Occupational Extremes

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Whatever he was -- that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love -- he was not man." -- Ayn Rand

At one time or another, almost everyone fantasizes about winning the lottery -- or at least landing an easy, lucrative job. A little daydreaming from time to time is harmless enough, but at some point, it can be useful to ask, "What is it really like for those living out such a fantasy?"

Reality has answers, two examples of which I found at The Endeavor, a blog I recently learned about from Snedcat. His comment on a recent post here reminded me to stop by and take a look around, which I did recently.

Blogger John C. Cook makes quick work of the lottery winners:

Here's an example of how observation and intervention differ. Lottery winners often go bankrupt within a couple years of receiving their prize. If you suddenly make someone a millionaire, they're not a typical millionaire.
That's not to say that winning the lottery can't make things easier, of course, but Cook's earlier point about the "direction of causality" is well taken. Or, as my favorite social commentator might have put it, the money won't pinch hit for someone not having (or acquiring) knowledge of how to use it. And then, all the old problems the money was supposed to have solved come roaring back with a vengeance.

More interesting is what can happen to someone who gets a sinecure.
Despite having no work or research experience outside of MIT, I was regularly advertised to clients as an expert with seemingly years of topical experience relevant to the case. We were so good at rephrasing our credentials that even I was surprised to find in each of my cases, even my very first case, that I was the most senior consultant on the team.

I quickly found out why so little had been invested in developing my Excel-craft. Analytical skills were overrated, for the simple reason that clients usually didn't know why they had hired us. They sent us vague requests for proposal, we returned vague case proposals, and by the time we were hired, no one was the wiser as to why exactly we were there.

I got the feeling that our clients were simply trying to mimic successful businesses, and that as consultants, our earnings came from having the luck of being included in an elaborate cargo-cult ritual. In any case it fell to us to decide for ourselves what question we had been hired to answer, and as a matter of convenience, we elected to answer questions that we had already answered in the course of previous cases -- no sense in doing new work when old work will do. The toolkit I brought with me from MIT was absolute overkill in this environment. Most of my day was spent thinking up and writing PowerPoint slides. Sometimes, I didn’t even need to write them -- we had a service in India that could put together pretty good copy if you provided them with a sketch and some instructions.
Oddly enough, there was something absent from this real-life fantasy:
It took roughly three months before BCG disproved my "burn-out proof" theory. Putting together PowerPoint slides was easy, the hours were lenient, and the fifth day of every week usually consist[ed] of a leisurely day away from the client site. By all accounts, I should have been coasting through my tasks.
Cook calls the following quote from that story the best explanation for burnout he has ever seen: "... burning out isn't just about work load, it's about work load being greater than the motivation to do work."

Money represents stored value from past work. In the case of a lottery win or a sinecure, there is little or no causal connection between one's own mind and effort, and the money. The momentum of success is replaced by inertia, and one wakes up one day to find himself in a prison, albeit a well-fed one, if he is lucky.

Plainly, money and leisure aren't everything. Happily, there is a better alternative, doing work you love:
First, the tiny company spent a small fortune sending staff to beer festivals across the country. Second, they humored [their then-new brewmaster, Tomme] Arthur.

"Everything he wanted to do, they've backed up," said Tom Nickel, then Arthur's assistant and now owner of O'Brien's Pub in Kearny Mesa.

Arthur wanted to create sour beers with cherries and wild yeasts; unfiltered farmhouse ales; deep, spicy abbey ales. In 2006, the Marsaglias, Arthur and a fourth partner, Jim Comstock, opened Port/Lost Abbey in San Marcos. There, Arthur bottles his work -- the brewpubs' beers are only available on tap.

But in brewery or brewpubs, the Marsaglias urge brewers to experiment and create.

"That's the only way you can be passionate about something," Vince said. "Otherwise, it'd be 'I'm coming to work today' instead of 'I'm going to make my beer today.'"
The good news is that, unlike in the case of winning a lottery, this kind of "jackpot," or something like it, is within reach of almost everyone. The bad news is that realizing as much of it as possible takes effort in many different areas (outside the area of one's passion), some of which can be hard for certain individuals. For example, even knowing what one is passionate about can be hard, especially if introspection isn't one's strong suit, and that can change over time. Many people tragically die not knowing their passions.

Eden isn't just a myth. It's a denial of man's nature as a living being, and particularly of the nature of values and the role they play in life. To dream of Eden or anything like it for very long is really to substitute mere fantasy for genuine aspiration.

-- CAV


Jim May said...

A key element of the difference between a lottery winner and a successful businessman is the causality of it. A lottery win comes out of the blue -- i.e. It is effecively uncaused (by anything the lottery winner did) and therefore cannot be repeated on purpose. This tends to be reflected in an anxious hedonism, the emotional state of a person who has no idea whence his fortune comes, and so squanders it to escape the fear of its equally causeless end.

Take it all away from the businessman, and he simply starts again. He knows how he did it the first time--he knows where it came from, he knows its cause, and need simply enact it in order to enjoy it again. Instead of anxiety born of fear of the unknown, he shows the confidence of someone who lives in an intelligible universe in which he is competent to identify, pursue and achive goals. Hell, some businessmen do reboots like that on purpose, selling off their established successes in order to start over in a completely new field.

The difference is in the view of causality held by successful people, versus that held by the sort of person who regularly buys lottery tickets. I recognized this pattern a long time ago in regards to romantic relationships; "lottery winners" tend to be desperately clingy and overly emotional; since they do not grasp the causality of it all, they cannot grasp why things happen, good or bad, and so they fear breakups because they have no way of knowing whether their current good fortune will ever happen again I called this the "lottery win" mentality, in contrast with the "paycheck mentality" of someone who grasps their own value, how it makes them attractive, and that they still "have it" even if a given relationship fails.

BTW, I actually happen to have a very detailed plan in place for such an event, myself, but that's mainly because I think everything through, even my "what if" daydreams :)

Gus Van Horn said...

That's an interesting analogy you draw between money and romance. I think it explains aspects of certain clingy types -- although I would imagine that many people in that boat have a whole host of other psychological problems that also contribute to their predicament. (Some of these could also be rooted in a "causeless" view of existence generally.)

Jim May said...

(Some of these could also be rooted in a "causeless" view of existence generally.)

The first thing that popped into my head when I read that was: "causeless" view of existence = "nothing happens for a reason".

It's ironic, in light of the more well-known inverse version of that statement -- "everything happens for a reason" -- which is usually heard from the same sort of person.

Gus Van Horn said...

I guess that's because the notion of not having an internal locus of control sounds marginally less absurd to the person making such an admission if he at least admits causality on *some* level. And, of course, such a person can evade the full nature of his admission more effectively.