These three interrelated thoughts could’ve been separate posts but they make more sense when read in sequential, ascending order.
The Magic of Writing
Everything I have ever written has come to pass, more or less, although not necessarily how I expected. In general, the process of converting thoughts, dreams, and ideas into written words forges my reality, for better or worse.
This may sound like suspicious nonsense, akin to “The Secret,” the so-called “law of attraction,” or some other form of wistful woo; but no doubt visualization makes real things happen, and for me the first step to visualizing something is crafting thoughts into written words.
A long time ago I had a writing teacher who claimed that she had shaped all of her success in life through writing. At the time I thought she meant that she had written some amazing stuff. Maybe she had, but now I understand this was not what she meant. Putting thoughts on paper, so to speak, has a very powerful effect.
This magic works both ways. Like most people, I spend too much time retelling inaccurate, obsolete stories about myself, and visualizing the wrong things. Writing keeps me in check.
If there’s one thing that separates my approach from wistful woo it’s this: I do the work. But the questions remain: what work shall I do, and why?
Work Week #1,354
It is the morning of the day before the work week begins and already I’m feeling blue. If my calculations are correct, this is work week number 1,354.
Two weeks ago marked the 26th anniversary of the start of my so-called career. That’s 1,354 weeks in a row of dreading Monday, but I also had that many weekends off, too.
I’ve been working some kind of job almost continuously since the 1980’s, when I began laboring away at my dad’s paint and body shop in Dallas, Texas, at the age of twelve; but I got my first post-college, office job in August of ’95, and that change 1,354 weeks ago was the start of what became a career.
The boring office job led to working in Information Technology, and as of now, twenty-six years of uninterrupted employment. Don’t let anyone tell you it goes by quickly. (It didn’t, at least for me.) I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who think working for a corporation is the best thing there is. For me, it was (and remains) the easiest way to keep the money rolling in, and to keep everyone off my back.
In high school I saw what was coming. I used to refer to myself as the “future slave to commerce,” or “money slave” for short. Did I fulfill my own prophesy? Or (dare I wonder) was I the luckiest guy in the world?
In ’95 I wrote a lot about how I wanted to get into working on computers. I visualized working in a shop like a craftsman (or like Mr. Robot, for anyone who has seen the TV series). This would have minimized my exposure to groups of people. Socially, I was fine one-on-one. This was what I wanted to do.
Then lightning struck. A random, miraculous opportunity appeared. On a personal level, the past twenty-six years of working Monday through Friday may have at times crept along like a prison sentence, but in macroeconomic terms it was like surfing one big wave.
How I Surfed Through Two and a Half Decades of a Career
The Great Information Technology Wave came to a peak in ’95 for everyone, though I wouldn’t catch the wave until the end of ’96. It was a colossal wave, the kind an economy sees once every hundred years. It brought with it all kinds of opportunity. My weird, masochistic hobby of breaking and fixing my old IBM 33MHz computer was now a viable economic skill!
(1996-1998) WAVE STAGE 1: Lightning struck, and by come stunning coincidence I scored my first IT job at the CompUSA call center in Dallas, Texas, and pursued it with vigor, navigating the wave with a series of beginner moves: bottom turns and awkward cuts that allowed me to carve out enough experience and credentials to advance to the next stage of the wave. I joined CompUSA at its peak and left during its decline. Within a few more years the company would cease to exist.
(1999-2009) WAVE STAGE 2: My time at Nortel Networks was one big tube ride as the crest of the Great IT Wave began to curl, although there was plenty of subtle navigation necessary to stay topside during the tumultuous 2000’s. First there was 911, then the great tech bubble burst of 2001, and (for me) the outsourcing to Computer Science Corporation (CSC), numerous rounds of layoffs, reorgs, an in-source from CSC back to Nortel, Nortel’s declaration of bankruptcy, and the final outsourcing to CSC India during the economic collapse of 2009.
I endured a few miserable months at CSC India, and wrote a lot about what I’d rather be doing, and my future direction in life. Then, another random, miraculous opportunity appeared, taking me across the Pacific to work in Japan. This unexpected and dramatic professional opportunity opened the door to life-changing personal events. Meanwhile, Nortel would be divested and non-existent within a year of when I left.
(2010-2020) WAVE STAGE 3: I transferred to the CSC Federal division and ended up working ten years with the U.S. Navy in Japan. This change required what surfers would call a severe “cutback,” taking me from the shoulder of the wave back into the energy of the pocket. This ended up being another lucky tube ride through tumultuous waters, during which time I kept my feet firmly planted on the board. In ten years I switched from CSC to CSGOV to CSRA to GDIT, all without ever changing jobs. The first three organizations would all cease to exist during my decade overseas, and the GDIT contract terminated within a year of my return to the States.
(2021-????) WAVE STAGE 4: My current employment situation is an awesome professional opportunity. In the greater macroeconomic view I am the luckiest guy in the world. Throughout the years I imagined what I wanted (the easiest way to beat back the financial requirements to exist in the world), I wrote it out, and watched it come to pass. But still, it’s a means to an end. If money had not been a factor, then what would I have done instead? More to the point, what should I do now?
This week marks the one-year anniversary since the launch of my job search. What’s the status now? Well, so far no offers, but I’ve got a couple possibilities in the works.
To be clear, it hasn’t been one year of intense, continuous effort. Unlike other long-term projects in the past, I have not given this thing everything I’ve got. There were several extended periods when I did nothing at all on the job front, for as long as six weeks at a time.
I may have been more motivated had the situation been dire, but fortunately the financial pressure on me was close to none. Nothing’s going to happen if I don’t have a job. Nobody’s going to stave. Our bills will still be paid. If my career matched my true calling in life then I’d be more invested in this thing, but I’ll save that riskier and less lucrative career change for a couple years down the road.
Normally I’m not negatively motivated, like someone who says they need a personal trainer to get them in shape. But negative pressure seems almost required in a job search, as it’s an activity that almost no one would voluntarily pursue.
I suppose there was some negative pressure on me, in the form of wanting to have more flexibility with my time and greater well-being.
My only real goals have been to do something new and interesting in a job that allows remote work. I want more flexible working conditions and I want to move my family to the States. The job search is unpleasant and time-consuming, but just like in Shawshank Redemption, I’m crawling through this shitty sewer pipe to reach the next stage in life.
With that said, here are the stats, the most important first.
Job Offers: Zero
Looking back, there are a multitude of reasons I haven’t crossed the finish line yet, but I’ll examine these at the end.
I take my time with job applications, customizing my resume and cover letter for each. The process usually takes about ninety minutes per application, though some of them required personality assessments that took a couple of hours or more. At ninety minutes each, this comes to 120 hours total.
Oh the Research
Over the course of one year I dumped at least 200 hours into researching companies, browsing job postings, and training to update my skills.
The combined 320 hours of effort scored me 25 interviews with 16 different organizations. This resulted in 18 initial interviews (some were screenings with the same organization, different roles). A couple of times the initial interview turned out to be a full-on technical ambush, but usually it was a screening talk with a recruiter. A few times I chose not to pursue the process after the initial interview, due to bad vibes over the people and-or organization, but more often I’d receive a rejection email within a week of our first talk.
I made it past the screening stage 7 times, for 2nd or 3rd interviews with 5 different organizations.
As of this writing I’ve got one job pending decision after a third interview last week, and this one’s good. I’m hoping for the best.
This number includes 21 rejections with no interview (which in most cases probably meant my application made it past the scanning algorithms, only to be rejected by an actual human being); 10 rejections after the initial interview; and 3 rejections after a second or third interview. The other 46 applications got no response.
Believe it or not these are decent numbers. According to one career site:
“Anywhere from 10% to 20% (positive response) is considered average and 20% to 30% is a good application to interview ratio.”
(18 initial interviews from 80 applications is 21%.)
Of all 80 job applications, how many of these were for jobs that I’d do if I had all the money in the world? How many were based on pure, honest interest alone? Maybe one or two.
And therein lies my greatest challenge. If I ask why I didn’t seal the deal on any of these interviews then I’d have to conclude my biggest challenge was that I didn’t care enough.
Aside from my mental handicap of apathy, there were a few other challenges that came into play.
This job search comes with certain built-in disadvantages, like being on the other side of the world from where I’m trying to get a job. Sometimes I have to speak with people during business hours in the U.S. Eastern time zone, which is almost exactly my normal sleeping hours. I’ve crawled out of bed at wee hours of the morning for interviews, or stayed up late at night. Pacific or Mountain Time zones aren’t much better. Seven AM my time is the end of the business day in Salt Lake.
Some organizations still insist on contacting job candidates by phone, and they’re not going to call a number overseas. I have a U.S. phone, just so I can put the number on resumes, but it’s in the States. I can work around the annoying phone issue by getting a number and calling interviewers on VOIP, but the coordination and time zone difference are still a pain.
Luck played a part too, some good, but mostly bad. There were technical problems that prevented the use of video in a third and possibly final interview, for example, which probably cost me that job. Hell, even natural disasters conspired against me. There was an earthquake in Salt Lake on the morning when I was scheduled to “meet the team” for a technical interview. They cancelled, apparently spooked by the event (which happened to be just as COVID in America was heating up). They never replied to me again.
Two other companies discontinued the hiring process in the height of the pandemic.
COVID was also the source of miraculous luck, as suddenly every organization in the world was working remote, and willing to hire based on video call alone.
What other challenges were there? Rejection notices are never specific, so sometimes it’s difficult to know what lessons to learn. I could’ve been turned down for a number of reasons in any of these interviews. It’s anyone’s guess.
Sometimes I applied to jobs for which I was overqualified. I didn’t mind taking a salary cut if it meant having flexibility and learning something new. I’m not sure I always did a good job of explaining why I had no interest in climbing up the technical ladder of success. For this reason I’d rather be under-qualified than overqualified for most jobs.
There may have been some ageism involved, but honestly I never detected this to be the case. If anything, some interviewers may have been spooked over potential costs, suspecting they’d have to pay too much for senior experience in a less-than-senior role.
Speaking of costs, I learned early on that organizations can be turned off by job candidates who are not local, because they don’t want to pay moving expenses. An international expatriation can cost fifty grand or more, but in my family’s case the expense will be a small fraction of that, as we aren’t taking any big stuff like furniture or appliances. So I got in the habit of letting interviewers know up front that I don’t expect any extra compensation for the move.
I may have zero offers to show for all my efforts, but there’s change in the air. I can feel it. Or maybe it’s the sudden cool weather signalling the end of summer, and the approaching typhoon?
One thing’s for sure: looking back years from now, scoring a job in tumultuous 2020 with all my unique challenges will look like a heroic feat.
UPDATE: five minutes later…
Just checked email after publishing this post. After one year of half-ass effort, this journey might finally be over. I have a pending offer. Well, how about that?
UPDATE: five days later…
It was a rather tense five days of working out the details of compensation and benefits, but I’m very satisfied with the final result. I’ll receive the official offer letter early next week. My current location might present some challenges with the logistics and timing of starting the job, but we’ll get everything worked out.
How is it possible to score a job without having the required experience? It’s the problem faced by recent college graduates, and it’s a problem I face in my current job search, twenty-five years into my career. As a recent college grad with no experience, I attempted to lie, but succeeded with luck. Now, my approach is more complex.
Experience Dilemma (1996)
Twenty-five years ago I lied in an attempt to get my first tech job as a support technician at the CompUSA call center. I had some experience fixing computers. Okay, a single computer, my own, and I frequently failed at this effort. But the job qualifications were way beyond anything I had to offer.
Still, I knew with total certainty that I could kick ass at the job if given the chance. I wouldn’t recommend lying to anyone, but this was how I justified it back then.
CompUSA ignored me for weeks after I applied for the job, but I had a friend on the inside who elevated my resume to the top of the stack. I got an interview. Twenty-five years ago I still didn’t feel totally comfortable having adult conversations, let alone communicating in a serious business context. It’s funny to think about now, but back then it was awkward as hell. Some people are effective communicators upon graduating university. I was not. By this time I had spent a year doing customer service at Boring Office Job One (BOJO), but before that I had spent the maximum amount of time avoiding adulthood and the so-called real world.
My initial interview with CompUSA was uncomfortable for both the interviewer and me, but it wasn’t as bad as some of the humiliating train wrecks I had endured in the previous two years. This was where the lying happened. I exaggerated my experience fixing PC’s.
Then came the technical interview. I’m not sure what I was thinking. This was information technology. Lying did not work in situations where solutions were either right or wrong. My answers were so half-ass the interviewer cut it short.
To complete this painful ritual I was then asked to take an assessment test (a practice test for the industry-standard A+ certification for PC hardware repair, as it would turn out). Most of the questions were multiple choice with four choices. I guessed on most of them, somehow scoring under twenty-five percent. On average, a chimp would have done better on this test. The technician who escorted me through the process shrugged and said something like, “don’t call us, we’ll (probably never) call you”.
Just then my friend happened to be walking by. He took the printed assessment test results, disposed of the incriminating evidence, and escorted me out. Later he got me hired and brought me into his group. It was my first tech job. I was part of the team!
I may have started as the most incompetent employee CompUSA call center had ever hired, but I was determined to disprove the imposter syndrome that hung over my head. I devoured new problems and collaborated with other technicians, discussing various tricks of the trade. Within a year I became one of the most awesome technicians that place had ever seen. I received a Technician of the Year award at a ceremony to commemorate the opening of a new call center, attended by over a hundred call center staff.
Of course, social capital is very important, especially when you’re first starting out. For me, having social capital in the right place at the right time was a stroke of luck so improbable that it seemed miraculous.
I learned that it’s never a good idea to lie in an interview, even if you’re a master of deception. Lying might boost experience by +1, but it comes with a penalty of (at least) -1 to both personality and luck (bad karma). People will sense when you’re not telling the truth.
Experience Dilemma (2020)
Looking for a job with twenty-five years’ experience under my belt is way easier than starting with no skills at all, but surprisingly it’s no guarantee of success.
“Twenty-five years’ experience” doesn’t mean much in an industry fueled by rapid change. Employers need someone who can solve problems with the technology they’re using now. There’s never going to be a time when I can say I have twenty-five experience doing exactly what they need me to do. The technology changes too quickly for that to be possible. In fact it’s rare that a candidate will have even five years’ experience doing all the things a job posting wants. This is partly because individual technologies evolve quickly, but also because it’s there are just so many more technologies today than there were a couple decades ago.
“Twenty-five years” can also scare employers, suggesting that I’m set in my ways or over the hill. All the job search advice I’ve seen says to omit any mention of experience that’s more than ten years old. Fair enough. Most of the technology I worked with ten years ago is obsolete. At best, twenty-five years’ experience translates into good technical wherewithal, a broad understanding that allows me to see the most likely troubleshooting paths, and to learn on the fly.
Employers want to see a job change every two to three years, indicating ambition and a desire to stay challenged with new tech. This is weird because a long tenure at a company used to be a good thing, indicating loyalty and dedication to the job. This year I got a compliment from an interviewer on my long tenure at the only two places I had worked between CompUSA and now, and I got the feeling he was old school.
Job recruiters always want to know how many years’ experience you have with a certain technology. I understand what they’re getting at, but in many ways these types of questions don’t match the real world. The real test comes when you speak with someone who knows the tech.
For example, I started working with SQL Server in the year 2000. Does that equal twenty years of experience? It depends on how you break it down. The technology has changed so much since then that only certain core knowledge (e.g., T-SQL) and general understanding (ACID, RDBMS concepts, e.g.) are still relevant. In some ways ten years’ experience might even be better than twenty, if the candidate has shown resistance to adapt.
Then there’s the problem of how to calculate years. Using the example of SQL, some years I worked intensely with the product, but other years just a few days per week, or not at all. What is the quality of experience? For example, I’ve used some type of server software almost every week in the past twenty years, but some features I might only have to mess with once per year, or never.
My answer to all these weird problems? It’s a fifty-page document (yes, another journal) that I call Metamorph.
Metamorph isn’t lying. It’s to help me remember what I’ve done.
Metamorph is a journal of every technology I’ve worked with, with an elevator speech for each. Interviewers want details. They want to know you can solve problems now.
It should be good enough to say “I can’t remember how to do that, but if you let me do some research…” It’s very weird this response is unacceptable in an interview, it’s exactly what you’d end up doing if given the task on the job. There are some things I did with a high degree of proficiency just a couple months ago, but I can’t remember the exact details of the top of my head. Metamorph is to help me remember, to keep things fresh in my mind.
So, we’ll see if my Metamorph strategy works. This morning I had a technical interview for a job that calls for experience working with technology I’ve never worked with in a production setting. I’ve played around with it quite a bit in my own sandbox, but as for real-world experience? Zilch. I was honest about this in the interview. All I could do was express my enthusiasm for the technology, and focus on my strengths. With any luck I’ll get an offer based on deep technical wherewithal and an ability to quickly learn.
This is an autobiographical account of a miraculous incident that got me my first job in the field of Information Technology, set in Dallas, 1996. It’s part of a journal I call the Brief History of Economic Me.
The modem dials each number in quick succession, opening a phone dialog of high-pitched squeals and the alternating tones of a sad slot machine, which I have come to believe is what computers sound like when they talk to each other. This mysterious custom of the digital world should conclude with a blast of comforting static, which I like to imagine as a torrent of twenty-eight thousand bytes (yes, bytes) of data surging through the phone line, except this time there’s no static. The screech-dee-dong handshake continues.
I wait a minute, hit cancel and retry. Same result.
The next obvious move is a reboot. My desktop beast trudges through its slothful routine of beeps, floppy disk drive honk, and internal whirling while cryptic command-line hieroglyphics scroll down the screen.
Another try. Still no connection. I thrust myself out of the chair and pace the flattened carpet of my bedroom, cursing, fists clenched.
Scruffy the arthritic mutt wakes from his nap under the desk, gives me one worried look, and waddles out the door. He can’t comprehend the depths of my frustration. This is no mere computer problem; it’s a mockery of my life.
My dad stops at the door holding a folded Auto Trader mag and a mega-cup of Diet Coke, half-awake after a Saturday afternoon nap. “Everything alright?”
“Computer stuff,” I grumble above the continuing screech-dee-dong, in the manner of a teenager shooing a parent away from his room, except I’m twenty-six.
Two years have passed since my encounter with The Man in the Gray Suit and his words still haunt me: get a job, any job. Make money. But merely making money isn’t good enough. Work needs to be interesting, too. Otherwise what was the point? My temp job at the credit card company is the exact opposite of interesting, but it pays the bills. It’s a life puzzle as perplexing as the guts of the computer here in my room.
I imagine computer repair as the antithesis of office temp jobs: something new, interesting and lucrative. Something that keeps me separate from soulless suits. I also imagine myself as someone who knows about computers, just like I imagine how a modem works and what it sounds like when computers talk. Only problem is there’s a light-year of space between what I imagine and reality, which is made all the more clear by computer meltdowns like this.
Gray Suit promised lightning would strike. All it takes is focus, he said. On any given day my focus is blown on computer games and other distractions to drown out the drudgery of time at the office, but I’m ready to focus now. I want to fix my life, which means fixing this computer. There is no walking away. If I get my foot in the door somewhere I can fake it to make it. My bolt from the blue is long overdue.
My first idea is to find the config.sys boot file. I open it and stare at the code like a dog who has stumbled upon an open algebra text and make some changes. But then I’m spooked by memories of my last self-inflicted disaster and close the file unsaved.
Next I shut down the computer, remove the cover from the PC case and take a look under the hood, as if it’s the ‘64 Olds I drove in high school, broken down on the side of the road. I wouldn’t recognize the modem if the phone cord wasn’t plugged into the back panel. There is dust, which I do my best to clean up, knowing it won’t help.
I remind myself there’s no shame in calling for help. Learning something new would be a small victory, but knowledge is hard to come by these days. On the odd chance someone is willing to help me, they’re looking to get me off the phone fast, not to teach a man to fish. I unplug the modem phone cord from the wall-jack and plug the phone back in, considering my options.
Keith and Dave are the computer arch-mages among my group of friends; but if I ask too many questions they’ll know I’m trying to learn. This exceeds my humility threshold right now. I’m the broke college grad who studied philosophy, and they’re making big money with no college degree.
Instead I call the local computer shop with the intent of hustling some free advice from a random geek, just a hint to point me in the right direction. But it’s soon apparent the once-humble shop has undergone a corporate metamorphosis, meaning they now charge for advice. The technician transfers me to call center support.
The inane cheerfulness of the phone tree voice amplifies the stress in my nerves. No, I do not have a receipt and no I cannot remember where I purchased the modem or when. My only option is paid support over the phone. This feels like total defeat and I’m thinking the awkwardness of calling Keith or Dave might be a better choice.
My finger is on the button to hang up when an actual woman comes on the line to take my credit card information. She has a thick Spanish accent, telling me the call has gone straight to Guatemala, and from this alone I sense the whole thing – the computer problem, my life, everything – is moving in the exact opposite direction I want it to go.
I give Maria my payment info anyway, with the same resignation I’d have if she was border patrol asking for my passport, and I wait on hold with the feel-good music again, which succeeds in having the reverse effect on my mood. I realize the phone I’m using is plugged into the wall-jack the modem used, making it impossible to troubleshoot the problem at hand.
At that moment an eloquent technician comes on the line and explains the pricing and terms with a faux-British accent, sounding like a worker at a Renaissance festival explaining the rules of an axe-throwing game of skill. Some hope returns. This is no third-world call center. Even better, I know this guy. “Victor?”
“Dex?” He uses my old call sign, not heard since my days of fantasy gaming and laser tag.
I go with it, and explain my problem with haste.
Victor cuts in, tells me to meet him after his shift ends at eleven, in the Chili’s parking lot across the street from the call center, so I don’t have to pay. Bring the computer he says. He’ll have a look.
Several hours later Victor concludes: “Could be the modem was zapped during last night’s electrical storm.”
Lightning. I should have thought of that.
Then he asks: “You got a resume? We’re hiring.” It’s a random opportunity, a bolt from the blue.
In 1994 I had zero contacts, zero experience, zero personality, and very little luck. I also had zero interest in working in an office. So how did I end up with a corporate career?
In the featured image I’m holding up the classified section of the Dallas Morning News. Smart phones wouldn’t be around for another twelve years, but if this selfie had been taken with multi-megapixel clarity, then we might have enough detail to pick out the date. Suffice to say it was June 1994, the pre-internet age, when people searched “want” ads in newspapers to find jobs. The tech back then may have been different, but the journey I took in the mid-90’s is pertinent to first-time job-seeking today.
The Big Something
When this photo was taken I was twenty-five, a year out of college with no real job. I had studied mostly philosophy, ending up with a degree in political science, and was discovering that the knowledge I had gained from these fascinating subjects was hard to monetize. My dad was nice enough to let me crash at his place until I could conjure some monetary magic, and I’d end up staying there for years.
I worked a part-time gig driving vehicles from one car dealership to another, from Dallas to other towns in Texas and surrounding states. All this driving gave me way too much time to think. There was this overwhelming pressure to do “something” with my life, but what?
At some point I started using a tape recorder to preserve my ramblings on these long drives. My training in philosophy may have been useless when it came to finding a job, but it had taught me how to organize my thoughts. I transcribed many of these recordings in a philosophical journal called “Income,” much of which I posted online.
Come to think of it, I was blogging before blogging existed. I crafted my own website using a simple text editor, just for fun.
One question I kicked around a lot was whether a job was unavoidable. Yes, I needed money to survive. Freedom was also a big theme for me. I possessed a strong desire to be free of debt. (In an elaborate effort to delay the decision of what to do with my life I had spent half a year studying Italian at a language school in Tuscany, from which I still had a “whopping” $1,800 credit card debt.) But did I really need a job to meet my financial goals? More importantly, did I want a job? Instinct told me NO. Hell, common sense told me NO. Was I going to spend the rest of my life doing something I didn’t want to do?
Bewilderment shows up loud and clear in my transcripts. I act as if I’m on track to do something big with my life, but my professional goals are hilariously vague:
“My goal is to find a self-sustaining, entry-level, administrative position at an organization with international interests.”
My Income Journal, 1994
Self-sustaining? I suppose that meant a job that would allow me to break even, pay bills. A quarter century later I take this for granted, but back then it was a big deal. At the time, only a couple of my peers had managed to reach such a lofty level of professional success.
“Administrative” was a word that I used to mean professional, anything that wasn’t manual labor. The “content and product” of the business I worked for mattered, too, but this was another vague guideline. Basically, I didn’t want to work for any business that was uncool.
International interests? That included pretty much every corporation in the world.
So with these goals I might as well have been searching for anything. I was caught in a catch-22 of not knowing where I wanted to go because I was following a map that was blank.
“Part of the problem is lack of information. I really don’t know enough about what’s out there to make the best decision.”
My Income Journal, 1995
The pressure to do “something” was coming from society, but also from my mom, who of course was part of society, but who was also a vice president at a corporation based in Denver. She wanted me to move to Colorado and look for a job up there. My mom very much had the attitude of “suck it up and be a businessperson”. I know she wanted the best for me, but her vision of success did not suit me at all. She was one of those people who thought working for a corporation was the best thing ever, though things weren’t all that great in her own professional life. I noted in the income journal that she seemed to hate her job, and “despite the group therapy arranged by (her company), she and others at the office are hating life.”
At one point I considered joining the military, just to avoid the burden of making a decision about what this big “something” was going to be. The pressure from my mom must’ve reached a point of unbearable irritation, because moving to Denver became my absolute last choice, even lower priority than enlisting in the military at twenty-five.
In January of 1995 I took a part-time office job at an import-export business owned by an Italian family. They had first emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to New York City, and then to Dallas-Fort Worth. This work paid even less than my car dealership gig, but at least it resembled professional work, and I could put it on my resume. It also allowed me to speak Italian during the day. In general the job itself sucked, but it was more or less an internship, bumping up my experience from zero to zero point one.
Meanwhile I kept looking for a real job.
By June of 1995, a year after my official job search had begun, I had made an estimated “seven hundred phone calls” and had “mailed over two hundred resumes,” resulting in a handful of embarrassing interviews and zero jobs. (I guess these were the days when you could call a company directly to check on the status of a job application.)
After a year of effort I was left with this brilliant spark of wisdom:
“It’s strange, but I find myself working very diligently to locate a job that I’m not sure I even want.”
My Income Journal, 1995
Twenty-five years later I can still relate.
The Big Trap
After a year of job search failure and frustration I flew to California and embarked on what would be a life-changing backpacking trip in the High Sierras, with my brother, and another dude who went by the name of Hound Dog. It was July of 1995.
This ended up being much more than a vacation. It was a spiritual sojourn in nature, during which I stopped thinking so much about what society expected and started applying more introspection into what I wanted to do.
On the flight back from Reno I recorded this comment:
“I came remarkably close to joining the Navy, which, at this point, kind of scares the hell out of me.”
My Income Journal, 1995
If only I knew that fifteen years later I’d start working overseas with the Navy, and this would evolve into a very big chunk of my career!
I returned to Dallas and wiped all my previous goals. Instead, I’d focus on three things that came naturally to me: “creativity (writing), freedom (nature), and adventure (international)”.
This was the beginning of a period in my life that some of my less-accomplished slacker friends would refer to as my “rise to success”. (Insert the 1980’s “Eye of the Tiger” Rocky theme song.) I went for peak physical condition, running daily and lifting weights. I maintained fierce focus and ruthless discipline, with an eye on getting my life on track. From the outside it may have seemed like I was training for what most people considered “success,” but in reality my motivation was unique. As I’d write years later in another journal, Brief History of Economic Me:
“Money motivated me, as I lacked it in a big way, but the hottest fire in me burned to get society off my back. I wanted to build a space between me and the world.”
Brief History of Economic Me, 2016
Who was this “society” anyway? To me this was the source of all greater expectations and obligations, the most traveled path in life. Society enforced all the bullshit you were supposed to do.
I began looking at my future in terms of income opportunities, not as a mere search for a job.
“My conclusion is to listen to my heart, and to make decisions with spiritual eyes (not so logical). It is something I have never truly done, but I need to start now. Otherwise I will find it increasingly harder to break free of the trap that such a vast majority of our society find themselves in.”
My Income Journal, 1995
My horizons broadened with this new world view. I entertained the idea of beginning a carpentry apprenticeship, as I valued independence and I liked building things. I imagined running a business that restored old houses. (An endeavor that still appeals to me today.)
“By last Wednesday, the 16th of August, I had grown confident of my plan to move to California, pay off my debts then put myself in a position to start my own small business enterprise. I talked to my mom about how I had become disenchanted with the idea of working in the typical corporate environment because of the sheer lack of spiritual content. It seemed that I had talked her into it, and she even sent me literature on outdoor organizations to help me pursue employment.”
My Income Journal, 1995
The next morning, Thursday, August 17th, 1995, I got a call from someone named Missy at Resource Staffing in Carrollton, Texas, to discuss a job at SeaLand, a global import-export company (this fit roughly into the category of “international” in my triad of new goals).
I had already failed to impress SeaLand in three previous interviews. The fourth interview was a failure, too. I didn’t get the job, but the next week Missy called back about a low-level clerical job at (I’ll just call it Boring Office Job One, or BOJO for short), which I accepted. It was the kind of thing where you just showed up to work, no interview involved. My department was a bunch of middle-aged women who took frequent smoke breaks, along with an older gay guy who was crazy about cats.
“All of this intense discipline fortified my anti-social, loser self with just enough courage to set foot in an office and work the lowliest temp job in the world.”
Brief History of Economic Me, 2016
Eventually BOJO offered me a permanent position, at a cool $20,100 per year (around $34,000 in 2020 dollars). Again I accepted, by now hooked on the steady trickle of cash.
I paid off my credit card balance a few months later, and would remain debt-free for life.
With that financial milestone out of the way I began feeling the “sheer lack of spiritual content” involved in processing paperwork and calling other bored office workers on the phone. I was making some money, but failing on all of my goals.
The Big Break
By the spring of ’96 I had been at BOJO for the better part of a year, and already the endless cascade of Monday-through-Friday weeks was killing my soul.
In the evenings after work I fought off the inevitable soul-death by writing about nature. Over the course of several months I wrote and revised a 25,000-word account of my recent adventures in the High Sierras. The theme was (ironically) “the courage to pursue freedom”. My corporate job didn’t afford me the freedom to spend much time in actual nature, but I could at least experience it vicariously through my own written words.
Even today the “Tahoe Journal” is a pretty good read. It was the longest piece I had written at the time. This too went on my prehistoric blog.
But with “Tahoe” complete, I wasn’t inspired to write anything else.
In the summer of ’96 I began a new off-hours routine that would end up changing the course of my life. Every night I came home from the soul-sucking office, went for a run, and retreated to my room. (Yeah, I still lived with my dad.) There I engaged in a secret hobby. (No, it wasn’t porn.) I spent nights dismantling my computer, swapping out hardware, and – when luck was with me – getting the thing to run again.
One tech-heavy sentence for the initiated: these were the days of Windows 3.1 and DOS, setting hardware jumpers for system resource use, and configuring arcane boot files like the config.sys and autoexec.bat.
There was no internet to guide me in these endeavors, only advice from friends. I was way out of my league. At least I had the foresight to save my journals to floppy disk. More than once I accidentally wiped my hard drive clean.
I’m not sure why I did all this. It wasn’t future job training – that much was for sure. Something about it satisfied my curiosity and meticulous nature. Maybe it was the occasional victory. Troubleshooting PC hardware issues involved mostly angst and frustration, but the elation of fixing something was sweet indeed.
The important thing to note is that I didn’t engage in this geeky pastime because I thought it would get me a job. In fact I did it because it felt like flipping the middle finger to the very concept of a job.
Sure, I knew it could lead to a career. A couple of friends of mine – the ones who had managed to attain the “self-sustaining” lofty level of success – were making good money in the blossoming field of computers, double what I made, and without college degrees.
But for me this was just a weird, masochistic hobby. It appealed to me naturally, and it was something I liked to do. Like the primitive blog I had created with a simple text editor, I did it for fun.
So playing dangerously with computer hardware changed the course of my life, eventually getting me “the big something,” which happened to be a career in IT. Did it lead to everlasting job satisfaction and good times? No, it did not. But overall it led to a decent compromise with the Man.
Two and a half years after that blurry selfie, I was safely above zero in every category needed to start a career. I had acquired a few contacts, and my experience working in a professional setting was at level one. My business personality was starting to come around, too, thanks to all the mind-numbing customer service I had done at BOJO. I had contacts, experience, and personality, but what about luck?
Within a couple months I would get smacked in the face by the most miraculous luck imaginable. But this luck would have gone unnoticed had I not learned that valuable lesson in the High Sierras. Some might say that luck happens when the stars are aligned, but sometimes luck happens when we get ourselves aligned with the stars. In other words, we start applying more introspection into what comes naturally to us, and ignore what society expects. After that it’s just a matter of paying attention, and seizing what the universe throws our way.
Recent college graduates and I have something in common: we’re both trying to score jobs that require experience we don’t have. No matter who you are, you really have to fake it to make it, for almost any job you want.
Every job seeker knows the deal. You need four things going for you to get hired in the corporate world:
SOCIAL CAPITAL Contacts and connections, someone on the inside. A lot of times this trumps even experience. An internal candidate or someone referred by a current employee is almost always going to be hired before anyone from the outside.
EXPERIENCE Experience can be a tricky beast in a rapidly-expanding, ever-changing industry like Information Technology. It’s always best to have more experience, of course, but for experienced candidates there’s a paradoxical fine line between having too much experience and not enough.
PERSONALITY Charm can sometimes trump experience, too. If the hiring manager “feels” good about you then you have a good chance of getting hired. We’re all human. That’s just how it works. Personality can mean anything from outright deception to good salesmanship, or a combination of both. A little bit of salesmanship is always needed in a job interview, in the form of “you have problems to solve and I have solutions” type of talk. Some people have so much charisma that they can sneak into a job by simply lying. This was the case with a guy named McSquiggins, who will forever be immortalized as the god of deception in the personal pantheon of imposters I’ve encountered in my career. This is rare in industries like IT, where it’s blatantly obvious when ideas either work or they don’t, but it does happen.
LUCK Luck is when the gods of employment smile favorably on you for reasons totally out of your control. It’s an epic role of the dice to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. For example, the favored candidate decides to withdraw her application; or you’re on the other side of the planet, there’s a global pandemic, and suddenly in-person interviews are unheard of and video interviewing is the thing to do. Hooray!
So, it’s all about contacts, experience, personality, and luck.
As a recent college grad, getting a corporate job seemed about as impossible as booking a trip to Mars. I rated laughably low in each category. Let’s take a look at my character sheet circa 1994.
I started with zero business contacts. I went to university in Colorado and moved back to Texas, my home state. There, my only friends were slackers who hadn’t done much with their lives. On top of that, I didn’t want any business contacts. I’m an introvert, so the process of making connections seemed lame.
My business experience was of course zero.
Personality was most definitely something I could not count on to get me hired. In fact it was an extreme handicap. My anxiety in interviews made others uncomfortable. At that time I lacked self-esteem and didn’t really know how to talk.
Luck, well, that was out of my control. Or was it?
In the next post I’m going to turn the dial back to 1994 and explore my so-called “rise to success”.
It sure would be nice to secure a stable source of income prior to relocating my family to the other side of the planet. For me, income means getting a job, and a big part of getting a job is sharpening my tech skills.
In the world of Information Technology, learning new tech is the greatest “GOOD” of any career. It’s as important as keeping helium in a blimp. If skills languish, then you might float for a while (or, if you’re working with government, then it could be a LONG while), but eventually your career will crash into the mountain and erupt in flames.
Learning new skills in a fast-moving industry is a challenge in the best of situations. I’ve always been above average when it comes to learning new technologies and getting the certifications to back them up, but in my current situation these efforts call for extra resourcefulness and grit.
PROBLEM: My current work situation presents two great obstacles to staying current and relevant in IT. Together they represent the great “EVIL” I fight every day.
A physical presence requirement.
Legacy, proprietary tech.
The physical presence requirement is a bitch, not only because it is an illogical, unnecessary waste of time and finite human energy (and in COVID times, an actual risk to health), but because it severely limits my ability to use and learn new tech. There are many learning resources that are inaccessible on the “safe” side of the firewall. I can access cloud resources, but cannot connect to a VM, for example. Theory is useless without real-world practice. I can watch training videos, but cannot connect to a live system and take the technology for a spin.
The physical presence requirement also makes learning during the day my only practical option, as it drains most of my energy in the effort it takes to transport my physical meat mass to and from the box where I’m required to exist. Weekends and nights are busy with family activities, but even if I can find the time at home I’d usually prefer to do anything other than stare at a digital display.
The concrete box where I go during the week is also infamous for its legacy (and sometimes proprietary) technology, which is either outdated or configured in such a way that working with it drives one’s career backwards. It is most fortunate that I’m not required to do too much actual work, because working with legacy tech would sink me further into the morass, drawing me further from my goal. The whole place is filled with would-be tech enthusiasts, starving for any scrap that might keep their knowledge pertinent to the real world. As a former colleague put it, “This is the place where skills come to die.”
To combat this, I have a few on-going goals:
1. Learn new tech in an inexpensive, cloud-based sandbox.
2. Leverage the most out of my time during the week.
To sum up: sharpen skills, in the cheapest way possible, while making the most of my time.
Overall, this effort requires a third goal:
3. Fake it to make it.
For this, I began studying and scripting my knowledge over one year ago, in a document called Career Metamorphosis, or Metamorph for short. As of this writing, it is currently fifty-four pages in length, fifteen thousand words. I’ll write about this in more detail, in a future post.
I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school, and I still consider it to be the greatest game ever made.
Magic was one of the many things that made D&D awesome, as it combined well-defined rules, limitless possibilities, and (with a lucky roll of the dice), the ability to turn an otherwise impossible situation into victory.
I want my real life to be as cool as the magic in D&D.
I also want to relocate my family across the Pacific, to the States. This is a big project, perhaps the biggest adventure of our lives.
To meet this goal, income would be nice.
I don’t have to get a job, but it’d be cooler if I did.
But jobs suck!
Or do they? I haven’t looked for a job in twenty years.
Is it possible to make this income transition fun, instead of a burden? If so, how?
My skills and knowledge would be viewed as magic by someone living in ancient times, or even by some older people today.
In a sense, I am a magic user of the modern world.
Okay, that sounds more fun.
So, with that loose chain of logic leading the way, this post is about a temporarily changing the direction with my writing here, getting down and dirty, casting some mean spells. For a couple of months, I’m going to insert some extremely grass-roots tech, the kind of magic I conjure up to bring harmony to the kingdom, and to keep orcs and dragons at bay.
Can I change the direction of this blog? Sure. Why not? I don’t sell anything and nobody reads this stuff anyway. Do they? Probably not, and that’s good. This obscurity grants me all the creative freedom I need.
Right now I’m thinking of doing twenty blog posts in sixty days. My original mission with this blog was to explore ways I could use my tech skills to be beneficial in life, but now is the time for pragmatism and action. My experience in Japan has been rewarding and life-changing on a multitude of levels, but after ten years here it’s time to return to my homeland, the good old USA. I’d prefer a more stable year to return to America, one that did not include a pandemic, protests, riots, soaring unemployment, toxic politics, and impending economic doom. But why not make things interesting? What the heck.
The chaos might actually work in my favor. Schools are closed indefinitely due to the virus, so there’s no hard deadline to get the kids enrolled.
Also, everyone who works in tech is now working from home. After a decade of commuting ten hours per week in Tokyo metro, I’m looking forward to joining them. If there was an emotion stronger than envy then I’d be feeling it now. Working remotely (at least part of the time) is the only way to go, even in the best of times. Work Is Not a Place. It’s great that the IT industry has seemed to hang in there through this weird pandemic / pseudo economic depression we’re in, and doubly great that so many jobs are now suddenly open to remote work. I’ve been preaching the remote work gospel for years and the rest of the world is finally hearing The Word. This pandemic has been great in so many ways.
Working remotely is exactly what I want to do for as long as my corporate citizenship lasts, and it’s looking like it might last a while, with the goal of gracefully transplanting my foreign-born family to the other side of the world, staying solvent at the same time.
The category of the twenty posts in this detour will be “Applied Tech,” unless I can think of something better. Maybe “Applied Magic” would better match the theme. This will be a batch of twenty-plus posts about applying the right kind of magic to get the jobs done – both transitioning my employment situation, and the job of moving my family to the States.
There’s a lot I like about tech. I love learning new things, solving problems, and making tech work for us (as opposed to us struggling with tech). I like working with people – customers, clients, and colleagues alike – but with a certain control over the volume knob that only remote work allows. I’d work with tech even if there was no money involved (and in a way there isn’t, as I’m fortunate to have not lived paycheck-to-paycheck in twenty-five years).
So that’s “why” I’m getting more technical with this blog, to move my family back to the States, in a financially responsible way.
But why am I looking for a job?
This is the kind of question an alien from outer space might ask, an intelligent creature blissfully naïve about the way things work in early 21st Century Earth, sort of like a high school kid who plays D&D. I’ve been asking this question every day since high school, and there’s no reason to stop now.
Health Insurance, I’m Your Bitch
As mentioned, I like tech, but sometimes I don’t want to work with tech every day. Sometimes there are other types of work I’d rather do, work that does not necessarily make good money. My household needs income, of course, but we don’t need the kind of money that an all-encompassing full-time corporate job provides. My ideal work week might involve working a tech job a few days per week, with maybe one day in the office and two at home. The rest of the week I’d work on creative and constructive projects of interest, or devote my time to enriching the lives of my family and community. At this point, money is not as important to me as time.
This dream week of mine would be completely tenable if not for one factor: In America, health care is a life-altering expense. The only way to reasonably afford coverage for a family in the U.S. is health care subsidized by a corporate job. This ends up having a huge impact on quality of life.
In Japan, health coverage for my wife and kids is around US$2,000 per year (it would be free if we were poor). In America, the same coverage, if self-paid, costs ten times as much. (With extremely high premiums it’s possible to get family coverage for around US$4,000 per year in America, but this means hospital visits only for life-threatening emergencies, and no dental.
What are the alternatives?
Start my own business? No health coverage.
What about consultant? No health coverage.
Part-time work? No health coverage.
Gig economy? No health coverage.
With a family to support, it all comes down to health insurance in America, unless you want to roll the dice and hope nobody gets sick or hurt. (This was my dad’s strategy during my teenage years, like twenty percent of Americans today. Somehow we all got lucky, one bone fracture and a sprained ankle notwithstanding – an elementary school misstep that I was obliged to “walk off”.)
I don’t feel that lucky with my family.
Health care, I am your bitch.
So, American health care, you slave-driving destroyer of dreams, it looks like I’ll be working Monday through Friday, fifty hours per week after week after week after soul-crushing week (into infinity), at a job that I won’t necessarily want to be working all of the time. This is a common routine called “The Grind,” and I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years.
Toward the end of a rare one-week break from work I’ve usually shed enough of the psychic trauma to see a glimpse of a future for myself and loved ones outside The Grind, but when starting a new job in America the standard is two precious weeks off per year. PER YEAR! I don’t have that many years left. In a sense, nobody does. Why do we do it? It’s insane.
It’s supremely ironic that I’ll be suffering through all this in the name of health insurance, because this rigid routine compresses one’s vision of the future into two sequential events: more of The Grind itself, and death. (Okay, there’s a slight intermission between the two, the vision of me on my death bed, hooked up to tubes and wires, all paid for by my marvelous health coverage, until the slow beeping of the EKG collapses into a solid tone, and I finally get some much-needed rest.)
The above vision is a delusion, a curse cast by an evil mage. I realize this now, but it’s a constant battle to resist its corrosive effects. For me there are only two ways to make The Grind tolerable, only two incantations that can dispel the curse. The first is remote and flexible work. This is a mandatory requirement for any new job. The second is, well, let’s just say it’s a material component of magic-user spells that will be covered in far future blog posts, when we’re on the other side of the Pacific, settled in the States.
Adventures are not easy. They’re usually fraught with danger, requiring great sacrifice to overcome. I’m ready to take on all the challenges listed above, but there’s no reason I can’t make it fun. What kind of magic will I practice in the journey ahead? I’ll stick with my core bag of tricks, while pushing the boundaries a bit into subject matters I like. If my search could be written into a WHERE clause then it would look something like this:
I’m not quite sure about this syntax, but in plain logic it’s a pretty good picture of what I want to do.
Another thing I want to do with these blog posts is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is storytelling with data. I start with a problem statement, something bad happening in the environment, a wandering monster to slay. There are complications, each worse than the last. There’s a catch hidden somewhere in one of the complications, which ends up leading to the solution in the end. The next twenty-plus posts will not be D&D-themed, at least not to the point that it detracts from the tech. However, I do intend to unlock some possibilities and turn an otherwise impossible situation into victory with a few lucky rolls of the dice. Most of all, I intend to have some fun.
The benefits of remote work are obvious and overwhelming, for both employer and employee. So why did so many employers resist this opportunity to cut expenses, benefit the environment, and boost human health? Inertia likely played a big part. Old customs die hard. Before March, 2020, many organizations were still resisting. It took an act of god to force the religion to change. There will be many beneficial results of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, and the general acceptance of remote work as “normal” will be at the top of my list.
Employees can also resist remote work, too, with insecure thoughts like “if I work from home then isn’t that proof that my job can be easily outsourced?” Those of us who work with security clearance and-or sensitive data are more immune to out-sourcing. But either way, if you contribute real value then the answer is “yes,” you’d be better off working from home.
Another reason for the resistance to teleworking could be there isn’t enough knowledge work out there to sustain all the jobs our economy needs, so the theater must continue, and the office is the stage. There are entire industries that are useless in terms of improving the human condition or increasing quality of life. In these settings everyone must play the part and act like they’re doing something useful, so they fill up the day churning up more useless nonsense and doing pointless busy work to keep the boss satisfied. The boss in turn does the same thing for her bosses, and on rolls the giant parade of nonsense on up to the board of directors and investors.
The Golden Rule of Sniffing Out Bullshit in the Office
For knowledge workers, the need to be present in a traditional, brick-and-mortar office setting is proportional to how useless the job really is. The stronger the need to be present in the office, the more likely the job is fake. Everybody knows who these people are. The meeting organizers. There’s zero impact on anything if they disappear, except maybe for an uptick in productivity for everyone else. There’s nothing like working remotely to reveal whether a particular job is fake. If there’s no measurable output, then it should become obvious in the first week.
In the IT sector of knowledge work, there has been a decades-long, non-stop effort to make our services cost-effective, automating and outsourcing the work. Many of us work hard each week to slowly put ourselves out of a job. Eventually these jobs become fake, too. And when the economy crashes, it’s a private sector clearinghouse for fake jobs.
Government jobs are another story. If all the blubber was boiled away there’d be nothing left. But this never happens. These jobs exist to prop up a fake economy, in a way. It should be no surprise that the US Federal government has more people on its payroll than any other organization on Earth. The US Defense Department by itself is the largest employer in the world. “Work” has become a kind of adult day care for a massive chunk of the workforce, millions of people who do not fit easily into the system we’ve made. For better or worse, government’s answer is a kind of social welfare system disguised as employment. Most of these jobs are fake.
There’s no such thing as a totally lean workforce. If all fake jobs were eliminated then unemployment would be thirty percent or more. Something must be done for these people, or the cost comes back around to those of us with so-called real jobs.
This touches again on the idea that “the inter-subjective experience becomes real”. It’s something along the lines of what Harari writes about in his book Sapiens. We have to be careful when talking about fake jobs and fake economy, because all our systems are fake if we look at them through a certain lens. There’s nothing real about money, religion or state. These are all concepts we’ve agreed to accept as reality, and the agreement itself makes them real.
If we agree on positive concepts and social structures then the world becomes a better place, but with negativity machines like social media driving cultural and political polarity, this becomes a steep challenge to overcome. Most internet memes probably start off only partially true, if they have any truth at all. We mistake popularity with truth, and many false ideas become accepted as truth over time. We become what we imagine, whether good or bad.
A lot of good can happen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fiasco in the States. As with the aftermath of 911, it all depends on how the cards are played. The acceptance of remote work is one positive change that is sure to come, and it’s long overdue. But we can expect other big picture changes, too. What else will be exposed as obvious and overwhelming as a result of this fortunate act of god? In America, the crippling costs of health care, housing, and higher education enforce a wage-slave system, and this needs to change. (Higher education needs a separate post titled Education Is Not a Place.) We’re entering into a time when everyone knows our traditional systems are outdated. Everything needs to be rebuilt. Let’s start with rethinking the way we work, and embrace the beneficial technology of Virtual Private Networking (VPN).
A few principles of the Second Law of Thermodynamics serve to prove the irrefutable superiority of remote work for knowledge workers:
1. natural processes are irreversible
2. concentrated energy is more efficient
3. entropy reduces efficiency
The human body is basically a system with a finite amount of energy that is tasked with accomplishing work. In the case of knowledge workers, electrochemical energy (brain power) is burned to produce actual work in exchange for money.
As with any system, energy in the human body varies greatly with the environment in which it operates, and this includes the mental framework. Efficiency can reach dizzying heights in a remote-work environment, but it’s not automatic. It requires a disciplined mind and a renewed dedication to actual work, from both manager and employee.
What is the finite amount of energy at our disposal? The eight-hour workday might be a good baseline for manual labor, but for creative work, five hours of peak productivity per day is around the most we can expect from anyone (assuming chemical intake is caffeine and not something stronger like Adderall). This is supported by research, my practical experience, and general common sense. The remainder of the requisite eight-hour day can be spent doing tasks that are less brain-intensive, like research, revision, and the inevitable administrative work.
Remote work allows for maximum efficiency, like some zero-loss, theoretical energy source recovered from an alien spacecraft marooned on Earth.
By contrast the physical office environment disperses the concentration of energy and limits efficiency to somewhere between zero and thirty percent, which just happens to be the range of efficiency at which an internal combustion engine converts old-school petrochemical fuel into forward momentum. In this work arrangement energy is wasted on non-work activities in the effort to get to (and exist!) in the place where we’re paid to think.
1. Natural processes are irreversible.
Business objectives must comply with the laws of physics and human nature, not the other way around. In an average work week the employer owns a set amount of the employee’s energy, and the employee agrees to devote that amount of time to the working process. All the effort devoted to work that does not involve actual work gets decremented from the total in terms of output no matter what, regardless of the quality of employee. When the limit is reached, productivity takes a dive. On the outside the employee may appear to be working and this might give the manager a warm feeling; but warm feelings do not contribute to the bottom line. On the inside her bullshit meter is beyond the threshold and she’s turned off. Employee energy is a currency, and it’s the employer’s responsibility to spend it wisely. Spending the energy wisely results in success for the organization, and this starts with providing the right environment for its employees.
2. Concentrated energy is more efficient.
How is the knowledge worker’s finite energy dispersed by the physical presence requirement of the traditional office?
First, there’s THE COMMUTE. For me the actual work is not so bad. Generally speaking I like what I do, and I’d do it even if I had all the time and or money in the world. What bothers me are the thousands of little actions that comprise the stupid routine to get my meat mass to the work site, exist there for nine plus hours, and then get back from there, when there is no logical reason for me to be there in the first place. Sure, I usually make the best use of my commute time, but I’d rather be focusing on actual work, fulfilling my actual obligations to my employer, and then getting on with life.
True, it is my responsibility to commute from home to the work site, but as noted above, it doesn’t matter. Natural processes cannot be reversed.
Most people have it much worse. I devote the absolute minimum time on wardrobe and hygiene, and then I take it easy on the train, reading a book or planning my day. Most U.S. workers have to deal with the hellish nightmare of rush hour traffic in a motor vehicle, which luckily I have not experienced in twenty-plus years. How productive can an employee be if he just spent the past hour screaming his intent to murder the mothers of people who cut him off in traffic? Recently I calculated that one of my friends had driven around the world over six times in the past ten years, in terms of mileage driven back and forth to work. Somehow, to him this was not just normal, but commendable. To me it’s insane, a wooden board cracked over the head.
The commute has a massive impact on the environment and long-term health issues. Of course there is zero energy loss with teleworking. The commute is zero. Food prep is zero. Clothing prep is zero. All these things can be done during breaks in the work day. Impact on the environment: zero. Let’s stop this harmful, masochistic routine once and for all.
3. Entropy reduces efficiency.
Then there are all the continuous, idiotic distractions that only an office can produce. OH THE HUMANITY. People invade your space and force you to listen to their stupid jokes, gossip, opinions about world events. There’s always some guy in the next cubicle over who just won’t shut the hell up. Some days the senseless meetings are non-stop. For me, tendency to produce actual work is much greater when working remotely, as there has to be some measureable impact of my work. In the office I tend to slack, simply because being seen and heard is perceived (wrongly) as equal value to actual work.
The importance of written communication often goes unrecognized in the physical office. It’s not unusual to spend time crafting a clear description or explanation in an email reply, only to have the recipient run to your cubicle for an offline follow-up, leaving others out. Email is asynchronous for a reason. There’s real value in taking time for deliberate thought. It’s also not unusual to verbalize the same information to many different people in different ways in addition to writing about it. This is because interpersonal, verbal communication just feels better, especially to those people whose job only job is to appear important. Even if people have no idea what you’re talking about, they smile and nod because they feel better hearing your words, and they feel better knowing that you’re working in a professional environment with them, wearing similar “business casual” clothing, looking polished, professional and smart. None of this has anything to do with the actual product or service that we’re paid to provide, but we’re all dancing the same stupid dance, and in this way the inter-subjective experience becomes real. Communication in an office setting typically requires triple the energy than is actually necessary to convey thoughts and ideas.
In the very best case scenario THE PHYSICAL OFFICE environment is not as good as what you have at home. Does anyone have a cubicle at home? The answer is “no,” unless you’re hopelessly locked into the wage slave mentality. People are not meant to sit in boxes. A bad physical environment drains energy and dramatically decrements the bullshit tolerance, as well as other human needs like comfort, fun, and hygiene. There are very real studies that show how bad lighting and cold air, for example, reduce employee productivity.
The “existing there” part is currently the most challenging for me, as it’s the extreme opposite of what I used to have. By contrast, in my old teleworking job I used to proactively invent improvement projects and find work to do when things were slow. I don’t do this anymore. All I’m thinking about all day is getting the hell away from that place.
In a typical week I drop about thirty hours on the above three items (the commute, the humanity, and the physical office). This might seem like a lot, but when you factor in all the water-cooler chats, the distractions, pointless meetings, meat-mass transport, navigating distance to nearest vacant toilet seat, or availability of suitable places to sit down and eat lunch, the time adds up. So I’ve burned about three-quarters of the energy I’ve agreed to devote to the job, and this is before any actual was has been done. If there’s something urgent to do then I’ll do it, but my finite energy level and my business sense are telling me that I’ve only got a total of ten hours of productivity left to give.
At the end of the week in my old teleworking job, I had accomplished a solid thirty or forty hours of actual work, which, if people are absolutely honest, is a heck of a lot of brain work in one week for any job. My bullshit meter almost never got pegged, as energy spent was at or around the forty-hour limit. I was happy, engaged, and consistently returned to the company very high efficiency on hours logged.
As an added bonus to the organization I never called in sick in over ten years of working from home. Why not? Because I never had to serve my time in the virus distribution center called “The Office”. I still worked even if I was sick, and nobody suffered because of it. I never felt like I had to take long breaks from work. So the end result was win-win.
Remote work offers employer and employee the most efficient expenditure of human energy and the highest productivity in terms of actual work produced. Never mind the opportunity to eliminate the massive cost of maintaining the bizarre circus of bullshit called the physical office.
In the next post I’ll wrap up a few mind-tingling thoughts.