Essays on Technology and Culture

A Few Words of Explanation

It appears I touched a nerve with my previous piece, “Productivity Über Alles.” I was wary of posting it, worried that it would be taken the wrong way by Internet friends who are entrepreneurs, or that it would be a seen as a giant flameout, akin to Merlin Mann’s (in)famous “Merlin Labs!” video. It took some coaxing from said Internet friends, entrepreneur and corporate stooge alike, to convince me otherwise.

The post came in a burst of sheer frustration—a tough day at my corporate stooge job, combined with frustration about the sheer volume of crap that had been flowing into my inboxes about working for oneself, finding focus, doing your best independent work, and so much other stuff. When I read that article on people listening to audiobooks at 2x to better cram more information in, well, I snapped. Nothing against Shawn Blanc, and Mike Vardy, of course. They work hard, and I’m sure someone will get value out of their stuff. I just can’t mentally justify dropping $250 on a course on how to focus—and that’s probably cheap, really. The reason why is personal—I did blow $400 on a goddamn smartwatch, after all—but I’m sure it’s not exclusive to me.

So much of the rhetoric around “do what you love,” “work for yourself,” and anything that puts independence above everything else rings painfully shallow and hollow to my ears. My natural cynicism is to assume that someone has something to sell me, usually because they do. It feels like “make-believe help,” to borrow a phrase from Merlin. Something something “Facebook group about creative productivity,” am I right? There’s no shortage of a market for various panaceas to assuage the frustrated cubicle-dweller that they too can be an entrepreneur and, if not make it rich, at least be more fulfilled in life, by working for themselves. Hell, even those scummy “sharing economy” companies use the “entrepreneur” thing to justify having a giant pool of contract workers with no benefits and shitty pay. That alone should be a clue as to how bullshit the term “entrepreneur” is these days.

At least in the giant swimming pool called “technology” upon which I have been sitting on the edge of the shallow end of, with my toes in the water, the entrepreneur is lionized out of proportion. The only people in technology who get multiple hagiographic biographies and docudramas are the rich, white men who started companies and got successful. Not every startup CEO wants to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but every VC wants to find the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, so hey, if you can’t be Steve or Mark, at least look and act the part, and maybe the VC gods will shine down upon you. From my perspective, it feels like if you’re not working 80 hours a week for equity and the promise of a payday, or pulling down six figures at an established startup for the same amount of hours, you’re nothing.

Few things appeal to me less than the idea of working more than 40 hours a week, by the way. I held down two jobs for 52 hours a week, for a couple years, and it was killing me. But that’s what I had to do to keep my head above water, and pay down my student loans. I’m keeping afloat now, but I also had the luxury of my parents paying off a chunk when they sold their house. Even if I had been doing “something I love” for both of those jobs (and I wasn’t, by any stretch), I would still be exhausted at the end of each work week, ready to find some distraction to make me forget my misery. I certainly wouldn’t be working on the next thing. It takes a certain type of personality to make that work, and that ain’t mine.

That’s one of the things that irked me the most, and lead to my piece, the one-size-fits-all advice of “WORK FOR YOURSELF OR BE A MISERABLE FAILURE” mantra that runs through way too much of the tech-focused media I consume. It’s in my inbox, it’s in my podcast app, it’s in the various websites I check during downtime at work. It manifests itself as “THE ROBOTS ARE COMING FOR YOUR JOBS” on the one end, and “BE FULFILLED AND MAYBE GET RICH” on the other. Neither is compelling. if I cared about making money, I wouldn’t have gotten a degree in English.

And that’s the other problem. The demand for more. Life hacks, and efficiency, and ways to crank out more widgets, book more clients, maximize income, maximize shareholder value, maximize all of it. I don’t care. I wouldn’t say no to more money. I am $36,000 in debt, and have a small problem with buying gizmos with pictures of fruit on them (and concert tickets), after all. But I don’t want more money if it means more agony: chasing down invoices, pushing for the next client, marketing yourself, paying taxes on 1099 income. None of this appeals to me, and I can see it tainting the work I ostensibly want to do and love. Okay, fine, all things in life come with stuff you don’t like. My corporate stooge job isn’t a walk in the park, but the agony is manageable, and it usually ends at 5:00 every day. In the calculus of the life I want for myself, A boring desk job for The Man, with moderate agony looks preferable to a job working for Myself, with increased agony.

This isn’t exactly a new struggle on my part, just one thrown into sharper focus after a bad day and some frustrating timing. I’ve long struggled to figure out just what the hell I want out of my life. All I’ve got so far is just a huge, and growing, list of what I don’t want. Maybe some of those things on that list will fall off and I’ll re-evaluate them, but that’s a ways away. In the meantime, I just want a little less agony, and a lot less people screaming in my ears about how I shouldn’t be chained to someone else’s desk for 40 hours a week, and instead be working for myself… and buying their how-to guide to maximize every hour I spend doing it.

Eight hours for Work, Eight hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will