There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.
― Peter F. Drucker
This post is going to be a bit more personal than usual; I’m trying to get my head around why work is deeply unsatisfying, and how the current system seems to conspire to destroy all the awesome potential it should have. My job should have all the things we desire: meaning, empowerment and a quest for mastery. At some level we seem to be in an era that belittles all dreams and robs work of the meaning it should have, disempowers most, and undermines mastery of anything. Worse yet, mastery of things seems to invoke outright suspicion being regarded more than a threat then a resource. On the other hand, I freely admit that I’m lucky and have a good well-paying, modestly empowering job compared to the average Joe or Jane. So many have it so much worse. The flipside of this point of view is that we need to improve work across the board; if the best jobs are this crappy one can scarcely imagine how bad things are for normal or genuinely shitty jobs.
In my overall quest for quality and mastery I refuse to settle for this and it only makes my dilemma all the more confounding. As I state in the title, my job has almost everything going for it and it should be damn close to unambiguously awesome. In fact my job used to be awesome, and lots of forces beyond my control have worked hard to completely fuck that awesomeness up. Again getting to the confounding aspects of the situation, the forces that be seem to be absolutely hell bent on continuing to fuck things up, and turn awesome jobs into genuinely shitty ones. I’m sure the shitty jobs are almost unbearable. Nonetheless, I know that grading on a curve my job is still awesome, but I don’t settle for success being defined by being less shitty than other people. That’s just a recipe for things to get shittier! If I have these issues with my work, what the hell is the average person going through?
So before getting to all the things fucking everything up, let’s talk about why the job should be so incredibly fucking awesome. I get to be a scientist! I get to solve problems, and do math and work with incredible phenomena (some of which I’ve tattooed on my body). I get to invent things like new ways of solving problems. I get to learn and grow and develop new skills, hone old skills and work with a bunch of super smart people who love to share their wealth of knowledge. I get to write papers that other people read and build on, I get to read papers written by a bunch of people who are way smarter than me, and if I understand them I learn something. I get to speak at conferences (which can be in nice places to visit) and listen at them too on interesting topics, and get involved in deep debates over the boundaries of knowledge. I get to contribute to solving important problems for mankind, or my nation, or simply for the joy of solving them. I work with incredible technology that is literally at the very bleeding edge of what we know. I get to do all of this and provide a reasonably comfortable living for my loved ones.
If failure is not an option, then neither is success.
― Seth Godin
All of the above is true, and here we get to the crux of the problem. When I look at each day I spend at work almost nothing in that day supports any of this. In a very real sense all the things that are awesome about my job are side projects or activities that only exist in the “white space” of my job. The actual job duties that anyone actually gives a shit about don’t involve anything from the above list of awesomeness. Everything I focus on and drive toward is the opposite of awesome; it is pure mediocre drudgery, a slog that starts on Monday and ends on Friday, only to start all over again. In a very deep and real sense, the work has evolved into a state where all the awesome things about being a scientist are not supported at all, and every fucking thing done by society at large undermines it. As a result we are steadily and completely hollowing out value, meaning, and joy from the work of being a scientist. This hollowing is systematic, but serves no higher purpose that I can see other than to place a sense of safety and control over things.
The Cul-de-Sac ( French for “dead end” ) … is a situation where you work and work and work and nothing much changes
― Seth Godin
So the real question to answer is how did we get to this point? How did we create systems whose sole purpose seems to be robbing life of meaning and value? How are formerly great institutions being converted into giant steaming piles of shit. Why is work becoming such a universal shit show? Work with meaning and purpose should be something society values both from the standpoint of pure productivity, but also for the sense of respect for humanity. Instead we are turning away from making work meaningful, and making steady choices that destroy the meaning in work. The forces at play are a combination of fear, greed, and power. Each of these forces has a role to play is a widespread and deep destruction of a potentially better future. These forces provide short-term comfort, but long-term damage that ultimately leaves us poorer both materially and spiritually.
Men go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire.
― Dan Brown
Of these forces, fear is the most acute and widespread. Fear is harnessed by the rich and powerful to hold onto and grow their power, their stranglehold on society. Across society we see people looking at the world and saying “Oh shit! this is scary, make it stop!” The rich and powerful can harness this chorus of fear to hold onto and enhance their power. The fear comes from the unknown and change, which is driving people into attempting to control things, which also suits the needs of the rich & powerful. This control gives people a false sense of safety and security at the cost of empowerment and meaning. For those at the top of the food chain, control is what they want because it allows them to hold onto their largess. The fear is basically used to enslave the population and cause them to willingly surrender for promises of safety and security against a myriad of fears. In most cases we don’t fear the greatest thing threatening us, the forces that work steadfastly to rob our lives of meaning. At work the fear is the great enemy of all that is good killing meaning, empowerment and mastery in one fell swoop.
Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.
― John Steinbeck
How does this manifest itself in my day-to-day work? A key mechanism in undermining meaning in work is the ever more intrusive and micromanaged money running research. The control comes under the guise of accountability (who can argue with that, right). The accountability leads to a systematic diminishment in achievement and has much more to do with a lack of societal trust (which embodies part of fear mechanics). Instead of insuring better results and money well spent, the whole dynamic creates a virtual straightjacket for everyone in the system that assures they actually create, learn and produce far less. We see research micromanaged, and projectized in ways that are utterly incongruent with how science can be conducted. The lack of trust translates to lack of risk and the lack of risk equates to lack of achievement (with empowerment and mastery sacrificed at the altar of accountability). This is only one aspect of how the control works to undermine work. There are so many more.
Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.
― Francis Chan
Part of these systematic control mechanisms at play is the growth of the management culture in all these institutions. Instead of valuing the top scientists and engineers who produce discovery, innovation and progress, we now value the management class above all else. The managers manage people, money and projects that have come to define everything. This is true at the Labs as it is at universities where the actual mission of both has been scarified to money and power. Neither the Labs nor Universities are producing what they were designed to create (weapons, students, knowledge,). Instead they have become money-laundering operations whose primary service is the careers of managers. All one has to do is see who are the headline grabbers from any of these places; it’s the managers (who by and large show no leadership). These managers are measured in dollars and people, not any actual achievements. All of this is enabled by control and control enables people to feel safe and in control. As long as reality doesn’t intrude we will go down this deep death spiral.
We have priorities and emphasis in our work and money that have nothing to do with the reason our Labs, Universities or even companies exist. We have useless training that serves absolutely no purpose other than to check a box off. The excellence or quality of the work done has no priority at all. We have gotten to the point where peer review is a complete sham, and any honest assessment of the quality of the work is met with hostility. We should all wrap our heads collectively around this maxim of the modern workplace, it can be far worse for your career to demand technical quality as part of what you do than to do shoddy work. We are heading headlong into a mode of operation where mediocrity is enshrined as a key organizational value to be defended against potential assaults by competence. All of this can be viewed as the ultimate victory of form over substance. If it looks good, it must be good. The result is that the appearances are managed, and anything of substance is rejected.
The result of the emphasis on everything else except the core mission of our organizations is the systematic devaluation of those missions, along with a requisite creeping incompetence and mediocrity. In the process the meaning and value of the work takes a fatal hit. Actually expressing a value system of quality and excellence is now seen as a threat and becomes are career limiting perspective. A key aspect of the dynamic to recognize is the relative simplicity of running mediocre operations without any drive for excellence. Its great work if you can get it! If your standards are complete shit, almost anything goes, and you avoid the need for conflict almost entirely. In fact the only source of conflict becomes the need to drive away any sense of excellence. Any hint of quality or excellence has the potential to overturn this entire operation and the sweet deal of running it. So any quality ideas are attacked and driven out as surely as the immune system attacks a virus. While this might be a tad hyperbolic, its not too far off at all, and the actual bull’s-eye for an ever growing swath of our modern world.
The key value is money and its continued flow. The whole system runs on a business model of getting money regardless of what it entails doing or how it is done. Of course having no standards makes this so much easier, if you’ll do any shitty thing as long as they pay you for it management is easier. With standards of quality this whole operation becomes self-replicating. In a very direct way the worse thing one can do is get hard work, so the system is wired to drive good work away. You’re actually better off doing shitty work held to shitty standards. Doing the right thing, of the thing right is viewed as a direct threat to the flow of money and generates an attack. The prime directive is money to fund people and measure the success of the managers. Whether or not the money generates excellent meaningful work or focuses on something of value simply does not matter. It becomes a completely viscous cycle where money breeds more money and more money can be bred by doing simple shoddy work than asking hard questions and demanding correct answers. In this way we can see how mediocrity becomes the value that is tolerated and excellence is reviled. Excellence is a threat to power, mediocrity simply accepts being lorded over by the incompetent.
At some level it is impossible to disconnect what is happening in science from the broader cultural trends. Everything happening in the political climate today is part of the trends I see at work. The political climate is utterly and completely corrosive, and the work environment is the same thing. In the United States we have had 20 years of government, which has been engineered to not function. This is to support the argument that government is bad and doesn’t work (and it should be smaller). The fact is that it is engineered not to work by the proponents of this philosophy. The result is a literal self-fulfilling prophesy, government doesn’t work if you don’t try to make it work. If we actually put effort into making it work, valued expertise and excellence, it would work just fine. We get shit because that’s what we ask for. If we demanded excellence and performance, and actually held people accountable for it, we might actually get it, but it would be hard, it would be demanding. The problem is that success would disprove the maxim that government is bad and doesn’t work.
One of my friends recently pointed out that the people managing and running the programs that fund the work at the Labs in Washington actually make less than our Postdocs at the Labs. The result is that we get what we pay for, incompetence, which grows more manifestly obvious with each passing year. If we want things to work we need to hire talented people and hold them to high standards, which means we need to pay them what they are worth.
We see a large body of people in society who are completely governed by fear above all else. The fear is driving people to make horrendous and destructive decisions politically. The fear is driving the workplace into the same set of horrendous and destructive decisions. Its not clear whether we will turn away from this mass fear before things get even worse. I worry that both work and politics will be governed by these fears until it pushes us over the precipice to disaster. Put differently, the shit show we see in public through politics mirrors the private shit show in our workplaces. The shit is likely to get much worse before it gets better.
There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.
― John Lennon