April 10th, 2021: Greetings from Taipei. I’ve been making slow and steady progress on my book and just took my midterm for my Chinese class. Still enjoying my time in Taiwan and waiting for the US to send some of its extra vaccines!
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#1 The Inspiration Deficit
I’ve talked to hundreds of people about their careers and aspirations over the past few years. The common theme from across the world is that people are hungry. They want more interesting work, more ambitious environments, better leaders and more chances to take chances. A few people from places like India, Kenya and Nigeria seem to be consistent exceptions.
We have the most educated collection of people on this planet and the best we can tell these people, especially young ones, it that they should channel this ambition into legible paths that result in them being able to add fancy letters to their story like MA, VP, PhD, and CEO.
All of this made sense at one point. The industrial economy was incredible. It has helped billions move into a middle class existence while being part of building the future. My father got his start building aircraft engines and spent an entire career being part of a company that grew from $300M in revenue to $75 billion in revenue over 40 years. Imagine being part of something like that? Many people I know have parents who were able to be part of something special like that.
When I was interning at that same aircraft engine company in the last 2000s the excitement was gone. Jobs had been outsourced, people had been laid off over and over again and people were telling me I should try to work elsewhere. I worked with another intern that used to nap under his cubicle every day for two hours. No one even came to our corner of the office. I graduated and went to work for GE and found a similar energy. Senior people seemed happy enough to collect a paycheck but most people seemed to agree that GE was “not what it used to be.” People told me the best strategy was to work hard for a few years, find a cozy job and coast. I wanted more.
Throughout the 20th Century there were tons of these kind of companies. Westinghouse, GE, United Technologies, AT&T, Sony, Samsung, Siemens, Toyota, Chrysler, Caterpillar, Xerox, and so on. Yet if you’re working at these companies you have to accept a pessimistic view of the world. That the point of work is to make money and go about your life.
The kinds of companies growing at similar rates in today’s world are tech companies companies like Google and Facebook. Except most of the employees aren’t involved in building much of anything. Most people I know work at a computer and create documents or edit other people’s documents. There are a small number of coders that help tweak the algorithms and build new services, but most of the employees work on moderation, project management, PR, finance, communications, marketing, and legal work.
Adair Turner has called this “zero-sum” work:
Look around the economy, and it’s striking how much high-talent manpower is devoted to activities that cannot possibly increase human welfare, but entail competition for the available economic pie. Such activities have become ubiquitous: legal services, policing, and prisons; cybercrime and the army of experts defending organizations against it; financial regulators trying to stop mis-selling and the growing ranks of compliance officers employed in response; the huge resources devoted to US election campaigns; real-estate services that facilitate the exchange of already-existing assets; and much financial trading.
There’s nothing wrong with this kind of work. It’s just that doing it at most companies in today’s world can be quite uninspiring. Work has increasingly specialized people are working in more focused areas. Accounting at one company may have nothing to do with accounting at another company. The most ambitious move jobs not because they are “job hoppers” but because they are are craving more.
“A young man of average ability has been propelled upward so early—and so pleasantly”
It might surprise you that these kinds of opportunities were so prevalent that people were accidentally finding the. In William Whyte’s 1956 book Organization Man, he detailed a young man of “average ability”:
Corporations have been expanding at a great rate, and the effect has been a large-scale deferral of dead ends and pigeonholes for thousands of organization men. With so many new departments, divisions, and plants being opened up, many a young man of average ability has been propelled upward so early—and so pleasantly—that he can hardly be blamed if he thinks the momentum is a constant.
The growth rates in this period, and especially in the US, were bananas. There’s a reason they call it the “great boom.” The opportunities were everywhere. Consider another account from a young person in the 1950s:
“We are a young group without mature leadership,” explains a rising young banker, “so we are forced to take on responsibilities that older people usually assume. For the last two years I have been chairman of the board of the church, a job held by a fifty-five or sixty-year-old man in most communities. This gives me a training valuable in business. The church is a corporation with a $50,000 budget, and we’ve had to think about a $100,000 capital loan. How else could people our age get a chance to deal with that much capital? We’re forced ahead of our time.”
Because of the boomer blockade, a one-time generational, demographic, and economic blip, you rarely hear young people saying they were pushed into leadership positions before they were ready.
You see them dropping out and heading to Bali instead.
Here’s the thing people don’t understand about digital nomads. Most of these people would be open to working in companies in their home countries but aren’t happy with the options they have.
I’ve hung out with these people across the world. Digital nomads, crypto people, under-employed freelancers, solopreneurs, YouTubers, vagabonds, investors. These are some of the most optimistic, energized people I know.
They are on their paths because of self-preservation. I was happy to trade a large chunk of my income to lower the odds that I would drift into cynicism in my mid-40s. So are many others.
All of these people have a sense that things are changing and better options have to emerge. For the large majority of people they look at the way things are and assume this is the way things are supposed to be.
We don’t know what we are missing until we are shown a better option.
I think we are starting to see the beginning of better options in the digital creator world, online communities, online learning, and within tech more broadly. Optimism is trading at an incredible premium and any company, country, city, or individual that can communicate a persuasive version of it will reap the rewards. Elon Musk gets this. So does Francis Suarez. People building online communities like Anna Gat with the Interintellect get it. Crypto people too. I’m trying to channel a version of it here too.
I told people in 2017 that I was leaving the world of work until things get more interesting. Large organizations still seem quite clueless but many of those individuals that have exited the system are starting to see different angles to hack, steal, or invent new systems.
Things are officially getting interesting and I’m here for it.
Want more inspiration in your life? You know what to do:
I’ve been diving into the history of burnout for my book and discovered it was coined in 1974 by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger who was studying workers who were working at free healthcare clinics:
In a later paper he mentioned a definition by Cary Cherniss that I liked: “the bureaucratic infringement on a professional’s autonomy”
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