Random finds (2017, week 30) — On the quitting economy, the virtues of boredom, and solitude

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

But first, a word of thanks to Matthew Wright who wrote these kind words:

“As ever, Mark Storm connects seemingly disparate events with a simple thread — ‘change’, through the interplay between design, technology and culture.”

The quitting economy

When employees are treated as short-term assets, they reinvent themselves as marketable goods, always ready to quit, argues Ilana Gershon, associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University, in The quitting economy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, “triumphant US economic intellectuals raced to implement the ultra-individualist ideals of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and other members of the Mont Pelerin Society, far and wide. […] In doing so for work, they developed a metaphor — that every person should think of herself as a business, the CEO of Me, Inc.” It would have profound implications for how workplaces are run, how people understand their jobs, and how they plan careers, which increasingly revolve around quitting.

At the same time, the way in which we value companies also changed. Until then, “business people thought that companies provided a wide variety of benefits to a large number of constituents — to upper management, to employees, to the local community, as well as to shareholders. Many of these benefits were long-term,” Gershon writes. “But as market value overtook other measures of a company’s value, maximising the short-term interests of shareholders began to override other concerns, other relationships. Quarterly earnings reports and stock prices became […] the sole measures of success.”

And the more expendable the workforce, the easier it is to respond to short-term demands. “These are market and shareholder metrics. Their dominance diminished commitment to employees, and all other commitments but to shareholders, as much as the particular industry requirements of production allow. With companies so organised, the idea of loyalty receded.”

Loyalty, however, is a two-way street. Making jobs short-term, commitment-free enterprises leads to workers who view temporary work contracts as also desirable. You start hiring job-quitters. The CEO of Me, Inc is “a job-quitter for a good reason. In a society where market rules rule, the only way for an employee to know her value is to look for another job and, if she finds one, usually to quit.”

While companies rarely say so explicitly, in practice they often want employees who can be let go easily and with little fuss, employees who do not expect long-term commitments from their employer.

“In significant ways, the calculus of quitting changes workplace dynamics. Being a good manager now means helping those whom you manage acquire the skills that will help them to leave for a better job at another company,” Gershon writes. “The calculus of quitting also changes what it means to have a good division of labour at work. If your goal is to get a job somewhere else, not all work projects are equally valuable. Workers must jockey for the tasks and projects that might lead to a job elsewhere. They must try to avoid tasks that, either due to intellectual property issues or for other reasons, are too company-specific.” Furthermore, “[t]he calculus of quitting also changes the nature of being co-workers, and not just because they are jockeying over who does which tasks in a new way.” After all, “when it comes time for them to look for their next job, [they] have supporters at other companies.

“The environment of the quitting economy also brings about a change in the emotional life of the worker and workplace. […] Since company loyalty is no longer around to guarantee committed workers, passion is now supposed to be the driving force. Intriguingly, this passion […] is restricted to the tasks at work or to learning certain skills.” The market-specific problems for which workers feel a passion for solving aren’t specific to that particular company. In other words, working for passion means focusing on the task, not the company. This makes it far easier to move to another company where they can still do the work about which they feel passionately.

“In a way new to the world, and begun by the re-orientation of companies to maximise shareholder value, quitting work is now central to what it means to have a job in the first place,” says Gershon. “Hayek’s philosophy has led to workers thinking of themselves as the CEO of Me, Inc; and to survive in the neoliberal world of work, the CEO of Me, Inc must be a quitter.”

The virtues of boredom

“Boredom is, in the Darwinian sense, an adaptive emotion. Its purpose, that is, may be designed to help one flourish,” says classics scholar Peter Toohey in Boredom: A Lively History (2011).

‘Peter Toohey argues that boredom, unlike primary emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, takes a secondary role, alongside ‘social emotions’ like sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration, and contempt. He delineates between two main types of boredom — simple boredom, which occurs regularly and doesn’t require that you be able to name it, and existential boredom, a grab-bag condition that is ‘neither an emotion, nor a mood, nor a feeling’ but, rather, ‘an impressive intellectual formulation’ that has much in common with depression and is highly self-aware, something Toohey calls the most self-reflective of conditions,” Maria Popova wrote in The Cultural History and Adaptive Function of Boredom.

To many of us, says assistant professor in philosophy Andreas Elpidorou in The quiet alarm, a life without boredom might, on first glance, seem ideal. But consider it more carefully. “If we did not have the capacity for boredom, then any situation — regardless of how trivial, banal, or humdrum it might be — would fail to strike us as boring. Nothing would be boring. Not the experience of listening to the same lecture over and over again. Not the seemingly endless time spent waiting in offices. Yet some situations should bore us.”

“We tend to reproach ourselves for staring out of the window. You are supposed to be working, or studying, or ticking off things on your to-do list. It can seem almost the definition of wasted time. It seems to produce nothing, to serve no purpose. We equate it with boredom, distraction, futility. The act of cupping your chin in your hands near a pane of glass and letting your eyes drift in the middle distance does not normally enjoy high prestige. We don’t go around saying: ‘I had a great day: the high point was staring out of the window.’ But maybe in a better society, that’s just the sort of thing people would say to one another.” —From The Importance of Staring out the Window, The School of Life

According to Elpidorou, boredom arises as the result of the perception of a mismatch: a gap between the need for stimulation and its availability. “We want something that simply is not there. Boredom is our awareness of that absence. […] Think of boredom as an internal alarm. When it goes off, it is telling us something. It signals the presence of an unfulfilling situation. But it is an alarm equipped with a shock. The negative and aversive experience of boredom motivates us […] to pursue a different situation, one that seems more meaningful or interesting, just as a sharp pain motivates us not to put pins into our bodies. […] When tasks with which we are currently engaged have lost their luster, boredom promotes the pursuit of alternative goals by its very character.”

Boredom motivates us to do something else, without necessarily telling us what to do, says Elpidorou. It can transport us from one psychological place to another.

What is lacking when we feel bored, Mary Mann reveals in Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, is often something much deeper than entertainment. Feeling bored “doing work that didn’t mean anything to me in San Diego, a place I’d never meant to live, felt as if I’d slipped out of the role of protagonist in my own life, just fallen right out of the story altogether,” she writes.

In 2015, when Mann was still researching her book, she wrote an opinion in The New York Times, called The Other Side of Boredom.

“Doing nothing is often boring, and boredom is often crazy-making,” Mann wrote. Apparently, people prefer self-administering electric shocks to doing nothing, as researchers report in a study punlished in Science. This makes it all the more surprising that others actively seek boredom out, like Gertrude Stein, who famously wrote on developing creative genius: “You have to sit around so much doing nothing.”

“Boredom seems to result in creativity only when given the right conditions. Yet at the same time, creative thinking is what makes boredom tolerable: A factory employee dreams up home redecorations on the assembly line, a salmon fisherwoman plans the evening menu while hauling nets, a medical salesman decides in a meeting to start raising bees,” according to Mann.

But what turns doing nothing into creative fuel?

“While there are no conclusive studies on this,” she writes, “therapists and psychoanalysts I’ve interviewed tend to agree that the best way to really use boredom is to allow our bored minds to wander freely and to pay close attention to where they go, like watching a Ouija board supply answers under our own fingertips.”

More recently, Julie Beck spoke with Mary Mann about what boredom really means, and how it manifests in our relationships and in the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. It’s not a crisis if things aren’t always interesting. One of the questions Beck asked is, “How often does boredom come from a desire we have for our lives to have a narrative?”

“One thing I thought was really interesting in researching this was talking to Martin Demand Frederiksen, who had spent all this time with these young men in Georgia, the country, studying how they were feeling boredom. He was talking about this one man he interviewed, who hated being in the country. He thought it was boring to the point of depression, and he really wanted to be a musician. He didn’t have any outlets, he was sort of trapped where he was. And feeling trapped is a big part of boredom. People feel boredom a lot when they feel trapped and vice versa. And this particular guy, he preferred to do his interviews with Martin in the past tense. He preferred to pretend with Martin that they were in the future looking back at his current life as part of this trajectory that led him to whatever success he was going to find. So this boredom would be part of the story, it would be the struggle that then leads to the glory. It was a really good example to me of how things that are really good narrative aren’t necessarily things that anyone would want to live through. No one would want to be in this guy’s situation. He was really unhappy. But it did make for a good story.”

“But with boredom I think it’s also embarrassing. People don’t want to admit that they feel bored because there’s a judgment about it, right? ‘Only boring people get bored.’ It’s a sign that maybe you’re not as creative or as great or as fascinating as you would like to seem. So we just don’t talk about it.” — Mary Mann in The Other Side of Boredom

And this …

What if we become lonely in our solitude? Jennifer Stitt, a graduate student in the history of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explores this question in an essay for Aeon, Before you can be with others, first learn to be alone.

“Isn’t there some danger that we will become isolated individuals, cut off from the pleasures of friendship? Philosophers have long made a careful, and important, distinction between solitude and loneliness. In The Republic (c380 BCE), Plato proffered a parable in which Socrates celebrates the solitary philosopher. In the allegory of the cave, the philosopher escapes from the darkness of an underground den — and from the company of other humans — into the sunlight of contemplative thought. Alone but not lonely, the philosopher becomes attuned to her inner self and the world. In solitude, the soundless dialogue ‘which the soul holds with herself’ finally becomes audible.

Echoing Plato, [Hannah] Arendt observed: ‘Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it. In solitude, Arendt never longed for companionship or craved camaraderie because she was never truly alone. Her inner self was a friend with whom she could carry on a conversation, that silent voice who posed the vital Socratic question: ‘What do you mean when you say …?’ The self, Arendt declared, ‘is the only one from whom you can never get away — except by ceasing to think.’”

According to Stitt, Arendt’s warning is well worth remembering in our own time. In our hyper-connected world, a world in which we can communicate constantly and instantly over the internet, we rarely remember to carve out spaces for solitary contemplation. “Arendt reminds us,” Stitt writes, “if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ — no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness — and conscience — but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.”

More on solitude in Maria Popova’s How to Be Alone: An Antidote to One of the Central Anxieties and Greatest Paradoxes of Our Time.

“Engaging creatively requires hitting the reset button, which means carving space in your day for lying around, meditating, or staring off into nothing. This is impossible when every free moment — at work, in line, at a red light — you’re reaching for your phone. Your brain’s attentional system becomes accustomed to constant stimulation; you grow antsy and irritable when you don’t have that input. You’re addicted to busyness,” Derek Beres writes in Being Busy Is Killing Our Ability to Think Creatively.

But how do you disconnect when connection is demanded by bosses, peers, and friends? In Happiness research shows the biggest obstacle to creativity is being too busy, Emma Seppälä makes four suggestions:

“First, emulate creative geniuses like Charles Dickens and J. R .R.Tolkien and make a long walk — without your phone — a part of your daily routine. A 2014 study found that people who went on daily walks scored higher on a test that measures creative thinking than people who did not, and that people who went on outdoor walks came up with more novel, imaginative analogies than people who walked on treadmills.

Second, get out of your comfort zone. Instead of intensely focusing exclusively on your field, take up a new skill or class. Travel to new places, and socialize with people outside your industry. Research shows that diversifying your experiences will broaden your thinking and help you come up with innovative solutions.”

“Third, make more time for fun and games. Stuart Brown points out in his book Play that humans are the only mammals who no longer play in adulthood. [Listen to a conversation between On Being’s Krista Tippet and Stuart Brown on Play, Spirit, and Character or watch his Brown’s TED Talk Play is more than just fun.] That’s a shame, because research by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, shows that play, by boosting positive mood, makes us feel both happier and more inventive. So spend some time playing fetch with your dog, join the kids for a game of Twister, or join an improv group or soccer club.

Lastly, alternate between doing focused work and activities that are less intellectually demanding. Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take, suggests that organizing your day this way can help give your brain some much-needed downtime — the better to make room for your next big idea.”

“Perhaps we now need to engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume. Otherwise our lives become like a Morse code transmission that’s lacking breaks — a swarm of noise blanketing the valuable data beneath.” — Michael Harris in The End of Absence

“The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same […] generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become,” Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations.

Published in 1776, “we should not expect every word to ring true today. But correctly read, Smith’s anxiety continues to resonate — and not just for people with repetitive jobs, but knowledge workers too,” says Tim Hartford, the Undercover Economist for The Financial Times, in Challenge is all too easily ducked by the modern worker.

“Smith was concerned about jobs that provided no mental challenge: if problems or surprises never arose, then a worker ‘has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in […] removing difficulties which never occur.’

For the modern knowledge worker, the problem is not that the work lacks challenge, but that the challenge is easily ducked. This point is powerfully made by computer scientist Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. Work that matters is often difficult. It can be absorbing in mid-flow and satisfying in retrospect, but it is intimidating and headache-inducing and full of false starts.”

A curious echo of Smith’s warning comes in Robert Twigger’s Micromastery, which sings the praises of mastering one small skill at a time. So, instead of learning how to cook, for example, one should learn how to master the perfect omelette. Sharp spikes of skill, such as these, are satisfying, not too hard to acquire and a path to true expertise. Besides, they provide variety of skills, which is needed to prosper in the pre-modern era.

Hartford draws three lessons from all this: 1. learning matters, 2. serious work requires real effort (and it can be tempting to duck that effort), and 3. old-fashioned craft offered us something special.

“Smith realised that the coming industrial age threatened these special joys of work. The post-industrial age threatens them too, in a rather different way. Fortunately, we have choices.”

The revolutionary figure of the beautiful, self-improved soul is an essay written by Justine Kolata, founder and director of The Public Sphere.

“Sculpting the soul and creating what Goethe referred to as ‘a more beautiful humanity’ is achieved through the internalisation of the Platonic triad of beauty, truth and goodness. Beauty is conceived as the integration of intellectual and aesthetic faculties in the encounter with art and nature. Truth is the result of the logical exercise of rational faculties and the elevating sense of curiosity derived from experiences in the world. Goodness is found in the human capacity to feel compassion for others and thereby contribute to the betterment of society.”

“The Platonic triad is realised within the soul by exploring ideas through lived experiences, not by blindly following abstract principles or dogma dictated by a church or political system. The concept requires that the individual actively engage her senses to navigate the material world in which beauty acts as her guide. The ineluctable indeterminateness of aesthetic, sensory experience is precisely what makes it valuable in expanding one’s consciousness in order to explore the ultimate questions of reality. Watching a lark’s parabolic trajectory in the sky, observing the fractal patterns found in nature, contemplating the concentric circles produced by rain droplets in pools of water become opportunities to understand the universe and reach a heightened cognitive-affective state. As Goethe observed: ‘A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.’”

“Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind.” — Seneca, Moral letters to Lucilius, Letter 16: On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

“There’s a great exchange between Epictetus and a student that encapsulates the true path to lasting, perennial success in any field. ‘Tell me what to do!’ the student says. Epictetus corrects him, ‘It would be better to say, Make my mind adaptable to any circumstances.’ It is true for your chosen field, just as it is for life. Principles are better than instructions and ‘hacks.’ We can figure out the specifics later — but only if we learn the right way to approach them. So make sure you ignore the people trying to teach you how to find shortcuts to this destination or that destination. Be wary of those who claim to have an exact prescription on how to do some really hard thing. Learn.” — From No Time for ‘Hacks,’ one of this week’s Daily Stoic newsletters

“What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious,” writes Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, in Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia.

“The task derives from the kind of creatures that we are. We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt — not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species’ cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress. Though xenophobia is part of our complex inheritance — quickened, no doubt, by the same instinct that causes chimpanzees to try to destroy members of groups not their own — this inheritance is not our ineluctable fate. Even in the brief span of our recorded history, some five thousand years, we can watch societies and individuals ceaselessly playing with, reshuffling, and on occasion tossing out the cards that both nature and culture have dealt, and introducing new ones.”

“There is something very strange about experiencing The Merchant of Venice when you are somehow imaginatively implicated in the character and actions of its villain. You laugh when Shylock’s servant, the clown Gobbo, contemplates running away from his penny-pinching master. You smile when Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, having escaped from her father’s dark house into the arms of her beloved, declares, ‘I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian.’ You shudder when the implacable Shylock sharpens his knife on the sole of his boot. You applaud the resolution of the dilemma, when clever Portia comes up with the legal technicality that confounds Shylock’s murderous plan. The Jew who had insisted upon the letter of the law is undone by the letter of the law; it is what is called poetic justice. But, all the same, you feel uneasy.

What, exactly, are you applauding and smiling at? How are you supposed to view the Jewish daughter who robs her father and bestows the money on her fortune-hunting Christian suitor? Do you join in the raucous laughter of the Christians who mock and spit on the Jew? Or do you secretly condone Shylock’s vindictive, malignant rage? Where are you, at the end of the harrowing scene in the courtroom, when Portia asks the man she has outmaneuvered and ruined whether he agrees to the terms she has dictated, terms that include the provision that he immediately become a Christian? ‘Art thou contented, Jew?’ she prods. ‘What dost thou say?’ And what do you think the Jew actually feels when he answers, ‘I am content’?”

“Everything transitory — the knower and the known.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4, 35

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