Free Market Capitalism’s Assault on the Public Good (And the surprising X Factor that could stop it)

Americans rush to defend free market capitalism’s elimination of the “public good,” to our own detriment. Why do we do that?

The short (but complex) answer is that free market capitalism has become the dominant American economic and social ideology, and there’s no place for an egalitarian notion like the public good in its competitive culture.

The X Factor

Economic data suggest we’re in the advanced stages of competitive, zero sum capitalism’s systematic extermination of the public good. But a surprising X Factor could help reverse this trend.

What is it?

Happiness.

Let’s take a look….

It Wasn’t Supposed to Work That Way

Free market godfather Milton Friedman famously said that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” That was free market capitalism’s bold theory: there was no need to import the European ideal of safeguarding the public good; instead, you could give capitalism free reign and everyone would benefit — and no need for social democracy’s clumsy bureaucracy.

We Yanks thought we could do better, but we were wrong, and we were wrong because we were duped. Free market ideology staked its claim as a science, but it wasn’t — it was an ideology, a religion. For it to work, you had to believe, and to aggressively demonstrate your commitment to its ideal or a pure capitalist state.

We heard the call to discipleship, but we still remembered that the compassionate social programs of the Roosevelt New Deal, engineered by Keynesian economic theories of government intervention, had bailed us out of the Great Depression and fueled a startling worldwide recovery from the rubble of two world wars – a recovery that lifted all economic fortunes and established the middle class as the mainstay of socio-economic stability.

But that wasn’t enough for the free market idealists who had already been theorizing and strategizing at their Mont Pelerin Society meetings in the mountains of Switzerland. But their time had not yet come, and they waited, constructing mathematical models that proved they were right — in theory, at least, even though they were untested empirically — until history finally handed them their chance.

European democratic socialism’s reputation had been compromised by the abuses and miseries of its far distant relative, Soviet Communism. The free marketers must have known, but the rest of us didn’t see that they weren’t the same thing, and when the Berlin Wall came down, we celebrated the end of the Cold War by declaring capitalism the victor, and then we set out to cleanse the world of our defeated “socialist” foe. While a new class of Russian opportunists became billionaires by scavenging former state-owned assets at below bargain basement prices, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair led the charge to purge their respective countries of any taint of vanquished socialism, which they and everyone equated with Communism. National and corporate leadership snatched the keys to free capitalism’s shiny new muscle car and went peeling out, careening donuts in the cities and shredding fragile tundra in the mountains. The American way of rugged individualism and upward mobility and anybody can make it here if they have enough gumption and are willing to work hard resounded through the halls of government on both sides of the aisle on both sides of the Atlantic, and we routed the welfare queens out from in front of their TVs, put food stamps slackers back to work, created the Incarceration State, and savaged the environment… all to shouts of “workfare!” – a new translation of “hallelujah!”

Competitive capitalism became the new state religion — its competitive capitalism campaign slogans became its scriptures, and its entrepreneurial heroes as iconic as dear old Betsy Ross and her flag, and it became culturally criminal to deface them. Cultural myths and icons grow to sacred stature, snuffing out discourse and banning dissent. That doesn’t ensure success, but it does mean that the electorate will still trudge dutifully to the polls and ante up for another round, long after it has become obvious to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see that the ideology hasn’t delivered on its promise. And thus the American electorate has done for the past four decades, believing with fundamentalist zeal in Friedman’s promise of economic utopia until today we’re left with socio-economic structures of inequality matched only by the days of the French Revolution, the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20’s.

It wasn’t supposed to work that way, but it did.

The Unconscious Underbelly

Ideologies originate in the neural pathways of the people who create them, and spread from brain to brain until enough brains have the same wiring and, by a process known as “emergence,” they take on a life of their own in the institutions they create and sustain.[1]

Of course, most people don’t go around thinking about how their neural pathways process free market ideological biases. Instead they respond to the issues – politicians urging them to reject the public good in favor of the chance to do have it your way and forget the deep state and its non-elected manipulating – and never mind that the public good that you’re voting out of existence includes your own.

We do some things consciously, with intent and purpose, but we do much more for reasons we’re not in touch with, or for no reason at all – the latter two driven by unconscious impulses derived from the cultural biases wired into our brains. There is, for example, ample research to suggest an additional endemic cultural factor that helps to explain why we support elected officials and their economic agendas even when doing so is against our own best interests. That factor is culturally embedded racism.

“One question that has troubled Democrats for decades is freshly relevant in the Trump-McConnell era: Why do so many voters support elected officials who are determined to cut programs that those same voters rely upon?

“There is, however, one thread that runs through all the explanations of the shift to the right in Kentucky and elsewhere. Race, the economists Alberto F. Alesina and Paola Giuliano write, ‘is an extremely important determinant of preferences for redistribution. When the poor are disproportionately concentrated in a racial minority, the majority, ceteris paribus, prefer less redistribution.’

“Alesina and Giuliano reach this conclusion based on the “unpleasant but nevertheless widely observed fact that individuals are more generous toward others who are similar to them racially, ethnically, linguistically.”

“Leonie Huddy, a political scientist at the State University of New York — Stony Brook, made a related point in an email: ‘It’s important to stress the role of negative racial and ethnic attitudes in this process. Those who hold Latinos and African-Americans in low esteem also believe that federal funds flow disproportionally to members of these groups. This belief that the federal government is more willing to help blacks and Latinos than whites fuels the white threat and resentment that boosted support for Donald Trump in 2016.

“In their 2004 book, “Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference,” Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, found a pronounced pattern in this country: states ‘with more African-Americans are less generous to the poor.’”[2]

Culturally embedded racism is the same trend that developed the “Welfare Queen” stereotype, which was shaped – as all stereotypes are — from the twisted truth of a notorious 60’s case of welfare fraud that became the standard citation for the free market’s case against the social safety net.

It Wasn’t Supposed to Work That Way, Part 2

If you’re going to have a public good, you need to have a government that supports it. Theoretically we do: the USA’s republican form of government isn’t a “pure democracy” –instead we elect people to represent us, trusting that they will act in our best interests, which are represented by the word “public” right there in its name.[3]

Republic (n.): c. 1600, “state in which supreme power rests in the people via elected representatives,” from Middle French république (15c.), from Latin respublica (ablative republica) “the common weal, a commonwealth, state, republic,” literally res publica “public interest, the state,” from res “affair, matter, thing” (see re) + publica, fem. of publicus “public” (see public (adj.)). Republic of letters attested from 1702.[4]

Publica (the people, the state) + Res (affair, matter, thing) = “the people’s stuff.” The republican state holds the people’s stuff in trust, and its elected representatives, as trustees administer it for the public benefit. A more elegant term for “the public’s stuff” is “commonwealth”:

Commonwealth (n.): mid-15c., commoun welthe, “a community, whole body of people in a state,” from common (adj.) + wealth (n.). Specifically “state with a republican or democratic form of government” from 1610s. From 1550s as “any body of persons united by some common interest.” Applied specifically to the government of England in the period 1649-1660, and later to self-governing former colonies under the British crown (1917).[5]

The res publica is made up of those goods, services, and places that everybody is entitled to simply by being a citizen. Once the res publica is legislated into being, someone has to administer it in trust for the public’s benefit. If you can’t administer public goods, there’s no point in creating them in the first place, and free market ideology emphatically doesn’t want government to do either– even if that government is supposedly a republican one.

Superstar Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato (The Times called her “the world’s scariest economist”) describes how limited government has eliminated the commonwealth from policy-making:

“[Government is] an actor that has done more than it has been given credit for, and whose ability to produce value has been seriously underestimated – and this has in effect enabled others to have a stronger claim on their wealth creation role. But it is hard to make the pitch for government when the term ‘public value’ doesn’t even currently exist in economics. It is assumed that value is created in the private sector; at best, the public ‘enable’ [that privately created] value.

“There is of course the important concept of ‘public goods’ in economics — goods whose production benefits everyone, and which hence require public provision since they are under-produced by the private sector.

“… the story goes [that] government should simply focus on creating the conditions that allow businesses to invest and on maintaining the fundamentals for a prosperous economy: the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system. After that, it must get out of the way. Know its place. Not interfere too much. Not regulate too much.

“Importantly, we are told, government does not ‘create value’; it simply ‘facilitates’ its creation and — if allowed — redistributes value through taxation. Such ideas are carefully crafted, eloquently expressed and persuasive. This has resulted in the view that pervades society today: government is a drain on the energy of the market, and ever-present threat to the dynamism of the private sector.”[6]

Ironically, while the ideal of limited government enjoys wide appeal, the actual reality has been the opposite: while the public good has been cut and slashed, the size of federal government has burgeoned during the free market’s reign, as measured by any number of economic markers, including national debt, number of government employees and contractors, size of the federal budget, and government spending — especially on national security and the military, including what some are calling the “military welfare state.”

The Public Good Wish List

Thus free market ideology has destroyed as much republican government as it could, and driven the rest into hiding. But suppose both could be restored to their places at the economic policy conference table. Beyond “the fundamentals for a prosperous economy: the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system,” what might be included in a restored commonwealth trust fund? Several online searches turned up a long and illuminating list of things that used to be considered part of the commonwealth trust portfolio, or that might be added to it:

  • education
  • news
  • law
  • governmental administrative functions
  • healthcare
  • childcare
  • clean water
  • clean air
  • certain interior spaces
  • certain exterior spaces — e.g. parks
  • natural wonders
  • shoreline and beaches
  • mail and home/rural delivery service
  • trash removal
  • public toilets
  • sewage processing
  • protection from poverty – e.g., provision of food, clothing, and shelter
  • affordable housing
  • heat and lights
  • streets, roads, highways
  • public transportation
  • freight shipping
  • telephone and telegraph
  • pest control
  • use of public lands/wilderness access
  • the “right to roam”
  • the “right to glean” unharvested crops
  • the right to use fallen timber for firewood
  • security and defense
  • police and fire
  • handicapped access

Some people argue for the inclusion of additional, more contemporary items on the list:

  • information
  • internet access
  • net neutrality
  • open source software
  • email
  • fax
  • computers
  • cell phones
  • the “creative commons” (vs. private ownership of intellectual property)
  • racial, gender, national, and other forms of equality
  • birth control
  • environmental protection
  • response to climate change

What’s Wrong With That List?

Turns out that certain of the things on that list might not technically qualify as public goods, but before we look at that, what was your response to the list? Did you find some items frivolous, maybe outrageous? Did you favor things that would benefit you personally over those that wouldn’t? Did some of the items make you want you to get on your moral high horse and ride? Probably you did all of that, because there will always be investments in the commonwealth trust portfolio that you don’t value for yourself. But that’s exactly the point: the commonwealth looks to the health of the whole, not what the rugged individual might be able to do for himself if everybody would just leave him alone.

This individual vs. group conflict enjoyed a respite when the neoliberal economics of the post-WWII years picked up the interrupted impetus of the prewar New Deal, creating as a result the halcyon days of the public good, with widely-shared benefits to the middle class and the American Dream of equal opportunity and upward socio-economic mobility. But when the recovery played out in the 70’s and was then replaced with the free market’s reign, the technicalities of what is public vs. private good became more important. Which is why, when you had those typical responses to the list – questioning this, preferring that — you were putting your finger precisely on several key and complex reasons why the public good is tricky to define and administer – complexities free market capitalism avoids by skewing the balance all the way to the private side of the balance. For example:

  1. “A public good must be both non-rivalrous, meaning that the supply doesn’t get smaller as it is consumed, and non-excludable, meaning that it is available to everyone.”[7] This is largely a matter of fiat: while many things on the list could be made to fit this requirement, they aren’t currently, thanks to the free market insistence on privatization, believing that will make everything optimally available. While phones and computer and internet access could be made free, open, and universal, trillions of dollars’ worth of private enterprise would have something to say about that.
  2. Public goods inevitably give rise to the “free rider problem,” defined as “an inefficient distribution of goods or services that occurs when some individuals are allowed to consume more than their fair share of the shared resource or pay less than their fair share of the costs. Free riding prevents the production and consumption of goods and services through conventional free-market To the free rider, there is little incentive to contribute to a collective resource since they can enjoy its benefits even if they don’t.”[8] Freeriding means public radio and TV can’t prevent people from enjoying their programming even if they don’t pony up during the annual fund-raising campaign.
  3. Government solves the free-rider problem by levying taxes to pay for public services – e.g., a special assessment to pay for sewer maintenance on your street. Only trouble is, “taxes” are fightin’ words – both in free market theory and generally for many if not most Americans. We’re stuck back at “taxation without representation” and “don’t tread on me” and “give me liberty or give me death” – if we don’t want it or can’t get it for ourselves, we’d rather go without it than pay taxes so that everybody else can have it.[9] Free market capitalism is okay with enough government to legislate itself into dominance, but then government needs to get out of the way.
  4. “Market failure”[10] is the key to the public goods door. It occurs when the free market doesn’t deliver. Free market capitalism relies on the common economic assumption that consumers acting rationally in their individual best interests will generate the optimal level of goods and services for everyone. This ideal is unrealized for the vast majority of things on the wish list, and giving it a boost requires a new configuration of what is properly a public or a private good.[11]
  5. Even if we put public goods in place to override free market failures, we’ll still face the “tragedy of the commons,” defined as “an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. It results in overconsumption, under investment, and ultimately depletion of the resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits. Generally, the resource of interest is easily available to all individuals; the tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain.”[12] The tragedy of the commons is why beaches post long lists of rules: it may be a public place, but a raucous party can ruin it for everyone else who wanted a tranquil place for a beach read.

These issues are inescapable: if you want public goods, you need to deal with them.

“Homo Economicus”

The issue of market failure ought to be the easiest issue to tackle, since it is based on a long-discredited notion of the rational economic man – the assumption that people will act rationally in their economic dealings, and that “rationally” means in their own best interests. John Stuart Mill coined the term homo economicus to explain this economic behavior:

Homo economicus, or ‘economic man,’ is the characterization of man in some economic theories as a rational person who pursues wealth for his own self-interest. The economic man is described as one who avoids unnecessary work by using rational judgment. The assumption that all humans behave in this manner has been a fundamental premise for many economic theories.”[13]

The idea has had its detractors:

“The theory of the economic man dominated classical economic thought for many years until the rise of formal criticism in the 20th century.

“One of the most notable criticisms can be attributed to famed economist John Maynard Keynes. He, along with several other economists, argued that humans do not behave like the economic man. Instead, Keynes asserted that humans behave irrationally. He and his fellows proposed that the economic man is not a realistic model of human behavior because economic actors do not always act in their own self-interest and are not always fully informed when making economic decisions.”[14]

Even so,

“Although there have been many critics of the theory of homo economicus, the idea that economic actors behave in their own self-interest remains a fundamental basis of economic thought.”[15]

Ayn Rand Would Have Approved

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the free market belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest improves things for everyone. It finds a philosophical ally in Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”:

“The core of Rand’s philosophy… is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. [The pursuit of self-interest], she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

‘Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.’

“By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.”[16]

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of free market.

“’I grew up reading Ayn Rand,’ … Paul Ryan has said, ‘and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.’ It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. ‘I think a lot of people,’ Ryan said in 2009, ‘would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.’”[17]

The X Factor: What Would be Wrong With a Little Happiness?

But you don’t need to be anybody’s patron saint to like the idea of the public good. You just need to be self-interested enough to want to be happy – or at least be envious of those who are.

Back to our Public Goods Wish List. Technicalities and difficulties of definition and administration aside, if we look at it from the perspective of “wouldn’t that be nice” there’s not a lot to dislike about it. While free market indoctrinated Americans seems to have a bad case of being right instead of being happy, the social democracies that feature the public good –whose citizens don’t seem to be so adverse to their own happiness — routinely score the highest in The World Happiness Report:

“Finland again takes the top spot as the happiest country in the world according to three years of surveys taken by Gallup from 2016-2018. Rounding out the rest of the top ten are countries that have consistently ranked among the happiest. They are in order: Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. The US ranked 19th dropping one spot from last year.”[18]

The capitalists who need our labor would do well to recall that happy workers are better workers – more loyal, productive, loyal, creative, innovative, and collaborative.[19] Further, as the following perspective on Switzerland shows, democratic socialism can still offer plenty of healthy capitalism:

“Like many progressive intellectuals, Bernie Sanders traces his vision of economic paradise not to socialist dictatorships like Venezuela but to their distant cousins in Scandinavia, which are just as wealthy and democratic as the United States but have more equitable distributions of wealth, as well as affordable health care and free college for all.

“There is, however, a country far richer and just as fair as any in the Scandinavian trio of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. But no one talks about it.

“This $700 billion European economy is among the world’s 20 largest, significantly bigger than any in Scandinavia. It delivers welfare benefits as comprehensive as Scandinavia’s but with lighter taxes, smaller government, and a more open and stable economy. Steady growth recently made it the second richest nation in the world, after Luxembourg, with an average income of $84,000, or $20,000 more than the Scandinavian average. Money is not the final measure of success, but surveys also rank this nation as one of the world’s 10 happiest.

“This less socialist but more successful utopia is Switzerland.

“While widening its income lead over Scandinavia in recent decades, Switzerland has been catching up on measures of equality. Wealth and income are distributed across the populace almost as equally as in Scandinavia, with the middle class holding about 70 percent of the nation’s assets. The big difference: The typical Swiss family has a net worth around $540,000, twice its Scandinavian peer.

“The real lesson of Swiss success is that the stark choice offered by many politicians — between private enterprise and social welfare — is a false one. A pragmatic country can have a business-friendly environment alongside social equality, if it gets the balance right. The Swiss have become the world’s richest nation by getting it right, and their model is hiding in plain sight.”[20]

Yes, the citizens of countries that promote the public good pay more taxes, but as this article[21] points out, that doesn’t mean the government is stealing their hard-earned money, instead it’s a recognition that paying taxes acknowledges what the national culture has contributed to their success. Meanwhile there’s still plenty of happiness to go around.

The X Factor, One More Time

It would take a lot to reclaim the public good from free market capitalism’s pogrom against it, and all appearances are that won’t happen anytime soon. But if it ever does, it could be a newly reinvented and revitalized homo economicus’ finest hour, motivated by the simple human desire to be happy.

Imagine that.

[1] For more on neuro-culture, see Beliefs Systems and Culture in my Iconoclast.blog.

[2] Why Don’t We Always Vote in Our Own Self-Interest? New York Times (July 19, 2018).

[3] Pure democracy — all those ballot initiatives — has joined republican lawmaking since California’s 1978 Proposition 13.

[4] Etymology Online.

[5] Etymology Online

[6] The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (orig. 2013, rev’d 2018) See also The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (2018).

[7] Investopedia.

[8] Investopedia.

[9] This is a particularly thorny issue for philanthropy – see this article and that one.

[10] Investopedia.

[11] See Everyday Ethics: The Proper Role of Government: Considering Public Goods and Private Goods, The Rock Ethics Institute, University of Pennsylvania (Apr 15, 2015).

[12] Investopedia.

[13] Investopedia

[14] Investopedia

[15] Investopedia.

[16] What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory, Evonomics (Feb. 17, 2016)

[17] How America Lost Its Mind, The Atlantic (Sept. 2017)

[18] See the full list here. See also the corollary Global Happiness and Well-Being Policy Reporthere’s the pdf version.

[19] See The Real Advantage of Happy Employees from Recruiter.com., also this re: an Oxford study: A Big New Study Finds Compelling Evidence That Happy Workers Are More Productive, Quartz at Work (Oct. 22, 2019)

[20] The Happy, Healthy Capitalists of Switzerland, The New York Times (Nov. 2, 2019).

[21] No It’s Not Your Money: Why Taxation Isn’t Theft, Tax Justice Network (Oct. 8, 2014). And for a faith-based perspective I’ve never heard from the religious right, see Faithfully Paying Taxes to Support the Common Good, Ethics Daily (April 12, 2018).

The End is at Hand

the end is at hand

… but you still might want to check out the bus schedule for your ride home.

I’ve been studying jobs and the new economy for nearly three years, and blogging about them for two. For reasons I’ll talk about later, I’ll be drawing this blog series to a close at the end of September. In the meantime, I thought this might be a good time to invite you to check out my other blog — here’s a link to its About page.

I say that because I just started a new “consciousness and the self” series there, and today I’m drafting an installment that borrows from an earlier post here, on the topic of “finding your true calling” in your vocation.

The other blog has a different focus than this one, but there’s some overlap in content, and I write it in the same style, with a commitment to research and letting the pros offer their opinions. If you like that approach, you might like what you find over there.

That’s all. Just wanted to give you a heads up. See you on Thursday with the next installment of “homo economicus.”

Burnout at the Top:  Trust in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Fire

The late Paul Rawlinson, former Global Chair of Baker McKenzie, left a multifaceted  career legacy:

“Rawlinson, an intellectual property lawyer, achieved a number of triumphs in his professional career, including becoming the first British person to lead the global firm as chairman and overseeing a run of outstanding financial growth during his tenure.

“But a key part of Rawlinson’s legacy is also his public decision to step down from the chairman’s role in October, citing “medical issues caused by exhaustion.” He and his firm’s relative openness about the reasons for taking leave helped stimulate a wider discussion about the mental and physical stresses of the profession.”

Baker McKenzie Chairman Helped Erode Taboos About Attorney HealthThe American Lawyer (April 15, 2019)

Inspired by Rawlinson’s decision to step down, several other similarly-situated leaders went public with their own struggles.[1] Among their stressors was the challenge of how to lead their firms to meet the commercial demands of an era when artificial intelligence has already established its superiority over human efforts in legal research, due diligence, and discovery.[2] It’s not just about efficiency, it’s about the erosion of a key aspect of the attorney-client relationship:  trust. As Rawlinson wrote last year:

‘‘‘The robots are coming’. It’s fast becoming the mantra of our age. And it comes with more than a hint of threat. I’ve noticed especially in the last year or so the phrase has become the go-to headline in the legal news pages when they report on technology in our industry.

“For our profession – where for thousands of years, trust, diligence and ‘good judgement’ have been watchwords – the idea of Artificial Intelligence ‘replacing’ lawyers continues to be controversial. From law school and all through our careers we are taught that the Trusted Advisor is what all good lawyers aspire to become.

“The fundamental issue is trust. Our human instinct is to want to speak to a human. I don’t think that will change. Trust is what we crave, it’s what separates us from machines; empathy, human instinct, an ability to read nuances, shake hands, and build collaborative relationships.”

Will Lawyers Become Extinct In The Age Of Automation? World Economic Forum (Mar. 29, 2018)

Rawlinson acknowledged that clients are often more concerned with efficiency than preserving the legal profession’s historical trust-building process, demanding instead that “lawyers harness AI to make sure we can do more with less… Put simply, innovation isn’t about the business of law, it’s about the business of business.” As a result, Rawlinson’s goal was to find ways his firm could “use AI to augment, not replace, judgement and empathy.”

Speaking from the client point of view, tech entrepreneur and consultant William H. Saito also weighed in on the issue of trust in an AI world.

“As homo sapiens (wise man), we are ‘wise’ compared to all other organisms, including whales and chimpanzees, in that we can centralize control and make a large number of people believe in abstract concepts, be they religion, government, money or business. .. This skill of organizing people around a common belief generated mutual trust that others would adhere to the belief and its goals.”

“Looking back at our progress as a species, we can distinguish several kinds of trust that have evolved over time.

“There is the ability to work together and believe in others, which differentiates us from other animals, and which took thousands of years to develop;

“trust associated with money, governments, religion and business, which took hundreds of years;

“trust associated with creating the “bucket brigade” of passing packets of data between unfamiliar hosts that is the internet, which took decades; and

“network trust that has enabled new business models over the past few years.

“Not only is this rate of change accelerating by an order of magnitude, but the paradigm shifts have completely disrupted the prior modes of trust.”

This Is What Will Keep Us Human In The Age Of AI, World Economic Forum (Aug. 4, 2017)

Rawlinson asked, “will lawyers become extinct?” Saito asked, “Are we humans becoming obsolete?” Both men wrote from a globalized perspective on big policy issues, and the stress of facing them took its toll. Rawlinson’s case of burnout was ultimately terminal. As for Saito, a fter writing his article on trust, he was discredited for falsifying his resume — something he clearly didn’t need to do, given his remarkable credentials. That he would do so seems appropriate to his message, which was that trust in the AI age is not about human dependability, instead it’s about cybersecurity. I.e., in the absence of human judgment and collaboration, your technology had better be impeccable.

Most of us don’t live at the rarified level of those two men. We live where trust still means “empathy, human instinct, an ability to read nuances, shake hands, and build collaborative relationships.”

Or, as my daughter summed it up when I told her about this article, “Buy local, trust local.”

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash.

[1] On May 12, 2019, The American Lawyer introduced a year-long initiative Minds Over Matters: A Yearlong Examination of Mental Health in the Legal Profession “to more deeply cover stress, depression, addiction and other mental health issues affecting the legal profession.”

[2] It’s also changing appellate practice, which makes it easy to predict we’ll soon see AI court opinions.

Burned Out? Try a Little Tenderness

otis redding

Thanks to Julian Izbiky for sharing “Does Taking Time For Compassion Make Doctors Better At Their Jobs?NPR (April 28, 2019). It’s about doctor burnout, but its lessons apply equally to lawyers[1] and anyone else who might benefit from the “helper therapy principle” — the idea that helping someone helps yourself — something research shows is especially useful as an antidote to career burnout.

The article profiles the research of Dr. Stephen Trzeciak and Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, colleagues in a major medical system looking to improve patient care. They started with a question:  “Can treating patients with medicine and compassion make a measurable difference on the wellbeing of both patients and doctors?” 1,000 scientific abstracts and 250 research papers convinced them the answer was a resounding yes.

“When health care providers take the time to make human connections that help end suffering, patient outcomes improve and medical costs decrease. Among other benefits, compassion reduces pain, improves healing, lowers blood pressure and helps alleviate depression and anxiety.”

The two c-authored Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference to describe their findings and to prescribe how compassion can be learned. And once it’s learned, a little goes a long way:

“One study they cite shows that when patients received a message of empathy, kindness and support that lasted just 40 seconds their anxiety was measurably reduced.”

Plus, it was as blessed to give as to receive:

“But compassion doesn’t just benefit its recipients … Researchers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that when people spent time doing good for others … it actually changed their perception of time to make them feel they had more of it.

“For doctors, this point is crucial. Fifty-six percent say they don’t have time to be empathetic.

“‘The evidence shows that when you invest time in other people, you actually feel that you have more time, or that you’re not so much in a hurry,’ Trzeciak says.”

Did you catch that? Taking a moment to connect human-to-human “actually changed their perception of time to make them feel they had more of it” — an astonishing concept for doctors and lawyers enslaved to a clock that measures time, money, and productivity in six-minute increments.[2]

That’s not the only paradigm-shifting implication of Trzeciak and Mazzarelli’s findings:

“‘We’ve always heard that burnout crushes compassion. It’s probably more likely that those people with low compassion, those are the ones that are predisposed to burnout,’ Trzeciak said. ‘That human connection — and specifically a compassionate connection — can actually build resilience and resistance to burnout.’

“Trzeciak and Mazzarelli hope their evidenced-based arguments will spur medical schools to make compassion part of the curriculum.”

How about we add it to the law school curriculum, too?

And thanks to “helper’s high,” the benefits of compassion and connection extend to non-professional work as well. Just think what that would do for “customer service.” (Those Discover commercials are the good, this is the bad and the ugly — and the funny.) And according to this Psychology Today article, you can feel the benefits:

“Helpers report a distinct physical sensation associated with helping; about half report that they experienced a “high” feeling, 43 percent felt stronger and more energetic, 28 percent felt warm, 22 percent felt calmer and less depressed, 21 percent experienced greater feelings of self-worth, and 13 percent experienced fewer aches and pains.”

Emily Esfahani Smith’s widely-cited book, The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters (2017), makes the same point:  relationships and helping create meaning and chase away burnout. That’s was also the message of a 1997 classic on the subject, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, which also observed that burnout is both endemic and epidemic in workplace culture:

“Burnout is reaching epidemic proportions among North American workers today. It’s not so much that something has gone wrong with us but rather that there have been fundamental changes in the workplace, and the nature of our jobs.

“The conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual. That is, people burn out because of flaws in their characters, behavior, or productivity. According to this perspective, people are the problem, and the solution is to change them or get rid of them.

“But our research argues most emphatically otherwise, As a result of extensive study, we believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work. The structure and functioning of the workplace shape how people interact with one another and how they carry out their jobs. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it.”

Dr. Trzeciak used his research findings to turn around his own career burnout. Here’s his TEDxPenn talk. He also “prescribes the same for anyone, not just health care providers, suffering from mental or emotional exhaustion.”

“‘Look around you and see those in need of compassion and give your 40 seconds of compassion,’ he says. ‘See how it transforms your experience.’”

Julian Izbiky wrote this when he emailed me the article:  “I’ve always thought that the practice of law was about more than the documents and that the joy of the practice was connecting with the clients and the other participants in the deals.”

Got 40 seconds to give it a try?

And now, if you’re like me, Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” has been playing in the background. How about a listen? Here’s his version. And here’s the Three Dog Night cover.

[1] As I’ve said before, burnout is legion in the professions. I Googled “burnout doctors lawyers” and got tons of hits, including this one:  “I Fought The Law And The Law Won: My Burnout Story,” Forbes (May 17, 2018).

[2] Here’s a brief history of the billable hour in legal practice. The rationale for it might have seemed sound 60 years ago; my personal view is we could move on. Nobody kept timesheets at my firm.

“Find Your Passion” — Smooth Ride or Train Wreck?

train trestle

You follow an interest to a career. If you’re really interested, your career might become your passion. So why not go straight for your passion as a career strategy?

It depends whether you operate with a “fixed” or “growth” theory about what interests you. “Follow your passion” might work if you’re a growth theory person. But if you’re a ‘fixed theory” person, it could be a disaster.

That’s the message of “The Truth About Finding a Satisfying Career:  Why Linking Your Work to Your Interests Can do More Harm Than Good.” Medium (Jan. 22, 2019).

“You hear it everywhere. It’s on graduation cards, in motivational speeches, and practically wallpapers the halls of Silicon Valley: ‘Find your passion.’ As if each of us was born with one ideal pursuit that will fulfill us until our final day on Earth. All we need to do is locate it, and everything else will fall into place.

“The problem isn’t just that this is totally unrealistic; according to psychologist Paul O’Keefe, a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, it’s also selling us short in our careers, our studies, and how we interact with the world. In a recent study titled Implicit Theories of Interest, O’Keefe and his co-authors, two psychologists from Stanford, identified a compelling case against the idea of finding your one true passion.”

“We got inspired because of the saying ‘find your passion,’” O’Keefe said in an interview with the article’s author.

“It’s something you hear all the time, and we were thinking a potentially unintended consequence is that it’s suggesting to people that a passion is there somewhere, like buried treasure: You just need to awaken it, or find it, or reveal it in some way.

“So we started thinking, well, what is the consequence of believing that it’s there waiting to be uncovered? That’s essentially the idea of a fixed theory of interest, the belief that interests are inherent and relatively unchanging. If you’ve already found your interest, and you think you have these limited, inherent interests, then there’s no reason, logically, to keep searching or exploring for other interests.

“But if you have a growth theory, you believe interests are developed. So even if you already have a very strong interest or passion, it wouldn’t preclude you from exploring new things or developing new interests.”

A fixed theory means you believe there’s a career passion out there with your name on it. If you don’t find it, you’ll be frustrated. In fact, “the rallying cry to ‘find your passion’ may actually be the blind spot that ultimately cripples your resume.” Better for you to stay where you are and deepen your expertise instead of chasing after a passion you’ll never find.

On the other hand, if you operate from a growth theory, you’ll “expect [your career] to be a developmental process that has difficulties from time to time.” As a result you’ll accept career disenchantment as part of “the nature of things,” and be energized, not demoralized, by the need to try something new — a useful outlook in today’s job marketplace:

“Growth theory, we think, is extremely advantageous for people’s careers. The world is becoming more globalized, it’s becoming more complex, and it’s about seeing how information is integrated, and how solutions can be much more interdisciplinary. We think people with a growth mindset might be drawn to these interdisciplinary careers, while people with a fixed theory might just want to live in their silo of interest.”

O’Keefe and his collaborators are unequivocal that “the idea that people must find their passion [is] sending, we think, a pretty terrible message to people.” Sure, “if a career can align with your interests or passions, that is the best-case scenario.” The trick to getting that best-case alignment is to know your theory of interest. But how would you find out?

You might try one of the study’s experiments:

“In one experiment, the researchers observed self-identified ‘techies’ and ‘fuzzies,’ Stanford lingo for liberal arts geeks, as each group read an article that pertained to their field. Not surprisingly, the participants enjoyed the articles relevant to their interests. But when they switched to read the less relevant article, the researchers made a discovery: Those [with a fixed theory] were less interested in learning about an unfamiliar field. By contrast, those [with a growth theory] were more engaged with the article outside their expertise.”

Your response might explain your patchwork resume — and maybe also why you’re okay with it.

Or it might save you from a career train wreck.

Loving, Loathing, and “Sparking Joy” in the Workplace

konmari

https://konmari.com/

My research has been digging up lots of “in all things exercise moderation” career advice lately:  don’t expect too much meaning from your work, don’t get overly inspired, keep your day job, learn to love the job you’ve already got, set goals you can’t achieve…. I’m sure it’s a sign of the times — gone is the bravado of past decades about doing what you love and the money will follow and all that other buoyant commencement address advice.

I came across more of the same this week in — of all places — a Mayo Clinic study of physicians, as reported in “How to be Happier at Work” New York Times (Apr. 7, 2019). The writer invites us to scale down the job satisfaction question all the way down from the existentialist search for meaning to the nitty gritty of what  your job requires every day.

“A study from the Mayo Clinic found that physicians who spend about 20 percent of their time doing ‘work they find most meaningful are at dramatically lower risk for burnout.’ But here’s what’s fascinating: Anything beyond that 20 percent has a marginal impact, as ‘spending 50 percent of your time in the most meaningful area is associated with similar rates of burnout as 20 percent.’

“In other words: You don’t need to change everything about your job to see substantial benefits. A few changes here and there can be all you need.”

Are we getting the “transform the job you already have” speech again? Yes we are.

“‘When you look at people who are thriving in their jobs, you notice that they didn’t find them, they made them,’ said Ashley Goodall, senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco and co-author of the book Nine Lies About Work.

“‘We’re told in every commencement speech that if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life. But the verb is wrong,’ he said, adding that successful people who love their jobs take ‘the job that was there at the beginning and then over time they transform the contents of that job.’”

Okay, but how do you do that? By thinking small.

“Do you like what you do?

“Now, I don’t mean that in the broad sense of wondering whether you’re on the right career path. I mean on a day-to-day basis, if you thought about every single task your job entails, could you name the parts that give you genuine joy? What about the tasks you hate?

“To be sure, transforming your job isn’t easy. But you have to start somewhere, and there’s a wonderfully simple but surprisingly revealing trick that can help.

“For a full week, carry a notepad at all times. Draw a line down the center of a page and label one column ‘Love’ and the other column ‘Loathe.’ Whenever you perform a task, no matter how small, be mindful of how it makes you feel. Are you excited about it? Do you look forward to it? Does time fly when you’re doing it? Or did you procrastinate, dreading every moment and feeling drained by the time you’re done?

“It seems silly, I know. But this exercise — which Mr. Goodall and his co-author, Marcus Buckingham, co-head and talent expert at the A.D.P. Research Institute, write about in their book and practice in their lives — can show you hidden clues and nuances about work.”

Reminds me of the “KonMari” approach to decluttering and downsizing:  go through your stuff, and if something doesn’t give you a burst of joy, out it goes.

“It’s been a whirlwind year for Marie Kondo, the beloved professional organizer and sparker of joy.

“Between her bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and her hit Netflix show, Kondo has reached a level of ubiquity that’s uncommon for book authors. Her approach to cleaning — known as the the KonMari Method — hinges on getting rid of things that do not ‘spark joy.’ She takes a similar approach to her own well-being.

“Kondo chatted with Medium about how she uses her tidying methods in her own life to live better and more balanced.”

“Marie Kondo’s Daily Routine Is Delightful,” Medium (Apr. 10, 2019).

Like the amazingly tidy (and happy) Ms. Kondo, I also take “a similar approach to [my] own well-being.” And, like her, I’m way over 20% with no burnout in sight — although I admit, as I said last time, that it helps to not have a job anymore. But don’t take it from me, try it yourself — grab that notepad and go looking for those sparks of joy.

Eternal Employment:  A Day Job Worth Keeping

what-would-you-like-to-do-if-money-were-no-object- alan-watts-quotes

“We will all be employed at Korsvägen.”

In a post on August 31, 2017, I pooh-poohed the question, “What would you do if money were no object?” “Baloney,” I said, “Money is always an object.” I take it all back. Now you have a real life opportunity to answer the question, and money truly is no object.

I first read about it in this Atlas Obscura article. Google “korsvägen train station job” for more. The job is whatever you want to do. That’s it. Your only duty is to clock in every day at the Korsvägen train station, currently under construction in Gothenburg, Sweden. Your salary is $2,320/month plus annual cost of living increases, benefits, vacations, a pension…. Why? To make an artistic and  political point about the economic and work issues we’ve been talking about in this blog.

“Titled ‘Eternal Employment,’ the project is both a social experiment and a serious political statement. In early 2017, Public Art Agency Sweden and the Swedish Transport Administration announced an international competition for artists interested in contributing to the new station’s design. The winner would get 7 million Swedish krona, the equivalent of around $750,000. Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, a pair of Swedish artists whose previous work was inspired by offshore banking, entered and suggested eschewing the typical murals and sculptures that adorn most transit hubs.

“Instead, they wrote, they would use the prize money to pay one worker’s salary and give them absolutely nothing to do all day.

“‘In the face of mass automation and artificial intelligence, the impending threat/promise is that we will all become productively superfluous,’ their proposal said. ‘We will all be employed at Korsvägen, as it were.’

“The pair also cited French economist Thomas Piketty’s theory that accumulated wealth has typically grown at a rate that outpaces increases in workers’ wages. The result, Piketty argues, is an ever-widening gap between the extremely rich and everyone else. Using that same calculation, Goldin and Senneby predicted that by creating a foundation to prevent the prize money from being taxed, then investing it in the market, they would be able to keep paying that employee’s salary for ‘eternity’ — which they defined as 120 years.

“A 2017 financial analysis conducted by Sweden’s Erik Penser Bank, which the artists submitted as part of their application, concurred. The artists had proposed paying the worker 21,600 Swedish krona a month, the equivalent of roughly $2,312, or $27,744 a year. Factoring in annual salary increases of 3.2 percent, consistent with what Sweden’s public sector employees receive, the bankers concluded that there was a 75 percent chance that the prize money would earn enough interest from being invested in an equity fund to last for 120 years or more.

“‘In this sense the artwork can function as a measure of our growing inequality,’ Goldin and Senneby wrote.

“Deeming the idea to be humorous, innovative and ‘an artistic expression of great quality,’ the jury that had been convened to judge the competition decided to award them the prize.” [1]

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.”

Oscar Wilde

The politicians don’t appreciate either the irony or the economic analysis.

”There was an uproar in Sweden in October when officials announced that Goldin and Senneby’s proposal had won, Brian Kuan Wood, a board member for the Eternal Employment foundation, wrote in the art journal e-flux, with outrage coming from politicians on all sides.

“‘Old Social Democrats accused them of using financial realism to mock the transcendental accomplishments of the welfare state,’ he recalled. ‘Neoliberal progressives accused them of wasting taxpayers’ money to stage a nostalgic return to that same welfare state.’ Lars Hjälmered, a member of parliament from Gothenburg who belongs to Sweden’s center-right Moderate Party, decried the conceptual artwork as ‘stupidity’ in the news magazine Dagens Samhälle.

In their own writing, Goldin and Senneby fully acknowledge that paying someone to show up at a train station twice a day and punch a time clock is unproductive and thoroughly worthless. That’s the idea. Many people believe that art is supposed to be useless, they point out. They also suggest that the pointless job could lead to the creation of a new idiom expressing apathy, indolence and boredom: You’re working ‘as though you were at Korsvägen.’”[2]

I personally doubt the winner would be indifferent, lazy, or bored. I wouldn’t. Would you?

Mark your calendar:  applications open in 2025. Here’s the original job description. And here’s a more condensed version.

[1]An Experimental Swedish Art Project Will Pay You To Do Nothing For The Rest Of Your Life,” Washington Post (March 7, 2019).

[2] Op. cit.

The Anti-Motivation Strategy

anti-motivaton

“I need to get motivated.”

You might want to rethink that.

Search “motivation at work” and you get the usual ManagementSpeak telling managers how to motivate workers — lots about engagement (again!) and carrots and sticks. Google “how to motivate yourself” and you get inspirational quotes and helpful lists. Okay as far as it goes, but it’s not the whole story.

We saw last time that we need inspiration to get going, and that our brains provide it with a shot of the hormone dopamine. But what the motivators don’t tell you is that dopamine can be too much of a good thing. The following is from Larry Howes — “lifestyle entrepreneur” and former arena football player and member of the USA men’s national handball team.[1]

“One of the most dangerous drugs an entrepreneur can become addicted to is motivation.

“I’ve heard far too many entrepreneurs say,  “I just need to get more motivated” in order to start a project or achieve a goal.  This usually means they’ll spend a few hours reading or listening to other people’s success instead of creating their own.

“This is how the motivation addiction begins.

“Don’t get me wrong – motivation is great.  It’s nature’s reward for achievement, but it can easily become your “drug” of choice if it’s misused.

“This may sound a little funny, but one of the best drug dealers in the world is your brain. Your brain is wired to release a shot of dopamine each time you … achieve goals, take risks, try something new. They’re all natural highs and designed to keep us coming back for more.

“It’s great to be goal driven and to have feelings of fulfillment following our achievements, but the moment we began wanting those feelings before doing the work we’re in HUGE trouble.”

The issue is dependence:  that motivated feeling isn’t easily summoned; reliance on it is dicey. Plus, dopamine acts like any addictive substance:  each successive time you reach for a shot, you need more than last time:

“Once again, there’s nothing wrong with motivation or learning from the success of others, but that moment we need the ‘reward feeling’ of motivation in order to get started, we’re in serious trouble.

“Not only does it take away from precious time you should spend working, it also means that you’ll need a higher dosage of motivation as time progresses.”

And don’t fall for the line that you can be anything you want, adds “journalist, author, and broadcaster” Leslie Garrett:  your brain will hurt you if you do, this time because of the “stress hormone” cortisol.[2]

“As long ago as the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle celebrated the value of a meaningful goal when he coined the term eudaimonia (‘human flourishing’). The concept re‑emerged in the 16th-century Protestant concept of a ‘calling’. More recently, in the 1960s, a whole generation of young people brought up at the height of an economic boom began asking whether work could amount to more than just paying the bills. Couldn’t it have something to do with meaning and life, talents and passions?

“It was then that the episcopal clergyman Richard Bolles in California noticed people grappling with how to choose that special, meaningful career, and responded by publishing What Color is Your Parachute? (1970), which has sold more than 10 million copies, encouraging job‑hunters and career-changers to inventory their skills and talents. Bolles bristles at the suggestion that he’s telling people to be ‘anything’ they want to be. ‘I hate the phrase,’ he says. ‘We need to say to people: Go for your dreams. Figure out what it is you most like to do, and then let’s talk about how realistically you can find some of that, or most of that, but maybe not all of that.’

“The situation even endangers health. In 2007, psychologists from the US and Canada followed 81 university undergraduates for a semester and concluded that those persisting in unattainable goals had higher concentrations of cortisol, an inflammatory hormone associated with adverse medical outcomes….”

Ms. Garrett goes on to say that misguided career intentions throw you into the “ambition gap,” which is a nice segue into next week’s topic.

For more motivation bashing, you might enjoy a couple of my LinkedIn Pulse long posts:  The Anti-Motivation Strategy: Why All This Motivation Is Killing You and The Anti-Motivation Strategy: The One Thing You Need For High Performance (And It’s Not Motivation).

[1] “Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity (And How to Fix It)” Forbes (Aug. 20, 2012). I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Larry Howes Forbes Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity,” and the article will come up.

[2]You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015)

Go For It!!

Inspiration. Motivation. Ambition. Similar words with different connotations. We’ll look at the impact of all three on loving your work, pursuing your passion, finding your true calling. First up:  inspiration.

Larry Smith is an economics professor at Waterloo University in Ontario, and a career inspiration meister. As of this writing, his combative, tongue-in-cheek TED Talk “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career” has been viewed 6.5 million times.

Larry Miller TED

Here’s the Amazon blurb for Prof. Smith’s book No Fears, No Excuses:  What You Need To Do To Have A Great Career:

Larry Miller Book“This book captures the best of his advice in a one-stop roadmap for your future. Showcasing his particular mix of tough love and bracing clarity, Smith itemizes all the excuses and worries that are holding you back—and deconstructs them brilliantly. After dismantling your hidden mental obstacles, he provides practical, step-by-step guidance on how to go about identifying and then pursuing your true passion. There’s no promising it will be easy, but the straight-talking, irrepressible Professor Smith buoys you with the inspiration necessary to stay the course.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is another inspiration meister, and his own weather system. His website says he’s a “psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, exploring the depths of human potential.” These are his books. He wrote the following in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Why Inspiration Matters.”[1]

“In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.”

Sound like fun, doesn’t it? Inspiration throws off the restraints of normal and mundane, and replaces them with a world of new possibilities. No wonder it has a “history of being treated as supernatural or divine.” Truth is, the brain hormone dopamine is what’s behind all that punch and pizzazz. Dopamine makes the unreasonable, unlikely, and impossible worth doing. It’s the crowd chanting “go for it!” and the roar of approval when you wave the field goal unit back to the sideline. We get a rush of it when we bust out, try new things, take risks. George Bernard Shaw wrote the dopamine manifesto in his Maxims for Revolutionaries:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I wrote the following about inspiration in another context:[2]

Reason only works in the bright light of hindsight, and by definition, new is what hasn’t yet been. Therefore reason doesn’t know anything about it, doesn’t understand it, can’t explain it, and definitely can’t trust it. If reason is going to create at all, it looks at where we are and how we got here, then projects its conclusions into the future, reverse engineering what worked in the past so we can do more of the same in the future.

We call people who operate that way realists.  They can cite facts, data, track records, past performance. We credit them with being more in touch with reality than daydreamers and visionaries. We trust them to not lead us astray.

Each of us has that realist’s voice inside us. Do something new? No way. It’s not reasonable.

Inspiration isn’t impressed. It wants idealists:  unreasonable people who don’t give a rip about reverse engineering. Inspiration buys what Einstein said about imagination being more powerful than knowledge. It pushes boundaries, asks us to believe what’s irrational, illogical, impossible, even irreverent and heretical.

Doing any of that is hard and unpleasant and of uncertain outcome, which is why we usually choose to be reasonable and adapt ourselves to the world. We keep our day jobs, hedge our bets, cut our losses, try to be prudent and practical…

And so status quo goes safely on, and we keep living our reasonable lives until one day inspiration comes along and turns us into unreasonable people who want the world to adapt itself to us, and who are prepared to give ourselves to the dangerous ways of mania to make that happen.

Inspiration wants response, not reason. It hooks our hearts, then reels us in. Inspiration isn’t just thrilling and fun, it’s also unrelenting, insisting, demanding… even violent if we leave it no other choice. If it weren’t, nothing creative would ever get started. Or finished.

Dopamine-powered inspiration will get you moving, alright, but we talked about “the dangerous ways of mania” in a prior post and will go there again next time, when we consider motivation.

[1] Harvard Business Review (Nov. 8, 2011).I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Harvard Business Review Scott Barry Kaufman Why Inspiration Matters” and it will come up.

[2] Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania, available here as a free download.

Finding Your True Calling

The_Summoner_-_Ellesmere_Chaucer-300x282

The Summoner in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales,
Ellesmere MSS, circa 1400

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the notion of “calling” entered the English language around Chaucer’s time, originating from Old Norse kalla — “to cry loudly, summon in a loud voice; name, call by name.” A century and a half later, in the 1550’s, “calling” acquired the connotation of “vocation, profession, trade, occupation.” Meanwhile, “vocation” took on the meaning of “spiritual calling,” from Old French vocacio, meaning “call, consecration; calling, profession,” and Latin vocationem — “a calling, a being called” to “one’s occupation or profession.”

Put calling and vocation together, and you’ve got an appealing notion:  that you would be summoned by name to a specific occupation as a matter of divine destiny:  “Here, do this, it’s what you were born to do.”

What do you suppose are the odds? First, how many workers are there? The world today has about 7.7 billion people. A couple years ago, when there were about 7.2 billion, this comment string on Quora said that about 5.0 billion around the world had jobs.

Okay, that’s total jobs, but what about different jobs? Recruitor.com says there are 40,000 careers. Careerplanner.com puts the number at 12,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks 820+ occupations. Trade-schools.net zeroed in on 31 jobs in 2019 that fit “almost every type of person.” Flexjobs.com says there are 13 most common flex-work jobs. Thejobnetwork.com listed ten most popular jobs for 2018. Business Insider listed seven hot jobs for 2018 and 2019. And on it goes.

That’s not particularly helpful, so let’s just play with some numbers. Suppose those 40,000 different jobs were distributed among 5.0 billion workers. If every job is a called vocation, then each position represents 0.000008 of the total — eight in a million. That isn’t the same as the odds of it happening, but the chances seem pretty low, which we know from experience anyway.

No wonder Chaucer didn’t like the Summoner.[i]

Yet, despite the odds, we still hold onto the idea:

“Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale School of Management and a leading scholar on meaning at work, told me that she senses a great deal of anxiety among her students and clients. ‘They think their calling is under a rock,’ she said, ‘and that if they turn over enough rocks, they will find it.’ If they do not find their one true calling, she went on to say, they feel like something is missing from their lives and that they will never find a job that will satisfy them. And yet only about one third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling. Does that mean the rest will not find meaning and purpose in their careers?”

The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith

“[O]ne third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling.” Does that seem high to anyone else? Does that mean that “the rest [who] will not find meaning and purpose in their careers” should give up the dream and follow advice like the following?

It is much easier to suppress a first desire than to satisfy those that follow.  Benjamin Franklin

Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire. Epictetus

The power of unfulfilled desires is the root of all man’s slavery. Paramahansa Yogananda

Maybe, but there’s a pervasive feeling among the Left Behind that they’re missing out big time. For them, cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett offers some perspective from academic research:

  • There’s a difference between a harmonious and obsessive calling. The former gives you vitality, better work performance, flow, and positive mood. The latter is also energizing, but leads to anxiety and burnout.
  • As the quote above said, it’s better not to have a calling than to have one and let it go unanswered.
  • The work you already do might become a calling if you invest enough in it. But that doesn’t mean you should just Grit it out — so says U of Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, who wrote the book on the topic. Don’t sit and wait for revelation, she says, instead get out and take on some new challenges, and besides, you might find your source of energy and determination elsewhere than in your job.

For more help, this Forbes article provides a daunting list of twelve things it takes to have a calling and not just a job. The writer also says this:

“Years ago, I read a very thought-provoking article by Michael Lewis … about the difference between a calling and a job. He had some powerful insights. What struck me most were two intriguing concepts:

‘There’s a direct relationship between risk and reward. A fantastically rewarding career usually requires you to take fantastic risks.’

‘A calling is an activity that you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.’”

Ah… now I think we might be onto something. We’ll explore Lewis’s ideas further next time.

[i] A SUMMONER was there with us in that place/ That had a fire-red cherubinnè’s face/ For saucèfleme he was with eyen narrow/ And hot he was and lecherous as a sparrow./  With scal èd browès black, and pilèd beard,/ Of his viság è children were afeared./ There n’as quicksilver, litharge nor brimstone,/ was no Boras, ceruse, nor oil of tartar none,/ Nor ointèment that wouldè cleanse and bite/ That him might helpèn of his whelkès white,/ Nor of the knobbès sitting on his cheeks./ Well loved he garlic, onion and eke leeks. / And for to drinkèn strong wine red as blood;/ Then would he speak and cry as he were wood.