The slippery slope from bullshit jobs to company failure

Today I’ll be posting on the book “The Wealth of Humans” by Ryan Avent. I’d like to discuss how work serves a purpose. When there are too many workers companies create bullshit jobs. When their jobs are bullshit people lose their sense of identity. When people lose their identities they stop contributing to the creative juices that produce the company’s culture. Once the free sharing of information stops the company is toast.

Work is not just work.

“Work is not just the means by which we obtain the resources needed to put food on the table. It is also a source of personal identity. It helps give structure to our days and our lives. It offers the possibility of personal fulfillment that comes from being of use to others, and it is the critical part of the glue that holds society together and smooths its operation. Over the last generation, work has become ever less effective at performing these roles. That, in turn, has placed pressure on government services and budgets, contributing to a more poisonous and less generous politics. Meanwhile the march of technological progress continues, adding to the strain.” – Ryan Avent

Bullshit jobs don’t provide the same sense of personal identity, structure to our days and lives, and the possibility of personal fulfillment to others that real work provides. What happens when work works?

“When work works, we understood, it provides a basis for a stable social order. It gives people something to do. It gives workers the sense that they are contributing to society and to the welfare of their families. It allocates income in a way that – if not always seen by everyone as just – is accepted by most as a valid basis for the distribution of resources. It encourages people to seek out the things at which they are comparatively good and to develop those skills. It makes the world go.” – Ryan Avent

So what starts the decline from true work to bullshit jobs?

“When things are abundant, they are used carelessly. When water is plentiful, people leave taps running and irrigate massive, thirsty lawns hours after a rainstorm. When labour is plentiful, three workers pour the tea. If labour abundance is dramatic enough and prolonged enough, then the entire structure of an economy can warp, at first putting people to work doing low value kinds of tasks.” – Ryan Avent

Who does this harm? Who does this benefit? Perhaps the idea of a bullshit job is that it does not have any function or meaning. It’s just a means to occupy and employee’s time.

“The way that information flows within firms is hugely important to a company’s performance. The ways that workers talk to each other, or decide what kinds of information to pass along to their bosses, make the difference between success and failure.” – Ryan Avent

It’s up to the culture of the workplace to keep the information passed along. Knowing everything that’s happening from the top level down allows the culture to build up and to support the needs of the people working there.

“Part of what makes the firm’s information processing machinery work is the knowledge contained within every worker’s head: the culture of the firm.” – Ryan Avent

More about the flow of information.

“Knowing what information matters and what to do with it is the difference between a wildly profitable company and a bankrupt one.” – Ryan Avent

In summary, information needs to flow freely in all successful companies. Once the information stops flowing, inefficiencies multiply and communication is stifled. Once communication is stifled workers begin checking out of work, bosses assign meaningless work and the company fails.

Have you seen this happen first-hand? Contact me, I’d love to hear how you dealt with it.


If you want to know, ask rather than guess

I’d like to start off with the assumption from the end of this book that there is no reliable way to read people and infer their opinion. In fact, Nicholas Epley states exactly that in his book “Mindwise: Why we Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want.”

In this blog post I’ll explain just how to go about getting the other person’s perspective. Then I’d like to talk about how ineffective our ways of asking questions are.

A School of Life video talks about how we could remove so much of our anxiety about getting things wrong if we were only to ask instead of infer about the other person’s state of mind.

According to Alain de Botton from the School of Life, we would only be able to talk once we had summarized the other person’s point until we got it right by them.

First let’s talk about getting a perspective. Why is it important? You need perspective to discover new things. If we see correctly we will spend less time ruminating about what we thought we saw, how we should have been treated, and what we could do next time so we don’t allow ourselves to get into a yet another situation like this. Any thinking and preparing for the next time we encounter this person will be better because we have thought this through again and again and again.

But sometimes rumination feels productive. Like we’re never going to get ourselves in this situation again. But I believe that rumination is not worth the time and energy to bolster your defenses against this kind of brash talk from a friend, reprimand from a superior, or faux pas at a dinner party.

Instead of learning to dodge the bullets, learn why the bullets are being fired in the first place.

You need to get out of your head and gain some perspective by diving into the others’ head. Epley describes the goal of writing this book as, “to improve your psychological vision.”

“In each of us there is another whom we do not know.” – Jung

But we do know ourselves don’t we? Do we know ourselves? How can we expect to know others if we don’t know ourselves. Our understanding should sit on a bedrock of truth.

“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another.” – Proust

So if we do not know ourselves, how do we expect to know the minds of others? I’d like to highlight some of the mistakes we make when we try to learn the minds of others.

“Understanding other people requires getting their perspective and then verifying that you’ve understood it correctly.” – Nicholas Epley

This is exactly what de Botton is suggesting – that necessary extra step to verify that we’ve understood correctly. Can you think of anything that would get in the way of our asking?

“Our most common mistakes come from excessive egocentrism, over-reliance on stereotypes, and an all too easy assumption that others minds match their actions.” – Nicholas Epley

And when we fail to take the time to see things from the point of view of others we get into trouble. If we abstain for too long, we may start developing bad stereotypes about the person we are trying to understand.

“Failing to engage your ability to reason about the mind of another person not only leads to indifference about others, it can also lead to the sense that others are relatively mindless.” – Nicholas Epley

Now that we know where the potential landmines are, let’s learn the minds of others in a context that helps us survive longer and with less headache. We need to work smart, not hard.

“They found that those who could only see the storyteller were significantly less accurate than those who could only hear the storyteller. That is, emotions were carried primarily on the speaker’s voice.” – Nicholas Epley

If you’re interested in really understanding the other person, pay attention to their voice.

“You get your PhD in mind reading , according to Darwin, by learning to compare what a person shows quickly with what they say slowly.” – Nicholas Epley

In “The Secrets of Consulting,” Gerald Wineberg advises consultants to do something similar. He cautions us to “make sure the music matches what is being played.”

“Knowing other’s minds requires asking and listening, not just reading and guessing.” – Nicholas Epley

The shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line.

“It may seem like cheating to ask your spouse what he or she thinks instead of guessing at the answer, but remember that life is not an in-class exam with an honor code. If you want to know, ask rather than guess. Spouses understand each other when they are willing to share their thoughts openly and verify that they’ve heard correctly.” – Nicholas Epley

I’ll say it again because it bears repeating, “If you want to know, ask rather than guess.”

“The relatively slow work of getting a person’s perspective is the way you understand them accurately, and the way you solve their problems most effectively.” – Nicholas Epley

Epley suggests taking a breather before you reprimand someone. By empathizing with a colleague, you’d be able to know that it’s better to let them have some time to see the problem clearly before you punish them for it.

“The main reason people lie is to avoid being punished, and so enabling people to give you their perspective requires putting them in a context that diminishes the fear of punishment. A very clever experiment by one group of researchers showed that people were more wiling to admit to having done something immoral when confronted a few minutes after the event – when their fear has subsided a bit – than when questioned immediately after the incident.” – Nicholas Epley

Finally, a sense of humility is required. This brings new meaning to the phrase, “Keep your head down and do the work.”

“Knowing the limits of our brain’s social sense does not always mean that we can overcome them to understand others better. Sometimes a sense of humility is the best our wise minds can offer, recognizing that there’s more to the mind of another person than we may ever imagine.” – Nicholas Epley

So now that you’ve read the pro-tips let’s summarize what I said earlier in this blog post:

  1. You will make mistakes
  2. You need to ask instead of infer
  3. Know your own limitations and leverage your strengths to learn more before you react.
  4. If you want to know, ask rather than guess

Did this write up help you in learning to read the minds of others more clearly? Contact me and let me know.

Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue

This is the third and final post I will be doing on Matthew Crawford’s book “The World Beyond your Head.” I’d like to talk about focus today. What makes you focus? What are your pro-tips for staying focused? At the end of the post I’ll list out my favorite ways to stay focused.

How do you learn to just focus? Is it the essential skill to conquer? Is this how you want to live your life to work yourself against the “violent repugnance for true attention?”

Why is focus so important in the first place?

“The project of becoming a grown-up demands that one bring one’s conflicts to awareness; to intellectualize them and become articulate about them, rather than let them drive one’s behavior stupidly. Being an adult involves learning to accept limits imposed by a world that doesn’t fully answer to our needs; to fail at this is to remain infantile, growing old in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” – Matthew Crawford

So then, once we have our focus what do we do with it?

“Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. The role played by love in this account indicates that attention may be at bottom an erotic phenomenon.” – Matthew Crawford

But what if we can’t find something to focus on? What if it’s all boring all around us? How do we find something to focus on in the middle of all of this boredom? The writer David Foster Wallace had a trick up his sleeve for finding focus in the middle of boredom:

“Bliss lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax returns, televised golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” – David Foster Wallace

So then what keeps us back from focusing? Is it fear?

“Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” – Matthew Crawford

So when we focus we destroy “the evil in ourselves.” What evil is Crawford talking about here? I believe he’s talking about unlocking and channeling this unfilled potential toward things that are beneficial for those around us. When we’re self-soothing with video games we give form to time. But if we really really thought about it, would we use our time the way we have been using it? Does watching 6 hours of TV really recharge our batteries?

“Learning how to think really means learning to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” – David Foster Wallace

So what are the drawbacks of focusing on your own happiness while disregarding the needs of the group?

“When someone has difficulty relating to objects (including other people) as independent things, the name for this condition is narcissism. It is not a condition of grandiosity so much as fragility; the narcissistic personality needs constant support from the world, and is unclear on the boundary between self and other. Such a personalty can’t tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are splitting off what it needs, what it can use. So, the narcissistic self gets on with others by dealing only with their made to measure representations.” – Matthew Crawford

So with this new pressure on ourselves to figure out things we can only rely on ourselves. And in doing so, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the problems we find ourselves in. With no one to blame, our own handling of our life takes on greater significance as we learn that the conditions we find ourselves in is all our doing. This could be wearying.

“Once upon a time, our problem was guilt: The feeling that you have made a mistake, with reference to something forbidden. This was felt as a stain on one’s character. Ehrenberg suggests the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with an axis of the possible and the impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like kilowatt hours – the raw capacity to make things happen. With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness – weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one’s fullest self. We call this depression.” – Matthew Crawford

And so, with this time that we have, we make our meaning. If we are free to make meaning and we can no longer rely on others to define that meaning for ourselves, we are putting ourselves in the role of the provider. We provide for ourselves. We must take care of ourselves. We focus to plan to reason and care for ourselves.

“If there are no external constraints, what you make of yourself depends on your gumption and mental capacities. Are you a high performance person? In a culture of performance, the individual reads the status and value of her soul in her worldly accomplishments. Like the Calvinist, she looks to her success in order to know: Am I one of the elect or am I damned? With radical responsibility comes the specter of inadequacy.” – Matthew Crawford

And so we focus on the exact right living of our lives. For if we are in charge of everything we must take the reigns and fess up to the requirements of life and live it as if we are the ones in control.

“It is not simply that we are too busy for others, we have also developed a heightened instinct for self-protection. Turkle reports that teenagers would far rather text than make a phone call because on the phone they fear that they reveal too much. In texting you can carefully craft the version of yourself that you present.” – Matthew Crawford

Here are a few ways that I gain/regain focus when I need it. YMMV on these:

  • Start a timer when you start a task. Tell yourself how long you think this specific task will take and see if you were right when you finish.
  • Do the pomodoro technique when you have a full day of work to complete to keep productive without burning out.
  • Put on your favorite song and set it to repeat. Each time your mind comes up from focus it will hear this same song playing and it will feel like you have effectively stopped time.
  • Do the most important task first. I got this one from one of my favorite productivity books of all time.
  • Write down the task then break it down into subtasks and keep doing this until the task is written out like a recipe with each step requiring no additional thought. Then execute.

“Faced with how hard it is to understand family and friends, the autistic retreats into auto stimulation. For his part, the narcissist splits off from others what he can use: the parts that bolster his own self-image. We recognize both as pathologies; they might also be understood as the destination toward which the ideal of autonomy tends, absent other ideals that can serve as a counterweight to it. The ideal of autonomy seems to have at its root the hope for a self that is not in conflict with the world.” – Matthew Crawford

Has this blog post on focus clarified some important concepts for you? If it has please let me know.