A Modern Day Dilemma, Explored.

This Aeon magazine article, long and meditating on details, encapsulates my ideas – the kind of ideas that are increasingly becoming my main point of interest – on the two major irreconcilable forces that drive our identity: the fulfillment (or lack of it) that we find in work and our desire (and inability) to be good people. Can we have day jobs (the kind that can pay our bills) and be the good guys at the same time?

As I wrote a lot of posts on the topic, I could not have better condensed my sentiment into a simple sentence:

“The innocent moral imperative to stand on your own two feet helps sustain structures of inequality that have come to seem – no lesser word will do – barbaric. The work ethic has a lot to answer for.”

In other words, as we struggle to survive under the current economic structure and get better at it, as we become more resourceful at and more dedicated to our jobs, we inadvertently help sustain this vicious circle of inequality. What we think of as a virtue – being good at what you do, or, to be more precise, being good at no matter what you do – is, in fact, a vice.

The author makes a point that television, albeit a what we call high-quality TV, can actually provide an idea of what it would take to be a better person while doing your job, as opposed to merely lament, as old traditional TV shows did, on how meaningless our day work is. Here I want to put the TV part aside, however, and just focus on author’s superb analysis of the status quo.

“The work ethic used to mean putting yourself on the line. Today, physical risk has been replaced by speculative risk.”

The author juxtaposes a cop and a finance guy (and we don’t really need a TV show for that) to demonstrate that, while both work hard, one of them gets all the goods and the other is assigned with protecting the former’s property while risking his life doing it. If you’re doing good at your day job, like enforcing the law or care for the sick or the elderly, does that make you into a sucker? Then he goes to make a point, or rather ask a philosophical question, that I have been pondering for years:

“How much of what we call respectable work is something that nobody under any circumstances should be allowed to do? Such subversive questions are actively provoked by the long-running gangster shows The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. These particular series are all about men, and all a man wants to do is provide for his family. But given the rules of the game, providing for your family might entail committing acts you can’t tell your family about, including murder. That’s just how it is. It’s not your fault. You’re just doing your job.”

By veiling our dedication to our jobs, no matter how unethical, in a shroud of ‘providing for the family’ is a mental escape that many of us use to get through the day. And because we’re so busy, we have no time to examine it, to think of it from this angle, let alone to change anything about it.

It is interesting to see the author to conceive a situation, albeit utopian, where we would reconcile the competition and cooperation: a Zombie apocalypse. This is a situation where we would abandon a sharp division of labor and our individual specializations. As I routinely mock finance guys who go out of their way to seek physical hardships, whether out of boredom or excess energy or preparation for a total economic collapse, perhaps there’s some real truth to my scorn. These demonstrations of physical prowess are their subconscious manifestations, perhaps even a longing, for the world where the real meaning would exist. But if and when the real Zombie apocalypse happens and we’re forced to apply our physical skills to survive, the upheaval would also force us to have a conversation about what it means to do meaningful things. Are we prepared or even mentally equipped to have that conversation?

The Coolness of being Uncool.

How many of our actions are driven by fear of appearing uncool? What immeasurable damage has been wrought on the unsuspecting populace by the insecurities of the powerful few? Our collective quest for coolness, for the perfect at the expense of the good, for victory drives many into unmanageable situations. It’s hard to quantify, but we should at least attempt to examine the dynamic behind it.

What is cool according to current popular culture? It is the ability to win battles and arguments, to demonstrate your professional prowess with ease, to make money, to accumulate followers and admirers, to be full of potential. In our competition obsessed society the greatest sin one can commit is to be considered a loser.  And what is lame, what is loserville? It is to be average, to be comfortable with what one has, to be static, to not seek the levers of power.

It is a sad paradox that the most ambitious and driven among us reach the positions of power in politics, finance, academia – industries that require the best and the brightest – and then something happens to them once they are there: they turn into insecure narcissists. Those that spent a lot of energy getting to the top, once there, spend a lot of energy on maintaining the image of success. It’s a draining, tiresome task. Daily focus is shifted from concentrating on task at hand to watching others watch you. One begins to develop delusions of threat around every corner and assumes a defensive posture as a default attitude. Every human encounter is seen as a potential minefield, every incoming query is interpreted not as a bid for information but as a test of competency, a personal attack, a scheme to undermine. “Why are you adding on your position?” – an uninitiated intern might innocuously and not without a reason ask  a trader whose position is losing money. “He’s questioning my expertise!” – an insecure trader will think to himself. “It’s a dynamic hedge, kid, go get me some coffee” – the trader will say aloud with the hope of putting the matter to rest by way of using industry jargon. With such entrenched mindset any retreat in any argument or discussion is out of the question, because that would require an acknowledgement of a flaw in one’s skillset or premise, and thus be damaging to the image of success. Search for rationalizations, excuses, assigning blame consume even more time and resources that could be spent productively.

When one has achieved some level of expertise and power, the same amount of effort as before fails to bring about the same results; the career trajectory that has been steep in the early years begins to flatten. Daily routine becomes an exercise of pushing against the ceiling: your success will fail to impress, and if you fail – all hell will break lose. To use industry lingo, their situation is becoming negatively convex, a limited upside/unlimited downside kind of scenario. Just look at Rogoff/Reinhart fiasco: if they haven’t made a mistake no one would have heard of them outside their skull and bones society (academia and a few politicians); one mistake – and that’s what they will be remembered for by the entire world for the rest of their careers. But for a driven and ambitious personality it’s tough to switch gears: he keeps doing what he’s always been doing but with no result, and unable to sense a shift in balance. That’s when apathy and resignation kick in; and bad but manageable position/situation deteriorates into a disaster.

But let’s now examine pockets of society where there are secure enough personalities. Those would include people capable of projecting realistic expectations for themselves: Lower class, illegal immigrants, athletes, most of retirees, sport handicappers. Good poker players are another subgroup of those with secure egos, “good” being a key word. The paragons of security are the ones who are not a part of a professional or academic group, everyone who is not employed in a high-pressure, high-pay (or both) environment. Those who do not belong to any exclusive club, any skull and bones society, those uninitiated are not burdened with the constant struggle to maintain good standing of membership, to prove one’s worth, to impress. The only person they have to impress is themselves.

Sir Richard Branson recently gave us all a demonstration of a cool secure personality: dressing in drag and serving passengers of a rival airline after losing a bet. Such ability to acknowledge and accept defeat and to move on is the foundation of a correct play. To harness such skill requires complete negation of self-importance. A guy at the poker table mindful of his appearance and protective of his image, constantly excusing and justifying his strategy to his table neighbors is a bad player. But beware of a 400-pound guy with body odors, receding hairline and a pony tail – he has long given up caring about what you think about him. Guys like him have nothing to prove and no one to impress. Those guys are paragons of security, of mental fortitude. They are there for the game and for the game only. Their only display of vanity is the size of the stack in front of them. By virtue of not giving a damn they free themselves from having to worry about what others think of their game. That’s coolness.

Risk Taking and Finger Length (off topic)

This article explains everything!

“As strange as it may sound, the ratio of index to ring finger correlates with traits such as spatial ability, risk-taking, and assertiveness. It’s connected to success in competitive sports like soccer and skiing. Rustichini’s own work has connected it to real-life success, such as the profitability of London high-frequency financial traders.

Sure enough, their analysis of the photos found that the more successful the entrepreneur, the longer the ring finger compared to the index finger. The most successful entrepreneurs had ring fingers 10% to 20% longer than their index finger.”

Here’s my hand:


 Here’s my recent stack:


Turns out it’s all scientific!