The Lonely Worker

lonely office

In four years, my law firm went from me and my laptop to $800,000 and climbing, and suddenly we were twelve of us in newly decked out offices complete with $100,000 in telecommunications and electronics upgrades.

Obviously we’d hit a sweet spot, and we were having fun. We laughed a lot. We ate together, visited each other’s homes. We took firm ski days and watched the Rockies at Coors Field. We had crazy non-policies like “take as much vacation as you need to come to work refreshed.” We had the coolest Christmas event ever. And we did kick-ass legal work.

But then the numbers got bigger and I got serious. An accountant said our vacation policy was unsustainable — we needed one, in a real live employee manual. I wrote one but never had the heart to show it to anyone. We sat in meetings with consultants formulating heartless strategic plans we all ignored. We had an employee retreat that was just plain weird.

The worst thing I took seriously was myself. I totally blew the lesson basketball Hall-of-Famer and Orlando Magic founder Pat William put in the title of his book Humility:  The Secret Ingredient of Success. Time and chance had favored us — I’d stumbled  into doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. Work had often been a rollicking, happy social occasion. But then I decided I must  have been responsible for it, and paved Paradise, put up a parking lot, and didn’t know what we had ‘til it was gone.

We’d been in our new offices one week. My wife and I had flown  back the day before from a cushy five-day CLE at a resort in San Diego, and I was heading out to visit our new satellite office when the phone rang. It was the associate-soon-to-be-partner  we’d put in charge. “There’s something going on you need to know about,” he said.

The date was September 11th. The second plane had just hit the second tower.

Our clients — mostly small businesses — got hammered in the mini-recession that followed. As a result, so did we. I sought advice from two Denver law firm icons. They were sympathetic — they’d done that, too — expanded too much too quickly and paid for it in a downturn. A couple other people said you have to let people go — I followed their advice and let one person go — a move I mourn to this day. That’s when I decided we’ll survive or go down, but we’re doing it together.

We limped along until January 2004, when the new leader of our major referral source called to say they were “moving in a new direction” and March 31st would be the date we were officially toast. For the next three months I wrote job recommendations, we gave people their furniture and computers, sold the rest, archived files….

When I went to the office on April 1st (April Fool’s Day), the place echoed. I’d never felt so lonely in my life. Rotten timing, victim of circumstance, happens to everyone… yeah maybe, but all I could think was I miss my friends.

We don’t usually associate loneliness with work. We ought to, says Emily Esfahani-Smith in her book The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters. She cites findings that 20% consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” that 1/3 of Americans 45 of older say they’re lonely, and that close relationships at work are a major source of meaning. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murphy agrees and then some:

“There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.

“Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

“In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.

“At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

“And even working at an office doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections: People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce.

“Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships? On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about? Do they understand our values? Do they share in our triumphs and pains?

“These aren’t just rhetorical questions; from a biological perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body.”

Work And The Loneliness Epidemic: Reducing Isolation At Work Is Good For Business, Harvard Business Review (2017)

He offers these remedies:

  • Evaluate the current state of connections in your workplace.
  • Build understanding of high-quality relationships.
  • Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization.
  • Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives.

And, he might have added, you might want to rethink your stingy vacation policy.

For more, see Work Loneliness and Employee Performance, Academy of Management Proceedings (2011).

If you like this blog, you might enjoy the new Iconoclast.blog, which explores several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook,

Total Work

Tired woman in front of computer

Andrew Taggart is an entrepreneur, “practical philosopher,” and prolific writer who works with creative leaders at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and social entrepreneurs at Kaospilot in Denmark. In a recent article, he comments on the state of “total work,” a term coined by German philosopher Josef Pieper in his 1948 book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which described the process by which society increasingly categorizes us as workers above all else.  Like Pieper, Taggart believes human experience derails when work is the dominant cultural norm:

“Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work.

“And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act?

“Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep.

“Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content providers, knowledge brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.

“[Work becomes total] when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

“Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity.”

Hmmm, sounds a lot like the practice of law…. But it’s not just lawyers, it’s everywhere. For the movers and shakers it’s build, fund, scale, execute, maximize, prioritize, manage, lead. For the rest it’s be early, stay late, be nice to callers and customers, and get through all that email — there might be something important in there. And everywhere it’s build the platform, get the clicks, likes, and follows, join the meetups and podcasts, eat healthy, buy the Peloton and the Beemer, learn a new language, take the beach vacation, drink the microbrew, subscribe to the curated monthly clothing delivery… it all counts.

There’s nothing intrinsically “bad” in all of that. I do a lot of it myself. But when everything we do is organized around trading our time and energy for reward in the marketplace, we’re going to suffer, individually and as a culture:

“To see how [total work]  causes needless human suffering, consider the illuminating phenomenology of total work as it shows up in the daily awareness of two imaginary conversation partners. There is, to begin with, constant tension, an overarching sense of pressure associated with the thought that there’s something that needs to be done, always something I’m supposed to be doing right now. As the second conversation partner puts it, there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time? Time, an enemy, a scarcity, reveals the agent’s limited powers of action, the pain of harrying, unanswerable opportunity costs.

“Together, thoughts of the not yet but supposed to be done, the should have been done already, the could be something more productive I should be doing, and the ever-awaiting next thing to do conspire as enemies to harass the agent who is, by default, always behind in the incomplete now… One feels guilt whenever he is not as productive as possible. Guilt, in this case, is an expression of a failure to keep up or keep on top of things, with tasks overflowing because of presumed neglect or relative idleness.

“The burden character of total work, then, is defined by ceaseless, restless, agitated activity, anxiety about the future, a sense of life being overwhelming, nagging thoughts about missed opportunities, and guilt connected to the possibility of laziness.”

In other words, total work is chronically stressful — a well-documented source of mental, physical, relational, and societal ill health. And the problem is, if we’re not already there, we’re alarmingly close:

“This world [of total work], it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.”

As a result:

“Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus[i] would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice.”

More on that coming up.

[i] I had to look up “susurrus.” It means “whispering, murmuring, or rustling.”

The End of the Firm

industrial revolution factory

 “The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smallest details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to higher-ups. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing — and so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern workplace.”

Bob Black, The Abolition of Work and Other Essays (1985)

Peter Drucker’s famous dictum  “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” established math and management as the indisputable co-sovereigns of the modern workplace. As it turns out, Drucker apparently never actually said that[1], but the concept has dominated the workplace since the advent of factories and railroads, telegraphs and electricity. Consider, for example, what it’s like to work at Amazon.

amazon 2

But, while math and management prospered together under the Industrial Revolution’s mechanistic worldview, today’s digitally-driven marketplace demands a freshly-nuanced management style, or in some cases, no management at all. Either idea challenges an even more foundational historical assumption:  that commerce is best conducted by a firm that must be managed. Eliminate the firm and you eliminate the need to manage it. Get rid of both, and you have an unimaginably different “description of the modern workplace” than Bob Black wrote about 33 years ago.

Last time, we looked at an article by science writer and artificial intelligence engineer George Zarkadakis called “The Economy Is More A Messy, Fractal Living Thing Than A Machine.” In it, he says this about the firm:

Ever since the invention of the assembly line, corporations have been like medieval cities: building walls around themselves and then trading with other ‘cities’ and consumers. Companies exist because of the need to protect production from volatile market fluctuations, and because it’s generally more efficient to consolidate the costs of getting goods and services to market by putting them together under one roof.  So said the British economist Ronald Coase in his paper ‘The Nature of the Firm’ (1937).

“Why do firms exist?” asks Ryan Avent in his book The Wealth of Humans:  Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016). He provides the same answer as Zarkadakis:

According to a 1937 paper by Nobel Prize- winning economist Ronald Coase, it’s to bring all the necessary people, processes, and information under one roof, instead of contracting it all out. In exchange for the convenience of one-stop shopping, one-size-fits-all,  employees trade their independence and the possibility of greater personal market returns for the firm’ management structure and financial capital, which — as long as they conform to the company culture –  the way we do things around here — promises to keep them on task and to deliver a paycheck in return.

Today, however, the new “gig economy” is fast making that unimaginable the new normal — and that’s only the beginning, says Zarkadakis:

Now, in an era of Ubers-for-everything, companies are changing into platforms that enable, rather than enact, core business processes. The cost of reaching customers has dropped dramatically thanks to the ubiquity of digital networks, and production is being pushed outside the company wall, on to freelancers and self-employed contractors. Market and price fluctuations have been defanged as machine learning and predictive analytics help companies manage such ructions, and on-demand services for labour, office space and infrastructure allow them to be more responsive to changing conditions. Coase’s theory is nearing its expiry date.

The so-called ‘gig economy’ is only the beginning of a profound economic, social and political transformation. For the moment, these new ways of working are still controlled by old-style businesses models – platforms that essentially sell ‘trust’ via reviews and verification, or by plugging into existing financial and legal systems. Airbnb, eBay and Uber succeed in making money out of other people’s work and assets because they provide guarantees for good seller-buyer behaviour, while connecting to the ‘old world’ of banks, courts and government. But this hybrid model of doing digital business is about to change.

Avent concurs, and describes two key dynamics of the new anti-firm business model:  operating culture and rent: — how a business gets things done, and whether it owns the kinds of assets it can let others use, for a price:

Current workplace trends are bidding fair to tear down the firm model of operating. If you take employees out from under the firm umbrella — make them mostly freelancers, outsource jobs to countries on the make — then what’s left of value is mostly the company’s way of getting things done and the assets for which it can charge rent, in the economic sense of billing a premium for scarce assets. How assets become scarce becomes an essential policy-making function. These become essential “intangible” or “social” capital, replacing “human” capital.]

We’ll be talking more about social capital, rent, and other changing dynamics of the workplace.

[1] According to the Drucker Institute, Drucker never actually said that. And see this Forbes article for a rousing condemnation of the idea.

Rolling the Rock:  Lessons From Sisyphus on Work, Working Out, and Life

sisyphus

Here’s a link to my latest LinkedIn Pulse article:  Rolling the Rock:  Lessons From Sisyphus on Work, Working Out, and Life.  In it, I talk about a key psycho-neurological function known as “the pleasure of being the cause.”  As I say in the article, “The conversation is going to get philosophical, but it will be worth it. So get yourself a cup, close the door, turn off the ringer, take a breath. This won’t be spin. It’s based on good ideas from smart people.”

Enjoy!

 

 

Utopia For Realists Cont’d.

“Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind.”

Rutger Bregman

utopia for realistsContinuing  with Rutger Bregman’s analysis of utopian thinking that we began last week:

“Let’s first distinguish between two forms of utopian thought. The first is the most familiar, the utopia of the blueprint. Instead of abstract ideals, blueprints consist of immutable rules that tolerate no discussion.

“There is, however, another avenue of utopian thought, one that is all but forgotten. If the blueprint is a high-resolution photo, then this utopia is just a vague outline. It offers not solutions but guideposts. Instead of forcing us into a straitjacket, it inspires us to change. And it understands that, as Voltaire put it, the perfect is the enemy of the good. As one American philosopher has remarked, ‘any serious utopian thinker will be made uncomfortable by the very idea of the blueprint.’

“It was in this spirit that the British philosopher Thomas More literally wrote the book on utopia (and coined the term). More understood that utopia is dangerous when taken too seriously. ‘One needs to be believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them,’ observes philosopher and leading utopia expert Lyman Tower Sargent. Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind. And that’s vital. As people and societies get progressively older they become accustomed to the status quo, in which liberty can become a prison, and the truth can become lies. The modern creed — or worse, the belief that there’s nothing left to believe in — makes us blind to the shortsightedness and injustice that still surround us every day.”

Thus the lines are drawn between utopian blueprints grounded in dogma vs. utopian ideals arising from sympathy and compassion. Both begin with good intentions, but the pull of entropy is stronger with the former — at least, so says Rutger Bregman, and he’s got good company in Sir Thomas More and others. Blueprints require compliance, and its purveyors are zealously ready to enforce it. Ideals on the other hand inspire creativity, and creativity requires acting in the face of uncertainty, living with imperfection, responding with resourcefulness and resilience when best intentions don’t play out, and a lot of just plain showing up and grinding it out. I have a personal bias for coloring outside the lines, but I must confess that my own attempts to promote utopian workplace ideals have given me pause.

For years, I led interactive workshops designed to help people creatively engage with their big ideas about work and wellbeing — variously tailored for CLE ethics credits or for general audiences. I realized recently that, reduced to their essence, they employed the kinds of ideals advocated by beatnik-era philosopher and metaphysicist Alan Watts. (We met him several months ago — he’s the “What would you do if money were no object?” guy. )

alan watts cartoon

The workshops generated hundreds of heartwarming “this was life-changing” testimonies, but I could never quite get over this nagging feeling that the participants mostly hadn’t achieved escape velocity, and come next Monday they would be back to the despair of “But everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way.”

I especially wondered about the lawyers, for whom “I hate my job but love my paycheck” was a recurrent theme. The Post WWII neoliberal economic tide floated the legal profession’s boat, too, but prosperity has done little for lawyer happiness and well-being. True, we’re seeing substantial quality-of-life change in the profession recently (which I’ve blogged about in the past), but most have been around the edges, while overall lawyers’ workplace reality remains a bulwark of what one writer calls the “over-culture” — the overweening force of culturally-accepted norms about how things are and should be — and the legal over-culture has stepped in line with the worldwide workplace trend of favoring wealth over a sense of meaning and value.

Alan Watts’ ideals were widely adopted by the burgeoning self-help industry, which also rode the neoliberal tide to prosperous heights. Self-help tends to be long on inspiration and short on grinding, and sustainable creative change requires large doses of both. I served up both in the workshops, but still wonder if they were just too… well, um…beatnik … for the law profession. I’ll never know — the guy who promoted the workshops retired, and I quit doing them. If nothing else, writing this series has opened my eyes to how closely law practice mirrors worldwide economic and workplace dynamics.  We’ll look more at that in the coming weeks.

The Fatal Flaw

Hollywood-Sign-at-Night

A few years ago I wrote a screenplay that did okay in a contest. I made a couple trips to Burbank to pitch it, got no sustained interest, and gave up on it. Recently, someone who actually knows what he’s doing encouraged me to revise and re-enter it.

Inside storyAmong other things, he introduced me to Inside Story:  The Power of the Transformational Arc, by Dara Marks (2007). The book describes what the author calls “the essential story element” — which, it turns out, is remarkably apt not just for film but for life in general, and particularly for talking about economics, technology, and the workplace.

No kidding.

What is it?

Dara Marks calls it “The Fatal Flaw.” This is from the book:

First, it’s important to recap or highlight the fundamental premise on which the fatal flaw is based:

Because change is essential for growth, it is a mandatory requirement for life.

If something isn’t growing and developing, it can only be headed toward decay and death.

There is no condition of stasis in nature. Nothing reaches a permanent position where neither growth nor diminishment is in play.

As essential as change is, most of us resist it, and cling rigidly to old survival systems because they are familiar and “seem” safer. In reality, if an old, obsolete survival system makes us feel alone, isolated, fearful, uninspired, unappreciated, and unloved, we will reason that it’s easier to cope with what we know that with what we haven’t yet experienced. As a result, most of us will fight to sustain destructive relationships, unchallenging jobs, unproductive work, harmful addictions, unhealthy environments, and immature behavior long after there is any sign of life or value to them.

This unyielding commitment to old, exhausted survival systems that have outlived their usefulness, and resistance to the rejuvenating energy of new, evolving levels of existence and consciousness is what I refer to as the fatal flaw of character:

The Fatal Flaw is a struggle within a character
to maintain a survival system
long after it has outlived its usefulness.

As it is with screenwriting, so it is with us as we’re reckoning with the wreckage of today’s collision among economics, technology, and the workplace. We’re like the character who must change or die to make the story work:  our economic survival is at risk, and failure to adapt is fatal. Faced with that prospect, we can change our worldview, or we can wish we had. Trouble is, our struggle to embrace a new paradigm is as perilous as holding to an old one.

What’s more, we will also need to reckon with two peculiar dynamics of our time:  “echo chambers” and “epistemic bubbles.” The following is from an Aeon Magazine article published earlier this week entitled “Escape The Echo Chamber”:

Something has gone wrong with the flow of information. It’s not just that different people are drawing subtly different conclusions from the same evidence. It seems like different intellectual communities no longer share basic foundational beliefs. Maybe nobody cares about the truth anymore, as some have started to worry. Maybe political allegiance has replaced basic reasoning skills. Maybe we’ve all become trapped in echo chambers of our own making – wrapping ourselves in an intellectually impenetrable layer of likeminded friends and web pages and social media feeds.

But there are two very different phenomena at play here, each of which subvert the flow of information in very distinct ways. Let’s call them echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Both are social structures that systematically exclude sources of information. Both exaggerate their members’ confidence in their beliefs. But they work in entirely different ways, and they require very different modes of intervention. An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side.

An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.

Here’s a basic check: does a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber.

That’s what we’re up against. We’ll plow fearlessly ahead in our examination of new economic models next time.