Dwelling in Possibility

Epistemic Status: Intuitive, Casual

One of the things I’ve noticed in people who are farther along in business or management than I am, usually men with a “leaderly” mien, is a certain comfort with uncertainty or imperfection.

They can act relaxed even when their personal understanding of a situation is vague, when the future is uncertain, when the optimal outcome is unlikely.  This doesn’t mean they’re not motivated to get things done.  But they’re cool with a world in which a lot of things remain nebulous and unresolved at any given moment.

They’re able to produce low-detail, high-level, positive patter for a general audience.  They’re able to remain skeptical, expecting that most new ideas won’t work, without seeming sad about that.

Talking to someone like that, it feels like a smooth layer of butter has been spread over the world, where everything is pretty much normal and fine most of the time — not a crisis, not a victory, just normalcy.

This isn’t me.  If something I care about is unclear to me, it’ll bother me. Either consciously (in which case I’ll try to learn more until I understand) or unconsciously (in which it’ll be an unpleasant blank spot on my map, that’ll nag at me uncomfortably.)

It also bothers me, as a radical, when I don’t see a path to my long-term goals being possible.  “Business as usual” feels not okay to me, much of the time.  I don’t like having a “forget about it, it’s Chinatown” attitude.  I don’t want to be a naive idiot, but I don’t want to be complacent either.


Being okay with vagueness seems to be a prerequisite to managing other people — after all, you can’t know every detail of everyone else’s job.  When I managed people, I struggled with that a lot. I couldn’t be sure a thing was done right unless I checked it for myself.  I’m pretty good at holding large systems in my head, but eventually organizations defeat even the most heroic attempt to micromanage them.

Being okay with uncertainty also seems to be a prerequisite for managing a portfolio of anything high-risk and high-reward — investments, sales leads, technologies to adopt, etc.  If you are elated every time an opportunity appears, and dejected every time it doesn’t work out, you’ll have a very hard time emotionally when dealing with a large volume of such opportunities. (My husband is a salesman and he’s long since stopped telling me about leads because I’ll get over-excited about every one of them.)

This reminds me of some of the stuff leadership coach Bryan Franklin says about paradox.  I don’t know if I can represent his ideas accurately, since he comes from a very different paradigm than mine, but I think he’s alluding to “both/and” thinking, the ability to simultaneously hold, for instance, the frame “this business is bound for incredible success” and “this business will fail unless we solve this problem.”

Consider the common example of a leader who needs to convince her followers that, while the team is experiencing significant challenges and there is a very real risk of failure, ultimately the team will prevail. There are two ways a lesser leader could falter in this moment. The first is to simply pander to neg activism: agreeing with everyone’s feeling that the current situation is rough or hopeless, without offering any vision, possibility, or credible plan. This would be a good display of empathy, but it won’t lead anyone to change. The second mistake would be to hold the opposite view, that the future is bright and the current setbacks are illusory or insignificant. This could be seen superficially as inspiring, but more likely it will backfire because it will be dismissed as being noncredible and unrelatable to the lived reality of the employees.

A superior leader learns how to hold paradox: to believe, at the same time, that the situation is dire and hopeful, meeting employees where they’re at, but also convincing them of the actions they can take that will lead to a brighter future. The evidence is that things are bad (anyone denying this will be seen as a Pollyanna); and also, the evidence is that things are good (anyone denying this would be seen as a weak leader, lacking creativity to produce a positive way forward). Followers need to feel met in the reality that they are scared, yet they also need to be given a realistic expectation of future success.

When you’re confronted with a paradox, you are presented with a choice. You can either ignore it and take a side (believe one side of the statement is true while the other is false), or you can do what we call hold paradox, which is to believe both contradictory statements or implications simultaneously. It’s an expression of faith in a greater truth that is currently invisible to you, but resolves the paradox and allows for the truth of both sides to harmoniously coexist. This is what great leaders do.

Holding paradox is the ability to literally hold in your mind the truth and acknowledge, for example, your utter insignificance on a cosmic scale, and then without allowing that experience to dissipate, add to it the unmistakable truth of your profound significance to those you love.

Believing a literal paradox is believing something that is logically impossible, and so, obviously, I don’t want to do it.  But believing in lots of different possibilities at the same time, believing that a thing can be viewed from lots of different points of view — there might be some purchase in that.

The real world is parti-colored. It doesn’t have a single theme or mood or color scheme.  But to really know in your bones that lots of different things are possible is a deeply scary option to me. It feels like letting go of things that are important to me, like commitment or ambition or rigor or even personal identity. If I care about something, how can I allow myself to chill out about it? How can I allow myself to fully enter into the worldview of someone with the opposite belief?  Wouldn’t that be a betrayal? Wouldn’t that mean losing myself?

There’s a common thread between this notion, and people like Jonathan Haidt who believe in worldview diversity and people at the Integral Center who believe that higher human developmental stages involve the ability to move fluidly between frames, and who sometimes connect this to business through books like Tribal Leadership.

All of them share a view that the principled or systematic person — the person who believes in one truth according to one set of principles — is weaker or less spiritually advanced than the person who sees things through multiple points of view.

In particular, one idea I picked up from Tribal Leadership is that if you believe a particular thing as an individual, you’ll be a weaker leader, because you’re just saying what you personally believe (which is selfish, in a sense, or at least private, and thus taken less seriously by others).  The leader has to be not just John Smith but the voice of Acme Corp.  Expressing your own thoughts (speaking as John Smith) has value coming from an individual contributor, but there’s a different, more facilitator-like, skill where you try to encourage dialogue or distill a common thread between different people’s views, and encourage teamwork and unity — and that’s leadership.

What I worry about, in all these kinds of philosophies, is that if I gain this balance, this ability to stay cool in the face of uncertainty and ignorance, this ability to engage with multiple perspectives, then I’ll no longer be able to be an individual with a particular point of view and set of goals and detailed knowledge of my areas of expertise.

Is it possible to love something, or pursue something, without freaking out about it?  Doesn’t equanimity trade off against passion?  Wouldn’t a person who kept their cool all the time be boring?  Wouldn’t a person who tried to “diversify worldviews” be inherently an unprincipled pragmatist?  Doesn’t the chillness of leaders sometimes look uncomfortably like privilege or elitism?  Isn’t there a lot of potential for manipulativeness when people try to “facilitate” for others?

And yet, pretty much every book about business success counsels equanimity — to a very high standard, from what I can see.  Seriously, flip through something like Emotional Intelligence 2.0 the next time you’re in an airport bookstore. Apparently ordinary middle managers have to be unbelievably good at handling emotional stress just to scrape by.

I have definitely seen chillness coexist with strong technical skill; quite a few people with that relaxed, leaderly affect are also top-notch at engineering or data science.  Accepting that some information “lives” in the “collective mind” of a group clearly doesn’t preclude knowing some things very well in your own mind and being able to execute well individually.

I’ve even seen a certain kind of chillness coexist with radical commitment. Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS, has been steadily working for forty years on trying to promote research into the therapeutic use of psychedelics.  He’s a pleasant, mild-mannered family man; despite his controversial mission, he seems to bear no ill will to anyone, including the regulators he’s been trying to persuade to ease up drug restrictions.  He’s willing to collaborate with anyone, from any perspective or background, if it’ll help psychedelic research.  He’s my role model for how someone can be profoundly committed to a cause without being an angry or rigid person.  His way is like water wearing down a stone.

But I definitely have heard people tell me that equanimity cost them something — that they lost the chance to have a personal perspective and to want things for themselves when they learned to see things from all possible angles and be a facilitator for others.  I’ve seen people who are very good at sparking “interesting” conversations complain that they have a hard time connecting personally rather than remaining a third-party observer.

I’ve had occasions myself when I deliberately “took myself out of the picture” in order to hold space for others — and it worked pretty well, and was fun in its own way, and people responded well to it, but I had a strong intuition that this wasn’t what I wanted to spend the majority of my life doing.  I have a self, and it’s not going to like being cooped up forever.

So I’m genuinely uncertain.  Maybe leadership is fundamentally incompatible with stuff I want to keep? Maybe I just have hangups about harmless stuff, or resistance against working on things I’m naturally not good at? I wonder what older and more accomplished people would think about this issue.

How Much Work is Real?

Epistemic Status: Casual, just framing things

Some work is clearly “productive.” If you plant things in a garden, you put in work, and you get out plants.  If you cook a meal, your family gets fed. If you build a building where people want to live or work, they get shelter. If you treat a patient, the patient gets better. If you carry goods to the place that they’re sold, people get their stuff. If you invent a labor-saving machine, people get to free up their time for other things.

Productive work creates value, in the sense of “doingstuffness”, mana, usefulness-to-humans, etc. It’s not just effort expended, or an accounting formalism like dollars, it’s an increase in the “real wealth” of humanity. That’s not a well-defined concept, but it’s worth pointing at, so we know what we’re complaining about when we see deviations from this.

In the standard capitalist story, you get paid for work because you created value for somebody; they wanted your stuff so much that they were willing to give you something in exchange for it.

In this world, all productive work is honorable.  Work is fair — on average, you get what it’s worth — and it’s a contribution, however small, to the wellbeing of humankind, the fire that beats back against the blackness of hard vacuum.

But there are ways that things called “work” can fail to be productive work.

Fraud or crime obviously are not productive. If you get money from people by tricking or terrifying them, you’re not getting it by providing them with value. You’re not a maker.

Enforced monopoly power is also not entirely productive. If people are required by law — on pain of punishment — to buy your product, then at least some of your revenue is driven by fear, not desire.

Regulations can be a form of enforced monopoly power. If only people who meet certain criteria are allowed to sell, then people are buying from you and not your competitors not because they like you better, but because your competitors are driven out by fear of punishment. Once again, you’re profiting partly off fear, not just desire.

A job that is funded by taxpayer money, or by the fact that the product sold is mandatory to buy, or by the fact that nobody knows whether it would be illegal to get rid of that job and they want to play it safe, doesn’t need to be useful at all.

And there are still more indirect ways that a job can fail to be useful.  If you sell to people who don’t do anything useful, then your job would not have been necessary in a sensibly organized world, even if you do nothing dishonest yourself and genuinely add value to your customers.

This is what it means to live in a “mixed economy.”  Not everything that everyone does for a living is genuinely useful.

If there are bullshit jobs, as anthropologist David Graeber claims, then that’s a shame, from the perspective of human well-being. If we have enough real wealth, enough mana, to support even people who aren’t making mana, then why not just allow leisure, instead of forcing people to go through the motions of dull and unnecessary work?

This is largely the position of left-libertarians like the people at Center for a Stateless Society.  They make the empirical claim that most of the present economy in developed countries is coercive and unproductive, the result of crony capitalism and regulatory capture rather than honest, useful work.  As such, a “freed market” without such corruption would actually be more egalitarian than our current economy.   Since government promotes monopoly, Big Business wouldn’t be sustainable without coercion.  Since highly regulated and positional goods like housing and education are essentially mandatory for participating in much of modern life, if those mandates were abolished, socioeconomic inequality would drop.

On the other hand, this empirical claim could be false. Nobody denies that some corruption exists, but it might be the exception rather than the rule. We might not, in fact, be in post-scarcity conditions.  So-called “bullshit” jobs may actually be valuable, just easy to dismiss by outsiders like Graeber.  Growing wealth inequality may be largely the result of winner-take-all phenomena, as Tyler Cowen thinks — in his model, the working rich really are more productive than ever, thanks to the amplifying effects of technology.  Love it or hate it, says Cowen, capitalism works the way it says on the tin.

There is some evidence that economic rents are on the rise in the US. Wealth inequality has risen over recent decades, but labor productivity has declined. Economic dynamism — the number of people changing jobs and starting new businesses — has also declined.

One important piece of evidence that rents are on the rise in the United States is the divergence of rising returns to capital and declining real interest rates. In the absence of economic rents, the return on corporate capital should generally follow the path of interest rates, which reflect the prevailing return to capital in the economy. But over the past three decades, the return to productive capital generally has risen, despite the large decline in yields on government bonds.

Other firm-side evidence points to an increased prevalence of supranormal returns over time. Between 1997 and 2012, market concentration increased in 12 out of 13 major industries for which data are available, and a range of micro-level studies of sectors including air travel, telecommunications, banking, and food-processing have all produced evidence of greater concentration.

The fact that variations in the rate of return to capital have increased enormously across firms may also at least partially reflect increased concentration and the role of economic rents. Finally, there is evidence that land-use regulation may also play a role in the presence of increased economic rents, decreasing housing affordability, and reducing nationwide productivity and growth by restricting supply.

There’s also Matt Rognlie’s paper showing that the long-term rise of capital’s share of wealth (compared to labor’s) is almost entirely a result of increased housing prices — literal rents, kept high by land-use restrictions.

And there’s the phenomenon that S&P 500 firms are now 5/6ths “dark matter” — that is, things that a new entrant to the field can’t copy.

Imagine that you wanted to create a new firm to compete with one of these big established firms. So you wanted to duplicate that firm’s products, employees, buildings, machines, land, trucks, etc. You’d hire away some key employees and copy their business process, at least as much as you could see and were legally allowed to copy.

Forty years ago the cost to copy such a firm was about 5/6 of the total stock price of that firm. So 1/6 of that stock price represented the value of things you couldn’t easily copy, like patents, customer goodwill, employee goodwill, regulator favoritism, and hard to see features of company methods and culture. Today it costs only 1/6 of the stock price to copy all a firm’s visible items and features that you can legally copy. So today the other 5/6 of the stock price represents the value of all those things you can’t copy.

“Intangibles” would certainly include rent-seeking forms of favoritism.

It also includes patents, which arguably do not increase innovation on the margin (according to natural experiments between different countries with different patent regimes or changes in patent laws.) Copyright and patent lengths have gotten longer in the US, and patent applications have grown at an accelerating rate; the growth of intellectual property is another example of our economy becoming more monopolistic.

How much of our economy consists of rent-seeking would be hard to detect, and I’m not sure anybody has attempted it. “Spikiness” in wealth between firms or individuals could be either due to monopolistic privileges or variance in productivity.  Concentration of growth in highly regulated industries points towards rent-seeking being prominent, especially if the measured outcomes of those industries don’t improve (e.g. healthcare), but it doesn’t tell us what percent of the value of healthcare is due to rents.

And, of course, even such estimates don’t tell us what to do, because of path-dependency effects. Even if we discovered with high confidence that an industry was mostly corrupt, that doesn’t guarantee that “anti-corruption” efforts will actually make it less so.  (Sometimes the increased administrative demands of making sure nobody gives bribes cost more than the bribes themselves did.)

But the question is relevant, to those of us who want to know “where can I find productive work?” and “how much misdirection is going on under the surface of today’s world?”

I work at a biotech company. I made a special effort to find a job that was as honest as possible, while still being in my field.  And I think we are honest here; the official purpose of the company (to find new promising drugs) is also the implicitly endorsed goal that people actually work towards.  We’re a bunch of scientists, with scientific sensibilities. But we’re still in an industry defined by grants, patents, regulations, and other monopolistic practices.  There are still, I think, pockets of inefficiency that result from being in that industry.  Bigger, older businesses often get flummoxed when their startup partners move too fast.  And those of us who don’t work in the lab don’t really need to work 8 hours a day every day in order to meet our planned goals.  My job isn’t bullshit, by any means, but I sometimes suspect that it isn’t maximally productive.

I don’t believe in being so obsessed with personal purity that you never get anything done — that’s not useful and it’s not the point. It’s more about trying to figure out what kind of world you live in.

Fun with BLS statistics

What do people in America do for a living?

What is a “normal” job, statistically?

What are the best-paying jobs?

Most of us don’t know, even though these are incredibly relevant facts for career choice, education, and having some idea of what kind of country you live in.  And even though all the statistics are available free to the public from the Bureau of Labor Statistics!

What Jobs Pay Best?

Doctors. Definitely doctors. The top ten highest mean annual wage occupations are all medical specialties. Anesthesiologists top the list, with an average salary of $235,070.

Obviously doctors are not the richest people in the US. The Forbes 400 consists largely of executives.  But “chief executive” as a profession actually ranks behind “psychiatrist.” The average CEO makes $178,400 a year.

Dentists, nurse anaesthetists, and petroleum engineers make over $150,000 a year. Managers of all sorts, as well as lawyers, range in the $120,000-$140,000s.

Air traffic controllers make about as much as physicists, at $118,000 a year.

Yep, you got that right: the average air traffic controller is slightly richer than the average physicist.

Physicists are the richest pure-science specialty, followed by astronomers and computer scientists ($110,000) and mathematicians ($103,000).  Actuaries, software engineers, computer hardware engineers, and nuclear, aerospace, and chemical engineers, cluster around the $100,000-110,000 range.

Bottom line: if you want a high-EV profession, be a doctor. Or a dentist — the pay is almost as good. The “professions” — medicine, law, engineering — are, in fact, high-paying, and sort by income in that order.  It is, obviously, good to be a manager; but still not as good as being a doctor. Going into the hard sciences is, as far as income goes, basically the same as going into engineering. It’s the bottom of the 6-figure range.  There are a few underappreciated jobs, like air traffic controllers, pilots, anaesthetists, pharmacists, actuaries, and optometrists, which aren’t generally given as much social status as doctors and lawyers, but pay comparably.

What Jobs Pay Worst?

Flipping burgers. It’s not just a punchline: fast food cooks are the lowest-paid occupation, at $18,870 a year.

For comparison purposes, the federal poverty line for a single person is given at $11,670, and for a family of four at $23,850. So a burger-flipper is only technically living in poverty if she supports at least two dependents. 15% of Americans live below the poverty line.  Since a fair number (19%) of people living alone are poor, this suggests that unemployment or underemployment is a bigger factor in poverty than low wages.

We have a lot of low-paid fast-food cooks and servers. Three million Americans work in fast-food preparation and service.

The lowest of the low-paid jobs, making under $30,000 a year, are service workers. Cooks, cashiers, desk clerks, maids, bartenders, parking lot attendants, manicurists.  When somebody waits on you in a commercial establishment, you’re looking at one of the poorest people who have jobs at all.

The other kind of ultra-low-paid jobs are laborers. Agricultural workers, graders and sorters, cleaners of vehicles and equipment, meat cutters and trimmers and meatpackers, building cleaning and pest control workers. Groundskeeping workers.  Not, it’s important to note, people who work in manufacturing and repair; most of those jobs are in the $30,000-$40,000 range.

As you get to the top of the <$30,000 range, you begin to see office workers. Office clerks (and there are two million of them!) get paid about $29,000 a year. Data entry. File clerks. Despite living in the age of computers, we still have lots of people whose jobs are low-level paperwork. And they’re very poorly paid.

This is the depressing side of the income scale.  Where are all the poor people? They’re in customer service, unskilled labor, or low-level office work.

Who is the Middle Class?

The median US household income is $51,000.  The average household is 2.55 people.  The median US salary is $48,872.  (This seems to imply that most wage earners support at least one dependent.)  So let’s look at jobs that pay around the median.

Firefighters, at $48,270. Social workers, at $48,370, as well as librarians, at $47,750, counselors, at $47,820, teachers, at $54,740, and clergy, at $47,540. Fine artists, at $50,900, and graphic designers, at $49,610.   Things like “mine cutting and channeling machine operators”, “aircraft cargo handling supervisors”, “tool and die makers”, “civil engineering technicians”, “derrick operators, oil and gas”, “explosive workers, ordnance handling experts, and blasters”, “railroad brake, signal, and switch operators”, and so on, get paid in the $48,000-51,000 range.  Basically, jobs that involve the skilled use of machinery, the actual making and operating of an industrial civilization.

Who is the middle class? “Teachers and firemen” isn’t far off, as stereotypes go.  It’s mostly unionized jobs, either in the “helping professions” or in manufacturing/industry.

How do you get a job like that?  For example, CNC programmers are pretty evenly split between people with associates’ degrees (36%), people with post-secondary certificates (31%), and people with college degrees (15%). You need to pass a licensing exam and spend several years as an apprentice.  Mining machine operators, on the other hand, mostly don’t even need a high school diploma. Tool and die makers need a post-secondary certificate but generally not a college degree. By contrast, you usually need a masters’ to be a counselor, for comparable pay.

Where do most people work?

Of the broad sectors defined by the BLS, the most common is “office and administrative support occupations.”

Who are these? Things like “data entry keyers”, “human resources assistants”, “shipping clerks”, “payroll and timekeeping clerks”, and so on. They make an average salary of $34,900, and they are mostly employed by government, banks, hospitals and medical practices.  A full 16% of employed Americans work in this sector.

The second most common sector is “sales and related occupations.”

Who are these? Everything from counter clerks to real estate brokers to sales engineers, but not management of sales departments.  The mean annual wage is $38,200 — most people in “sales” are clerks in stores (grocery stores, department stores, clothing stores, etc.) 14 million people work in sales altogether, around 11% of employed Americans.

The next most common sector is “food preparation and services”, at 8% of employed Americans.  The mean wage is $21,580.

By single occupation, the most common occupations in America are “retail sales workers”, “food and beverage serving workers”, and “information and record clerks.”  We are, more than anything else, a nation of shitty retail jobs.

We have a lot of school teachers (4 million), a lot of people working in construction (3.7 million), a lot of nurses (2.7 million) and health technicians (2.8 million).  But the most common occupations are very heavily weighted towards retail, service, unskilled labor, and low-level office work.

What about the arts and sciences?

Shockingly, there are only 3030 mathematicians. Maybe a lot of them are calling themselves something else, like the 89,740 “post-secondary math and computer teachers”, though that’s hardly how I’d describe my professors.  There are 24,950 statisticians, 24,380 computer scientists, 17,340 physicists, and 87,560 chemists.

By contrast, there are 1.4 million software developers and programmers. In my little bubble, it feels like almost all the smart people wind up as software engineers; by the numbers, it looks like this is more or less true. All non-software engineers combined only make up 1.5 million jobs.  I hear a lot of rhetoric about “Silicon Valley only does software, real atom-pushing engineering technology is lagging” — I don’t have a basis for evaluating the truth of that, but we definitely have a lot of people employed in software compared to the rest of engineering.

There are 87,240 artists, more than half of whom are animators and art directors; there are 420,130 designers;  there are 63,230 actors, 39,260 musicians and singers, 11,540 dancers, and 43,590 writers.  Writers don’t actually do so badly: average wage is $69,250.  For all the hand-wringing about the end of writing as a profession, it’s still a real job.

There are a ton of doctors (623,380) and almost as many therapists (600,650).  Therapists here refers to physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and so on, not psychological counselors.  There are far more people lower on the totem pole: 2.8 million medical technicians, 2.7 million registered nurses, and 3.9 million “healthcare support occupations” (nurses’ aides, orderlies, etc.  These fall into the lowest-paid category, average yearly income $28,300.)

There are 592,670 lawyers, and 27,190 judges.

Basically, when it comes to the arts and professions, doctors and lawyers are the most common as well as the best-paid, followed by engineers and programmers, and then scientists and artists.

What does the BLS tell you about what you should do for a living?

Of course, it depends on who you are and what resources are available to you. But here’s a few things that popped out to me.

1.) The most reliable way to make a high salary is to be a doctor.  There is absolutely no ambiguity on that point.

2.) Programming/engineering/hard science and management are the skills involved in most of the top-paid jobs.

3.) The best-paid job that doesn’t require a college degree is airline pilot. If you’re broke or you hate school, consider learning to fly.

4.) Writers and visual artists are not that poor, so long as they’re willing to work on commercial projects.

EDIT: Michael Vassar has questioned the numbers of doctors and lawyers.  It turns out the BLS numbers may be slight underestimates but aren’t too far off from other sources.

The Kaiser Foundation says there are 834,769 “professionally active physicians” in the US, as of 2012.  The Federation of State Medical Boards is giving the number 878,194 for licensed physicians as of 2012. We have roughly one physician for every 400 people, according to the World Bank.

The ABA gives 1,225,452 licensed lawyers.  Harvard Law School says the BLS numbers are lower because there are more people licensed to practice law than currently employed as attorneys.

All in all, I’m fairly confident that the number of “professionals” (doctors, lawyers, and engineers, including software engineers) is around 5 million, and likely not more than 10 million. It’s two or three percent of the population.

Taste and Consumerism

Peter Drucker, whose writings form the intellectual foundation behind the modern management corporation, defined “consumerism” as follows:

What consumerism demands of business is that it actually market.  It demands that business start out with the needs, the realities, the values of the customer.  It demands that business base its reward on its contribution to the customer. … It does not ask “What do we want to sell?” but “What does the customer want to buy?”  It does not say, “This is what our product or service does.” It says “These are the satisfactions the customer looks for, values, and needs.”

Peter Drucker, Management

A consumerist business, then, is like an optimization process, and customer feedback (in the form of sales, surveys, complaints, usage statistics, and so on) is its reward function.  A consumerist business is exquisitely sensitive to customer feedback, and adapts continually in order to better satisfy customers. The consumerist philosophy is antithetical to preconceived ideas about what the company “should” make.  Lean Startups, an extreme implementation of consumerist philosophy, don’t even start with a definite idea of what the product is; the company constantly evolves into selling whatever customers want to buy.

Another way of thinking about this: in a market, there are many possible voluntary trades that could happen.  A consumerist company tries to swim towards one of these trade points and slot itself into a convenient niche.  The whole purpose of trade is to produce win-win exchanges; “consumerism” just means being flexible enough to be willing to search through all the possibilities, instead of leaving opportunities unexploited. 

Yet another, more negative slant on consumerism, is that consumerism is the absence of taste.

A manager, according to Drucker, should not ask “What do we want to sell?”  But an artist always asks “What do I want to make?”

Computer scientist Richard Hamming famously said:

And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?”

A scientist, in other words, has to care what he’s working on.  Problems that are interesting, that have the potential to be world-changing.  Any good scientist is intrinsically motivated by the problem.  If you told Hamming you’d pay him a million dollars to crochet shawls all year, he’d laugh and refuse.  If he were the kind of person who could be induced to quit working on information theory, he wouldn’t be Hamming in the first place.

Ira Glass on creativity and taste:

All of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

J.D. Salinger on writing

You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I’ve ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never…

If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. 

Eric S. Raymond on software:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.

There’s very clearly a tradition, across the creative disciplines, that a creator must be intrinsically motivated by love of the work and by the ambition to make something great.  Great by what standard?  Well, this is often informed by the standards of the professional community, but it’s heavily driven by the creator’s own taste.  She has some sense of what makes a great photograph, what makes a beautiful proof, what makes an ingenious design.  

Is taste universal? Is there some sense in which Beethoven’s 9th is “really” good — is there some algorithmic regularity in it, or some resonance with the human ear, something that makes its value more than a matter of opinion?  Maybe, and maybe not.  I’m inclined to be intrigued but skeptical of simple explanations of what humans find beautiful, like Schmidthuber’s notion of low Kolmogorov complexity.  My own speculation is that hidden symmetry or simplicity is also a fundamental principle of aesthetics: a perfect circle is all right, but an intricate and non-obvious pattern, which takes more attention to notice, is more interesting to the eye, because minds take pleasure in recognition.  

Whether there are some universal principles behind aesthetics or not, in practice aesthetics are mediated through individual taste. You cannot write a book by committee, or by optimizing around a dashboard of reader feedback stats.  You can’t write a proof that way either.  

Creative original work isn’t infinitely fungible and modifiable, like other commodities. The mindset of infinitely flexible responsiveness to feedback is extremely different from the mindset of focused creation of a particular thing.  The former involves lots of task switching; the latter involves blocks of uninterrupted time.  You can’t be a maker and a manager at the same time.  Managing, responding to feedback, being a “consumerist,” requires engaging your social brain: modeling people’s responses to what you do, and adapting accordingly.  Making things involves turning that part of your brain off, and engaging directly with physical objects and senses, or abstract concepts.

Creative work is relevant to businesses.  Design, for instance, matters. So does technological innovation.  But, for a consumerist business, the constraints of creative work are unwelcome limitations.  Makers want to make a particular thing, while the company as a whole needs to find any niche where it can be profitable.

Drucker defines “knowledge workers” as skilled experts, whose loyalty is stronger to their profession than to their company.  They’ll introduce themselves with “I’m a natural language processing guy”, not “I work for IBM.”  Drucker’s “knowledge workers” seem somewhat analogous to “makers.” A cynical view of his book Management is that it’s about how to organize and motivate knowledge workers without giving them any real power.  The NLP guy’s goal is to make a tool that does an excellent job at machine translation. The manager’s goal is to promote the growth and survival of the organization.  These goals are, ideally, aligned, but when they conflict, in a Druckerian organization, the manager’s goal has to take priority.

What this means is that makers, people with taste, have a few options.

1. Work for a manager in a successful company. You’ll have serious constraints on the type of work you do, and you won’t be able to capture much of its financial value, but your work will be likely to be implemented at a large scale out in the world, and you’ll have steady income.

2. Have a small lifestyle business that caters only to the few who share your taste.  You’ll never have much money, and you won’t have large-scale impact on the world, but you’ll be able to keep your aesthetic integrity absolutely.

3. Find a patron. (Universities are the classic example, but this applies to some organizations that are nominally companies as well. A hedge fund that has a supercomputer to model protein folding is engaging in patronage.  Family money is an edge case of patronage.)  A patron is a high-status individual or group that seeks to enhance its status by funding exceptional creators and giving them freedom in their work.  You can make a moderate amount of money, you’ll get a lot of creative freedom (but you’ll be uncertain how much or for how long) and you might be able to have quite a lot of impact. The main problem here is uncertainty, because patrons are selective and their gifts often have strings attached.

4. Start a business that bets hard on your taste.  If you’re Steve Jobs, or Larry Page, your personal vision coincides with market success. You can win big on all fronts: money, impact, and creative freedom.  The risk is, of course, that the overwhelming majority of people trying this strategy fail, and you’re likely to wind up with much less freedom than 1-3.

Howard Roark, the prototypical absolutist of personal taste, picked option 2: he made the buildings he liked, for the people who shared his taste in architecture, refused to engage in any marketing whatsoever, and was nearly broke most of the time.  In fact, Ayn Rand, who has a reputation as a champion of big business, is if anything a consistent advocate of a sort of Stoic retirement. You’d be happier and more virtuous if you gave up trying to “make it big,” and instead went to a small town to ply your craft.  “Making it”, in the sense of wealth or fame or power, means making yourself beholden to lots of people and losing your individuality. 

I’m not sure I’m that much of a hipster. I don’t think the obvious thing for a creative person to do is “retirement.”  Especially not if you care about scope.  If you’ve designed a self-driving car, you don’t want to make one prototype, you want a fleet of self-driving taxis on the streets of New York.  Even more so, if you’ve discovered a cure for a disease, you want it prescribed in hospitals everywhere, not just a home remedy for your family.

What I actually plan to do is something between 1 and 3 (there’s an emerging trend for tech companies to seem to straddle the line between patrons and employers, though I’m not certain what that looks like on the inside) and explore what it would take to do 4.