Are email and meetings actually a waste of time?

I recently discovered this fantastic blog by Paul Graham. Like so many others, he mentions that email is a digital time sink:

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

He decided he would have one computer to browse the web and another to work:

My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online. Source

check email or browse the web – wtf?

A huge amount of my work is done through email. Because some work involves other people, putting things in writing and communicating quickly.

How have the internets, including some of the founding fathers, deemed email so useless?

The Guardian rants:

In the Harvard Business Review, three consultants from Bain report the results of an exercise in which they analyzed the Outlook schedules of the employees of an unnamed “large company” – and concluded that one weekly executive meeting ate up a dizzying 300,000 hours a year. Which is impressive, given that each of us only has about 8,700 hours a year to begin with. Including sleep.

And The Washington Post weighs in:

Any cubicle drone with a corporate email address knows this well already, of course, but a new report from Adobe describes the problem with some pretty startling numbers. According to its data, which is sourced from a self-reported survey of more than 1,000 white-collar workers in the country, we spend an average of 4.1 hours checking our work email each day. That’s 20.5 hours each week, more than 1,000 hours each year, more than 47,000 hours over a career.

In that time, you could have learned two dozen languages. Or hiked the Appalachian Trail 100 times! Instead, you were tapping out gems like “plz acknowledge receipt, ty” and “ok sounds good, let’s meet at nine.”

Yeah… so it takes a lot of time. That doesn’t mean it’s a time waste.

Yes, you can do it all wrong and waste time, but you can do anything wrong.

I doubt Paul Graham gets less important email than I do. Yet he still calls it “not work”.

It’s actually kind of rude to the people who send you email to say that email is a waste of time.

It sounds so much like just another quick fix from the “productivity” industry, but it seems unlikely that a dude like Paul Graham would get trapped by that.

The only reasonable answer is that your work is something solitary. Same with “meetings” that people so hate. You can call yourself a team player all you want, but if you think email, or to use plain English, communicating is a waste of time, maybe you just aren’t?

When you’re browsing the web, no one cares. But when you don’t answer your emails or don’t turn up to/pay attention in meetings, somebody does.

 

In defence of four letter words

So,  now that D.H. Lawrence is on the Leaving Cert syllabus, to understand the man better, I’ve decided to read his most famous and controversial Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

My first impression was that there must be something really different about those times and now.

I thought: I can honestly say that my millennial brain didn’t detect anything remotely scandalous in it. The publisher was taken to court, you know, under the Obscene Publications Act in the UK… Fair enough, the subject is a little racy, but no racier than, say, Anna Karenina.

Apparently the man who led the prosecution of the trial in 1960 asked if it were the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read”… Hard to believe that that was said not even 60 years ago!

My other impression was that it was bland. What is this book about at all? Why is it famous? Just by virtue of the trial?

Something wasn’t right.

Well… it turns out that I read a censored version without being aware of it.

I’ve looked over the full text now, and I can see how much I missed out on. Whoever insists on publishing abridged and censored versions has no soul.

Up until this point I never believed that swearing adds anything, but this has made me change my mind. And want to swear, too.

Here is the full version if you need it.

Why Christ was a carpenter

The wonderful Pink Agendist recently introduced Jordan Peterson by quoting this:

“Haven’t heard of Jordan Peterson?

Take one part Carl Jung, one part Solzhenitsyn, one part Kermit the Frog, and one part St. Augustine. Put all this in a conceptual blender”.

While I don’t particularly like any of those ingredients, just like a Negroni, Peterson turned out to be more than the sum of his parts and just fabulous in small quantities.

He is quite right-wing compared to what I am used to. He explains the plight of young women and why they don’t “move up the corporate ladder” extremely well here. He made an interesting point: that status is more important for men compared to women because it’s the main criterion on which women judge men. This almost certainly applies in many animal societies where the winner takes all, but I am not so sure it applies with us. I think that when it comes to forming serious relationships, men require a woman to have a CV comparable to theirs, a family background comparable to theirs, etc. A man’s infatuation is unlikely to override these more prosaic factors. Herein probably also lies the real answer to “why he lost interest”: his interest was in a woman’s superficial qualities and burnt out pretty quickly as it should, while her underlying “status” wasn’t attractive enough to sustain more long-term interest. It’s less psychopathic than it sounds as it is simply based on common interests.

His advice for hyper-intellectual people is refreshing. He explains how you can be utterly unwise and even useless with an IQ of 160. It’s good for the ubereducated millenial to listen to this in a world where intelligence is pretty glorified. Peterson’s ideas are very reminiscent of Taleb’s “intellectual yet idiot”, “skin in the game” stuff.

Peterson takes a literary critic type approach to the Bible. He says that Jesus Christ was a carpenter because there is a certain honesty in a carpenter’s work: it falls down if it isn’t made well, so there is less BS-vending and more doing. Furthermore, Jesus has moral superiority without having a Ph.D. and a New York Times best-seller, so the lesson is that you don’t have to be “intelligent” to be effective.

His book, Maps of Meaning, seems to be of interest. Here is the PDF available free via his website (nice touch). Any reviews? To me, he sounds like a dilettante, albeit with a professor title. I suppose if you are popularising stuff, it’s hard to sound any different.

Some of Peterson’s videos though reek of the usual quasi-scientific verging on self-helpy aspects of psychology (one of his books is called 12 Rules for Life. Hmm.) Some of his political views seems to be sensationalist. He’s even been featured on Oprah, but still, interesting presence.

I found his list of recommended books pretty good though:

1. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

2. 1984 – George Orwell

3. Road To Wigan Pier – George Orwell

4. Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

5. Demons – Fyodor Dostoevsky

6. Beyond Good And Evil – Friedrich Nietzsche

7. Ordinary Men – Christopher Browning

8. The Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosinski

9. The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang

10. Gulag Archipelago (Vol. 1Vol. 2, & Vol. 3) – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

11. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

12. Modern Man in Search of A Soul – Carl Jung

13. Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief – Jordan B. Peterson

14. A History of Religious Ideas (Vol. 1Vol. 2Vol. 3) – Mircea Eliade

15. Affective Neuroscience – Jaak Panksepp

Words as violence

The Russians have a law against offending the feelings of religious followers.

It came up again today because a magazine did a (somewhat) explicit photoshoot in a church they considered abandoned:

offending feelings of religious people russia ethics
Source: Vkontakte

It turns out the church wasn’t entirely abandoned and was occasionally used. This may result in a court case against the model/photographer/publication involved: not because they perpetrated land belonging to the church, but because they offended people’s religious beliefs.

A man recently received a suspended sentence for catching Pokemon in another church for this reason.

Is the fact that the Russians want to protect the religious any different to the snowflakery millennials are getting accused of?

In West it is kind of the opposite, but the same principle applies. We’re most worried about offending those who fight for more modern things, e.g. non-traditional genders.

It’s a past time of mine to observe the parallels between two places that most people consider as different as night and day. And it allows me to ask: why is there such a global cross-cultural tendency to protect the feelings of minorities through law?

In a recent case, a woman was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter because of what she said. Of course, her words were evil. It was emotional abuse taken to the limit.

But can words really be equated to violence?

I think that this would only encourage physical violence by closing a steam valve. It makes little of victims of real violence. There’s something wrong with putting genuinely violent people in the same category with someone who likes to rant.

Incitement to hatred? Obviously it would be ideal if we all agreed and lived in peace and love. But assuming that we’re not moving to a utopia any time soon, isn’t it better to allow people to peacefully rant and speak freely than to encourage them to band into groups and get violent against the establishment which is what we achieve by marginalising them? In fact, ranters of a denomination could verbally spar with other types of ranters. Might it even be a healthy debate?

Perhaps non-violent hating is like a small forest fire:

“Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so this does not have the opportunity to accumulate. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place ‘to be safe’ makes the big one much worse.” – Nassim Taleb. Antifragile : things that gain from disorder.

Similarly, marginalising the “haters” just leads to real violence.

Having said that, I can relate. I have often felt like I needed trigger warnings. I get very upset at certain images in films and documentaries. But I would never feel that someone owes it to me to prevent me from them: if I made a choice to watch a film, that’s just part of the consequences. Being honest, I don’t watch that many films for this precise reason.

Virtually every book or film I process results in an overwhelming spillage of thoughts and emotions (hence, this blog). In fact, I am still haunted by a number of books I read.

When I was in school, we were always given a book list for the summer. Part of me wishes I’d never read Three Comrades and The Collector. Part of me is enraged that there wasn’t a trigger warning on those books. But by reading these books I learnt what I do and don’t like – and why.

But let’s just imagine that words aren’t violence and flip the question: should it be a crime to offend people’s feelings?

P. S. I am meant to be working on Philip Larkin‘s poetry, but I’m not a fan, hence, all this 🙂

How to not feel dirty all over after looking at the fake spirituality of the boho goddesses of Bali

Goddessism is big among our millennial ladies. This article isn’t about the fact that social media and real life are different. It is about the cheapening of real philosophy that happens on social media and goes unnoticed by too many people.

As you will know, I am not big into positive thinking, at least the inspirational Insta-motivation variety. I have yet another issue with Instagram. It is the one social network that makes me feel kind of icky, and for ages I couldn’t understand why. We all know that social media is a highlight reel, a filtered version of another’s life, etc – but Instagram accentuates this empty feeling. I think it’s because it lacks the option of having any depth.

You can link to a thoughtful article on most networks, but you deliberately need to judge everything by its cover on Instagram.

One could argue it is some kind of inferiority that I am feeling. And it is. It’s a fear that I could never be as perfect as the people in the pictures. Indeed, I couldn’t be. They couldn’t be either. In fact, the subspecies I will discuss below follows a very clear prescribed regimen specifying their clothes, food, wisdom, aspirations, art, fitness, other half and much more. But the point is the horrible fake “spirituality” of these accounts.

coping with fake mindfulness of instagram
Are the comments written by real people or bots? Fakeness traded between fakeness merchants

Instagram is so full of beautiful, minimalist, natural, spiritual, compassionate, eco-friendly yoga-practicing perfect people, women, to be specific.

They look out over the ocean and look so dreamy with the sunset backdrop. The pictures are full with gentle sunlight, smiles and smoothies made of the most righteous greens and the caption inevitably features love of the world, the followers or something trendy. Obviously, these “tropical feels” exist on other media, but Instagram seems to have thousands of accounts with virtually the same vibe. The content clearly has a lot of work dedicated to it, but I struggle to see why people enjoy it. Perhaps, some find that it is genuine?

Whenever I encountered these insta-perfect people in real life, they tend to be highly cynical and critical of others, curse like sailors, yell at their children in a way that makes me worry about the integrity of the windows, drink (not just the smoothies), are insecure about their appearance and just generally be far removed from the fairy tale vibe of their Instagram account.

Many of them go from one beautiful location to another; the further removed from the West, the better –  or at least create the impression that they do. More often than not, the photos are made over a few weeks (of what I assume is pretty hard work of shooting) and then released over the following months.

fake mindfulness of instagram positive thinking
Wisdom meets commerce

Their work is always something special, magical and sacred. There is much about happiness, love of simple things, spirituality, being natural, a wanderer, a wild child, a vagabond, giving hugs and so on.

By playing bingo with the above you can create a nice tagline for the top of the page: “Don’t let your dreams just be dreams” obtained Lisa Smith of @lisadanielle_ It seems that the expertise behind these statements is rather limited and largely repeated by/from other Instagram users in a nice Pacific ocean echo chamber. I doubt that the subscribers care very much. They look for pictures of a life

…from another place, tropical and blue,

We have never been to.

This is from Sylvia Plath’s “Finisterre”. I love the emotion behind these words: they got etched into my mind straight after the first reading. I doubt she would have liked Instagram very much.

fake mindfulness of instagram bali goddesses
Why wouldn’t you be wild and free?

These women tend to paint, create jewellery, produce their own make up lines or run seminars. The more competent ones paint and the really great ones photograph: weddings, editorials and so on. I shudder at their daily routine of waking up and knowing that they need to go out of their way to take shots of things that will appear good to thousands of people. Perhaps, they shudder at the thought of writing an essay, especially one that is clear to the point which can only be obtained by being honest. Not honest like an eco-friendly coffee brand is honest; honest like a best friend is honest. The high quality pictures make it into the Instagram feed; the less artsy are only dignified with a place in the Stories.

contrived mindfulness of instagram
“Be yourself, you’re beautiful”, but make sure you are young, actually beautiful and totally carefree

Their appearance is uniformly the sort that can only be obtained by strenuous HIIT and no carbs. Don’t forget the tan.

The goal is to look like the perfectly accepted idea of female beauty, but with a spiritual twist.

A half-naked woman in her late twenties with a body fat of about 18% with a dreamy smile will caption her photo with something like “Remember, everyone is beautiful. Accept your self fully. Love is everything.”

fake pretentious contrived instagram accounts
Soulful gratitude, it’s not for show

The more thorough Instagramers will have a story of how they used to hate their body/themselves/their failures, but came to be in a healthy relationship with themselves and now it is their life’s mission to bring this harmony into the world.

They frequently have a soul mate whom they tag in their Instagram and express their gratitude at least twice a week. Don’t be alarmed if some of these bits of wisdom have a tag like for some minimalist watch maker or a boho clothes vendor, usually with an eco-twist:

coping with the Instagram goddesses of Bali
Lost fishing nets with a purpose

The perpetual summer bodies don’t come easy, I am sure, but the Insta goddesses never bother to make a big deal out of it. However, a nice yoga pose with a “thoughtful” quote is a must. Mindfulness goes without saying. Are there still people who don’t practice mindfulness? Myself, I doubt that between reaching out to bikini manufacturers and running contests for a handmade fairtrade eco-friendly blanket and shooting non-contrived photos of their rigorous relaxation routines they have much “time” for real mindfulness.

Clothes-wise, less is more – because why should we hide? That’s just wouldn’t be that spiritual or close to nature. The boho-twise requires the addition of a hat and numerous bracelets to the bikini bottoms. The top is covered by the long beach-wave hair.

What do goddesses eat? It’s all vegan, raw, super-foody and green. Banish gluten, lactose and all other negativity. The tone of their remarks is so matter of fact, like they’ve never seen a BLT in their lives.

dealing with the fakeness of instagram
Apparently this is a smoothie. You learn something new everyday.

So for example, a goddess could start every morning with 20 sun salutations and a green smoothie. They charge her up with the sort of energy the no coffee could ever do (throw back to her life before she entered the true world of Bali). It is usually followed by the description of the unfolding life force of nature filling her within and she literally can’t imagine having it any other way.

how to stop feeling bad after instagram
Give and you shall receive

I have no reason to stick it to Lauren Bullen of @gypsea_lust in particular. They are legion. They come from all countries and write in all languages (though they all spend time in Bali). You know a few people like this. So alike, that you weren’t sure I wasn’t writing about them until you checked the username. They run Instagram-supported businesses, that’s fine, but it is the fact that they are selling something that isn’t real that bothers me.

It seems obvious that people would be able to tell that this is an account made for marketing. But because of this spiritual vibe, insidiously, this affects the moral compass for many otherwise bright people I know.

My millennial peers are often unable to see the difference between shallow marketing and deeper philosophy. Has it always been this way I wonder?

This kind of stuff makes me want to clear my head. So if, like me, you come across this phenomenon, don’t be down. Breath.

P.S. Sorry for the radio silence. I’m moving. It’s a journey. Many journeys back and forth between two houses, in fact. Lots of challenges of all sorts and remembering to breath has been my number one rule. I will write about the whole experience once the dust resettles on my suitcases.

Credit: inspired by Varvara Gorbash

Fear: a millennial perspective

Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level

Ernest Becker

Fear of the passage of time

I recently came across the term chronophobia in the context of people doing exams: knowing that exam day is ever closer makes people anxious. Chronophobia was defined as an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of, in “Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s” by Pamela Lee.

Chronophobia isn’t a formal diagnosis, neither does it feature in scientific literature. In other words, it’s not really a phobia. It is more of an unpleasant feeling – one that is often expressed in art.

It is common in prison inmates, students in long academic programs and the elderly. When one is anxious, it is not only possible to be anxious about the event, but also its inescapable approach. Chronophobia is less about the doom and more about it being impending.

chronophobia anxiety about passage of time
Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory, 1931. The melting clock describes the feeling of chronophobia rather well

Chronophobia appears to be connected with heightened awareness of the passage of time that is inherent in distant deadlines for significant events.

This morning during my 10 minutes of mindfulness, something interesting bubbled up. I randomly remembered myself on an airplane travelling back to Moscow to visit family about 2 years ago. I felt a strong urge to be that person again, a bit like when I’m on vacation and towards the end, with a sigh, I think back to how liberating the first day off felt. Or when I reach the last bite of some dopamine-explosive dessert, I think back to how happy I felt when it was just put in front of me. We all love vacation and desert. However, my wish to be 2 years younger makes little sense. I was in the throes of a challenging 70-80 hours per week medical rota. It took much ingenuity to carve out enough time to travel. Is it regret? It wouldn’t be fair to say that the last 2 years were somehow a waste of time in any regard. Why do I feel so drawn to the thought of going back in time?

fear of the passage of time chronophobia
Salvador Dali: The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1954. Dali saw the fish as a symbol of life

Fear of opportunity cost

Aged 27, I frequently contemplate what it would go back to a previous point in time. I think it’s the understanding of the limited nature of time. I also worry about opportunity cost. In economics, there is the term opportunity (alternative) cost is the value of the option that we don’t choose when making a decision. [If I have 1 euro and buy a 1 euro can of Coke, I would have to forego the 1 euro Mars bar in order to have it. I would thus potentially worry about what it would have been like if they got a Mars bar instead.] The feeling is different to decision-anxiety. It’s not even about second guessing one’s choice, but more about imagining alternative paths.

The word decision literally means the cutting off – of other options. Thinking of the alternatives always reminds us of the unyielding nature of choice and how we really can’t literally “have it all”.

Robert Frost’s famous (infamous?) “The Road Not Taken” is a brilliant and often misinterpreted examination of the nature of choice. It is important to recognise the speaker’s deliberation: he says the roads are much the same: “just as fair”, “really about the same”, “equally lay”.

“The Road Not Taken”, a frequent feature of post-card philosophy, is often oversimplified to say that the speaker chose the less travelled road – and, woohoo, that’s amazing. It’s more complex than that.

The speaker admits that he left the first road “for another day”. While he knew he would never go back, the torment of admitting the final nature of choice is just too much. 

One can get very detailed when describing their particular fear. I certainly don’t support the idea of including “fear of opportunity cost”, “fear of the passage of time” or even “fear of choice” as phobias into the DSM. Indeed, this is perfect ground for thinking by induction. Is there a common thread here?

fear of death emotional coping mechanisms
Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors, 1533. Note the anamorphic skull in the foreground. It surely is a reminder of death

Boiling down fears to a common denominator: could it be death?

Why does chronophobia affect students? Time forces them to deal with events that will affect serious aspects of their lives such as their future careers – and thus even more permanent things like social class, the kind of people they will be likely to marry and so on. Exam results’ effects are by no means definitive, but probabilistically they are significant.

It has become popular to say that there are only 2 human emotions: fear and love.

Everything negative is a form of fear. It kind of makes sense: anger is a way of defending one’s point of view, property or whatever other boundary. Being sad is a fear that one will never be as happy as they were before as a result of an event (not talking about depression here). Disgust is a fear that something will negatively impact one’s existence. You get the gist.

The other popular thought is that all fear is a form of the ultimate fear – of death.

Going back to chronophobia again, why does it affect the elderly? Time threatens the existence of the elderly. It threatens all of our’s existence, but the elderly are more aware of it – mostly for social and cultural reasons. Now, none of us are deluded enough to actually think we’re not going to die. However, as Ernest Becker points out:

we have 2 ideas of the self: the physical and the symbolic.

In my opinion, our rationality only extends as far as the physical self. We are preoccupied with ways to immortalise our symbolic self. As per the “Mahabharata”:

“The most wondrous thing in the world is that although every day innumerable creatures go to the abode of death, still man thinks that he is immortal”.

fear of being insignificant
Salvador Dali: Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937. Dali had an interest in psychiatry

The recent debate that followed my discussion of the role of validation in our self-esteem sparked some follow on thoughts. In short, it showed that people with narcissistic tendencies experience much emptiness or even self-hatred – and validation is used to take the edge off. However, as all creatures who make choices, people with narcissistic tendencies are subject to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (thank you, Dr. Freud). Clearly, they find narcissism more tolerable that the alternative. How could this be?

What if those who crave validation to feel good about themselves chose to be this way because the alternative – knowing that one is inherently valuable, without any validation – makes the thought of inevitable death absolutely intolerable? If one feels that they’re not that valuable, dying isn’t quite as scary or tragic.

Realising that a person is valuable, getting attached and then letting go is much harder than never getting attached – in this case to your self, as is the case with death. This devaluation allows people to cope with the fear of death. At the same time, the person with narcissistic tendencies maintains the upside of being able to work on “their immortality projects”, like winning medals and getting promotions. This is just a hypothesis of mine. I understand that I have no idea what Steve Jobs was really like. A lot of people say that he was an obnoxious narcissist. He said this, which happens to be congruent with my hypothesis:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

There are other psychologically sneaky ways that we deal with the fear of death that have stood the test of time (well, since 1974 or so when “Denial of Death” was published):

Becker argues that everything we do: writing books, starting businesses, having children are all ways to transcend – and not have to deal with – death.

It makes sense too: the thought that everything one ever does will disappear into oblivion is so hard to accept that in order to keep going we find ways to defy death’s erasure of our existence by leaving a legacy.

fear of being insignificant

One’s own death is hard to imagine. It is as if we believe we will still be alive on some level after we die, but unable to act on our dreams and stuck reminiscing of the time we were alive and lamenting we didn’t do more.

If leaving a legacy isn’t an option, then one can choose to believe in the afterlife to help themselves cope with the concept death.

Paradoxically, dying may be a way to transcend death. Physical death could be a route to symbolic immortality. Just think of war heroes.

While death could explain a lot of our autopilot behaviour, we don’t seem to want to think about it very often. We are told to think positive thoughts instead.

To think, or not to think – about death

all fear is fear of death
...what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…

Constant reminders of death were common all throughout the last millennium: having a skull on one’s desk was kind of like having sticky notes or an extra mouse. An experiment where people were asked to write about death before they were asked about their country’s war efforts showed that thinking of death made people more enthusiastic about war -as it adds meaning, purpose, a sense of belonging, a feeling of impact…

The Stoics came up with a variety of reasons and hacks to not fear death such as the symmetry argument: fearing death is like fearing the fact that one wasn’t alive before one was born. I won’t go down the rabbit hole of explaining how to fear death less.

The purpose of my reflection isn’t to say we shouldn’t fear death, and it will all be fine. It is more of an inquiry into what behaviours of ours are motivated by the fundamental, underlying fear, which so far appears to be that of death. However,…

It’s not death we fear, it is not having an impact

Is it really death we fear? I think a better way of putting it is that we fear that we’re inconsequential, insignificant, that we made no difference through our existence.

For those who insist that it is a fear of death: it’s that of the symbolic self. For those who insist that our biggest fear is to not be loved: to have someone love one is probably the biggest impact one can have on another human being. Perhaps, it is the ultimate, or the one that really count. I am not sure. However, my point remains: it is about impact.

It could just be a millennial’s take on it. With a lesser role of traditional religion in today’s society, millennials have the unfulfilled need for meaning – and have a habit of finding it in the most peculiar places.

My recent discussion of meaning according to Nietzsche prompted many to comment that the fact that we die and that the universe will ultimately end (something to do with the Sun and physics) implies that there could be no meaning in our lives. I don’t follow this argument. To me, it is like saying there’s no point in eating because you’ll get hungry again. Clearly though,

for a lot of people death is the ultimate enemy in a game rigged against them.

I used the word impact above for a reason. I could have said consequence or meaning, but something stopped me. Both of those words are overused and call to mind all kinds of associations. Furthermore, I thought of animals. They are driven largely by the same evolutionary forces as we are, and I think we overestimate the extent to which animals are different. They may not have insight, but they are a reflection at least of how nature intended things. To illustrate, I will use an example I recall from watching a BBC documentary on giraffes. Two massive male giraffes were fighting for a female. How on earth do giraffes fight, I hear you ask. Well, they violently swing their entire necks to strike. The force of the swing is enough to shatter their skulls. The battle went on to the point of near death… for the sake of a female. The giraffes decided/were driven by nature to go that far just to reproduce – so death is less important than an opportunity to have impact, which, for giraffes I think is reasonable to assume, is to have progeny.

I don’t think that the fear of not having an impact is the same as the fear of failure. One can fail, but still achieve a lot and have an impact. Failure is defined in terms of a percentage of the way to realising a dream. Impact, or lack thereof, is much more real.

I feel that a human being on their death bed is likely to think of what impact they have had, not where they ranked compared to their dream.

fear of not making a difference
Salvador Dali: The Elephants, 1948. Not quite giraffes, but close enough

On the bright side…

There is a “cure” for fear of choice

Going back to my own ENTP-torment of being more interested in talking about choices rather than actually making them, I am looking for some kind of resolution. N. N. Taleb, a favourite writer of mine, is popularising the concept of optionality. He argues that having options is a great thing:

Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny).

It’s not really a way to get out of making choices. Instead, it is a way to do what you were going to do anyway, but leaving cheap enough nets here and there to see if one day something nice washes up in one of them such that covers the cost of having had the nets n times over.

He argues against specialisation (i.e. going down too far in the decision tree of choices or going down to the end of just one branch). We are all familiar with specialisation success stories. The Nobel Prize goes to the person who studied a particular enzyme for 30 years. The startup that solves a specific problem in one particular niche is the one that does well. Kim Kardashian has one thing going for her, and she’s taken over the world…

Taleb reminds us that there are cemeteries of specialised ventures and people. Just because the successes that make into the media are specialised, doesn’t mean all of them are. Specialisation comes from the propensity to make choices. It is not the only way to achieve something. Hence, it is possible that the act of making choices is overvalued.

Richard Branson has over 400 companies. Is it because he is greedy – or perhaps because he understands that specialisation is a dangerous game to play? Venture capitalists and angel investors back things in a non-specialised way. All financial investors do. It may look like it is specialised on the surface, but it really isn’t. Biotech, or robotics, isn’t a specialisation. These are incredibly broad fields. It’s like saying blogging is a specialisation. Investors take directional bets once is a while, i.e. ones that really require a choice, but they do so in a way that for every 1 euro they invest, they stand to gain 10, and only invest a tiny fraction of their euros into these schemes. This is exactly congruent with Taleb’s definition of optionality.

I have fabulously rationalised away the pressure to make choices here. However, the real work is in putting oneself into situations where optionality can be exercised.

The older I get, the more I realise that there’s quite a lot of engineering involved in all of this. It’s not so much about going after specific visions, but creating situations where visions can flourish – and ultimately have an impact.

millennials fear not having an impact
Maybe, the millennial/Gen Y variety of man (and woman) are a bit different…

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I wanna be the very best

Like no one ever was

– Pokemon opening titles

As part of my Christmas escape from routine, I’ve been trying to read more. After the off-putting Ego is the Enemy and the chilling American Tragedy , I stumbled upon an interview with Simon Sinek. He talks about how millennials are difficult to deal with in the workplace and attempts to explain how this is a product of our upbringing in a cautious non-accusatory manner. It’s kind of fun to watch because the set up is clearly intended for dialogue, whereas Sinek goes off into a suspiciously well-structured 15 minute TED talk while the poor host nods along.

millennials in the workplace

Sinek says millennials are accused of being entitled, narcissistic, unfocused and lazy.

He remarks on the fact that corporate purpose and bean bags aren’t cutting it. He talks about the reasons. According to him, there are four.

1. Parenting

According to Sinek, millenials have been subject to “failed parenting strategies”.

Sinek postulates that millennials were repeatedly told that we could have anything we wanted and that we are special.

I guess our parents belong to the generation when toxic compulsive positive thinking really took off, so that would make sense. “Just wish for it – and it’s yours”.

Sinek argues that we got into honours classes not because we accomplished enough, but because our parents complained. 

I am not so sure about this mammy getting us things. If anything, if I had been born 20 years before, my mammy would have had an easier time calling in favours and getting me into a position I didn’t deserve. This is just an impression too, but to me, the world seems more equalised and transparent – at least in education, in Europe.

The underlying premise of Sinek’s argument is that millennials are different due to these 4 causes, but he doesn’t really provide any evidence to say that, beyond the obvious, these reasons are unique to our generation – and thus their explanatory power is questionable.

He argues that participation medals (8th best…) corrupted us. When millennials meet with reality, where coming in 8th doesn’t bring all that validation it did before and mammy can’t get us a promotion, we immediately question our specialness, feel we’re inferior and blame ourselves.

I do recall moving from Moscow to Dublin (for the n-time by in my teens), after not having really lived there for 2 or 3 years, which on that scale is forever, finding that

1. Maths is a dark art to most people

2. Everyone has a medal in something.

At that point, I had barely ever won anything. I recall talking to my dad and wondering how these mildly impressive people were top this and top that. I even talked to my classmate about the dissonance. My dad explained the reality of the differing attitudes in education:

in the West, medals are used for encouragement, and they don’t mean the same thing or serve the same function as the medals of my former Russian prodigy classmates.

My friend took a different approach – together with our other friends, she gave me a little trophy that said “Official Trophy Girl” and my name. That was my first trophy. Sinek clearly knows what he’s talking about.

millennials in the workplace simon sinek

2.Technology

Sinek’s argument is that our Instagram-filtered highlight reel lives raise the standard to the point that unless you are exactly perfect, know exactly what you are talking about, you shouldn’t talk. So when we do talk, we come to out uber-experienced boss and lecture him or her on how it’s done (while having no clue and even less insight). The 2 factors above work against out self-esteem according to Sinek.

Instagram and other social media are very naturally selecting.

I would argue that whatever harm is done through participation medals, it is probably shaken out of us by the cold reality that our ramens need to be quite good before people start liking and replaying them.

He explains how technology is addictive and introduces dopamine. He makes the grotesque comparison of alcohol and social media. Sinek states that the relationships we form are superficial and we’ve no coping mechanisms other than a dopamine hit from the likes on Facebook. He makes a very sweeping assumption that almost everyone is addicted to social media.

Yes, possibly.

However, weren’t there other ways to get hooked on dopamine before? It doesn’t have to be alcohol. Has he heard of Dungeons & Dragons? Maybe, Counterstrike? Back to back episodes of Sabrina on Nickelodeon?

Here, his argument is quite weak . There’s nothing to say that we are more addicted with poor coping skills – compared to any other generation.

millennials lack purpose simon sinek

3. Impatience

We live in a world of instant gratification: Amazon next day delivery, Netflix binges, Tinder dates: “swipe right – I’m a stud”. He argues that the meaningful things (confidence, impact, etc) are slow and meandering.

Again, all of this is true. But was it ever any different? Obviously, it wasn’t Amazon-related, but there were other ways to get instant gratification. For example, fast food is all about instant gratification – and millennials don’t really binge on that at least. Perhaps, impatience is just part of being young. This quote attributed to Socrates reveals so much about the timelessness of the nature of youth:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

why millennials suck

4. Environment

Sinek says that the corporate environment takes more interest in the numbers rather than the personal development of their employees.

First, that’s normal.

Corporations owe it to their shareholders, not their employees – that’s the premise of capitalism.

Yes, there is CSR, etc, but they are very much at the margins of corporate life. In fact, there’s nothing necessarily evil about the financial purpose, as at least in theory financial gain is a reflection of the usefulness of something to society – albeit through the prism of a supply and demand intersection.

However, it’s not the act, it’s the cover up. The fact that corporations so often come out with unfalsifiable statements that seem to want to please everyone and stand for nothing as their “values” and “purpose” is really off-putting. Working there makes one feel like a low-ranking accomplice of a gargantuan fraud – without even the freedom to admit it.

The thing that is actually going on here is that the entitled whiney millennials “ruin everything” are specifically the corporate office workers. In generations that came before, fewer people worked in offices of big corporations. Now that there are sufficient numbers of young corporate workers, the generalisation has been spread to millennials as a whole.

In these large corporate institutions, millennials don’t know their boss. Their actual boss is a hedge fund who owns the shares. The person they call their boss is just a slightly more senior employee, who has 10% more of an idea why they’re doing what they’re doing than the poor millennial. There’s no actual real work to do. Going around with balloons for people’s birthdays and making presentations – even pulling all nighters while at it – makes people feel unfulfilled and trapped. There’s no genuine purpose beyond the obvious financial one. That’s the clincher. Justin Bieber knew what to sell to his audience [his recent tour was called Purpose].

I suspect that millennials who are out there chopping wood aren’t as morally dissatisfied as the corporate office worker millennials. Now that wood is chopped, but that presentation you made is probably never going to make any difference – to anyone, anywhere, ever. And you worked so hard to make it into that position – good grades, college, years of delaying gratification – only to end up making dead presentations. You were promised that you would be making an impact. Yeah.

Second, Sinek also assumes that it is the responsibility of a corporation to develop and help the personal growth of employees – which is a bit too invasively brave new world for me. Certainly, my experience of corporate life was that acting like everyone else and generally participating in group think was part of the job. There wasn’t the group of nerds to rescue me this time.

millennials in the workplace video

There’s no real mobility and or even a promise of real success in corporate life. So no wonder we’re out there – overeducated and whinging about issues other people feel are outlandish. Bob Geldof’s recent soundbite about transgender bathrooms is an example. My points isn’t about LGBT.

My point is that you can laugh all you want, but transgender bathrooms give people something they can fight for that is meaningful to them – as it makes people feel significant, makes them feel they made a difference and belong to a group. This is what’s actually missing for millennials.

This phenomenon occurs where religion plays a minor role in one’s upbringing, as was the case with millennials.

Young people who lack a purpose and a sense of belonging can very easily be swayed by politicians into things like violent nationalism.

We’re seeing something in that vein in the recent political developments.

Another threat comes fro the fact that millennials seem to glorify working in corporations – especially if they are tech-related like Google or Facebook, because for years we were taught that that’s the best work there is.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but for some of us the veneer of corporate glamour is stopping us from making honest assessments. Remember, “if it’s repeated – it’s true“; that’s just the human brain.

I wonder if it was different for other generations. Yes, corporate office work wasn’t as big a phenomenon, but how did people get through it without complaining as much as the millennials? Maybe, it was quite a prestigious thing in and of itself – providing the feeling of being special. Now it’s pretty standard. A long time ago GS Elevator came out with a tweet that there aren’t many jobs out there for which you actually need a degree. Cynical as this tweet is, the first year of a corporate graduate programme is likely to confirm that assertion. Getting the most educated, most competitive people and putting them into that environment is a shock to them. Perhaps this didn’t apply for the generations above us who enjoyed their careers more than the millennials as there were fewer people with degrees.

It is also quite possible that it was all the same for previous generations – and their parents also told them that they were lazy, entitled and all the things millennials are hearing. It’s simply their turn to complain.

On the bright side, it has become cool in our generation to be an entrepreneur. While the seasoned entrepreneurs go on about how this romanticised view of building businesses is toxic, I feel it is good to encourage non-bet-the-farm entrepreneurship at least. Or even freelance. It is creative, it has as much purpose as one wants and it is both self- and socially-serving.

Most of all, millennials, myself included, should remember that there’s no use in waiting for someone to come along and give us this magical real purpose we so crave. It is up to us to make our own purpose.

*If none of this makes sense – and you happen to like video games, try Stanley’s Parable. Whoever made the game must be the great-grandchild of Descates and Huxley’s first cousin. They understand corporate life better than those who created it.

millennials in the workplace video simon sinek

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a very sobering piece on the nature of employment

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