“I’m confused. Does he have three houses or one?”

At risk of explaining satire, the following is the ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘ parallel universe take on how internet commenters might respond to a depiction of a typical working life. My personal favourite: “Well, the main problem I think is that he does not have any kind of shop at home, so he has to go to that office to be able to feed himself.”

Forum post: “I just read an article about a guy that has 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms in his house. Apparently he makes $40,000 a year, but then he has to go to a big office and spend 8 or 9 hours a day filling out forms and going to meetings all week long. He does that all year around. Apparently, he’s been doing it for 20 years or so. I admit it sounds a bit crazy, but it also seems intriguing.”

I’m not sure I could do it. It’s like .. I mean, it’s 8 hours a day! How long do you have to do this for?

I think he said twenty years. So when he’s done can he go back to his family?

By Jove, that’s like a prison sentence.

I don’t see how it is possible to do that and work in his own shop as well. How does he have time to take care of his home. What about friends?

There’s more: http://earlyretirementextreme.com/how-blog-comments-look-in-a-parallel-universe.html

 

Canaries in the coal-mine

I’ve discussed this idea with my melancholic relatives and friends, and was hence pleasantly surprised to see the ‘canaries’ theme appear on the blog of ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘.

Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme draws on the MBTI theory in his observation that:

NFs are like the canaries in the coal mine. Whenever they are not happy, things are bound to change. Therefore NTs should not only solve the present personal finance problems but try to predict and plan for the future that the present will transform itself into given the interhuman tension. If history is any guide things will look much different fifty years from now just like they looked quite different 50 years ago.

In comments a reader asks “what are the NFs not happy about right now?”

As a melancholic/INFP unhappiness is pretty much my stock-in-trade, so here goes:

Melancholics are idealists, and as such the most dissatisfying thing about our present socio-economic conventions (at least in Australia) is the growth of a mundane economic mindset which leaves little space for ideals.

Melancholics are motivated by ideals – we are not motivated by ambition, material wealth, popularity, or ‘what everyone else is doing’.  So it is demoralising for us to find that merely existing in society on a basically equitable level requires a life dedicated to the dull, self-serving materialism of the masses.

In practical terms, pursuing a basic ideal like ‘independence’ seems impossible unless we first obtain some form of hateful employment that pays far more money than we need to simply survive, but not enough to achieve meaningful independence.

Most of the melancholics I know are liberal arts majors (like me) who pursued their degrees under the influence of our idealistic temperaments and without much consideration to future employment.  There’s nothing to complain about in that, but now we find post-graduation that all the traditional avenues of employment for people like us are being squeezed.

Thirty years ago I probably would have gone on to do teaching.  Teaching can be viewed in an idealistic light, but nearly every teacher or former teacher I have spoken to has warned against it.  ‘Teaching’ itself is not the problem, it’s all the associated crap that goes on under the auspices of a seemingly dysfunctional education system.

Academia is likewise being squeezed under new models and domineering management structures that are turning universities into big business.  If we were to inquire about the nature of the ideal university, it would surely begin with wise and exemplary scholars in their various specialised disciplines.  Yet in the modern university the scholars are increasingly reduced to low-tier employees and service-providers, forced to play along with the narrow mercenary attitudes of non-idealistic managers.

The conventional avenues for aspiring idealists are approaching their end.  We’ve arrived at a point in which excelling at these supposedly ‘idealistic’ pursuits requires a non-idealistic frame of mind.  In other words, there’s no room for idealists anymore.

I’m sure this has happened many times in the past; it’s no doubt cyclical. But the important thing for melancholic idealists is to be able to recognise what part of the cycle we are in.  Concepts like ERE are vital and necessary as idealists begin to search for a way of life that is not entirely soul-destroying.  Money is always going to be an important part of life, but our relationship with money needn’t proceed according to social and economic conventions that crush, demoralise, and dismay us.

Recognising ourselves as canaries in the coal mine (or as dtcwee put it: the thin end of the wedge; or tip of the spear) affirms our sense that there is something deeply amiss in the way of life society would have us embrace.  There is something deeply offensive in donning the corporate guise with all its accompanying shallowness, politics, and insincere rhetoric.  There is something incredibly ugly about a society whose labour and institutions are increasingly stripped of any higher considerations than the self-interested and anxious pursuit of material wealth.

Why should I subordinate myself to a feckless and banal corporate structure, a management hierarchy comprised of people whose motives and ethics are at worst malicious and at best only benignly self-interested? Why should I submit myself to shallow conventions of language and an incorrigible corporate facade that exists seemingly just for the sake of preserving a coercive deception that this dysfunctional organisation is one big happy family?

If I have to sacrifice something, I would rather it be material wealth than personal integrity.

 

I can’t handle being useful

My latest piece at MercatorNet.com brings together my love of etymology and my deep, seething contempt for the language and culture of management:

Once we start giving people names and titles that reflect what they really do, it will no longer be possible to hide behind pomp and presentation. It’s one thing to say “I’m the manager of this team” and quite another to say “I handle these people”. The latter lacks pretence. It is a statement of action, and it has implications and repercussions that the softer title of ‘manager’ avoids. It’s the same rationale that led North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il to style himself “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have”.

 

Anywhere but there

It’s unusual to not value money; it’s definitely counter-cultural, and those of us who aren’t greatly moved by the thought of cold hard cash tend to feel foolish and apologetic, as though not valuing money is a shameful secret.

When I was young I told our elderly neighbour I didn’t really need money. She thought that was hilarious, and years later I was in full agreement, having discovered the limiting realities of not-being-rich.

The need to make money and to make as much as you can while you still can, verges on secular dogma.  It’s the heart of our contemporary faith in the power of money; what Christians used to call ‘Mammon’ before the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement began telling people that God wanted us to be wealthy.

I put up with an awful farce of a job for two years because it would have been irresponsible and unreasonable to turn down relatively well-paid employment.  No matter how bad it got, I had to stick with it because turning down ‘good money’ for no good reason is anathema in this society.

It only occurred to me near the end of my employment that I wasn’t really suited to this religion of money.  I find money quite boring.  I’m not strongly motivated by it, and I resent the fact that those of us who are motivated by ideals rather than paychecks have been so marginalised that we end up thinking we are the problem.

I used to wish I could be more ‘business-minded’ so I could get along better in life, but my experience with business has shown me that it’s not any particular skill-set I’m lacking – there are plenty of people riding the coat-tails of big business without the distinction of any outstanding set of skills.  It’s not something I’m lacking, it’s something I have. What I have is an unwillingness to further compromise myself in order to get along.  I don’t love money enough to sacrifice my integrity for it, doing the kinds of bullshit jobs for which my studies in philosophy, history, politics, and my experience in bioethics ‘qualify’ me.  As the author of the ‘bullshit jobs’ essay, anthropologist David Graeber writes:

“There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

I wonder how many people realise that their jobs should not exist, or that substantial portions of their daily work serve no purpose and are of no real benefit to anyone?  It’s demoralising and demeaning to find oneself in such a position; but why do we endure it?

Part of the answer is cultural: we’ve been conditioned to think that we must have a career, be heading somewhere, be earning as much as we reasonably can for our age and station.  At the same time we can’t even imagine that there might be alternatives – alternatives that won’t see us worn ragged in some vain attempt at total self-sufficiency, or regretting our poverty at an advanced age when it is far too late to do anything about it.

The ‘all or nothing’ mentality is compounded by the cost of basic necessities, in particular the land that one might need in order to eke out an existence.  In Australia the cost of land anywhere in or near the major cities is prohibitive.  House prices have dramatically increased relative to wages, and most people opt for the established convention of seeking a substantial income to service an even more substantial mortgage.

The thought of leaving the major cities is tempting, but though the land may be cheaper, the cost in terms of family and friends makes the price even higher.  And there’s something a little perverse in sacrificing one’s most meaningful relationships to save money; that’s not the kind of victory I’m interested in.

I lost my job a few months ago, and have since been seriously examining and working towards the prospect of never again ending up in another ‘bullshit job’.  Looking back, I can see that my greatest weakness has been the ‘all or nothing’ mentality.  For example, I had previously ruled out the prospect of ‘making a living’ as a freelance writer, because I knew I couldn’t replace my previous income from the kind of writing I do.  In my mind it had to be a comparable income, or it wouldn’t be viable.

This attitude kept me from making even the simplest effort to calculate my family’s cost of living – our annual expenses on a weekly basis.  I had no idea how much money my wife and I needed to make in order to survive.

I’ve since discovered that what we need is a lot less than what I was making in my former job, because of a characteristic that has turned out to be our greatest strength in this new adventure: our lifestyle is not expensive.  We are willing to make sacrifices, but the fact is that we don’t even miss the things that others would regard as ‘sacrifices’.  Our ideals and our interests are heavily weighted toward knowledge and skills that we can acquire and develop on our own.  Our lives would undoubtedly be boring to most of the people trapped in the ‘rat race’ of consumer culture; and that is their handicap and our great advantage.

We poor, marginalised and alienated idealists need to stop apologising for our ‘useless’ degrees, interests and ideals.  We need to drop the false ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy that pushes us towards soul-crushing employment in typically inane ‘bullshit jobs’.  We need to take some solace in the words of Pierre Ryckmans:

The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.

In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t quit that BS job, because it took an experience of such ineptitude and banality to clarify and sharpen my vision of where I want to be, starting with “anywhere but there”.

 

Home-roasted coffee

coffee1

I’ve bean busy…

With due credit to my brother and his wife for getting me started on this project…

I’ve been roasting my own coffee beans for almost a year now.  The procedure is very simple, and achieves the ideal of a high-quality product at far below the market cost.  I can spend 30-45mins roasting beans once every week or two weeks, and enjoy the satisfaction, the freedom, and the existential high of producing my own great-tasting coffee.

Instead of spending as much as $36/kg on fresh, good quality beans, I order green beans online for about $15/kg, including postage.  I roast the beans outdoors in small batches, in a pair of $12-15 popcorn machines.  There are plenty of other ways to roast coffee, and lots of ways to modify the ‘poppers’ for greater control and consistency, but I’m happy thus far with this entry-level approach, and you can read more about it here:

http://www.sweetmarias.com/airpop/airpopmethod.php

In practical terms I’m yet to find a downside to roasting my own coffee at home.  It has become my favourite example of pushing back a little against a purely consumerist lifestyle, and producing something of value for one’s own benefit.

It’s likewise an example of my broader theme of ‘richer on a lower income’, as my family moves slowly toward an improved quality of life on a much reduced income.

How many other things could we produce – not for the sake of self-sufficiency, but for the sake of enjoying higher quality products without having to spend more hours in a meaningless job just to pay for them?  How much autonomy could we regain by having in our own skills and possessions the ability to produce rather than merely consume?  How much more fulfilling is a life spent cultivating the knowledge and sufficiency that past generations took for granted, and which we have all but abandoned?

This tiny step of making (and then drinking) my own coffee is pure inspiration.  It symbolises knowledge, freedom, power, wealth, and principle.  It points the way to a better life in which we can break the ruling conventions of 9-5 jobs and supermarket trolleys.

This isn’t about self-sufficiency in the most literal and demanding sense, nor are we about to dig a bomb-shelter, stockpile weapons, or form a fringe religious cult (coffee-cult, maybe).  It fundamentally is not about making life more difficult, onerous, or weird.  Rather, it’s about the kinds of improvements that would be common-sense if so many of us weren’t alienated and estranged by the demands of mainstream employment, and a culture increasingly dependent on a false dichotomy of career and consumption.

 

 

Inefficiencies of the labour market

My friend dtcwee has posted a side-by-side comparison of the labour market and the share market, with regard to their relative efficiencies. Why, for example, is applying for a job so much murkier and more mysterious than purchasing shares? Who benefits from such opacity?

http://dtcwee.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/take-this-job-and-commoditise-it.html

When dtcwee first told me his idea, I thought the comparison might not be apt because in the share market example we are the buyer, while in the labour market we’re both the seller and, in a sense, the product. But I readily cede to his superior economic knowledge, and on reflection I wonder if it has more to do with psychology than anything else. People invest themselves in their careers and shape their sense of worth and identity around it. Perhaps the opacity of the labour market reflects a reluctance to reduce our precious and very important identities down to a dollar value? How would your workplace change if everyone knew each other’s salaries?

Psychology complicates the system in another way: while employment is supposedly about skills and experience, we’re yet to find a way to quarantine these useful parts from the messy confusion of humanity in which they currently reside. While it would be nice to hire just the skills and knowledge of, say, a marketing manager, unfortunately there’s a good chance that you’ll get a whole lot of unwanted neediness, passive aggression, politics, and other unexpected troubles as part of the whole package. The same goes for prospective employees looking to join a new company. What might ideally be an efficient business transaction is instead more like being adopted into a dysfunctional family. Not only are these factors difficult to measure and communicate, they may well be so prevalent that the entire system has a vested interest in resisting transparency.

None of which should be taken as a defense of the current system.

The ethics of management

I have a friend who is considering studying philosophy next year, and I once would have told him to do something useful and interesting like….anything that pays money and isn’t fundamentally hateful.

But “I need money” is not an ideal motivation for pursuing a vocational path, and in light of what I’ve since learned about melancholic idealists, pursuing a less-than-ideal motive is psychologically and spiritually self-destructive.

Look at me: I stuck with a weird and uncertain job for two years because it was the sensible thing to do, leaving only when my ‘superiors’ had completed their task of making my and my colleagues’ roles entirely redundant.  It wasn’t a good position to be in, though I learned a great deal about the inanity of corporate culture and can now list on my CV under ‘achievements’: “gained a healthy and fully justified contempt for management practices in the corporate not-for-profit sector.”

My time in that role taught me two things about philosophy:

Firstly, philosophy is totally beyond the scope of most people, including otherwise intelligent or seemingly successful corporate types.  Not beyond them by nature, but beyond them by training, inclination, and perhaps by temperament.  For most people, engaging in philosophy would be a real struggle.  They might struggle to appreciate the point or the purpose, they might struggle to understand the necessary distinctions and subtleties, and they may well struggle with the sheer practical demands of having to read a great deal and think a great deal.

Secondly, I learned that something like a corporate not-for-profit actually needs philosophy, and ethics in particular. But they get along fine without philosophy, if by ‘fine’ we mean something better than criminal incompetence but so short of the ideal that any actual idealists within their ranks will inevitably adopt a defeated and cynical attitude.  What passes for idealism in such an environment is actually the motivated self-belief and personal ‘marketing’ of key choleric (ambitious) individuals; the kinds who generate enthusiasm that is entirely directed toward their own career goals, and whom underlings learn to fear for their self-interested domineering.  A best-case-scenario is that an ambitious corporate choleric will pursue self-interest through an intelligent and genuinely beneficial scheme, delivering real improvements while enhancing their own career.  Unfortunately not all cholerics are intelligent enough to achieve such a ‘win-win’ outcome.  Other, less enlightened cholerics will simply lie, exaggerate, and play politics with Machiavellian intent if not intelligence.

This is the basic difference between a choleric and a melancholic: a melancholic will look at the unethical behaviour of various employees and say “this is not how it is meant to be”.  A choleric will make the same observation but add “and I’m the one to change it”.  A corporate choleric will go one step further, latching onto ‘business ethics’ as the Next Big Thing, and using it to promote his or her own position within the organisation, replete with powerpoint presentations, posters, wristbands and other corporate merchandise, and perhaps a business-wide ‘be ethical’ day where everyone makes a special effort to do something ethical and tell everyone about it.

The relationship between a manager and her team is fundamentally an ethical one.  The need for an ethical perspective is clear when a manager lies, deceives, or otherwise undermines her team for the sake of her own career or under the auspices of her superiors.  Indeed, a corporate culture or ethos that requires its managers not merely withhold information but actively lie to their subordinates, is unethical and hence dysfunctional.  All the effort, time and money invested in trite and manipulative management theories and techniques, unscientific personality type indicators such as the Myers-Briggs, and corporate propaganda such as values statements and clever slogans, would be better spent inducting the organisation into a basic set of ethical principles.  All the superficial management tricks are belied the moment a superior treats a subordinate unethically without repercussion or justice from within the organisation.  An organisation that cannot do right by its employees may survive, but it will never reach the heights portrayed in its own propaganda or PR.  And in nevertheless persisting with a positive image that it cannot or will not strive to fulfill, it will continue to cultivate cynicism, distrust, and contempt among its employees.

Philosophy could fix this, but unfortunately philosophy and ethics are not deemed useful in such an environment.  A corporation will not open itself to philosophy and ethics unless it has an appreciation for the benefits these disciplines can bring.  Yet corporations are ruled by individuals who have gotten where they are in part because they have not dedicated themselves to philosophy and ethics, but have sought personal profit and career advancement over all.  The tragedy is that any adoption of ethical principles would require ‘buy in’ from precisely the kinds of people who regard lying and scheming as necessary – not even necessary evils, but simply necessary to the achievement of their personal aims.

As Socrates recounts in the first book of Plato’s Republic, when he and Glaucon are imposed upon by a group:

“May there not be the alternative, I said, that we may persuade you to let us go?
But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you? he said.
Certainly not, replied Glaucon.
Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured. ”

 

 

Finding a balance

This morning I managed to give myself a migraine.

At first I thought my eyes were just a little blurry from sleep. I was reading the news online, but there was something wrong with the text.  Soon a ‘crack’ appeared to my left, hovering in space and moving gradually forward, like a kaleidoscopic worm made of bees.  The proper name for this is an ‘aura‘, which gives entirely the wrong impression.  It should be called ‘a visual representation of the pain you are about to experience’, or ‘doom vision’; something like that.

Fortunately I knew exactly what it was, and why I was experiencing it.  The past month or so I’ve been struggling with the self-imposed pressures of being a freelance writer.  I made myself sick within a couple of weeks through the simple thought that every moment I wasn’t writing was a moment wasted.

Eventually I realised what was going on and recalibrated my sense of urgency.  I don’t after all, have to write an article every 1.5 days. To do so is neither feasible nor desirable.  Even 1 per week would be a vast improvement on my previous output, and a sustainable increase in my freelance career.

But last week the situation changed again, as my wife was offered a day per week of work at her old job.  I ended up looking after our son for the day and a half that she was busy, thus cementing my role as part-time stay-at-home dad.

It turns out that looking after an eighteen month old is one of the most exhausting things I have ever experienced in my life.  Without sounding like it ought to, being alone in the house with my son for so long left me mentally exhausted.  I don’t know how my wife managed to do it while I was working, though I now understand why I typically had to pick her up off the floor by the end of each day.

So with my wife out of the house for one or so days this week, I added another ingredient to the strange part-time stew I’m cooking.  I’m now trying to balance being a part-time freelance writer, a part-time PhD student, and a part-time stay-at-home dad.  Thus far they add up to more than a full-time load hence my lack of activity on the writing and the PhD front this past week, hence my all-consuming sense of urgency to nonetheless get ‘something’ done, hence my fruitless staring at the computer screen first-thing this morning, and hence, I believe, the premonition of cranial catastrophe that followed.

Fortunately, knowing the cause meant I could immediately drink some water, go lie down, and tell myself reassuring things like that it doesn’t actually matter whether or not I have an article published this week, that looking after our son is a far greater challenge and will take some getting used to, and that these are still early days, and we have much to learn toward building a life that is as good as we would like it to be.

What does it take to be a writer?

My goal at this stage is to make enough money from my writing that I don’t have to return to the kind of absurd job I just left.

That might sound like an impossible goal, or at least a very difficult one, but at this stage merely ‘surviving’ as a writer is highly preferable to the kind of situation I was in previously.  If I could earn half of my previous income from writing, I would consider myself very fortunate.  If I could earn a quarter, my family could survive comfortably.

Whether that is plausible, or sustainable in the long term remains to be seen.

Here’s what I’ve achieved so far:

In a little over a month I’ve spent more than 80 hours working on articles.  That’s just over 3.5 solid hours of work each weekday.

I’ve written 10 viable articles, 5 of which have been published so far.  Including drafts, I’ve written more than 20,000 words.

This doesn’t include research time, general reading time, and all the other things I spend my time on, such as my Phd, and changing dirty nappies.

It’s a huge amount of work, and I find I have to keep reminding myself how much I’ve done so I don’t wander around wondering why I feel so fatigued.

I’ve been rejected several times, and while it’s disappointing, the greater frustration lies in not being able to keep working.  A successfully published article brings me a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.  It confirms that I’m on the right track, and motivates me to write more.

It’s important not to get too dejected when the work slows down.  There are always other things to do, like reading and study to expand your knowledge and enrich your understanding. Even though being unable to progress leaves a bad taste in your mouth, it’s important to do something productive, even if it’s just taking a walk or relaxing with friends.

At the same time, dissatisfaction is part of what motivates writers, or at least it motivates me as a writer.  I write in part because I am dissatisfied or perplexed or frustrated by aspects of life that aren’t what they ought to be.  Writing is a way of trying to bring down to earth a more ideal vision of how the world could be.  It’s rarely that explicit, but there’s always some glimmer of excitement and joy at the possibility latent in the language.

 

 

The superior man needs an income

The subtitle of this blog indicates the ambivalence of the virtue traditions towards utility. Whether Chinese or Western, philosophy has never sold itself as the means to everyday ends such as wealth, power, prestige, or any of the untold lusts and desires that drive human behaviour.

Yet we are so used to thinking and speaking in terms of utility that we can hardly communicate the excellence of this path. Everyday terms, utilitarian terms of ‘skill’, ‘values’, ‘proficiencies’, and ‘outcomes’ seem out of place when discussing virtue, wisdom, reason, and the countless fields of inquiry to which philosophers have turned their attention.

Nonetheless this is my challenge: I have been asked for the sake of my future employment prospects to elucidate my abilities; and while it may be tempting to simply write ‘analytic skills and problem solving’, I feel it doesn’t really do justice to what is on the one hand my most obvious ‘proficiency’, and on the other hand the greatest obstacle for my future employment. Anyway, here goes:

Whenever a situation, problem, usual or unusual circumstance comes to my attention I can’t help but try to understand it. By understanding I mean separating the essential from the non-essential, analysing all constituents or components, observing their many interactions and relationships, and determining their purpose or significance as individual parts, a greater whole, and one thing among many.

Even while arriving at this understanding, inspiration comes into play, both drawing upon and contributing to understanding. How are a pencil and a knife similar? You can stab someone with a pencil, you can carve your name with a knife, and let’s not forget that you can use the knife to sharpen the pencil. Such partial analogies as these require understanding, and they also further understanding. But they do not arise from any process within our control. Inspiration, creativity, are free. The best we can do is prepare the ground – ourselves – for the work they will bring.
As understanding and creativity progress they draw in questions: what is this like? How does it work? What is it for? What is its purpose? How is it being used? Answering these questions necessarily brings thoughts of improvement, enhancement, efficiency and waste; after all, if we understand how something works, we can also see why it isn’t working as well as it might.

Understanding and creativity can also uncover alternative ways of achieving the same goals, and alternative goals to which these existing methods may be applied. There might be nothing wrong with your method, but a different method could achieve the same goal more easily. Or your method might be so good that we could apply its lessons to other areas of life.

But ultimately understanding is its own reward and these other things are just potentially useful by-products. Philosophers seek to know, and at the same time they ruthlessly scrutinise the integrity of their own knowledge. That is why we have a convergence from the West: “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”, and from the East: “The Master said, ‘Yû, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;– this is knowledge.”

That is why I characterise this deep desire to understand as both a proficiency of sorts and a hindrance. It is clearly the basis of my skills yet it leaves me with little regard for the utility of those skills. I find I’m driven to understand with an intensity that dies the minute I turn my mind primarily to profit. Only in writing, thus far, have I found a balance of understanding and creativity for which people have been willing to pay. If other avenues exist I hope to find them, or else make writing a career to sustain myself and my family.