without A Cause

Continuing with David Graeber’s analysis of Eric’s job experience from last time:

“What drove Eric crazy was the fact that there was simply no way he could construe his job as serving any sort of purpose.

“To get a sense of what was really happening here, let us imagine a second history major–we can refer to him as anti-Eric — a young man of a professional background but placed in exactly the same situation. How might anti-Eric have behaved differently?

“Well, likely as not, he would have played along with the charade. Instead of using phony business trips to practice forms of self-annihilation, anti-Eric would have used them to accumulate social capital, connections that would eventually allow him to move on to better things. He would have treated the job as a stepping-stone, and this very project of professional advancement would have given him a sense of purpose.

“But such attitudes and dispositions don’t come naturally. Children from professional backgrounds are taught to think like that from an early age. Eric, who had not been trained to act and think this way, couldn’t bring himself to do it.”

James-Dean-Rebel-Without-A-Cause-Movie-PosterLike Eric, I couldn’t bring myself to do it either — although it was not so much that I couldn’t, it was more a case of not knowing how. I was bright enough, had a knack for the all-important “likeability factor” with clients and colleagues, and worked with lots of clients and other professionals who were members of the Red Velvet Rope Club. But like Eric, I remained on the outside looking in, and I spent a lot of time feeling envious of others who fit in so easily. Those dynamics dogged the early years of my law career. In time, a general sense of inadequacy became depression, which I compensated for by nursing a rebel-without-a-cause attitude.

My experience didn’t have to be that way. Consider, for example, the story of super-lawyer David Boies. Like Eric and me, Boies was also born to working class parents and grew up in a farming community, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Chrystia Freeland introduces him this way in her book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2012):

“As the world economy grows, and as the super-elite, in particular, get richer, the superstars who work for the super-rich can charge super fees.

“Consider the 2009 legal showdown between Hank Greenberg and AIG, the insurance giant he had built. It was a high-stakes battle, as AIG accused Greenberg, through his privately-held company, Starr International, of misappropriating $4.3 billion worth of assets. For his defense, Greenberg hired David Boies. With his trademark slightly ratty Lands’ End suits (ordered a dozen at a time by his office online), his Midwestern background, his proud affection for Middle American pastimes like craps, and his severe dyslexia (he didn’t learn how to read until he was in the third grade), Boies comes across as neither a superstar or a member of the super-elite. He is both.

“Boies and his eponymous firm earned a reputed $100 million for the nine-month job of defending Greenberg. That was one of the richest fees earned in a single litigation. Yet, for Greenberg, it was a terrific deal. When you have $4.3 billion at risk, $100 million — only 2.3 percent of the total — just isn’t that much money. Further sweetening the transaction was the judge’s eventual ruling that AIG, then nearly 80 percent owned by the U.S. government, was liable for up to $150 million of Greenberg’s legal fees, but he didn’t know that when he retained Boies.”

What did Boies have that Eric and I didn’t?

Well, um, would you like the short list or the long?

Boies is no doubt one of those exceptionally gifted and ambitious people who works hard enough to get lucky. I suspect his plutocrat switch was first activated when his family moved to California while he was in high school, and from there was exponentially supercharged by a series of textbook upwardly mobile experiences:  a liberal arts education at Northwestern, a law degree from Yale, an LLM from NYU, joining the Cravath firm and eventually becoming a partner before leaving to found his own firm.

That’s impressive enough, but there’s more to his story:  somehow along the way he was transformed into the kind of person who belongs — in his case, not just to the 9.9% club, but to the 0.1 %. Yes, his human capital was substantial, but it was his personal transformation that enabled him to capitalize (I use that term advisedly) on the opportunities granted only by social capital.

And now, if the 9.9 percenters we heard from a couple weeks back are correct, the pathway he followed is even more statistically rare (if that’s even possible) than when he travelled it — in part because of an economic principle that’s at least as old as the Bible.

We’ll talk about that next time.

Eric and Kevin’s Most Excellent Career Adventures

thermos

 

lunch bucket

 

David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs is loaded with real-life job stories that meet his definition of “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” One of those stories rang a bell:  turns out that “Eric” and I had the same job. The details are different, but our experiences involved the same issues of social capital and upward mobility.

Eric grew up in a working class neighborhood, left to attend a major British university, graduated with a history major, landed in a Big 4 accounting firm training program, and took a corporate position that looked like an express elevator to the executive suite. But then the job turned out to be… well, nothing. No one would tell him what to do. He showed up day after day in his new business clothes and tried to look busy while trying in vain to solve the mystery of why he had nothing to do. He tried to quit a couple times, only to be rewarded with raises, and the money was hard to pass up. Frustration gave way to boredom, boredom to depression, and depression to deception. Soon he and his mates at the pub back home hatched a plan to use his generous expense account to travel. gamble, and drink.

In time, Eric learned that his position was the result of a political standoff:  one of the higher-ups had the clout to fund a pet project that the responsible mid-level managers disagreed with, so they colluded to make sure it would never happen. Since Eric had been hired to coordinate internal communication on the project, keeping him in the dark was essential. Eventually he managed to quit, kick his gambling and drinking habits, and take a shot at the artistic career he had envisioned in college.

My story isn’t quite so… um, colorful… but the themes are similar. I also came from a strong “work with your hands” ethic and was in the first generation of my family to go to college, where I joined the children of lawyers, neurosurgeons, professors, diplomats, and other upper echelon white collar professionals from all 50 states and several foreign countries, At the first meeting of my freshmen advisory group, my new classmates talked about books, authors, and academic disciplines I’d never heard of. When I tackled my first class assignment, I had to look up 15 words in the first two pages. And on it went. Altogether, my college career was mostly an exercise in cluelessness. But I was smart and ambitious, and did better than I deserved.

Fast forward nine years, and that’s me again, this time signing on with a boutique corporate law firm as a newly minted MBA/JD. I got there by building a lot of personal human capital, but my steel thermos and metal lunch bucket upbringing was still so ingrained that a few weeks after getting hired I asked a senior associate why nobody ever took morning and afternoon coffee breaks. He looked puzzled, and finally said, “Well… we don’t really take breaks.” Or vacations, evenings, weekends, or holidays, as it turned out.

A couple years later I hired on with a Big 4 accounting firm as a corporate finance consultant. My first assignment was my Eric-equivalent job:  I was assigned to a team of accountants tasked with creating a new chart of accounts for a multinational corporation and its subsidiaries. Never mind that the job had nothing to do with corporate finance…. Plus there were two other little problems:  I didn’t know what a chart of accounts was, and at our first client meeting a key corporate manager announced that he thought the project was ridiculous and intended to oppose it. Undaunted, the other members of the consulting team got to work. Everybody seemed to know what to do, but nobody would tell me, and in the meantime our opponent in management gained a following.

As a result, I spent months away from home every week, trying to look busy. I piled up the frequent flyer miles and enjoyed the 5-star accommodations and meals, but fell into a deep depression .When I told the managing partner about it, he observed that, “Maybe this job isn’t a good fit for you.” He suggested I leave in two months, which happened to be when our consulting contract was due for a renewal. Looking back, I suspect my actual role on the team was “warm body.”

Graeber says that, at first blush, Eric’s story sounds like yet one more bright, idealistic liberal arts grad getting a real-world comeuppance:

“Eric was a young man form a working-class background.. fresh out of college and full of expectations, suddenly confronted with a jolting introduction to the “real world.”

“One could perhaps conclude that Eric’s problem was not just that he hadn’t been sufficiently prepared for the pointlessness of the modern workplace. He had passed through the old educational system … This led to false expectations and an initial shock of disillusionment that he could not overcome.”

Sounds like my story, too, but then Graeber takes his analysis in a different direction:  “To a large degree,” he say, “this is really a story about social class.” Which brings us back to the issues of upward mobility and social capital we’ve been looking. We’ll talk more about those next time.

In the meantime, I can’t resist a Dogbert episode:

Dilbert

Economics + Math = Science?

mathematical equation

The human brain is wired to recognize patterns, which it then organizes into higher level models and theories and beliefs, which in turn it uses to explain the past and present, and to predict the future. Models offer the consolation of rationality and understanding, which provide a sense of control. All of this is foundational to classical economic theory, which assumes we approach commerce equipped with an internal rational scale that weighs supply and demand, cost and benefit, and that we then act according to our assessment of what we give for what we get back. This assumption of an internal calculus has caused mathematical modeling to reign supreme in the practice of economics.

The trouble is, humans aren’t as innately calculating as classical economics would like to believe — so says David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, in his new book Bullshit Jobs: :

“According to classical economic theory, homo oeconomicus, or “economic man” — that is, the model human being that lies behind every predication made by the discipline — is assumed to be motivated by a calculus of costs and benefits.

“All the mathematical equations by which economists bedazzle their clients, or the public, are founded on one simple assumption:  that everyone, left to his own devices, will choose the course of action that provides the most of what he wants for the least expenditure of resources and effort.

 “It is the simplicity of the formula that makes the equations possible: if one were to admit that humans have complicated emotions, there would be too many factors to take into account, it would be impossible to weigh them, and predictions would not be made.

“Therefore, while an economist will say that while of course everyone is aware that human beings are not really selfish, calculating machine, assuming they are makes it possible to explain

“This is a reasonable statement as far as it goes. The problem is there are many dimensions of human life where the assumption clearly doesn’t hold. — and some of them are precisely in the domain of what we like to call the economy.”

Economics’ reliance on mathematics has been a topic of lively debate for a long time:

“The trouble… is that measurement and mathematics do not guarantee the status of science – they guarantee only the semblance of science. When the presumptions or conclusions of a scientific theory are absurd or simply false, the theory ought to be questioned and, eventually, rejected. The discipline of economics, however, is presently so blinkered by the talismanic authority of mathematics that theories go overvalued and unchecked.

“In 1886, an article in Science accused economics of misusing the language of the physical sciences to conceal ‘emptiness behind a breastwork of mathematical formulas’. More recently, Deirdre N McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics(1998) and Robert H Nelson’s Economics as Religion (2001) both argued that mathematics in economic theory serves, in McCloskey’s words, primarily to deliver the message ‘Look at how very scientific I am.’

“After the Great Recession, the failure of economic science to protect our economy was once again impossible to ignore. In 2009, the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman tried to explain it in The New York Times with a version of the mathiness diagnosis. ‘As I see it,’ he wrote, ‘the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.’ Krugman named economists’ ‘desire… to show off their mathematical prowess’ as the ‘central cause of the profession’s failure’.

“The result is people… who trust the mathematical exactitude of theories without considering their performance – that is, who confuse math with science, rationality with reality.

“There is no longer any excuse for making the same mistake with economic theory. For more than a century, the public has been warned, and the way forward is clear. It’s time to stop wasting our money and recognise the high priests for what they really are: gifted social scientists who excel at producing mathematical explanations of economies, but who fail, like astrologers before them, at prophecy.”

The New Astrology:  By fetishising mathematical models, economists turned economics into a highly paid pseudoscience,” Aeon Magazine

Economists may bristle at being compared to astrologers, but as we have seen, their skill at prediction seems about comparable.

In the coming weeks we’ll look at other models emerging from the digital revolution, consider what they can tell us that classical economic theory can’t, and how they are affecting the world of work.

The Stupidity Paradox

spokane buses

Every day I ride a bus that has a row of seats up front that are folded up, with a sign next to them:

NOTICE
Seats Not in Service
The bus manufacturer has determined
that these seats not be used.

I’ve seen that sign for over a year. Never really thought about it. But recently I wondered:  you don’t suppose both those seats and the sign were installed in the factory? It could happen — cheaper than a recall maybe. If so, it would be right in line with this week’s topic:  a kind of on-the-job behavior that professors and business consultants Mats Alvesson and André Spicer[1] call The Stupidity Paradox.

stupidity paradoxTheir book by that name began when they were sharing a drink after a conference and found themselves wondering, “Why was it that organisations which employed so many smart people could foster so much stupidity?” They concluded that the cause is “functional stupidity” — a workplace mindset implicitly endorsed because it works.

“We realized something:  smart organisations and the smart people who work in them often do stupid things because they work — at least in the short term. By avoiding careful thinking, people are able to simply get on with their job. Asking too many questions is likely to upset others — and to distract yourself. Not thinking frees you up to fit in and get along. Sometimes it makes sense to be stupid.”

In fact, stupidity works so well it can turn into firm culture:

“Far from being ‘knowledge intensive,’ many of our most well-known chief organisations have become engines of stupidity. We have frequently seen otherwise smart people stop thinking and start doing stupid things. They stop asking questions. They give no reasons for their decisions. They pay no heed to what their actions cause. Instead of complex thought we get flimsy jargon, aggressive assertions or expert tunnel vision. Reflection,, careful analysis and independent reflection decay. Idiotic ideas and practices are accepted as quite sane. People may harbour doubts, but their suspicions are cut short. What’s more, they are rewarded for it. The upshot is a lack of thought has entered the modus operandi of most organisations of today.”

I.e., it pays to be stupid on the job:  you get things done, satisfy expectations, don’t stand out from the crowd, aren’t labelled a troublemaker. We learned all of that in middle school; we learn it again on the job.

We learn from management:

“A central, but often unacknowledged, aspect of making a corporate culture work is what we call stupidity management. Here managers actively encourage employees not to think too much. If they do happen to think, it is best not to voice what emerges. Employees are encouraged to stick within clearcut parameters. Managers use subtle and not so subtle means to prod them not to ask too many tough questions, not to reflect too deeply on their assumptions, and not to consider the broader purpose of their work. Employees are nudged to just get on with the task. They are to think on the bright side, stay upbeat and push doubts and negative thoughts aside.”

And then we school ourselves:

“Self-stupifying starts to happen when we censor our own internal conversations. As we go through our working day, we constantly try to give some sense to our often chaotic experiences. We do this by engaging in what some scholars call ‘internal reflexivity’. This is the constant stream of discussion that we have with ourselves. When self-stupidification takes over, we stop asking ourselves questions. Negative or contradictory lines of thinking are avoided. As a result, we start to feel aligned with the thoughtlessness we find around us. It is hard to be someone who thinks in an organization that shuns it.”

Back to the seats on my bus… A “manufacturer” is a fiction, like “corporation” is a fiction:  both act through humans. Which means that somewhere there’s an employee at a bus manufacturer whose job is to build those seats. Someone else installs them. Someone else puts up the sign. And lots of other people design, requisition, select, negotiate, buy, ship, pack and unpack, file, approve, invoice, pay bills, keep ledgers, maintain software, write memos, confer with legal, hold meetings, and make decisions. All so that the “manufacturer” — i.e., the sum total of all those people doing their jobs — can tell me not to sit there. I’m guessing there was a better way, but that worked.

Functional stupidity is as common as traffic on your commute. We’ll look more into it next time.

[1]  Mats Alvesson is Professor of Business Administration at the University of Lund, Sweden, University of Queensland, and Cass Business School, City University of London. André Spicer is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, City University of London.

The Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

bureaucracy 2

“So we have inspectors of inspectors and people
making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors.”

Buckminster Fuller

We met anthropologist David Graeber last time. His book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy takes on a universally-acknowledged kind of modern workplace drudgery:  the mind-numbing bureaucracies built around filling in forms. This is from an interview in The Guardian:

“A few years ago David Graeber’s mother had a series of strokes. Social workers advised him that, in order to pay for the home care she needed, he should apply for Medicaid, the US government health insurance programme for people on low incomes. So he did, only to be sucked into a vortex of form filling and humiliation familiar to anyone who’s ever been embroiled in bureaucratic procedures.

“At one point, the application was held up because someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles had put down his given name as “Daid”; at another, because someone at Verizon had spelled his surname “Grueber”. Graeber made matters worse by printing his name on the line clearly marked “signature” on one of the forms. Steeped in Kafka, Catch-22 and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Graeber was alive to all the hellish ironies of the situation but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. ‘We spend so much of our time filling in forms,’ he says. ‘The average American waits six months of her life waiting for the lights to change. If so, how many years of our life do we spend doing paperwork?’

“The matter became academic, because Graeber’s mother died before she got Medicaid. But the form-filling ordeal stayed with him. ‘Having spent much of my life leading a fairly bohemian existence, comparatively insulated from this sort of thing, I found myself asking: is this what ordinary life, for most people, is really like? Running around feeling like an idiot all day?’”

In other words, it’s almost 2018 — with all our smart technology, you’d think we could do better — for the people on both sides of the bureaucratic desk. The interview continues:

“[Graeber] quotes with approval the anarchist collective Crimethinc:

“Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered  by the nature of habit, law, custom or prejudice – and it’s up to you to create the situations.”

That’s good paradigm-shifting advice. We could follow it all the way to eliminating “the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.” As you would expect, a whole bunch of enterprising software developers are already on it — here’s a software list. In fact, if it’s a dull, repetitive job, we probably already have technology that can do it better than humans can.

But that would eliminate all those mind-numbing bureaucratic jobs. Then what? Then it’s time for the second half of the Buckminster Fuller quote above:

The true business of people should be to go back to school
and think about whatever it was they were thinking about
before somebody came along and told  them they had to earn a living.

A friend of mine was a chimney sweep. He’d be up on the roof, shaking down soot with his long-handled brushes, and downstairs his helpers would screen off the fireplace and capture the soot with a high-powered vacuum before it ruined the homeowner’s den. “Don’t wallow in it,” he’d tell them.

That’s also good paradigm-shifting advice. Trouble is, our brain wiring loves to wallow in the old ways of doing things — including filling in forms — at least until, as the saying goes, the pain of status quo becomes greater than the pain of change.

We’ll be looking more at workplace paradigm shifts in the coming weeks. But first, next time we’ll let a poet help us wallow a bit more in workplace drudgery.

 

Bullshit Jobs

 “Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.”

Oscar Wilde

Radio journalist Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of people for his 1974 book Working. Here are a couple quotes from it:

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

“Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”

Apparently not much has changed in the 43 years since Working came out. Consider this from The Power of Meaning, by Emily Esfahani Smith (2017):

“Today, about 70 percent of all employees either are ‘not engaged’ in their work–that is, they feel uninvolved, uncommitted, and unenthusiastic about it–or are ‘actively disengaged’ from it, and less than half of all workers feel satisfied with their jobs.”

Or consider anthropologist David Graeber’s widely circulated 2013 article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:  A Work Rant:

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”

“Virtually no one talks about it.” Why not? The Financial Times ran an article a couple months ago called Britain’s Joyless Jobs Market Can Be Bad For Your Health. (It’s here, but you’ll have to subscribe to read it.) It makes the same point as the following quote from the article published by the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia which we looked at a few weeks ago:

“[I]t is unhealthy to do meaningless, unchallenging, uncreative work, especially for those that are intelligent and well trained.”

Seems like a pretty uncontroversial thing to say, but you can’t tell from the nastiness in the comments that follow the article — one more sad case of polarized opinions talking past each other and the loss of meaningful discourse. Not only can’t we talk about economics, but apparently we also can’t talk about how crummy jobs ruin our health.

Why has it become so inflammatory to suggest that boring, meaningless work might not be a good thing? Because of the widespread “truths” about work that have become culturally sacred. To many — maybe most — people, work represents a moral good, no matter how boring, trite, thoughtless, and demeaning.

no more workOne person who isn’t afraid to talk about it is Rutgers history professor James Livingston. He says the following in his book No More Work:  Why full employment is a bad idea (2016):

“Work means everything to us. For centuries–since, say, 1650[1]–we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labor, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve also believed that even if it sucks, the job gives meaning, purpose, and structure to our everyday lives–at any rate we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.”

“Those beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills–unless, of course, you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.”

“[Work] no longer functions as either a moral calendar or an economic calculator. You will learn nothing about character by going to work at the minimum wage because the gangsters or the morons at corporate headquarters control your opportunities; you will learn nothing about the rationality of the market because the same people determine your income.”

More next time.

[1] 1650 is the year René Descartes died.