On Bullshit Jobs

Somebody recommended the book (based on a web rant) on Bullshit jobs by anthropologist David Graeber.  He outlines the pointless work that seems to occupy so many of us.  An elegant review of it (and two other new books on the topic) is in the TLS.

From the essay:

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, ‘taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.’ Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

It’s a polemic with all the virtues and vices of the form, but as he mentions poetry, there were two poets who got here before (as they almost always do). Philip Larkin (a librarian who wrote poetry on the side, evokes jobs as a toad squatting on life).

Toads by Philip Larkin

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.

And Bob Hicok, who is direct about the pointlessness of at least some labor (although not perhaps the soul-less endeavors Graeber is critiquing).


After Working Sixty Hours Again For What Reason by Bob Hicok

The best job I had was moving a stone
from one side of the road to the other.
This required a permit which required
a bribe. The bribe took all my salary.
Yet because I hadn’t finished the job
I had no salary, and to pay the bribe
I took a job moving the stone
the other way. Because the official
wanted his bribe, he gave me a permit
for the second job. When I pointed out
that the work would be best completed
if I did nothing, he complimented
my brain and wrote a letter
to my employer suggesting promotion
on stationery bearing the wings
of a raptor spread in flight
over a mountain smaller than the bird.
My boss, fearing my intelligence,
paid me to sleep on the sofa
and take lunch with the official
who required a bribe to keep anything
from being done. When I told my parents,
they wrote my brother to come home
from university to be slapped
on the back of the head. Dutifully,
he arrived and bowed to receive
his instruction, at which point
sense entered his body and he asked
what I could do by way of a job.
I pointed out there were stones
everywhere trying not to move,
all it took was a little gumption
to be the man who didn’t move them.
It was harder to explain the intricacies
of not obtaining a permit to not
do this. Just yesterday he got up
at dawn and shaved, as if the lack
of hair on his face has anything
to do with the appearance of food
on an empty table.

Art and Work

In a swing by the National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery to see the wonderful new paintings of the Obamas, I caught a show on work, The Sweat of their Face. Lots of arresting images, perhaps none more than a riff on a David Hockney painiting from 1964, Man Taking a Shower in Beverly Hills, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hockney-man-in-shower-in-beverly-hills-t03074. First the original,

Next, Ramiro Gomez’s response a few decades on, “Woman Cleaning Shower in Beverly Hills”

Yes, an obvious point, but still, something overlooked. Put me in mind of the Brecht poem,  “A worker reads history,”

A Worker Reads History

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.


And the original,  accessible if you have a little German


Wer baute das siebentorige Theben?
In den Büchern stehen die Namen von Königen.
Haben die Könige die Felsbrocken herbeigeschleppt?
Und das mehrmals zerstörte Babylon,
Wer baute es so viele Male auf ? In welchen Häusern
Des goldstrahlenden Lima wohnten die Bauleute?
Wohin gingen an dem Abend, wo die chinesische Mauer fertig war,
Die Maurer? Das große Rom
Ist voll von Triumphbögen. Über wen
Triumphierten die Cäsaren? Hatte das vielbesungene Byzanz
Nur Paläste für seine Bewohner? Selbst in dem sagenhaften Atlantis
Brüllten doch in der Nacht, wo das Meer es verschlang,
Die Ersaufenden nach ihren Sklaven.

Der junge Alexander eroberte Indien.
Er allein?
Cäsar schlug die Gallier.
Hatte er nicht wenigstens einen Koch bei sich?
Philipp von Spanien weinte, als seine Flotte
Untergegangen war. Weinte sonst niemand?
Friedrich der Zweite siegte im Siebenjährigen Krieg. Wer
Siegte außer ihm?

Jede Seite ein Sieg.
Wer kochte den Siegesschmaus?
Alle zehn Jahre ein großer Mann.
Wer bezahlte die Spesen?

So viele Berichte,
So viele Fragen.

Career Words: What do you want to do when you grow up?

Last year, in the midst of my own (and a number of my friends’) mid-life “What am I doing?” moments, I came up with a career inventory spreadsheet (whatever the problem in life, I generally think a spreadsheet makes it better. Sit down, have a cup of tea, and make a spreadsheet, that’s my motto.) Below is a copy of the inventory.

Perhaps it will be of use to someone else trying to get a handle on what they really want to do for work–or what matters most about the work they are doing now.

Career Inventory (Can do in a spreadsheet or whatever tool suits you).

Format: list on a page your career history going back as far as is meaningful for you. (Don’t need to include summer, or school jobs if it was just for the bucks.)

List title and place of job (or educational activity) rough dates. For each, write as many responses to these prompts as you can. (Some it won’t be necessary/possible for.) Easy to do this as rows and columns in a table.
a. What, if anything, did I like about the job?
b. What did I do well in this job?
c. What, if anything, did I dislike about the job?
d. What did I do poorly in this job?
e. Would I take this job again? (Why/why not?)
f. If I were the (objective) boss would I hire me again? (why/why not?)
g. If I were traveling back in time to give advice to myself about this job, what would it be?
h. If I were going back to talk to the boss about my strengths and weaknesses? What would he or she say? [use the language they would have used.]
i. Did I have a mentor in this job? If so, what did he or she say? Did I follow that advice? [use the language they would have used.]
j. What was the single least rewarding aspect of this job? be as specific as possible and give concrete details).
k. What was the single most rewarding moment in that job?
l. What story do I tell to outsiders about that job? What story do I tell myself? How does this story make me feel?

You can adjust the questions as you need to, but you get the sense of it. It is important to try to consciously put yourself in the position of others around you for questions that refer to others. And for your own reflections about what you liked or disliked, it’s important not to lie to yourself about your answers; for instance, saying what you “should” have liked most. If you liked that you got paid a lot, or got to work out of doors, etc. that’s what you should put down.

Bullets are fine. Doesn’t have to be an essay.

After you have done this for any work that was meaningful, let it sit for a day or two and then come back to it and “code” it. Meaning, pull out lists of all the positive answers and all the negative answers, and look for themes. Continue to boil it down as much as seems useful.

After you have completed this, look at the positives, and ask yourself whether they are available and can be optimized where you currently are or whether it’s just a mismatch. If they can be optimized, make a plan to do that, if they can’t, make a plan to move on.

Here is the Career Inventory as a PDF.

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 7.31.21 AM
How the spreadsheet version might look, but you can do it any way you like, of course.

New York by Frank Gehry
A photo I took of Frank Gehry’s building at 8 Spruce Street in Lower Manhattan while visiting the city for work a few weeks back. Hard to see (sorry, it’s just an iPhone snapshot), but at the top is a team washing windows. As I walked to a business meeting, inside, no harness required, I reflected that I have a very easy job.
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