A cure for alienation


I would estimate that anywhere from one-third to one-half of modern jobs are mostly or entirely pointless. This is obviously a problem for the people doing those jobs, who must be aware on some level that the net effect of their labors is, in terms of the welfare of humanity, a big zero (if not negative). But no discussion of this Treadmill of Pointlessness would be complete without considering the exact opposite: namely, the hunter-gather lifestyle.

Animistic thinkers are at home in the world. Children and hunter-gatherers are not necessarily happy, of course – but they have a relationship with the world: they are not alienated. Animists are watched over, controlled, protected, and also punished, by the sentient powers that constitute the world. […]

By contrast, since the invention of farming, modern life has become a state of siege, a small gang of family and allies against a mass of hostile strangers, an island of order surrounded by overwhelming forces of chaos – planning is essential, yet most plans will fail. The world is not an unconditionally nurturing parent but must be coerced into producing the necessities of life, survival is a hard bargain, failure an ever present threat. For the farmer, the natural world is neither unchangeable nor ‘giving’ – it is raw material for the production of food and other necessities and luxuries. Production entails prolonged, dull, repetitive tasks to force nature into new and different shapes.

Alienation is hardly new. The problem isn’t the Information Age. It isn’t even the Industrial Revolution. It’s agriculture. The invention of farming and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.

In all seriousness, the cure for modern alienation may be some sort of a return to a primitive, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Is there a way to do this without also returning to Paleolithic population levels and standards of health care? Perhaps when all the “jobs” are automated out of existence, human society will naturally revert to its pre-modern, tribal shape, but with better technology; call it the Paleolithic 2.0.

We will live as our ancestors did, squatting around fires in animal skins, while our crops are harvested by robots and our iPhones are made in huge, unmanned subterranean factories.

Pointless jobs

A savage deconstruction of the treadmill of pointlessness that constitutes “work” for a large percentage of people:

Everyone is familiar with the sort of jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, really to do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers or the sort of people who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees.

Some would argue that lots of media, entertainment, academic and government jobs could be added to that list. Uncharitably, one might even throw in the entire advertising, marketing and PR industries.

What if these jobs really are useless, and those who hold them are actually aware of it? Could there be anything more demoralising than having to wake up in the morning five out of seven days of one’s adult life to perform a task that one believes does not need to be performed, is simply a waste of time or resources, or even makes the world worse? […]

What is a bullshit job?

The defining feature is this: one so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince themselves there’s a good reason for them to be doing it. They may not be able to admit this to their co-workers – often, there are very good reasons not to do so – but they are convinced the job is pointless nonetheless.

Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless; typically, there has to be some degree of pretence and fraud involved as well. The employee must feel obliged to pretend that there is, in fact, a good reason their job exists, even if, privately, they find such claims ridiculous.

The element of pretense and fraud is a key point. The habitual dishonesty required to maintain the illusion that a pointless job actually serves a purpose may be the most psychologically destructive aspect of the Treadmill of Pointlessness.

An earlier piece by the same author is even more incisive:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it. […]

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

Exactly. But how do we rein in the “administrative sector” without destroying the modern economy and throwing many tens of millions of people out of work?

Odds of the Apocalypse: 37%

Only somewhat more likely than your house getting flooded

A hydrologist walks us through the cold mathematics of revolution and chaos:

While we don’t have any good sources of data on how often zombies take over the world, we definitely have good sources of data on when the group of people on the piece of dirt we currently call the USA attempt to overthrow the ruling government. It’s happened twice since colonization. The first one, the American Revolution, succeeded. The second one, the Civil War, failed. But they are both qualifying events. Now we can do math. […]

Stepping through this, the average year for colony establishment is 1678, which is 340 years ago. Two qualifying events in 340 years is a 0.5882% annual chance of nationwide violent revolution against the ruling government. Do the same math as we did above with the floodplains, in precisely the same way, and we see a 37% chance that any American of average life expectancy will experience at least one nationwide violent revolution.

This is a bigger chance than your floodplain-bound home flooding during your mortgage. [I.e. 26%]

It’s noticeably bigger.

And here’s a factoid that should give you pause for thought:

Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, there have been 465 sovereign nations which no longer exist, and that doesn’t even count colonies, secessionist states, or annexed countries. Even if we presume that half of these nation-state transitions were peaceful, which is probably a vast over-estimation, that’s still an average of one violent state transition every 2.43 years.

Maybe the Silicon Valley billionaires, Hollywood celebrities and politicians who are secretly building apocalypse bunkers have rational reasons for doing so and are not completely nuts.

LinkedIn chronicles

This made me chuckle:

I wake up every morning at 4 AM and go for a 10 mile run followed by an hour lifting weights.

I try my best to read the local newspaper and at least 1/4 of a book before I leave for work at 8.

I have completely cut out meats, veggies, and fruits from my diet because I don’t want to damage anything on earth. I eat 100% Soylent.

During my lunch break I build houses for the homeless and then hire them at my job as a public service.

I answer no less than 300 emails an hour… all personalized.

Before I leave work I remind my friends that LinkedIn isn’t a dating site in case they forget.

After work I instruct hot/cold yoga in a room-temperature room… right before I head off to provide my spiritual advice to local religious leaders.

I am currently writing my 10th book.

I also created the Fidget Spinner.

I am the most interesting person on LinkedIn.

The good life. In fact, the best life that one can aspire to. Right?

Freelance writing doesn’t pay

In case you had any doubts about that:

Here is an update with further evidence suggesting that making a viable living as a professional freelance journalist and writer is an untenable, Sisyphean delusion:

I was sitting at my desk yesterday morning, my pal, Lamont, content snoozing at my feet, absorbed in final editing of a long term investigative reporting project, the latest of many that I have been self-financing awaiting a positive response from a flurry of funding proposals sent that, once again, have been met with enthusiasm but no available funding, rejection, or silence.

I love being a journalist. It isn’t what I do, but, more accurately, who I am.

I was interrupted by three loud, harsh, rapid-fire knocks on the front door to my rented apartment. Immediately, I recognized the signature notification of the hostile adversarial arrival of armed agents with the authority and power of the State.

I was not unsurprised.

My rent was delinquent, and despite numerous, persistent, and increasingly bordering on desperate efforts to acquire funding or institutional support for my work as a freelance investigative journalist to compensate for even the minimal costs of living expenses–the modern equivalent of food, shelter, and protection from the elements–these efforts have not been successful.

Comedy ensues, although it probably didn’t seem very funny at the time.

This guy interviewed Pol Pot, so I assume he has some talent, maybe a lot of talent. Let this be a lesson that most people who think they can hack it as a freelance writer/journalist… can’t. The math just doesn’t work.

The value of advice

They say that advice is worth what it costs – nothing.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. Advice can be quite useful… if you make sure to consistently do the exact opposite of what people advise:

I am just describing my life. I hesitate to give advice because every major single piece of advice I was given turned out to be wrong and I am glad I didn’t follow them.

I was told to focus and I never did. I was told to never procrastinate and I waited 20 years for The Black Swan and it sold 3 million copies. I was told to avoid putting fictional characters in my books and I did put in Nero Tulip and Fat Tony because I got bored otherwise. I was told to not insult the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; the more I insulted them the nicer they were to me and the more they solicited Op-Eds. I was told to avoid lifting weights for a back pain and became a weightlifter: never had a back problem since.

If I had to relive my life I would be even more stubborn and uncompromising than I have been.

(From Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s commencement address to the American University in Beirut.)

Hilarity ensues

David Brooks makes some good points in this article. But the most revealing passage by far is this moment of inadvertent comedy:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

😃😄😆 A remarkable cross-section of modern American society right there. I laughed, I cried, I canceled my Netflix subscription.

Seriously, this is the sentence immediately preceding the above:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

An excellent point. But if “informal social barriers” are the problem, why is Brooks so eager to perpetuate them by whisking his friend out of a sandwich shop that is a bit more upscale than she’s used to?

Read that paragraph again:

Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches…

That sounds really awkward. A social disaster. She was reading a menu, concentrating and… her face froze up. It didn’t even move! She must have been overwhelmed by the situation. Or maybe she was just thinking for a second.

Fortunately, Brooks acted fast:

I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Gosh, I’m glad Brooks was sensitive enough to save the day by taking his friend to an eatery more appropriate for a person of her station. We all know the lesser-educated can’t handle sandwiches with foreign names.

Of course, if Brooks had managed to shrug off his initial five seconds of slight social discomfort, he might have considered teaching his friend what the hell “soppressata” means. (Does he know?) But what would be the point of that? Be quiet and eat your prolefeed.

In conclusion:

Book overdose

I used to collect lots (hundreds) of books. Now I don’t, because they’re cumbersome and I tend to move often. E-books renders dead tree books an unnecessary luxury.

Another reason why large book collections may be a bad idea – they can kill you:

A couple in eastern China whose apartment was packed with tens of thousands of books discovered that their home library was slowly poisoning them, according to a television news report.

The couple and their child, who live in Taizhou, Jiangsu province, developed symptoms of formaldehyde poisoning at the end of last year, Jiangsu Television reports.

The end of the expat era

Via Remy Cimadomo on LinkedIn, a decent update on the career landscape for expats in China:

What no one tells you is that these great opportunities are now for locals much more than they are for foreigners.

Most foreign companies are now well established and their years of tax free benefits and favorable labor costs are now over. Margins have reduced, Western economies have slowed (China’s clients), and we have seen a dramatic shift toward relieving the payroll of all those expensive expats.

On the other side, local talents have learned and grown, trained under countless foreign companies and JVs. The education level is catching up, and the knowledge base is transferring. They are ready to take over.

This is correct. Local Chinese employees are of a way higher caliber than 10+ (5+?) years ago. Multinational companies are often flooded with applications from Chinese who have studied/worked abroad, speak and write English fluently, and are well-educated with technical skills. There is simply no reason for most companies to hire an expat Westerner.

The situation is a bit different with senior-level management positions, where I understand there is often a talent shortage and Western expertise is more in demand, but that’s changing too as a new generation of sophisticated Chinese managers take the reins.

Unless you are at a director level or higher, chances are your nice expat package from home will come to an end after a few years. After your good years of service and the growing attachment to your lifestyle in China, you may be “rewarded” with a step down to a local package. Even if on the paper the salary is sometimes matched, numerous advantages will disappear or seriously diminish: housing/travel allowances, education benefits, retirement plans and health insurance are all often lost in these transitions.

To be honest, I didn’t know “expat packages” were even a thing anymore. I think that era is pretty much over. No company is going to reward you financially for the hardship of working in China, unless maybe you’re a senior executive in the West who needs to get sent over for some reason.

Despite these challenges, who is still getting a nice expat or even arranged local package?

People with either a great technical expertise or consequent managing experience in China. These openings are infrequently found. Often if you are headhunted for a position, or if you have a strong relationship with a potential employer in China, the opportunity is rarely at the right place at the right time.

Our current view of these opportunities shows that the package for a 10-15 year veteran with expert credentials ranges from RMB 700k to RMB 1.3M [Ed: $103,000-$191,000] adding both Salary and benefits together. Packages that are significantly more lucrative are increasingly rare.

Including benefits? Good luck with that.

Internship ranges from 0 to RMB 5K, first jobs from RMB 5K to 12K. A best case scenario for someone with 2-5 years’ experience is typically around 20K RMB [Ed: about $3,000/month].

If you look at the increasing cost of life of a matching ‘foreign’ life style in cities like Shanghai or Beijing, you quickly realize that this is no heaven on earth.

That last figure is a bit low, you can probably do better than that, at least in Shanghai.

Even though the picture seems bleak, there are still many opportunities for foreign talent in China.

  • Central China has developed in the recent ‘conquest of the West’, offering much less glamorous cities to live in but a lot of opportunities for expats of all experience levels at a more affordable cost of living.

This is a good point. There are a lot of interesting cities to explore outside the first-tier conurbations of Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which have already been colonized by expats. (Although Shenzhen isn’t so bad. I’m not a fan of Guangzhou.) If you can find work in a place like Chengdu or Kunming or even a smaller city out west, or frankly just any lower-tier city in China, you won’t have to stress too much about money and the experience could be very worthwhile. Shanghai is expensive and somewhat of a cultural bubble.

Over the last years, Chinese authorities have made it much easier for foreigners to invest and launch businesses. If entrepreneurship is in your blood then China is a now a rather good place for it. (more articles about this topic to come)

Well, I’m curious to read those upcoming articles. My understanding is the exact opposite. It’s getting harder for foreigners to start and run a business in China and I don’t recommend it at all. You will fail, and you will lose a lot of money in the process. Not every time, but your odds of success these days are pretty freakin’ low. Sorry.

Speaking Chinese will not improve your odds of success as much as you would hope

If the job is Chinese speaking then in about 95% of cases, it means a Chinese person can do it and the job will pay according to local market price. In our experience if a Chinese person is speaking with you as the face of a foreign brand they expect the full foreign experience.

An excellent point, and I agree. It can be hard for native English speakers to accept this, but “learning a foreign language” is basically worthless unless you become fluent in said language, which in the case of Chinese takes years of hard work. Ask yourself honestly whether you could conduct a business meeting entirely in the target language without any help from an interpreter. If the answer is no, then you don’t speak the language. (An oversimplification, but a good rule of thumb.)

And the thing is, even if you do speak Mandarin fluently, there are only a few niche occupations where that would really help you. Outside of those specialties, your language skills don’t count for much because there are over a billion Chinese people who can speak their own language much better than you can – and many of them also speak English fluently. And many of them have overseas experience, and professional skills and qualifications that you don’t have. So… whaddaya got? Why would any company choose to hire you, a foreigner with a BA in International Relations who speaks Chinese like an average Chinese middle schooler, over any well-qualified Chinese person?

Of course, you should by all means study a foreign language if you genuinely enjoy it.