On the difficulty of finding meaning in work

Where I try to make sense of how I feel about work, after a long digression into apparently unrelated things, and then come out as basically being fed up.
Posted on June 13, 2021
Tags: personal, work, capitalism, writing

An outline of my recent fruitless activity

I have been finding it difficult, not to write, but to actually post something. I have at least a dozen half-written essays or pieces of fiction I could have posted, but in each case I noticed some glaring flaw that prevented me from posting it.

For example: I have written several pieces of satire I quite like, two book reviews, a lot of opinions about what I perceive to be popular misconceptions of science and why I think they are a problem, opinions about bad philosophy, just quite a lot of opinions in general, and an obligatory post about GPT-3. I also have insights into burnout at tech startups, mistakes companies make, and how it feels to get fucked over by a startup’s employee share option plan. Also why taking mushrooms can sometimes be good for you.

In each case, I found myself being excessively concerned both about potential shortcomings in my writing, whether that be the sloppy use of language or a failure of logic, and how some imaginary person on the internet would react and tell me what a fucking idiot/horrible person I am. That seems to have been the true impediment, so let me get this out of the way - I don’t think I’m a terrible person (maybe I am), but yes, I am almost certainly wrong about a lot of things, although I try not to be. That doesn’t mean that attempting to make sense of my experiences isn’t a worthwhile enterprise in itself. We have a mind so that we may think - not thinking would be sad, as would not sharing those thoughts. If the point of writing non-fiction was to be completely and unambiguously correct, writing would consist solely of the output of theorem provers, and the world would be poorer for it. Among all the terrible things the internet can be, it is also, at its simplest, about sharing ideas and experiences, and that is what I will do here.

A specific activity that indirectly bore fruit

Among the many topics I considered posting, was an analysis of the pin factory model used by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, and later Bertrand Russell in the much shorter In Praise of Idleness, to examine respectively

  1. the division of labor in economies, and
  2. the perverse incentives inherent in capitalism that prevent a reasonable decrease in working hours,

but I got sidetracked by my obsession with mathematical modelling. What started out as the modest, and often realised, project of talking about the effect of advanced capitalism on the psyche of the ‘average worker’ degenerated into an obsessive digression into game theory and the theory of dynamical systems, with a detour through the philosophical analysis of mental models and their shortcomings. Honestly, it became an incoherent and convoluted mess, and would have required me to spend many hours researching the existing literature and writing code, when I realised I would rather spend the time setting down my thoughts in a natural, human language (on the other hand, if you would like to pay me to do something like this, please get in touch).

Maybe in the future I will post the results of this onanistic detour into science theatre (the incessant spectacle of which, by the way, I find to be one of the less salubrious aspects of lesswrong, and other rationalist oriented sites); on the plus side, it did allow me to realise that I have quite strong opinions about work, what work should be like, and why it is often not. So that is what this ended up being about.

If you are already bored you can stop reading this and go read this essay by David Graeber instead: the book based on this essay is still on my reading list, but the essay itself resonated with me to a ridiculous degree. To what degree the associated analysis of capitalism is actually true is a completely orthogonal issue to the fact that it feels true to many people, which is what interests me.

Why do so many of us work at jobs we don’t fucking like?

The succinct, true, and not very helpful answer is ‘because we have to, or believe we have to’.

Zooming out a bit: in 1933 John Maynard Keynes predicted that, due to improvements in technology, by the early 21st century people in the developed world would need to work no more than 15 hours a week.

Did this happen? No, although the situation has been improving since measurements started:


15 hours a week is 780 hours a year, assuming a five day work week, and no holidays. Factoring in holidays and sick leave, meeting Keynes’ prediction would require us to work on average less than half as much as the average German does today. That sounds pretty good to me.

It seems that the productivity gains did occur [citation required: but in this case you can google it yourself], but without a commensurate reduction in working hours. It is true that in many cases there have been improvements, albeit mostly in developed countries (I live in a so-called ‘developing’ country), and a shift in attitude so that e.g child labor is widely frowned upon, many countries have protections for workers’ rights that are actually enforced, more or less, and so forth.

On the other hand, there has been a massive improvement in the quality of innumerable goods and services, while their prices dropped in real terms (with some exceptions, like healthcare and education in the States); the creation of entirely new classes of goods and services that have revolutionised medicine, transportation, and communication. Science has progressed at an astounding rate, so that the range of physical phenomena we have reason to believe we have good models for span an impressive range of order of magnitudes. And these are all good things, which have also gone hand in hand with a massive decline in violence - if you want to read more about that I can’t recommend Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature enough. Enlightenment Now is still on my reading list, and I am told that is also excellent.

So how do I feel about this?

The thought that keeps me up at night is the fear, which I believe animates many people on the left, that these improvements in more developed countries have largely been possible because they have shifted negative externalities to populations that don’t get to vote in their elections, and because they are leveraging historic power dynamics that have enabled the great power blocs of the world to ‘rig the system’ - like a massive form of poorly legible rent-seeking, coupled with wealth extraction in the form of minerals, oil etc, from the Third World, and labor from the lower classes in their own countries. In the process wars are started, democratic reform is undermined when convenient, and hard won freedoms are undermined in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘protecting our interests’, both at home and abroad. This is a vast topic that is the subject of very heated and polarising debate, and I don’t have much more to say about it here, but it feels appropriate to mention it, since I expect I will have more to say about it in the future. I would like to add, as a citizen of a developing country, that the situation is not helped by our failure to hold our own leaders accountable for their misdeeds, not that they make this particularly easy.

Zooming out again: Bertrand Russell is probably my favourite 20th century philosopher (a number of philosophers seem to dislike or denigrate his work, with special opprobrium reserved for his 1945 book A History of Western Philosophy - I quite like it, despite its shortcomings). He had a mind that favoured mathematical rigour. This lends itself to clear writing, if the writer can avoid getting bogged down in overly technical analogies, which Russell largely managed to do in his popular writing. He also made fundamental contributions to the area of mathematical logic, including several areas that touch on things we would now call computer science, and was a strong advocate for contemporary progressive issues.

Like many English intellectuals of the time, he was aligned with socialist causes for much of his life. I don’t want to get bogged down in what exactly I construe ‘socialism’ to mean; for the purpose of this post you can assume I am in favour of some weak form of socialism, somewhere to the right of ‘the state must control all the means of production’ and but to the left of ‘being poor is always your own fault’. I also don’t believe the unfettered free market will solve all our problems, but as I get older I have increasingly begun to believe that the solution to problems with ‘like, the System, man’ lie in creating incentives that are aligned with the desired outcome, and less prone to attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity, unintended consequences, or emergent effects (which is not to say that malice doesn’t also play an important role in many of the world’s ills). The awareness that despite this insight I have no idea how to improve the world in any meaningful sense, and that I might die without having left a positive mark in the world is perhaps the greatest source of the disempowering rage I sometimes feel. For now I am focusing on my mental health, and the people close to me, and I hope that will be enough; but at times I fear it is not.

I think that corporate, impersonal, or repetitive jobs often engender similar feelings or anger and impotence in people, and that this is the source of much of the suffering that the middle-class experience - it is a spiritual malaise, and one of the hallmarks of our age is the search for a salve for this pain, whether that is religious, political, chemical, or otherwise.

The following quote from In Praise of Idleness is pertinent:

Modern technology has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

I would like to emphasise this last bit - if someone is trying to convince you that working for them, even at the expense of your physical, mental, or spiritual health, is somehow good in itself then it is reasonable to suspect that they view you, consciously or otherwise, as a type of slave, and are fucking you (and not in a nice way). Sometimes you have to let people fuck you to avoid being fucked in a worse way - that doesn’t mean you have to like the fuckery or stop looking for some other thing that fucks you more pleasantly. Of course there are jobs that legitimately involve helping people - if you are one those people selflessly helping others as part of your day job, thank you.

To clarify, I don’t mind work, nor do I, in principle, have a problem with the idea of enriching someone else by my labor, if I am fairly compensated - what I resent is firstly, the fact that what is ‘fair’ tends to be decided by people who are actually not incentivised to compensate me fairly, and secondly the feeling that no one cares about my god damn feelings, while the people at the top of the pyramid pretend the system, as it exists, is in the interest of workers, and remove our ability to improve our working conditions.

I reckon I would be largely satisfied with my current salary, or even less, for the foreseeable future (adjusted for inflation, at least), if I simply had a lot more leave - and here ‘a lot’ means e.g. an extra 30 days a year (I am aware of the hedonic treadmill, so maybe I am wrong about this). Instead, I have to try to improve my performance in tasks I find personally unfulfilling, intellectually stultifying, and ultimately pointless, since they are aimed at the extraction of profit in exchange for inane services. In return I can expect some sort of salary increase that does not help me satisfy my true need for an authentic life, and which is also, ironically, unlikely to be well-correlated to my actual performance or the value I contribute to the company I work for. There is safety in this - and I suppose that is why so many of us choose this option.

Workers are also constantly reminded, in ways that are more or less subtle depending on your position in the social hierarchy and your specific material conditions, that they are replaceable, and that they should be grateful to be employed (assuming they actually are). I believe gratitude is an excellent attribute, and one we should cultivate - but there is a difference between a fawning thankfulness to one’s master, and the universe at large, that we have been deigned worthy of being able to afford the basic necessities of life, and true gratitude. The former is a tool rooted in fear that the unscrupulous, uncaring, or unthinking use to enforce systems of control - the latter, a simple virtue.

There is little I detest more than competitive struggle in the professional realm. If I could find a job that offered something else, I would take it, if I could find a way to do so given the pragmatic constraints of my life. It is unclear what such a job would be.

I would like to end with this link to an excellent song by the excellent Linton Kwesi Johnson (warning: youtube link): More Time.