Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018) by David Graeber is a really interesting book that looks at how people perceive their jobs as pointless and what Graeber thinks. Graeber describes himself as an an ‘anarchist and anthropologist’.
Graeber wrote an essay in 2013 ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ which was very popular online. After the book was written he solicited and obtained many accounts of people who found their jobs to be a waste of time and how they dealt with them. This book is the result. Graeber combines these accounts with his theories of anarchism and how society and the economy works. The accounts are remarkable and often very amusing as well as genuinely interesting. Graebers theorizing as to what work is productive and how things should be organised is far less compelling.
It would be hard to find people who have either experienced or seen people working in jobs which were, essentially pointless but that were often quite well paid. Graeber suggests that people who work in communication, HR and corporate lawyers are anyone who works in finance as working in jobs that don’t need to be done and that they know do not need to be done.
Graeber takes issues with other people who have defined jobs that don’t need to be done to include telephone sanitizers and hairdressers, including Douglas Adams and thinks that instead many private sector and administrative jobs are the ones that truly don’t need to be done.
He certainly has a point. There are undoubtedly many people writing reports that are ignored and even most economists would agree that the finance sector has expanded beyond what is productive. Graeber classifies BS jobs as ‘Flunkies’, ‘Goons’, ‘Duct Tapers’, ‘Box Tickers’ and ‘Taskmasters’. When asked in an online UK YouGov poll 37% of respondents said that they were sure what they did made no meaningful contribution to the world. This is extrapolated by Graeber to suggest that at least a third of the workforce isn’t really doing anything useful and they know it.
Many of the accounts of people with BS jobs are fantastic. People given jobs on projects known to be pointless is a remarkable thing. That many firms and governments have done this is quite something. Graeber points out that many accounts of these things happening largely in the public sector are wrong. Although even he can’t help pointing out some incredible examples in the public sector where people even stop going to work and continue to get paid for years. He also does suggest, but downplays that people who have a BS job in many places can convert it to a useful job once they are inside an organisation.
Graeber goes on to provide his theory of how society and the economy should be organised and this is fairly weak. Instead of acknowledging that markets have provided unprecedented prosperity for many people he states that the whole system needs to be dismantled. The idea that markets have changed the world dramatically for the better but that they are still often terribly wasteful and that with some thought perhaps working hours might be substantially reduced is not even discussed and instead various classes in conflict are proposed. He goes on to suggest that a universal basic income UBI would stop people doing pointless work and make us all better off. Graeber blithely seems to think that the pointless jobs can be easily identified and that UBI would happily work.
Bullshit Jobs is a genuinely interesting book. Hopefully lots of people read it and think about the myriad of inefficiencies that it points out. However, the theories and answers offered by Graeber are far less strong.
Micromastery: Learn Small, Learn Fast and Find the Hidden Path to Happiness (2017) by Robert Twigger is a book that describes why you should learn small skills that appeal to you quickly and then improve on them.
The book has an interesting idea, namely that we often say we want to learn big, time consuming things that take ages to do but then never really undertake these things because they are often too hard and don’t provide rewards for our learning early enough. There is definitely something to it. Instead Twigger suggest learning small skills that are impressive and can be done more quickly and more easily and building on these skills. He suggests things like learning how to start a fire with two sticks, juggling four balls, telling a good children’s story and various other things.
He puts it forward as being a bit like punk, having an ethos of making your own things, which is really admirable.
However, the book definitely over reaches in suggesting learning these sorts of things is a great way to happiness or a panacea. It’s quite a good thing to do, better than watching TV, but the author oversells the idea.
Micromastery isn’t a bad book but it’s far from great either. It’s got some good suggestions and would have made a good essay.
Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong (2017) by Partrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson is book by two psychologists about the real effects of video games on people.
The book looks at the history of the demonisation of games, pointing out that it is the latest in a long line of demonising new media that has included the bible, novels, music and comic books at least. The history of demonising games that have violent themes is also looked at from Death race to Mortal Combat to Doom. There is also an interesting presentation of how the American Psychological Association put together a consensus policy on video games. Essentially august Psychologists reviewed their own work and declared the issue beyond further debate. By carefully selecting the people who wrote the policy they determined the outcome. The limits of their own work is not discussed.
Markey and Ferguson nicely put forward the best argument that violent games almost certainly have a small effect on increasing violence and quite likely a sizable one on reducing violence, namely that as game sales have exploded violent crime has plummeted. Given that video games absorb a lot of time of the group, young males, that commits the most crime it’s a reasonable supposition to suggest that games, even violent ones, have reduced violence.
The authors also look at mass shootings that often elicit highly emotional responses. They point out that in recent large mass shootings when looking at the people who have carried them out they appear to play computer games, which are quite social today, less than the general population.
For real problems that video games very probably do contribute to they point out that video game ‘addiction’ is very mild and the usual consequence is simply spending a lot of time in a hobby. For the contribution that games make to inactivity and obesity the authors point out to studies that increased activity but made a tiny contribution to weight loss and that the reason we get fat is dominated by eating too much unhealthy food.
Nicely the authors also turn to the alleged benefits of computer games such as increased dexterity, cognitive ability and various things and they are just as skeptical as they were about the problems ascribed to games. Basically games are a reasonably mentally stimulating hobby that is as good for the brain as crosswords, playing chess and various other similar activities.
Moral Combat is a well written, fun, easy to understand book that really does a very solid job of debunking the damage that games are alleged to cause. It’s well worth a read for anyone who is worried about what their children or spouse or friends are doing to themselves by playing games.
The Undoing Project : A Friendship that Changed out Minds (2016) by Michael Lewis covers the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky that led to Kahneman getting a Nobel Prize in Economics. Tversky would also have received the award but he had died. The book looks at how the two discovered a number of ways that humans make decisions are irrational compared to how decisions should theoretically be made. The work has become the basis of Behavioural Economics.
The work that is described in the book is written about in more detail in Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This book described the life and work of the two Psychologists and their ideas.
Michael Lewis is one of the best non-fiction writers in the world. The Big Short, Moneyball and Liar’s Poker are some of the best non-fiction books of the last 30 years. Each is well written and provides a fresh view of events and new ideas. However, the Undoing Project doesn’t really do this because Kahneman himself has written such a good book about his work. Lewis adds biographical details that are of some interest but for anyone looking for new ideas unless Kahneman and Tversky’s ideas have not previously been encountered. If they haven’t then the issue is that it’s probably better to read Kahneman’s book.
Drive (2009) by Daniel Pink isn’t a bad book that goes over what really motivates people. Much of the material has been covered by various other popular psychology books.
Drive covers extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, the need to do ‘Goldilocks’ tasks that are neither too hard nor too easy and other strategies for getting people to work better. Extrinsic motivation is described as better for repetitive measurable tasks while intrinsic motivation is described as better for tasks that are less prescriptive.
The book has various examples of companies and organisations that have strategies that work well. The Results Only Workplace Environment (ROWE) at Best Buy is described where people are only tasked with doing certain things and their times spent in the office are irrelevant. The Sydney company Atlassian is described and their FedEx days where employees have a day to deliver something cool is written up and praised as a good idea.
The book also references many other popular psychology and business development books.
Drive isn’t bad and is sure to contain something new for most people but for anyone who has read much of this kind of thing before much of the content will be familiar.