The Dominant Discourse on Work is Set by Lucky, Privileged Workaholics
Malcolm Gladwell's Advice on Office Work is as Useful as Sex Advice from Virgins
If anyone ever invents a drug that mimics the sensation of being right, I’d be the first person to die of an overdose. And, dear readers, I WAS RIGHT when I wrote that Cal Newport’s next book would be Slow Productivity, which he announced on his podcast as “a much-needed new philosophy on work.” Listening to the episode, one also learns:
Cal is getting a new air conditioning system for his house’s second floor
Carpenters are coming to build custom bookshelves for his office
He writes between 1-4 hours a day, first thing the morning
He has a new research assistant, Caleb
Caleb is also helping him with a longer piece for The New Yorker, which will do “double duty” as a piece in the book
No chores or manual labor for Mr. Soft Hands 😉
Someone else as Domestic Operations Manager that allows him daily uninterrupted time in a private home office with bespoke bookshelves
Someone helping him with the research
Editors at The New Yorker helping him edit and hone his ideas
A man with a team clearing all non-writing tasks out of his way, another team helping him with all aspects of writing, and a giant book contract to compensate him handsomely for these thoughts—i.e., a man with nothing to do except write a book on productivity—IS THE ABSOLUTE LAST PERSON ON EARTH WHO SHOULD BE GIVING ANYONE PRODUCTIVITY ADVICE.
I will, as you may recall, once wrote a book
for “with” one of these types of men, spent 3 years answering emails and talking 24/7 and such. After this behind-the-scenes experience, I have simpler aspirations: I want to be like my dog.
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Successful Workaholics Dominate the Discourse
Mr. King of Oversimpification and One-Man Straw Man Factory, Malcolm Gladwell, recently told people to get back to the office, despite not having worked in an office for quite some time:
“It’s really hard to explain this core psychological truth, which is that we want you to have a feeling of belonging, and to feel necessary. And we want you to join our team. And if you’re not here, it’s really hard to do that. It’s not in your best interest to work at home. I know it’s a hassle to come to the office, but if you’re just sitting in pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live? Don’t you want to feel a part of something?”
Here’s the part where I mention the Great Resignation/Reshuffling/Reset/Remix, etc., its litany of causes and effects. And here’s where I make the bold claim that people are quite happy to not make work the center of their lives.1 Witness the widespread state of exhaustion, the daily increase in confirmed cases of the Fuck Its, the spreading realization that we are all being held hostage by the egos of billionaires and politicians, and the reality that many types of work are dehumanizing, and the fact that deferring joy until the end of one’s life is a game for those with reliably healthy planets and retirement accounts.
Not only does work not have a monopoly on fulfilling those belongingness needs, work can go fuck itself.
Steve Cadigan, the former chief HR officer at LinkedIn, recently said something similar while bemoaning The Kids These Days and Their Remote Work:
“Their sense of commitment to an organization where they haven’t met people in person, they haven’t been around, is much less than the people who are spending time together as we were before,” he said. He cites the lack of bond that younger employees feel to their organization as a “big challenge” for companies working in a remote capacity.
The horrors! The Worker Drones cannot be as easily enslaved if we continue to experience disruptions in our Stockholm Syndrome protocol. Both of these “thought leaders,” neither of whom commute from New Jersey to sit in a cubicle next to a gum-smacking nail-biter named Rita, are nevertheless doling out the kind of advice that will be affecting the lives of those who do.
What if we aimed for understanding and empathy over judgment?
All living beings are exquisitely sensitive to reward certainty; evolution requires, at all turns, a surplus of energy. As this recent theory suggests, “fatigue adaptively signals the value of rest.”
Deviations from pure engagement with an activity are, from the actor’s perspective, rational; people lean out for a reason. When we love what we’re doing, can’t imagine being elsewhere, and are being rewarded for doing that thing, we can just sit and Do That Thing forever. Motivation is easy when it’s reward-on-reward-on-reward.
But, say, our attention is needed elsewhere, the pay isn’t that great, and work hasn’t promoted us to a level that honors the basic human need for autonomy.
With the passing of time, it becomes increasingly possible that behaviors other than the one currently being performed offer opportunities for greater reward, and to which it would be more valuable to switch behavior.
At some point, you want to go or stay home because it’s more rewarding than working. You don’t just want to belong to your job.
I once thought that I was a workaholic, until I started working with someone who got upset when I wanted to stop working to get dinner. Go to the gym. Be a human being.
Being in an office worked was, at one point, great for Cadigan and Gladwell, and every other guy in a corner office who wants everyone to follow his lead. Getting promoted to that level leaves you surrounded by other workaholics, each of whom share your values and motivations. We often fail to appreciate how different our lives are from others, ergo my contribution: the Relativity Theory of Everything.2
If Gladwell et al. are telling us that our work life is pathetic because we aren’t prioritizing belonging to the company, perhaps they can stop judging long enough to understand that it’s not as glamorous an affair for others? Gladwell gives us:
Is that the work life you want to live? Don’t you want to feel a part of something?
Let’s ask him, instead, if that’s really the kind of life he wants to live.
Don’t you want to have a life outside of work?
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