⨳ 22 Oct 2021
How do you know if what you do is actually meaningful?
The late anthropologist David Graeber once wrote that “huge swathes of people in the Western world spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” He called these tasks “bullshit jobs.”
Whenever “huge swathes” are invoked, it seems presumptuous at best to assume that I am not among them. So I ask, do I work a bullshit job?
Perhaps you have already answered this question for yourself and are satisfied with the answer. You may want to read on still. My purpose is not to convince you that your job is or isn’t bullshit, but to argue that critiques like Graeber’s — made from a “God’s Eye View” — may be useful at an academic or macroeconomic level, but not at a personal one.
In his essay, “The Modern Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” Graeber wrote that while “productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away,” bullshit jobs have filled the space left behind creating “whole new industries such as financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors such as corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations…and…the whole host of ancillary industries…that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.”
Later, Graeber developed this idea further in a book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, in which he detailed a system of five types of jobs that he believes are fundamentally bullshit, including flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important; goons, who act to harm or deceive others on behalf of their employer; duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently; box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it is not; and taskmasters, who manage—or create extra work for—those who do not need it.
The tone is unmistakably sardonic. It was Graeber’s view that the bullshit system exists not out of economic necessity — he believed that capitalism would, by its nature, weed out bullshit — but as a symptom of the baser needs of the human ego. The need of employers for “underlings in order to feel important and maintain competitive status and power” creates a system of “Managerial Feudalism” in which we are stuck. I’m all for savage semantic flair, and managerial feudalism is an especially provocative phrase the writer in me wishes I’d written myself. But is it a fair rendering of the system in which every employer or employee works?
Graeber’s classification is framed in a particularly malicious way, and though he gives real-world examples of each of his five types, the intent behind them seems to be a shared awareness of their purposelessness and a determination to preserve it. For example, duct tapers — the one role of his five that feels at all familiar to me — “temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently.” A key idea behind the “bullshit job” is that it is being done by a person who recognizes that it is unnecessary. As if to say that the duct tapers withhold permanent solutions. But is that true? It is certainly not charitable, but is it accurate? Even if I were to grant Graeber’s overall view — that modernity’s complexity has exceeded its own purpose — I am not prepared to accept a resulting trickle-down vacancy in the mind of every worker.
Bullshit is one of those words to which meaning is often assumed. If someone says something obviously ridiculous or overblown or unmerited and I reply, “Bullshit!” I need not say more. But if a systemic critique of modernity is going to be carried by the same word, we need to be clear about what it actually means.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt notably defined bullshit as the “deceptive misrepresentation of reality,” but differentiated the bullshitter from the liar by intent: The bullshitter “does not try to deceive,” while the liar does. The bullshitter is sincere. That the bullshitter believes in a misrepresentation of reality implies something of origin problem. If a bullshitter believes in a false reality, then they, too, are the victims of misrepresentation. But which came first, the bull or the shit? Frankfurt believed that bullshit was far more toxic to society than lies because it is psychologically acausal. A system of bullshit is not necessarily grounded in a lie; subconscious desire is enough to create a false reality to which a person will devote their entire life.
If our own subconscious desires are met, even by being a flunkie or a goon, then we are more than capable of happily flunking and gooning for a lifetime. We may render unfathomable societal harm in doing so without knowing it or feeling the slightest bit of remorse.
So says Graeber.
But I promised a pep-talk, didn’t I? I’ll get there.
I am in the habit of ending my day by writing some notes in a book. Sometimes they are little more than a list of things to do, written so that I can stop thinking about them until the next day — so that I know where to look when I “clock in” again and what to work on first. Other times, my notes are more of a journal entry; I’ll unload a day’s emotion in a few lines or even a picture. Once, I drew this chart:
Evidently, I had just finished one of those days when, despite the weariness I felt after hours of work, the purpose of it all seemed, at best, unclear. It might have been one of those days when, just as I reached to shut down my computer, the flash of a stack of red Slack dots in my periphery filled me with leaden despair. Comedian Jeff Maurer’s recent critique that “Slack…is software invented by Satan to make sure work never ends” pretty much sums up the modern predicament for many of us, when days-long immersion in digital spaces creates the illusion of productivity — a Sisyphian exchange of messages and alerts that keeps us always on the cusp of getting something done once and for all.
After a day like that, it is easy to feel that as the endurance of what we make decreases, the meaning of the work we have done also decreases. You might simply label such a graph “Futility.” And to be sure, futility does feel meaningless. As we watch what we make evaporate into irrelevance so soon after we launch it — often functioning in the world for far less time than it existed as an idea in progress — we can’t help but question the point. Why do we do this over and over again?
When I look back on my own graph, I ask myself that question. If it is a true depiction of my days, why do I live them that way?
My answer is simple: The graph is correct, as an emotional accounting. But it is one I must cross-examine, bringing to bear other relevant data, and which I do regularly.
There is more to meaning than endurance and time. There has to be.
Bullshit, no matter how it is defined, will always be a relative term.
Graeber, for instance, implied a moral superiority of “productive” work — of those jobs that involve physically making something. I won’t deny that the satisfaction of working with one’s body is of a completely different sort from that of working solely with one’s mind, or that when I imagine doing physical work and graphing it at the end of the day, my meaning line doesn’t trend upward. But I also can’t make the leap to suggest that the product of thought that remains incorporeal is, in the grand scheme of things, somehow less-than. Nor can I dismiss the work that is somewhere in-between.
If a physical product is of inherent value on the bullshit spectrum of modernity, so too is every task that must be done in order to make that value accessible to you and me. From the assistant who takes notes in a planning meeting to the person who tapes the box shut before shipping it to the person who carries it from a truck to your doorstep. At a certain scale, society cannot have a system of value that doesn’t take into account the surrounding system of delivery. And as a society grows — literally, as its population increases — the logistical complexity required for anything to be accessed by an individual person will exponentially outsize the core system of value it supports.
Can we really say that only physical work is meaningful?
What of time, then? It is frustrating that so much of what we spend our time on is so ruthlessly evanescent. Being unable to easily point to a thing as evidence of our time and effort makes for a stark contrast with any sort of widget-making, be it coding an app or growing an apple. But if the “moral and spiritual damage” of this system is the denial of meaning to those of us who work, it’s worth considering what, exactly, makes something a meaningful expenditure of time.
Is it that the endurance of something over time — perhaps even just its potential to do so — confers meaning upon its maker? Does a stone-cutter who didn’t live long enough to see the completion of a cathedral derive more meaning from his work than the person who dragged bundles of wood to the worksite day in and day out, only to see them burned up each time? More meaning than the person who simply worked out who was going to do what and for how long and for how much pay — whose entire working life was measured in short-lived scrawlings on scraps of paper? Each person played a necessary part. Judging meaning among them seems relative at best, when the question is simple: Why must something last in order to be meaningful, when we ourselves will not last? In the grandest scheme of things, does it actually matter if the thing I make lasts a moment or a century?
Graeber wrote that “a world without teachers or stevedores would soon be in trouble, and even one without science-fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity chief executives, lobbyists, public relations researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.” It may not be entirely clear, but the absence of the support layer around, say, a science-fiction writer would likely prevent her words from being read. In a utopia, that wouldn’t necessarily be true. But on this Earth, right now, it certainly is. For better or for worse, every artist relies upon the so-called “meaningless” work of others to deliver value to society. If their art has meaning, so too must every apparently trivial task that supported it. Most of us will find ourselves working to support the delivery of someone else’s value. Our effort will disappear while someone else’s remains. Can we really be denied a share of its meaning?
An old mentor of mine used to endlessly quote Ecclesiastes 1 — “Absolute futility. Everything is futile. What does a man gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun.” — and he did so with a smile. It used to bother me deeply, because I objected to our work being described as futile. Of course I knew that nothing we made would really last, but I rejected the notion that repetitive, short-lived work was fruitless. I still do.
I once wrote myself another end-of-day note that serves as a useful counterpoint to the hopeless graph I had drawn before. I titled it “What I Do,” and I’ll reproduce it here in full:
I help people to sell ideas to people who believe they need new ideas to better sell their own ideas.
Is there some good in that? There has to be, otherwise I can’t believe that I would keep doing it.
How do I do it? I help people understand how information design and visual language can be used to make it easier to recognize and absorb ideas when given the least amount of attention.
I’m not the best designer. I’m also not the best analyst. What I do very well is teach others design principles and inspire them to understand, practice, and maintain them.
This is an exercise that you can do, too. Can you explain what you do in a way that doesn’t use titles or professional jargon? Can you express some value without using words that already assume it? After you have done that, can you contrast it with things that — given another life, perhaps — you could do instead that you feel confident offer value to the world? My list, from food to science, includes things we all need in order to live. They’re some of the basic building blocks of society, and I don’t stack a single one of them.
Even within my own profession, I am clear about where I actually offer value. I’m not the best designer; I never will be. I’m OK with that because I recognize that our world needs more than just amazing designers. It also needs people who understand design and can help others be better at it. That’s the role I play.
I urge you to do the same accounting. It may not validate what you do, in which case you may need to find some other way to offer value to the world. But even that I say with optimism because I believe that everyone has something to offer.
I’ve come around a bit on my old mentor’s view on futility. Almost two decades into my career, no one thing that I have made or helped make has lasted very long. Though I spend most of my time helping other people make things, I still directly make things myself — images and products — and some of them are still in use. But they won’t be forever. Hundreds of clients and thousands of projects have come and gone; few remember or are remembered. Is that futility?
There’s an old adage that “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I cling to that truth in my work. How I derive meaning doesn’t come from the endurance of what I make or what gets made because of me or what people say about my intelligence or even the endurance of my viability in the marketplace. None of those things is negligible, but what brings me meaning and what is translated into money are two very different things. In the end, my work is people. I love talking about design, but I could get my intellectual needs met sitting alone in a room. I am emotionally satisfied when I observe someone else grow. That’s how I derive meaning from my work, which is, ultimately, talking about design for the benefit of others.
When I inspire a person to explore an idea, or try something new, or take a risk; when I create a safe space for someone to be critical of themselves or generous to themselves; when I encourage someone who can’t see what I see; when I show someone that something is possible and valuable and that there is a way for them, too, simply by walking the way for me; these are some of the ways that I can “measure” the value of my work that accrues for me, and for them. This sort of value is mysteriously dual. For every bit I pay out I am rewarded the same. I am no magician. This is a “trick” anyone can learn.
I read recently an astonishingly bracing line: “There is a certain personal relief…in admitting that your ambition is no longer that useful.” Rosie Spinks wrote that in an essay about professional adaptation that I greatly admire. For the first decade of my career, I wasted a lot of energy on the wrong ambition. I wanted to be the smartest person in the room. I wanted my voice to be heard. I wanted bylines and stages. I got all of that in spades and none of it assuaged a growing and eventually stifling anxiety that my work did not need to be done. It didn’t.
The world didn’t need another book about interaction design, at least not from me. The world didn’t need another conference or keynote or panel, at least not from me.
But the world did — and does — need another person who derives value from elevating others. Though I lament the modern bullshit bureaucracy that David Graeber critiqued, I won’t be the person to dismantle it. Not because I don’t care to, but because I know I cannot step outside of it to take it apart piece by piece, nor can I tug at its foundations from within without it crashing down upon me and everyone else. What I’d like to think I can do is replace pieces of it with better ones. And as much of a process-wonk I am prone to be sometimes, those better pieces are not going to be the functional ones. They’re going to be the relational ones.
Graeber’s critique — in its full substance — must be contended with by us all. There is much more to it that gets into the systemic nature of the problem. But frankly, he should have called it A Bullshit System: A Theory, because it’s not really about the jobs and making it about them makes it about those of us who work them. No bullshit-saturated system will be cleaned out; it will be cleaned in. Which means we have to accept staying within it, remaking it from within, and finding meaning in that.
In the end, I’d rather be forgotten by a thriving world I helped create than remembered by one drowning in its own dysfunction. If that means I work a bullshit job and then disappear, I can accept that. But I don’t really think it does, and neither should you.
This “impossible” crane shot from Soy Cuba (1964) quickly goes from