Why your current workplace is unfulfilling.
I have had some degree of success as a professional software developer. The market is very good, with more and more need for automation pouring in. Hence, I have had gigs paying as well as 150 USD per hour, in various niches. I work remotely, making my own schedule(mostly) and I have some degree of freedom as to what kind of projects I work on.
Apparently, some people look up to me, and I get several messages per day on LinkedIn, asking for help or career advice(and several requesting consulting services). Most want to know what to do to get in my position, while I am looking at ways of maximizing my freedom and agency/autonomy while working on projects that I consider relevant.
Leaving aside the comical moments(i was once asked if my hourly rate is in Romanian dollars — hint: there is no such currency), I think we will look back on the current state of affairs in 10 years’ time and marvel at how we used to organize in such rigid structures.
The current state of the workplace
Time is the only thing you can’t get back. So how is the current job market treating yours?
Work schedules as long as twelve to sixteen hours per day, six to seven days per week were practiced in some industrial sites during the Industrial Revolution.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have had work days as short as 3–4 hours per day, during our time as hunter-gatherers.
Nowadays, it seems the time spent working is around 8 hours per day. But is this in sync with how we perform best? How much do you end up working, and how much goes down the drain, by the water cooler or in an unproductive meeting? One study suggests that only 2:23 hours on a working day are productive!!! Charles Darwin and many other accomplished humans throughout history have notoriously worked short hours. It seems most of their schedule revolved around what we might consider leisure time, taking long walks and thinking.
How can we reconcile these two, very different worlds? On one end of the spectrum, we have workers in the Industrial Revolution, putting in as much as 100 hours per week, barely making ends meet. On the other hand, we have Darwin who only worked for a grand total of six hours per day, but published 19 books and reshaped biology.
Of course, there are differences between creativity, intellect, and ability to focus between people, among many other features. Let’s look strictly at the relationship between productivity and time put in. Reading several dozens of studies on the topic, I have found a clear division between repetitive and creative work. Repetitive work, such as checking the quality of a car part on a factory assembly line can be performed almost indefinitely with little to no loss in output. Take away the rules and regulations in place in most countries, and such workers would be slaving away for 16 hours or more per day. Creative work, however, is different. Cognitive and productivity decline kick in as early as after 4 hours and tends to correlate with iq. Factory workers are easy to replace, a developer or a high-level executive, less so.
To motivate employees who work beyond basic tasks, Daniel Pink has identified these three factors to increase performance and satisfaction:
- Autonomy — Our desire to be self-directed. It increases engagement over compliance.
- Mastery — The urge to get better skills.
- Purpose — The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. Businesses that only focus on profits without valuing purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees.
I am really, really curious. How much of these three does your current job cover? If you are happy, how did you get to have the kind of job that makes you tap dance your way to work? How could it be better?
If we are true to ourselves, we will recognize that few are blessed with such a workplace. What kind of jobs are most unfulfilling? David Graeber has a list of categories of such jobs, in his new book, called… Bullshit jobs!
According to David, roughly two out of every five jobs are bullshit.
In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes asserted that by the twenty-first century, technological advances would result in 15-hour workweeks. I am not a fan of Keynes, but he was dead right about this. Most of us should have 15-hour workweeks.
Keynes was also dead right about technological advancements — but his predictions about work could hardly have fallen further from the mark. Why?
New jobs that, by and large, didn’t exist 100 years ago started popping up.
And here’s the thing: none of these jobs are really necessary. Unlike cleaners, bus drivers and nurses, whose absence would bring cities and society to a grinding halt, lobbyists and private equity CEOs aren’t really that vital. Without them, life wouldn’t be any worse. I know, but just keep reading.
In other words, bullshit jobs are characterized by being pointless. So how do the people working these kinds of jobs feel about them?
A 2013 YouGov poll in Britain found that a full 37 percent of people believed that their jobs did not make a “meaningful contribution to the world.” A similar poll in Denmark put the figure at 40 percent.
There are five distinct categories of bullshit job: flunkies, goons, ducttapers, box tickers, and taskmasters.
Flunkies are employed simply to make a person or an organization look important. Think of medieval doorkeepers. Now, look at the receptionist in the office building. They don’t really do much but boost the status of the institution/corporation they work for.
Goons are paid, manipulators and aggressors. The likes of corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and PR people, and anyone else who feels their job is objectionable because it is fundamentally manipulative.
The ducttaper, is usually only there to address problems that no one else wants to. Ducttapers are needed, but they shouldn’t be. If organizations and their technology worked properly, duct-tapers would be obsolete — and therein lies the bullshit.
It’s the same with box-tickers. They are needed purely and simply so an organization can show that it’s doing something that, actually, it probably isn’t doing.
Our final type of bullshit job is the pointless taskmaster — a supervisor whose people don’t need any supervision at all.
I want to play a little game. Can you identify which category the following jobs fall into?
One worker reported spending eight hours per day photocopying the health records of veterans because — management said — it was too expensive to buy digitizing technology. Another reported that, at his travel company, someone was employed to receive up-to-date flight schedules and hand copy them into a spreadsheet.
Layla works in the corporate-compliance industry, serving US companies who — by law — have to demonstrate that they aren’t working with any corrupt suppliers abroad. Layla delivers due-diligence reports. They look nice and have enough jargon to sound impressive. But do they actually help? According to Layla, unless there is a really obvious red flag, such as the supplier’s boss having a criminal record, there is no chance that such a report will mention signs of corruption. Boxes are ticked, but it’s all for the show.
Alphonso is a localization manager. His job is to manage a team of translators, but they are — he says — perfectly capable of getting on without him. They are trained and more than able to manage their time and the modest tasks the job requires. All Alphonso does is receive task requests through an online system, and pass them on to someone. Alphonso reports that the only thing he feels a sense of achievement for is that he has successfully concealed his team’s incredibly light workload from his superiors. Despite there not being enough work to justify five translators, Alphonso’s deceptions ensured that no one got laid off.
We spend most of our waking lives working. So doing a bullshit job must take a toll on the soul, right?
Remember how YouGov polling found that 37 percent of people believe their job is meaningless? Well, it also found that 33 percent of people found their jobs personally unfulfilling. What this tells us is that, while a small percentage might be happy in their bullshit jobs, most people are not.
One reason why is that falsity — behaving insincerely or dishonesty — is hard to deal with.
Having a purpose is a human need. Bullshit jobs take that away from us.
There is a strong cultural and political bias toward full employment. Puritans thought work to be punishment and redemption. Politicians, left or right, are struggling to keep bullshit jobs in place.
Barack Obama suggested that abandoning America’s privatized health-insurance system in favor of a single-payer model would save billions of dollars in insurance and administration. Obama said that those savings represent the loss of “one million, two million, three million jobs.” What, he asked, would we do with these newly jobless people? The world’s most powerful man at the time was advocating for millions of bullshit office jobs.
The government is proverbially inefficient. What about the businesses?
Well, businesses don’t tend to behave in an efficient manner, for reasons that are often obvious. Consider Simon, who was employed by a major bank as a problem solver. On one occasion, he created some software to fix a system error and security risk. He presented his approach to a bank executive and his team of 25 people — but the reaction to it was negative. Simon slowly realized why: his program would automate the work of that entire team of people. Even the executive didn’t approve of Simon’s work. Why? Well, without his flunkies, he’d be nothing much — like a medieval lord without an entourage.
It’s easy to imagine people who don’t need to work to survive choosing to become preschool teachers. Or bus drivers, toy makers, artisan doughnut retailers or any number of roles that are necessary, enjoyable or both. It’s easy to imagine.
It’s less easy to imagine someone with economic freedom choosing to spend their time highlighting forms for a medical care cost-management company, or designing banner ads or researching corporate compliance.
I want to keep a balanced view. Idle hands are devil’s playthings. Nietzsche said that in peaceful times, a warlike man sets upon himself. There are many, many examples throughout history where the ideas of idle men created chaos.
The freedom to choose exactly what we want to do might not solve all the ills of the work world. But considering how inefficient the current distribution of work is, it almost certainly wouldn’t make things worse.
Few people ever get satisfaction from their jobs. Few have the autonomy, mastery, and purpose that makes their working time, worthwhile. Far too many people are stuck in bullshit jobs and are suffering psychological damage as a result, bereft of purpose and unable to make a positive impact on the world.
Unfortunately, our society is wired to believe in work, to value days at the office even if the output is worthless. But there is another way.
Universal basic income, for instance, would allow people to choose how they can benefit humanity — and this would almost definitely benefit our approach to work. I am working on another. If you want to know more, i am privately sharing my work on the topic. Just contact me by email, LinkedIn, Twitter or ravens.