Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: work (page 1 of 1)

automating bullshit jobs

Me, a year ago:

Of course universities are going to outsource commentary on essays to AI — just as students will outsource the writing of essays to AI. And maybe that’s a good thing! Let the AI do the bullshit work and we students and teachers can get about the business of learning. It’ll be like that moment in The Wrong Trousers when Wallace ties Gromit’s leash to the Technotrousers, to automate Gromit’s daily walk. Gromit merely removes his collar and leash, attaches them to a toy dog on a wheeled cart, and plays in the playground while the Technotrousers march about. 

And lo, this from Cameron Blevins (via Jason Heppler): 

There is no question that a Custom GPT can “automate the boring” when it comes to grading. It takes me about 15-20 minutes to grade one student essay (leaving comments in the margins, assigning rubric scores, and writing a two-paragraph summary of my feedback). Using a Custom GPT could cut this down to 2-3 minutes per essay (stripping out identifying information, double-checking its output, etc.). With 20 students in a class, that would save me something like 5-6 hours of tedious work. Multiply this across several assignments per semester, and it quickly adds up.

In an ideal world, this kind of tool would free up teachers to spend their time on more meaningful pedagogical work. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, I worry that widespread adoption would only accelerate the devaluing of academic labor. Administrators could easily use it as justification to hire fewer instructors while loading up existing ones with more classes, larger sections, and fewer teaching assistants. 

Alas, I must agree. “Now that we’ve automated grading, we can hire fewer instructors and give them more students!” But then (thinks the same administrator) “Why not train bots on all those lectures posted on YouTube, create professorial avatars — maybe allow students to customize their virtual professors to make them the preferred gender and the desired degree of hotness — and dismiss the instructors also? That’ll free up money to hire more administrators.”  

That will surely be the deanly response. But there’s another way to think of all this, one I suggested in my post of last year. Think about the sales people who use chatbots to write letters to prospective clients, or prepare reports for their bosses. People instinctively turn to the chatbots when they see a way to escape bullshit jobs, or the bullshitty elements of jobs that have some more human aspects as well. For most students, writing papers is a bullshit job; for most professors, grading papers is a bullshit job. (Graeber, p. 10: “I define a bullshit job as one that the worker considers to be pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious — but I also suggest that the worker is correct.”) 

What if we all just admitted that and deleted the bullshit? What if we used the advent of chatbots as an opportunity to rethink the purposes of higher education and the means by which we might pursue those purposes? 

But I suspect is that what universities will do instead is to keep the bullshit and get rid of the humans. 

From John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, Letter 7:

You are to do good work, whether you live or die. It may be you will have to die; — well, men have died for their country often, yet doing her no good; be ready to die for her in doing her assured good: her, and all other countries with her. Mind your own business with your absolute heart and soul; but see that it is a good business first. That it is corn and sweet peas you are producing, — not gunpowder and arsenic. And be sure of this, literally: — you must simply rather die than make any destroying mechanism or compound. You are to be literally employed in cultivating the ground, or making useful things, and carrying them where they are wanted. Stand in the streets, and say to all who pass by: Have you any vineyard we can work in, — not Naboth’s? In your powder and petroleum manufactory, we work no more.

personal organization

Here’s my one piece of advice about personal organization: (calendars, tasks, planning, tracking): Think hard about your needs, pick a system, and then do not under any circumstances change it until at least one full year has passed. When you discover that your chosen system has some flaw — which you will — you’ll be tempted to change to a different system that doesn’t have that particular flaw. But: the new system will have other flaws, because no system is perfect, and those may be worse than the one you’re dealing with now. And you can lose vast tracts of time trying to find the (inevitably nonexistent) perfect system, which will make it harder, not easier, for you to get things done.

Moreover, you’ll need several months, at a minimum, to fine-tune whatever system you’re using to meet your needs. You won’t really know its weaknesses, or its strengths, until then. After a year, even if you’re frustrated by some things, you’ll be using it well, and can make a rational decision about whether to exchange it for something else. But remember: should you change, it’ll take you a long time to learn your new system. Are you sure you want to invest that time?

Some people are sure. And there can be value in shaking up your familiar habits — I do that myself sometimes. But the better you know a system, the more accurately you can calculate the costs and benefits of abandoning it.


David Sax, from The Future Is Analog

“The ideas that come to our mind are around curiosity, creativity, exploration, which come to you when you’re out and moving around,” said Joseph White, the director of workplace futures and insight at the office furniture company Herman Miller. White is a professional fabric designer (he owns a loom), who moved from Brooklyn to Buffalo in the midst of the pandemic, but the longer he worked remotely, the more White noticed how much physical, sensory information his work was lacking. He missed wandering around the rambling Herman Miller campus in Michigan, moving his body, walking between buildings, touching, seeing, and even smelling the company’s different ideas as they took shape in wood, plastic, metal, and fabric. “I used to work from a dozen different spots throughout the day,” White said. “Now I look at the same piece of art all day. I miss the variety of experience. My mind connects to concepts like embodied cognition — our mind connects to the world around us, and by the process of moving around it, we get information that we’re not consciously aware of, and have meaning. We lose that when we’re stuck in the same place over and over again.” Working from home was pitched as liberating, but as my neighbor Lauren discovered each day, glued to her desk, it can easily become a type of incarceration. “[Remote work] degrades the human experience,” White said. “I worry about sensory atrophy. I worry about curiosity, because as soon as curiosity ends, that is the beginning of death.” 

Hmmm. I have some questions: 

  1. Joseph White says he “used to work from a dozen different spots throughout the day” but at home works at one spot. Has he thought about moving around? Maybe working elsewhere in his house, or going to a coffee shop? 
  2. Does White think that most workers have the freedom to work from a dozen different spots in their workplace? 
  3. Or, to put essentially the same question another way: Where are we more likely to be “glued to a desk,” at the office or at home? 
  4. How has White shaped his home life such that his home afflicts him with “sensory atrophy” and “the end of curiosity”? Maybe he could rearrange his furniture or something. 
  5. If we have families at home, then the more analog and connected our work lives are, the more virtual and disconnected our family lives will be; and vice versa. But is it obvious that it’s more important for us to be connected to our co-workers than to our families? That might be great for Capitalism, but not so great for Humans. 

Richard Gunderman:

Thanks to [Lillian] Gilbreth, workers would be treated not as cogs in a machine, but as people. So great was her compassion for workers that she devoted much of her career to improving the work and home life of persons with disabilities, a population that had exploded as a result of World War I injuries. This required, for example, studying special challenges faced by the blind in performing routine tasks, developing curriculum for teachers of the blind, teaching the blind themselves, and finding opportunities for the employment of the blind in industry. Taylor might have branded such workers inherently inferior, but Gilbreth concentrated on enhancing their capabilities to contribute.

This concern for the worker as a human being instead of an economic tool expressed itself in many practical forms. With Frank, she improved lighting conditions for workers, thus reducing eye strain, and introduced regular breaks throughout the workday. She installed suggestion boxes in the workplace, so the voices of workers would be heard. She required employment contracts to be signed by representatives of both management and organized labor. And when she became the first woman engineering professor (1935) and later the first woman to be promoted to full professor at Purdue University (1940), she focused her considerable energy on opening up careers for women. 

This is a fascinating essay — until reading it I knew nothing about Gilbreth, whereas I know a good bit about her demonic opposite, Frederick Winslow Taylor. That may say something about me, but it also says something about the culture of labor in this country over the past century. 

rethinking work

Cal Newport

The battle for telecommuting is a proxy for a deeper unrest. If employees lose remote work, the last highly visible, virus-prompted workplace experiment, the window for future transformation might slam shut. The tragedy of this moment, however, is how this reform movement lacks good ideas about what else to demand. Shifting more work to teleconferencing eliminates commutes and provides schedule flexibility, but, as so many office refugees learned, remote work alone doesn’t really help alleviate most of what made their jobs frantic and exhausting. We need new ideas about how to reshape work, and anthropology may have something to offer. 

Newport, to his credit, acknowledges that the common tropes on this subject — “We are wired to do X because our hunter-gatherer ancestors did Z” — are simplistic at best and often misleading. But I’m still not sure his anthropological anecdotes tell us a lot that’s helpful.  

What’s more important is that modern office work is dehumanizing and stress-inducing in ways that even the office work of a hundred years ago was not. (Note: that doesn’t mean that those early patterns of work didn’t have their own problems, some of them major.) I don’t think any anthropological research, or any recent writing about work, captures the differences between the the computerized workplace and earlier modes of work than Mark Helprin’s 1996 essay “The Acceleration of Tranquility” — which even now I think about regularly because it’s not just about work but also about the kinds of material conditions, the furniture of everyday life as it were, that enable flourishing. 

One final note (in this post, anyway; I do want to return to the topic): What Newport is discussing here applies only to office work. There are other kinds of work — including my own, as a teacher — that are grossly diminished when done remotely, and of course many more (surgery, carpentry) that can’t be done remotely at all. But so many people in our society do office work that we really do need to be looking for ways to make it less miserable. 

the ultimate in entitlement

I posted this yesterday and then, because I wrote it in a moment of anger, decided to take it down. Denunciation is not the ideal mode for me; and it’s not really my post. But Kreider’s piece bothers me, and I think for good reason, so I am putting this back up, with some minor editing. 

Tim Kreider:

I have a shameful confession to make: Secretly, I am not lazy. I’ve learned that if I do literally nothing for more than a year, two at most, I start to get depressed. I’m not recanting my old manifesto. I still hope to make it to my grave without ever getting a job job — showing up for eight or more hours a day to a place with fluorescent lighting where I’m expected to feign bushido devotion to a company that could fire me tomorrow and someone’s allowed to yell at you but you’re not allowed to yell back.

Does Tim Kreider realize that there are people out there — probably >99% of the working population — who don’t work because they want to but because they have to? Does he understood the continent-sized iceberg of entitlement lying beneath his casual acknowledgement that he has “learned” what it’s like to “do literally nothing for more than a year”? Has it ever occurred to him that the world is full of people who don’t know what it’s like to “do literally nothing” for one day? Does he grasp that someone who has had the opportunity to discover how his psyche responds when he loafs around for a year or two has absolutely no business writing about “the actual dystopian future we now inhabit,” because whaddya mean “we,” sunshine?

“Once I become genuinely engaged in a project,” Kreider boasts, “I can become fanatically absorbed, spending hundreds of hours on it, no matter how useless and unremunerative.” Well, that’s nice. But does Kreider even begin to understand that there are millions and millions of people in this country — just in this country — who would give a couple of digits to be able to spend even a dozen hours on such a project, but can’t because they’re too busy making enough money to feed and shelter themselves and maybe their family?

“It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam,” the title of his essay tells me. And do what instead? There is, he says, “a republic to salvage, a civilization to reimagine and its infrastructure to reinvent, innumerable species to save, a world to restore and millions who are impoverished, imprisoned, illiterate, sick or starving. All while we waste our time at work.” Again: What’s with the “we”? And again: What does Kreider expect his readers to do? Quit their jobs and … pay their rent how? Feed themselves and their family how? Get adequate medical care how? Save enough to avoid an impoverished old age how?

You know what’s even worse than a bullshit job? A writer who has had the enormous good fortune to avoid bullshit jobs chastising people for not quitting their bullshit jobs.

Silver Jubilee – by Damon Krukowski – Dada Drummer Almanach:

[Maurizio Lazzarato:] “Small and sometimes very small ‘productive units’ (often consisting of only one individual) are organized for specific ad hoc projects, and may exist only for the duration of those particular jobs… Precariousness, hyperexploitation, mobility, and hierarchy are the most obvious characteristics of metropolitan immaterial labor. Behind the label of the independent ‘self-employed’ worker, what we actually find is an intellectual proletarian… It is worth noting that in this kind of working existence it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish leisure time from work time. In a sense, life becomes inseparable from work.” 

This matches my long-term experience with digital media far better than Gates’s “content is king.” Content is not what is rewarded in this online economy, because content is produced by immaterial labor, and labor is in no better a political state to demand fair compensation now than it was before digital technology. If anything, our ability to organize has been reduced as we have been isolated by the processes described in Lazzarato’s essay. After all, the foreman is right here in our homes. I’m typing on one now. 

See: Self-taylorizing

a proper goal

Joel Lehman and Kenneth O. Stanley (2011): 

Most ambitious objectives do not illuminate a path to themselves. That is, the gradient of improvement induced by ambitious objectives tends to lead not to the objective itself but instead to dead-end local optima. Indirectly supporting this hypothesis, great discoveries often are not the result of objective-driven search. For example, the major inspiration for both evolutionary computation and genetic programming, natural evolution, innovates through an open-ended process that lacks a final objective. Similarly, large-scale cultural evolutionary processes, such as the evolution of technology, mathematics, and art, lack a unified fixed goal. In addition, direct evidence for this hypothesis is presented from a recently-introduced search algorithm called novelty search. Though ignorant of the ultimate objective of search, in many instances novelty search has counter-intuitively outperformed searching directly for the objective, including a wide variety of randomly-generated problems introduced in an experiment in this chapter. Thus a new understanding is beginning to emerge that suggests that searching for a fixed objective, which is the reigning paradigm in evolutionary computation and even machine learning as a whole, may ultimately limit what can be achieved. Yet the liberating implication of this hypothesis argued in this paper is that by embracing search processes that are not driven by explicit objectives, the breadth and depth of what is reachable through evolutionary methods such as genetic programming may be greatly expanded. 

Late in their essay, Lehman and Stanley illustrate their point by describing the navigation of mazes: If you’re going to make your way from the periphery of a maze to the center, you have to be willing to spend a good bit of time moving away from your goal. A determination to go directly towards your goal will “lead not to the objective itself but instead to dead-end local optima.” 

(I got to this by following some links from Samuel Arbseman’s newsletter.) 

I think this insight has implications far beyond machine learning, and even beyond what Lehman and Stanley call “large-scale cultural evolutionary processes.” It’s true of ordinary human lives as well. When we define our personal goals too narrowly or too rigidly, we render ourselves unable to reach them — or to reach them only to discover that they weren’t our real goals after all. 

There’s a wonderful moment in Thomas Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain when Merton — a new convert to Catholicism — is whining and vacillating about what he should be: a teacher, a priest, a writer, a monk, something else altogether maybe, a labor activist or a farm laborer. And his friend Robert Lax tells him that what he should want to be is a saint. It’s a marvelous goal not only because all Christians are called to be saints but also because there’s a liberating vagueness to the pursuit of sainthood. In his great essay on “Membership” C. S. Lewis comments that “the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints,” and it’s true: there are so many ways to be a saint, and you can never know which of them you’ll be called to take. 

I think these thoughts may have some implications for secular vocations as well. 

my essential productivity app

… is a calendar. In some seasons of my life it’s a physical calendar, in others a digital one (I’m a huge fan of Fantastical, because it unifies my events and reminders in a single app). Basically I have a task list plus blocked-out periods on my calendar to work on specific projects. For instance, this week I’ve blocked out 8-11:30am every day to work on my biography of Paradise Lost. Also, for both events and reminders I use the Notes and URL fields to add information that will help me remember what specifically I need to focus on. (When I’m using a paper calendar, I jot down such details on sticky notes.)  

And that’s it. That’s my “productivity system.” It is very simple and very powerful. 


B. D. McClay:

It’s natural to find the thought that what we build in our life will die with us disturbing. (Though forms of its lasting can also be distressing; in his poem “Posterity,” Philip Larkin imagines being summed up by an irritated, unenthusiastic future biographer with “Oh, you know the thing / That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych.”) No one wants to die. To ourselves, we matter, and we want what we do to matter to somebody else. We want our sacrifices to be worth it in a transcendent sense, our pain to have a purpose, our achievements to be permanent. A handful of life paths — intellectual and artistic work in particular — are about trying to create, as Horace wrote, “a monument more lasting than bronze.” They are a calculated gamble that a life dedicated to the difficult and narrow path will continue after our death, however unrewarding it might have been to experience. […] 

Most scholarship is also not going to live forever. Is it therefore not worth doing? I wouldn’t say so. It’s worth it to maintain gardens and repair buildings and restore artworks. No one’s work lives forever on its own. It stays alive because someone keeps it so. Here again, greatness requires humility: other people’s. The task of thinking is worthwhile even if your thoughts prove to be of limited usefulness. The tasks of reading, of appreciation, of interpretation, are worthwhile, even if next year there is a new essay that supersedes yours, or a new book. If we have chosen to live our lives this way, it is because something about it strikes us as the best way we can spend our time. 

When I was in graduate school I read a book by a scholar named Michael O’Loughlin with the unwieldy title The Garlands of Repose: The Literary Celebration of Civic and Retired Leisure: The Traditions of Homer and Vergil, Horace and Montaigne. I was greatly taken with it. Before I read that book, it had never occurred to me that there could be different kinds of leisure, with different purposes, different characters; nor had I thought about just how essential leisure is to human culture. (Maybe O’Loughlin hadn’t thought about that either, before reading Josef Pieper.) I also loved the way O’Loughlin identified thematic harmonies that linked works written over a period of 2000 years. It seemed to me a model of what my own literary criticism could be. 

When I read the book, I was expecting to become a specialist in seventeenth-century literature, but my path veered in a different direction, so I have rarely had the opportunity, over the years, to cite it. But it has had a lasting effect on my thinking. For instance, it has deeply informed the way I read W. H. Auden, that most Horatian of modern poets. My critiques of technocracy and my interest in “repairing the world” stem from a belief that one of the best things we can do for our culture, and for those who join it after us, is to create a space for healthy leisure. Even my recent thinking about Taoism is influenced by what I read in The Garlands of Repose all those years ago. 

Another way to put that is to say that O’Loughlin’s book — I believe the only one he ever published — became a part of my intellectual DNA. And maybe something I write will spark something for a reader — a scholar or a writer or a pastor or teacher or who knows what — and become part of her DNA. Maybe she’ll never quote me — maybe she’ll never even realize that she wouldn’t have had that idea if she hadn’t read my essay — but in that way my thought will become part of someone else’s intellectual genome, and through her will make some difference in the world. If so, then her thought will be indebted to a scholar she probably has never have heard of: Michael O’Loughlin. 

As with my writing, so with my teaching. Maybe some word of mine will become a part of a student’s intellectual or moral or spiritual inheritance, and in that way play a role in his life, and then, through his influence, in the lives of others. Just as my own voice is shaped and formed by the voices of others — Bakhtin taught me this — so others will appropriate for themselves and their purposes ideas they first heard in my voice.  

I don’t expect that anyone will be reading my stuff after I die — I expect that I’ll be wholly forgotten before I die, if I live to a good age — but I almost never think about that. At the end of Middlemarch George Eliot says of Dorothea that “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” and that captures better than I can my convictions on this point. Diffusive is the key word: an influence that subtly spreads, perhaps without anyone noticing. I find that model of influence more encouraging and comforting than any hopes for fame could ever be.  


As Nikil Saval pointed out some years ago, “The arc of scientific management is long, but it bends towards self-Taylorizing.” (See further development of these ideas in this essay by Alexa Hazel, and a few comments by me, on related matters, here.)  

I might coin an analogous phrase: The arc of creative product development is long, but it bends towards self-Haysing. 

Thou Shalt Not Whitey Schafer 1940

For several decades the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, governed what could and could not be shown in movies. I was thinking of it the other day while watching Ernst Lubitsch’s glorious Trouble in Paradise (1932), made just pre-Code and therefore full of Inappropriate Content.

A very funny moment early on comes when the two thieves-pretending-to-be-aristocrats, played by Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, are having dinner together and gradually revealing what they’ve pinched from each other. He returns her brooch; she returns his watch. They resume their meal and then after a moment he says, “I hope you don’t mind if I keep your garter.” Her eyes widen and her hand inspects her leg as he displays the garter, kisses it tenderly, and replaces it in his pocket. 

Trouble 1200 1200 675 675 crop 000000

The Hays Code did away with such immoralities. Eventually it was repealed in favor of our current movie rating system, and now we can have anything, right? Right? Well…. 

Alan Rome has a fine essay in The New Atlantis on recent developments in the Star Trek world in which he points out that earlier installments in the series were governed by a kind of liberal idealism: “In Star Trek’s future, the United Federation of Planets is a liberal-democratic regime encompassing hundreds of different alien species, all devoted to peace, freedom, and equality. The Federation is the United Nations writ galactic, led by an Americanized humanity.” But more recently it has become necessary to cast strong doubt on all that nonsense: “Government is somehow both the only possible guarantor of justice and also structurally implicated in all social evils. The current system is therefore illegitimate and needs to be dismantled in favor of some sort of utopian solution.” That no one seems to know what that Utopia might look like is another of Rome’s points, but for now I just want to focus on the fact that a series like Picard cannot do anything but portray any existing social system as hypocritical, complicit in oppression, structurally unjust, etc. etc. That’s intrinsic to the Code. 

As Foucault spent his career demonstrating: Written Codes are strong, but Codes unwritten are stronger. And I don’t think I need to list the ways in which recent movies and TV shows have exhibited a frantic determination to depict all that Must Be Shown and to refrain from depicting all that Must Not Be Shown. I also don’t think I have to list the ways in which this kind of manaical ticking of checkboxes inhibits creativity. It’s self-Haysing: disciplining yourself in order to avoid being disciplined by others, and that’s always kind of pathetic. No need to belabor this point. I just want to make a few others: 

  1. Whether written or unwritten, Codes are always present, though some periods (like our own) are more prone to code fetishizing than others;
  2. While you will surely approve of some Codes and disapprove of others, they always inhibit creativity; 
  3. But they also inspire creativity, because real artists look for ways to evade the force of Codes or, through jujitsu moves, use them to advantage; 
  4. Figuring out whether in any given case a Code is more productive than destructive is not easy, though as a general rule, the more feverishly people strive to enforce a Code the more destructive it is; 
  5. And, finally, if you don’t like what the current Code is doing to movies and TV, there’s a vast body of work out there that you’ll like better.

I don’t know why people think it’s so important that there are always new products being developed that will suit them. If there’s one thing that our current moment does well, it’s to make available to us the great cultural achievements of the past, in multiple forms and formats. If I don’t like Old Disney, there’s Woke Disney; if I don’t like Woke Disney, there’s Old Disney. Break bread with the dead, is what I say. (But also maybe stock up, just in case.) 

Richard Gibson:

Work, [Adam] Smith points out, is a reciprocal process: Workers form goods, and are, in turn, formed by their labors. Smith worries about the fate of people whose work, say, consists of drawing out wire, or straightening it, or cutting it, hour after hour, as in the famous first example of the division of labor, the pin factory, discussed in the opening pages of Book I. His anxieties center on “the understanding,” a broad and flexible concept in Enlightenment thought that could include a number of mental faculties, including memory, imagination, and reason. All of those faculties are on Smith’s mind here, but he is especially apprehensive about workers’ declining capacity for rational thought:

“The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.”

two quotations: work

Erin Griffith (2019):

Welcome to hustle culture. It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor and, once you notice it, impossible to escape. “Rise and Grind” is both the theme of a Nike ad campaign and the title of a book by a “Shark Tank” shark. New media upstarts like the Hustle, which produces a popular business newsletter and conference series, and One37pm, a content company created by the patron saint of hustling, Gary Vaynerchuk, glorify ambition not as a means to an end but as a lifestyle….

Perhaps we’ve all gotten a little hungry for meaning. Participation in organized religion is falling, especially among U.S. millennials. In San Francisco, where I live, I’ve noticed that the concept of productivity has taken on an almost spiritual dimension. Techies here have internalized the idea — rooted in the Protestant work ethic — that work is not something you do to get what you want; the work itself is all. Therefore any life hack or company perk that optimizes their day, allowing them to fit in even more work, is not just desirable but inherently good.

Anna North (2021)

The pandemic has intensified a pressure to internalize the demand for constant work, with people striving to use their time in marketable ways, even if no boss is telling them to do so. Anderson sees the question about quarantine “passion projects” as a symptom of “the universalization of the concept of management altogether, whereby everyone is encouraged to think of themselves as ‘CEO of Myself.’” Indeed, much pandemic productivity discourse has centered not on getting things done because your employer makes you, but on getting things done because you make you.

In a viral tweet last April, for example, marketing CEO Jeremy Haynes argued that if you didn’t use lockdown to learn new skills or start a business, “you didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.”

The implication was that people should use the supposed extra time provided by quarantine to squeeze additional labor out of themselves, doing the work of capitalism without even being asked to do so. We’re so used to treating our time — our very selves — as a resource for the market that we do so even during a global crisis. And when a boss isn’t buying our time — when it’s allegedly “free” — we’re supposed to figure out a way to sell it on our own.

“I’ve been working with young people on the cusp of adulthood for the past two years, and the problems they’ve brought my way have all tended to revolve around perceived failures to be their own CEO,” Anderson said. 

See also: Alexa Hazel on Self-Taylorizing


My friend Richard Gibson today called my attention to this 2013 column in the Economist

The most obvious beneficiaries of leaning back would be creative workers — the very people who are supposed to be at the heart of the modern economy. In the early 1990s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, asked 275 creative types if he could interview them for a book he was writing. A third did not bother to reply at all and another third refused to take part. Peter Drucker, a management guru, summed up the mood of the refuseniks: “One of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste-paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours.” Creative people’s most important resource is their time — particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time — and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. 

People sometimes get irritated when I decline to do something they have asked me to do — read their novel, speak at their college — but do not pause to reflect that they’re only asking me because at many points in the past I declined to read someone else’s novel or speak at someone else’s college, and did my work instead. 

the instrumentalist chain

Earlier I wrote of goods that can’t be aimed at directly, and here’s another example of that.

Like all college teachers, I have heard many times — many, many times — more times than I can count — something along these lines: If I don’t get an A in your class then I won’t be able to get into medical school [or law school, or business school, or engineering school, or dental school] so just tell me what I need to do to get that A.

Here’s how I usually respond:

First, I understand and sympathize with your anxiety, but please don’t say that. Whether you mean it to or not, it sounds manipulative. (“If all my dreams are crushed it’ll be your fault!”) And teachers are no exception to the general rule that most people don’t like feeling manipulated and will often do the opposite of what they think others are trying to get them to do.

But second, and more important for our purposes, you’re really not thinking of this problem in the right way. The problem is not I’m getting a lower grade than I want, the problem is I’m not doing excellent work. Your grade is only a marker or token of the quality of your work. You can’t get a better grade by focusing on getting a better grade. Your grades will improve when your work improves.

This is the pitfall of all instrumentalist thinking — even when it’s properly instrumentalist. By which I mean that there are some things it’s perfectly okay to think of as means to other ends. I exercise so I can be healthier: if I don’t love exercise in itself and for itself, that’s not a problem — unless I fail to pay sufficient attention to what I’m doing when I exercise that in the end I don’t improve my health as much as I want. The way for me to fix that is to start focusing on the exercise itself. Wanting ever more intensely to be super-healthy doesn’t actually help me.

Many of my students don’t care about the quality of the work they’re doing. They care about the grades they get, and they care about grades because the grades will determine whether they get into med school, and they care about getting into med school because that will determine whether they get to be doctors, and they want to be doctors because … well, who am I to judge? My point here is just that there’s a lengthy chain of instrumentalist motivation here, acts that are meaningful only because they lead to other acts that are only meaningful because they lead to still other acts, in regressive links that I can’t see the end of. But the only way people are ever going to get to their goal, whatever that happens to be, is by starting to care about the work they’re doing today.