August 20, 2019

Fail Fast, Fail Often

“Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?”

John Milton wrote that in 1634.[1] Silicon Valley offers a ramped up version of looking for the silver lining. It starts with the dark part of the cloud:

It is probably Silicon Valley’s most striking mantra: ‘Fail fast, fail often.’ It is recited at technology conferences, pinned to company walls, bandied in conversation.

Failure is not only invoked but celebrated. Entrepreneurs give speeches detailing their misfires. Academics laud the virtue of making mistakes. FailCon, a conference about ‘embracing failure,’ launched in San Francisco in 2009 and is now an annual event, with technology hubs in Barcelona, Tokyo, Porto Alegre and elsewhere hosting their own versions.

While the rest of the world recoils at failure, in other words, technology’s dynamic innovators enshrine it as a rite of passage en route to success.”

“Silicon Valley’s Culture Of Failure … And ‘The Walking Dead’ It Leaves Behind,” The Guardian (June 28, 2014)

This article’s title takes the mantra even further — “Fail Fast, Fail Often, Fail Everywhere.” It urges:

In the United States, talking about failure is something of a cottage industry. Though Americans frequently profess, per Yoda, that we are a nation of achievers, from another perspective we are a nation of failures—folks who gave up on a way life somewhere else to start a new one here. Talk regarding the subject is far from verboten; indeed, it is often celebrated as a means to a greater end, notably in Silicon Valley, where “fail fast, fail often” is basically a mantra. We like discussing failure so much that Cassie Phillipps, a founder, with Diane Loviglio, of FailCon, an annual conference devoted to the experience, which began in San Francisco, in 2009, took a break last year because she felt that the subject had become so commonplace as to render the gathering superfluous.

Can we apply the mantra to advice like do what you love, follow your passion, find your calling? In 1989, I was in the grip of associate disillusionment when a book came out called Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. I’m sure there was more to the book than the title, but that’s all I took away. The notion that there’s some kind of link between doing what you love and making money was irresistible, and a few years later I took the plunge. The experience was magical alright, except for the money part. Years later I tried again — another magical experience, another financial bomb.

Lesson learned: if you need to make money from your big idea, marketplace rules will apply, and the odds are good you’ll fail. Silicon Valley understands that well enough to believe that failure is good for you if you can learn from it:

‘I think we’re very lucky to work in an industry where people see you spent a year trying something and it didn’t work out and they ask, What’d you learn from that?’ said Christine Yen, cofounder of software company Honeycomb.io.

“Finding Positivity In Failure: Silicon Valley Leaders Talk About Past Setbacks,” UC Berkeley Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (Apr. 4, 2018)

Failure done right is transformative, but it still hurts. Which is why some people would dissuade you before you ever try — like this writer in Forbes. And here’s more caution from The Guardian article cited above:

Most startups fail. However many entrepreneurs still overestimate the chances of success — and the cost of failure.

But what about those tech entrepreneurs who lose — and keep on losing? What about those who start one company after another, refine pitches, tweak products, pivot strategies, reinvent themselves . . . and never succeed? What about the angst masked behind upbeat facades?

‘It’s frustrating if you’re trying and trying and all you read about is how much money Airbnb and Uber are making,’  said Johnny Chin, 28, who endured three startup flops but is hopeful for his fourth attempt. ‘The way startups are portrayed, everything seems an overnight success, but that’s a disconnect from reality. There can be a psychic toll.’

But for each voice of caution, there’s another — probably coming from somebody else in the tech starup world — that’s chanting “go for it!” Before you do that, you might read Fail Fast, Fail Often to be better prepared. Here’s the Amazon blurb:

“Bold, bossy and bracing, Fail Fast, Fail Often is like a 200-page shot of B12, meant to energize the listless job seeker.” New York Times

“What if your biggest mistake is that you never make mistakes?

“Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz, psychologists, career counselors, and creators of the popular Stanford University course “Fail Fast, Fail Often,” have come to a compelling conclusion: happy and successful people tend to spend less time planning and more time acting. They get out into the world, try new things, and make mistakes, and in doing so, they benefit from unexpected experiences and opportunities.

“Drawing on the authors’ research in human development and innovation, Fail Fast, Fail Often shows readers how to allow their enthusiasm to guide them, to act boldly, and to leverage their strengths—even if they are terrified of failure.”

More coming up on the joys and sorrows of failing on the road to career satisfaction.


[1] “Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining,” Know Your Phrase.

Finding Your True Calling

The Summoner in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales,
Ellesmere MSS, circa 1400

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the notion of “calling” entered the English language around Chaucer’s time, originating from Old Norse kalla — “to cry loudly, summon in a loud voice; name, call by name.” A century and a half later, in the 1550’s, “calling” acquired the connotation of “vocation, profession, trade, occupation.” Meanwhile, “vocation” took on the meaning of “spiritual calling,” from Old French vocacio, meaning “call, consecration; calling, profession,” and Latin vocationem — “a calling, a being called” to “one’s occupation or profession.”

Put calling and vocation together, and you’ve got an appealing notion: that you would be summoned by name to a specific occupation as a matter of divine destiny: “Here, do this, it’s what you were born to do.”

What do you suppose are the odds? First, how many workers are there? The world today has about 7.7 billion people. A couple years ago, when there were about 7.2 billion, this comment string on Quora said that about 5.0 billion around the world had jobs.

Okay, that’s total jobs, but what about different jobs? Recruitor.com says there are 40,000 careers. Careerplanner.com puts the number at 12,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks 820+ occupations. Trade-schools.net zeroed in on 31 jobs in 2019 that fit “almost every type of person.” Flexjobs.com says there are 13 most common flex-work jobs. Thejobnetwork.com listed ten most popular jobs for 2018. Business Insider listed seven hot jobs for 2018 and 2019. And on it goes.

That’s not particularly helpful, so let’s just play with some numbers. Suppose there are 40,000 different jobs distributed among 5.0 billion workers. If every one of them is a called vocation, then each represents 0.000008 of the total — eight in a million. That isn’t the same as the odds of it happening, but the chances seem pretty low, which we know experientially anyway.

No wonder Chaucer didn’t like the Summoner.[1]

Yet, despite the odds, we still hold onto the idea:

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale School of Management and a leading scholar on meaning at work, told me that she senses a great deal of anxiety among her students and clients. ‘They think their calling is under a rock,’ she said, ‘and that if they turn over enough rocks, they will find it.’ If they do not find their one true calling, she went on to say, they feel like something is missing from their lives and that they will never find a job that will satisfy them. And yet only about one third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling. Does that mean the rest will not find meaning and purpose in their careers?

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith

“[O]ne third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling.” Does that seem high to anyone else? Does that mean “the rest [who] will not find meaning and purpose in their careers” should give up on the dream and follow advice like the following?

It is much easier to suppress a first desire than to satisfy those that follow. Benjamin Franklin

Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire. Epictetus

The power of unfulfilled desires is the root of all man’s slavery. Paramahansa Yogananda

Maybe, but there’s a pervasive feeling among the Left Behind that they’re missing out big time. For them, cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett offers some perspective from academic research:

  • There’s a difference between a harmonious and obsessive calling. The former gives you vitality, better work performance, flow, and positive mood. The latter is also energizing, but leads to anxiety and burnout.
  • As the quote above said, it’s better not to have a calling than to have one and let it go unanswered.
  • The work you already do might become a calling if you invest enough in it. But that doesn’t mean you should just Grit it out — so says U of Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, who wrote the book on the topic. Don’t sit and wait for revelation, she says, instead get out and take on some new challenges — and besides, you might find your source of energy and determination elsewhere than in your job.

For more help, this Forbes article provides a daunting list of twelve things it takes to have a calling and not just a job. The writer also says this:

Years ago, I read a very thought-provoking article by Michael Lewis . . . about the difference between a calling and a job. He had some powerful insights. What struck me most were two intriguing concepts:

‘There’s a direct relationship between risk and reward. A fantastically rewarding career usually requires you to take fantastic risks.’

‘A calling is an activity that you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.’

Ah… now I think we might be onto something. We’ll explore Lewis’s ideas further next time.


[1] A SUMMONER was there with us in that place/ That had a fire-red cherubinnè’s face/ For saucèfleme he was with eyen narrow/ And hot he was and lecherous as a sparrow./ With scal èd browès black, and pilèd beard,/ Of his viság è children were afeared./ There n’as quicksilver, litharge nor brimstone,/ was no Boras, ceruse, nor oil of tartar none,/ Nor ointèment that wouldè cleanse and bite/ That him might helpèn of his whelkès white,/ Nor of the knobbès sitting on his cheeks./ Well loved he garlic, onion and eke leeks. / And for to drinkèn strong wine red as blood;/ Then would he speak and cry as he were wood.

If you like Kevin Rhodes’s posts, you might enjoy his new Iconoclast.blog, which focuses on several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Involuntary Short-term Mental Health Commitment Is Not Equivalent to Court Order

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Interest of Ray v. People on Thursday, February 21, 2019.

Mental Health—Certification for Short-Term Treatment—Physician—National Instant Criminal Background Check System—Firearm Prohibitions—Court Order.

Ray voluntarily sought mental health treatment from a hospital. After he was admitted, a physician certified Ray for involuntary short-term mental health treatment under C.R.S. § 27-65-107, finding that he was a danger to himself or others and would discontinue mental health treatment absent such a certification. That certification caused Colorado officials to report Ray to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) as a person subject to federal firearm prohibitions. The certifying physician terminated the mental health certification days after it was entered, and Ray was discharged from the hospital. Ray petitioned the probate court for removal from the NICS. The probate court denied the petition.

On appeal, Ray argued that because he was involuntarily certified by a physician, rather than a court, Colorado officials should not have reported his certification to the NICS. Colorado law requires certain persons and entities to make NICS reports for persons with respect to whom a court has entered an order for involuntary certification for short-term mental health treatment. The plain meaning of the term “court order” does not encompass certification by a professional person. Therefore, the certification made by the physician does not meet the plain definition of a court order.

The order was reversed and the case was remanded for the probate court and the parties to take reasonable steps to cause any record of Ray’s certification submitted by them under CRS § 13-9-123(1)(c) to be rescinded.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Working With Passion [2]

I’m wild again
Beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

From the Broadway show “Pal Joey,”
Rodgers and Hart

(Click here or on the image below to treat yourself to the silken sound of Ella Fitzgerald.)

The ManagementSpeak argument for working with passion is that disengagement is expensive and risky:  it compromises products and services, generates client and customer dissatisfaction, stirs up co-worker resentment and mistrust, impairs leadership judgment, exposes the firm and the people in it to ethical and legal hazards.

The Compassionate ManagementSpeak (if there is such a thing) argument is that disengagement wears down human beings: it makes us unhappy and unproductive at work, and sours the rest of life.

The Working With Passion Remedy is that we need to fall in love again — with work, to be sure, but if we do, we’ll probably also fall in love again with being alive. The company wins, and so do the people in it.

Trouble is, there’s a joker in the deck:  the part about love. Love involves an unpredictable mix of brain and body hormones that generate its familiar delights and dark sides. This article from Harvard[1] catalogues the hormonal progression from lust to love to long-term bonding:  testosterone, estrogen, vasopressin, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin. The dynamic blend of these volatile hormones accounts for both delight and disaster. Not only that, but falling in love can “turn off regions in our brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior, including parts of the prefrontal cortex. In short, love makes us dumb.”

The Dark Side of Dumb includes addiction and bipolar disorder — both of which involve a condition known as “mania.” According to the Mayo Clinic, mania is characterized by:

  • Feeling abnormally upbeat, jumpy or wired.
  • Increased activity, energy or agitation.
  • Exaggerated sense of well-being and self-confidence (euphoria).
  • Decreased need for sleep.[2]

There’s more, but if we’re desperate, just that much makes us think what’s not to like? It sure beats the usual drudge. What have we got to lose?

A lot, actually. Passion turns us into high risk takers at best, delusional risk takers at worst. We go to a workshop (like the ones I used to lead), we take a vacation, go on a retreat, read a self-help bestseller… and we get a hormonal jolt of inspiration. It feels good — way better than business as usual, in fact so good that no amount of warning (I also gave plenty of those in my workshops) can deter us from taking the plunge.

I’ve done it myself:  I was in the grip of it when I made my bumbling exit out of law practice. I wrote a book about that experience, and here’s what I said about mania:

When we’re in [a state of mania], life has a heightened sense of meaning and purpose, serendipity and synchronicity rule the day, and everything in and around us is an amazing unified oneness – perfect, whole, and complete. It’s the place where auspicious connections are easily made, where imagination makes visions and dreams come true.

Neuroscientists locate that state of mind in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s where the brain tells us all is well, where all of our perceptions come together into a meaningful whole, in a happy stew of the right hormones and chemicals in the right balance to make us feel really, really good.

Compare that to the opposite state of depression, where all is disjointed, fragmented, without meaning or purpose, where social bonds are severed and life is a random walk of disintegration, where the most basic life activities are burdensome, and fruitfulness is a pipedream.

But watch out, the neuroscientists tell us:  you can have too much of a good thing. Get the wrong mix in your neurotransmitter soup, and your natural high can be replaced with delusion, hallucinations, paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s Disease, addictions.

Not the prettiest list.

That’s why mania is plutonium for the for human soul:  powerful almost beyond measure, equally suited to creation or destruction, and tricky to control once we let it loose. But dark side or not, mania is why we dream big dreams, and the bigger they are, the more mania we need. If we want to make our dreams come true, we risk mania’s dark side.

“Mania is plutonium for the human soul.”

Love risks mania, so does working with passion. Both create, both destroy. That doesn’t mean don’t go there, just keep your eyes open if you do. I don’t regret my personal Working With Passion Remedy, you might not regret yours either.

But then again, you might. And now you’ve been warned.

You also hear about finding your calling or purpose in your work as a cure for the disengagement blues. We’ll talk about that next time.

I tell my mania story in Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania. It’s available as a free download here, or you can get it inexpensively in print or digitally from Amazon here. I’m currently writing a sequel about how I’ve been learning to make mania safe and sustainable.


[1]Love, Actually: The Science Behind Lust, Attraction, And Companionship,” Katherine Wu, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences website ( Feb. 14, 2017).

[2] For more on mania, see also this article from Psych Central.

Working With Passion

Hmmm… love… passion… Happy Valentine’s Day!

Now back to work.

Is there really such a thing as loving your work/working with passion? Yes.

What does it mean, to work with passion? I don’t have a good definition, but you know when you’ve got it. 

And it certainly isn’t what ManagementSpeak calls “engagement.”

Google “work engagement,” and you get a truly stunning number and variety of results, many of which are monotonously unoriginal and insultingly obvious, and some of which are just plain scary. Consider this article from “OSH WIKI,” sponsored by the EU version of OSHA[1]:

Work engagement is defined as positive behaviour or a positive state of mind at work that leads to positive work-related outcomes. Employees with high levels of work engagement are energetic and dedicated to their work and immersed to their work.

We’ll ignore the redundancy and wayward preposition for a moment and notice all the strong adjectives: positive, energetic, dedicated, immersed. No issues there. Wikipedia adds a few more:

Work engagement is the ‘harnessing of organization member’s selves to their work roles: in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally during role performances. Three aspects of work motivation are cognitive, emotional and physical engagement.’[2]

Okay, got it:  when you’re engaged at work, you’re “physically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally” all there. Hard to argue with that. But then you also need to be “harnessed” to your “work role,” with the ultimate objectives of “role performance” and “work-related outcomes.”

Um, no thanks. I’m pretty sure I’m busy that night. The robots can handle it while I’m out.

Thus far, we only have descriptions of what it’s like when you are engaged.  But how do you get there in the first place? That would seem to be where “passion” comes in. But where does that come from? Maybe we’ll find some clues in an article with a catchy title:  Is Your Colleague A Zombie Worker?

They walk among us, dead-eyed, with heavy tread. They are the colleague sagging at the coffee machine, the project manager staring out of the window. Meet the zombie workforce: an army of employees who’re failing to find inspiration at work.

There are more of these ‘working dead’ than you might imagine. According to a recent study by Aon Hewitt, less than one-quarter of the world’s employees are classified as ‘highly’ engaged in their jobs, while only 39% admit to being ‘moderately’ so.

This leaves an awful lot of the 5 million people Aon surveyed ‘unengaged’, which the more gruesome-minded of us might take to mean ‘haunting office corridors like reanimated corpses’ where once they might have been valuable staff members, full of life and great ideas.


We all know people like that. We might be that ourselves:  according to the research, look left and look right, and two of you don’t have a pulse. The working dead can’t find the “inspiration at work” they need. Hence no passion.

How do we wake the dead?

I met the world of working dead lawyers right after the Great Recession of 2007-2008. In a stroke of exquisitely bad timing, I left my law practice to start a new venture at the start of 2007. The project bombed, and I was at loose ends. I attended a bar association career change/job search meeting where we did one of those speed-dating things where you meet everybody. It was an eye-opener. Here were all these amazing people — bright, personable, articulate, with wide interests and a desire to serve — but they didn’t see themselves that way. Instead, they saw themselves as victims, helpless, hopeless.

I raced home and sketched out a workshop to help them discover who they really were. I’d never done a workshop like that before, but the ideas poured in, and I wrote them down in a white heat. A couple hours later, I fired off a proposal to the bar association. Weeks later I got an email:  “How’d you like to do your program over lunch next Tuesday? We’ll provide the pizza.” They put a blurb in a monthly newsletter, and 40 people showed up. I’ll never forget standing in front and looking into 40 pairs of empty eyes. The lights were on but nobody was home — or in some cases, the lights weren’t even on, and apparently hadn’t been for a long time.

The workshop morphed into a traveling Continuing Legal Education road show. The promoter called it “Beyond Burnout: Find Your Passion in the Law,” but then quickly added “Or Out of the Law.” Best intentions aside, most attendees wanted out. Of the hundreds of heartfelt evaluations I collected, the following was by far in the minority:

I knew I was fairly happy in my career, but I took this CLE because it sounded more interesting than the traditional practice area CLEs. In working through the exercises, I met some amazing people and realized just how truly blessed I am to be currently working in a job that I love. This workshop got me excited to build my business to an even bigger level — it reignited the passion!

“Reignited” meant the writer had the passion, and knew it. I said earlier you know it if you’ve got it. Next time, we’ll talk about what that feels like — kinda like falling in love, actually.


[1] In its defense, OSH is in the business of making sure workers are engaged at leaqst enough not tyo hurt themselves or others — a pretty low standard when it comes to passion. Here’s its mission:  “OSHwiki has been developed by EU-OSHA, to enable the sharing of occupational safety and health (OSH) knowledge, information and best practices, in order to support government, industry and employee organisations in ensuring safety and health at the workplace.”

[2] Quoting a 1990 Academy of Management Journal article.

If you like Kevin Rhodes’s posts, you might enjoy his new Iconoclast.blog, which focuses on several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook.

Work Less, Do More

Anybody else remember May Day baskets? You made a little basket, put dandelions or candy in it, left it at the door of the girl next door’s house, rang the doorbell and ran away. If she heard, she was obligated to chase you and give you a kiss if she caught you. (That never happened.)

Hey c’mon… winters were long in Minnesota…

On May Day 1926, Henry Ford gave his factory floor workers the ultimate May Day basket: the 40-hour work week, all the way down from 60 hours. Ford’s office workers got their reduced workweek three months later.

Ford was progressive, and then some. Twelve years earlier, he’d given them another surprise: a raise from $2.34 per day all the way up to $5.00.[1] You had to love the man, and they did. Little wonder that productivity skyrocketed. Ford’s employees were working lees, doing more, and now they could also afford to buy his cars — although only with prior approval from Ford’s Sociological Dept, which looked after workers’ personal, home, family, and financial health.

We’ve been living with Ford’s 40-hour work week for 93 years now. Some people think maybe it’s time for an upgrade — they suggest a four-day work week.

This position is backed up by Academic research. Multiple studies support the view that a shorter working week would make people happier and more productive, while OECD figures show that countries with a culture of long working hours often score poorly for productivity and GDP per hour worked.

Meanwhile, one company in New Zealand that trialed a four-day working week last year confirmed it would adopt the measure on a permanent basis.[2]

Academics who studied the trial reported lower stress levels, higher levels of job satisfaction and an improved sense of work-life balance. Critically, they also say workers were 20% more productive.

Three-day weekend, anyone?

From this article about a presentation on the four-day work week at the recent World Economic Forum conclave in Davos, Switzerland.


Another WEF article indicates that research reveals an inverse relationship between hours worked (units of input) and productivity (units of output). The extra day off per week raises employee morale, improves health and wellbeing, and yes, raises productivity. And although some jobs really need to be staffed more days per week. that’s readily addressed through job-sharing.

It seems intuitive, doesn’t it, that happier, better rested workers will do more, and probably do it better, in less time? Not everyone is so easily convinced — here’s a sample of articles that do their journalistic best to present both upsides and downsides, while barely concealing an overall thumbs up: Wired, Huffington Post, Stuff.

From what I can tell from a review of those articles and several others like them, the dividing line between pro and con seems to be how comfortable corporate managers and politicos are with the word “progressive.” The New Zealand Guardian Trust Company is the one that took the four-day plunge, and these days New Zealand is floating on a progressive tide — see these articles: Business Insider, Business Insider, The Independent.:

Next time, we’ll start looking at some other common advice about how to improve the workplace, such as finding your true calling/vocation, getting a sense of meaning and purpose in your work, following your dreams, doing what you love, etc. Good advice? Bad advice? We’ll look into it.


[1] That was for the male workers; the females got the same raise two years later.

[2] These are the researchers who conducted the New Zealand pilot.

If you like Kevin Rhodes’s posts, you might enjoy his new Iconoclast.blog, which focuses on several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook.

The Lonely Worker

In four years, my law firm went from me and my laptop to $800,000 and climbing, and suddenly we were twelve of us in newly decked out offices complete with $100,000 in telecommunications and electronics upgrades.

Obviously we’d hit a sweet spot, and we were having fun. We laughed a lot. We ate together, visited each other’s homes. We took firm ski days and watched the Rockies at Coors Field. We had crazy non-policies like “take as much vacation as you need to come to work refreshed.” We had the coolest Christmas event ever. And we did kick-ass legal work.

But then the numbers got bigger and I got serious. An accountant said our vacation policy was unsustainable — we needed one, in a real live employee manual. I wrote one but never had the heart to show it to anyone. We sat in meetings with consultants formulating heartless strategic plans we all ignored. We had an employee retreat that was just plain weird.

The worst thing I took seriously was myself. I totally blew the lesson basketball Hall-of-Famer and Orlando Magic founder Pat William put in the title of his book Humility:  The Secret Ingredient of Success. Time and chance had favored us — I’d stumbled  into doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. Work had often been a rollicking, happy social occasion. But then I decided I must  have been responsible for it, and paved Paradise, put up a parking lot, and didn’t know what we had ‘til it was gone.

We’d been in our new offices one week. My wife and I had flown  back the day before from a cushy five-day CLE at a resort in San Diego, and I was heading out to visit our new satellite office when the phone rang. It was the associate-soon-to-be-partner  we’d put in charge. “There’s something going on you need to know about,” he said.

The date was September 11th. The second plane had just hit the second tower.

Our clients — mostly small businesses — got hammered in the mini-recession that followed. As a result, so did we. I sought advice from two Denver law firm icons. They were sympathetic — they’d done that, too — expanded too much too quickly and paid for it in a downturn. A couple other people said you have to let people go — I followed their advice and let one person go — a move I mourn to this day. That’s when I decided we’ll survive or go down, but we’re doing it together.

We limped along until January 2004, when the new leader of our major referral source called to say they were “moving in a new direction” and March 31st would be the date we were officially toast. For the next three months I wrote job recommendations, we gave people their furniture and computers, sold the rest, archived files…

When I went to the office on April 1st (April Fool’s Day), the place echoed. I’d never felt so lonely in my life. Rotten timing, victim of circumstance, happens to everyone… yeah maybe, but all I could think was I miss my friends.

We don’t usually associate loneliness with work. We ought to, says Emily Esfahani-Smith in her book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. She cites findings that 20% consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” that 1/3 of Americans 45 of older say they’re lonely, and that close relationships at work are a major source of meaning. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murphy agrees and then some:

There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.

Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles. “At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

And even working at an office doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections: People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce.

Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships? On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about? Do they understand our values? Do they share in our triumphs and pains?

These aren’t just rhetorical questions; from a biological perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body.

Work And The Loneliness Epidemic: Reducing Isolation At Work Is Good For Business,” Harvard Business Review (2017).

He offers these remedies:

  • Evaluate the current state of connections in your workplace.
  • Build understanding of high-quality relationships.
  • Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization.
  • Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives.

And, he might have added, you might want to rethink your stingy vacation policy.

For more, see Work Loneliness and Employee Performance, Academy of Management Proceedings (2011).

If you like Kevin Rhodes’s posts, you might enjoy his new Iconoclast.blog, which focuses on several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook.

Total Work [2]: Asleep on the Subway

I saw it often during a visit to Seoul: people sacked out on the subway, on the bus, at coffee shops, on park benches… The practice is common all around Asia. The Japanese have a word for it: “inemuri.”

It is often translated as ‘sleeping on duty,’ but Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Downing College, Cambridge, who has written a book on the topic, says it would be more accurate to render it as ‘sleeping while present.’

Napping in Public? In Japan, That’s a Sign of DiligenceNY Times (Dec 16, 2016).

Inemuri means it’s more polite to be present, even if you nod off. In the workplace, that means it’s better to sleep on the job than not show up. Besides, it gets you brownie points:

In most countries, sleeping on the job isn’t just frowned upon, it may get you fired… But in Japan, napping in the office is common and culturally accepted. And in fact, it is often seen as a subtle sign of diligence: You must be working yourself to exhaustion.

And of course working yourself to exhaustion is a good thing. Add the Asian practice of wee hours business drinking and you might also be napping on the pavement — another common sight.

Run a Google Images search on the topic and the sheer volume of visuals is striking — these are seriously tired people.[1] It’s easy to imagine the impact of that level of fatigue on job performance, let alone daily life. The cognitive impairment and other health risks of sleep deprivation are well documented,[2] It’s especially bad in the professions — lawyers and doctors are chief among the sleep-deprived.

There’s also a deeper, darker side of chronic, overworked exhaustion, as we saw in last week’s post:

“Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice.”

If Work Dominated Your Every Moment Would Life be Worth Living?Aeon Magazine (2018)

Wait a minute! It’s praiseworthy to work yourself to death?! Believe it. And it’s not just in Asia, it’s all around the world, as people everywhere make the steady march toward the state of total work.[3]

Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer recently wrote a book about workplace-induced ill health and death. The following is from a Stanford Business interview, “The Workplace is Killing People and Nobody Cares” (March 15, 2018).

Jeffrey Pfeffer has an ambitious aspiration for his latest book. “I want this to be the Silent Spring of workplace health,” says Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. ‘We are harming both company performance and individual well-being, and this needs to be the clarion call for us to stop. There is too much damage being done.’

This is from the book blurb:

In one survey, 61 percent of employees said that workplace stress had made them sick and 7 percent said they had actually been hospitalized. Job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually and may cause 120,000 excess deaths each year. In China, 1 million people a year may be dying from overwork. People are literally dying for a paycheck. And it needs to stop.

In this timely, provocative book, Jeffrey Pfeffer contends that many modern management commonalities such as long work hours, work-family conflict, and economic insecurity are toxic to employees—hurting engagement, increasing turnover, and destroying people’s physical and emotional health—and also inimical to company performance.

Jeffrey Pfeffer marshals a vast trove of evidence and numerous examples from all over the world to expose the infuriating truth about modern work life: even as organizations allow management practices that literally sicken and kill their employees, those policies do not enhance productivity or the bottom line, thereby creating a lose-lose situation.

The Japanese word for work-related death is karōshi, which Wikipedia says can be translated literally as ‘overwork death.” The comparable term in South Korea is “gwarosa.” Call it what you like, give it a special name or not — death by overwork is total work taken to its utmost.

We don’t like to think about it, talk about it, admit it. It’s not our problem. Let the pros handle it. We wouldn’t know what to do anyway.

Maybe it’s time we learned.


[1] See also “Death by Work: Japan’s Habits of Overwork Are Hard To Change,” The Economist (2018)

[2] For an introduction, see Wikipedia and Harvard Business Review.

[3] See, e.g.,Britain’s Joyless Jobs Market Can Be Bad For Your Health,” The Financial Times (Aug. 2017). See alsoDead For Dough: Death by Overwork Around the World,” The Straits Times (first published April 6, 2016, updated Oct 6, 2017).

If you like Kevin Rhodes’s posts, you might enjoy his new Iconoclast.blog, which focuses on several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook.

Total Work

Andrew Taggart is an entrepreneur, “practical philosopher,” and prolific writer who works with creative leaders at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and social entrepreneurs at Kaospilot in Denmark. In a recent article, he comments on the state of “total work,” a term coined by German philosopher Josef Pieper in his 1948 book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which described the process by which society increasingly categorizes us as workers above all else. Like Pieper, Taggart believes human experience derails when work is the dominant cultural norm:

Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work.

And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act?

Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep.

Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content providers, knowledge brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.

[Work becomes total] when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity.

Hmmm, sounds a lot like the practice of law… But it’s not just lawyers, it’s everywhere. For the movers and shakers it’s build, fund, scale, execute, maximize, prioritize, manage, lead. For the rest it’s be early, stay late, be nice to callers and customers, and get through all that email — there might be something important in there. And everywhere it’s build the platform, get the clicks, likes, and follows, join the meetups and podcasts, eat healthy, buy the Peloton and the Beemer, learn a new language, take the beach vacation, drink the microbrew, subscribe to the curated monthly clothing delivery… it all counts.

There’s nothing intrinsically “bad” in all of that. I do a lot of it myself. But when everything we do is organized around trading our time and energy for reward in the marketplace, we’re going to suffer, individually and as a culture:

To see how [total work] causes needless human suffering, consider the illuminating phenomenology of total work as it shows up in the daily awareness of two imaginary conversation partners. There is, to begin with, constant tension, an overarching sense of pressure associated with the thought that there’s something that needs to be done, always something I’m supposed to be doing right now. As the second conversation partner puts it, there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time? Time, an enemy, a scarcity, reveals the agent’s limited powers of action, the pain of harrying, unanswerable opportunity costs.

Together, thoughts of the not yet but supposed to be done, the should have been done already, the could be something more productive I should be doing, and the ever-awaiting next thing to do conspire as enemies to harass the agent who is, by default, always behind in the incomplete now. . . . One feels guilt whenever he is not as productive as possible. Guilt, in this case, is an expression of a failure to keep up or keep on top of things, with tasks overflowing because of presumed neglect or relative idleness.

The burdened character of total work, then, is defined by ceaseless, restless, agitated activity, anxiety about the future, a sense of life being overwhelming, nagging thoughts about missed opportunities, and guilt connected to the possibility of laziness.

In other words, total work is chronically stressful — a well-documented source of mental, physical, relational, and societal ill health. And the problem is, if we’re not already there, we’re alarmingly close:

This world [of total work], it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.

As a result:

Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus[1] would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice.

More on that coming up.


[1] I had to look up “susurrus.” It means “whispering, murmuring, or rustling.”

Kevin Rhodes studies and writes about economics in an effort to understand the world his kids are growing up in, which is also the world he’s growing old in. You might enjoy his latest LinkedIn Pulse article “The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.”

He Works Hard (But Not Always for the Money)

University of London economist Guy Standing has championed universal basic income since the ’80s. In Basic Income: A Guide For the Open-Minded (2017), he tackles the argument that UBI is flawed because recipients don’t have to work for it.

A remarkable number of commentators and social scientists lose their common sense when it comes to talking or writing about work. While every age throughout history has drawn arbitrary distinctions between what counts as work and what does not, ours may be the most perverse.

Only in the twentieth century did most work that was not paid labour become non-work. Labour statistics persist in this travesty. ‘Work’ is counted only if it is for pay, in the marketplace.

For example, he says, it’s the same work to walk the dog whether you do it yourself or pay someone else to do it, but the former doesn’t count. If it did, it would add up to a lot:

In the U.K. — and it is similar in other countries — the unremunerated economy (caring for children and the elderly, housework, voluntary work in the community, and so on) is estimated to be worth well over half the size of the money economy.

Juha Järvinen, one of 2,000 Finns selected for a two-year UBI test does work that counts and work that doesn’t; either way, he works hard:

In a speck of a village deep in the Finnish countryside, a man gets money for free. Each month, almost €560 [about $640] is dropped into his bank account, with no strings attached.

He’s a human lab rat in an experiment that could help to shape the future of the west.

Until this year . . . he was trapped in a “humiliating” system that gave him barely enough to feed himself . . . The Finnish [workfare system] was always on his case about job applications and training.

[He was in the same position as] an unemployed Finn called Christian [who] was caught carving and selling wooden guitar plectrums [picks]. It was more pastime than business, earning him a little more than €2,000 in a year. But the sum was not what angered the authorities, it was the thought that each plectrum had taken up time that could have been spent on official hoop-jumping.

Ideas flow out of Järvinen as easily as water from a tap, yet he could exercise none of his initiative for fear of arousing bureaucratic scrutiny.

So what accounted for his change? Certainly not the UBI money. In Finland, €560 is less than a fifth of average private-sector income. “You have to be a magician to survive on such money,” Järvinen says. Over and over, he baldly describes himself as ‘poor.’

Ask Järvinen what difference money for nothing has made to his life, and you are marched over to his workshop. Inside is film-making equipment, a blackboard on which is scrawled plans for an artists’ version of Airbnb, and an entire little room where he makes shaman drums that sell for up to €900. All this while helping to bring up six children.

All those free euros have driven him to work harder than ever.

Compare his situation to that of Florian Dou, one of France’s “yellow vest” protesters, who has no UBI safety net:

At the bare bottom of Florian Dou’s shopping cart at the discount supermarket, there was a packet of $6 sausages and not much else. . . . “My salary and my wife’s have been gone for 10 days,” he lamented.

How to survive those days between when the money runs out and when his paycheck arrives for his work as a warehouse handler has become a monthly challenge. The same is true for so many others in Guéret, a grim provincial town in south-central France.

In places like these, a quiet fear gnaws at households: What happens when the money runs out around the 20th? What do I put in the refrigerator with nothing left in the account and the electricity bill to pay? Which meal should I skip today? How do I tell my wife again there is no going out this weekend?

That last comment — “going out this weekend” — is a moralistic hot button among UBI foes. Again from Guy Standing:

More generally, there is a moralistic presumption that poor people, especially those receiving benefits, should not be spending money on anything but the bare essentials, denying themselves even the smallest ‘luxury’ that might make their lives less miserable. As Marx pointed out in 1844, ‘every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need seems a luxury.’

Standing also exposes a related presumption:

It is often claimed that giving cash to those in need is misguided because people will spend it on alcohol, cigarettes, and other ‘bads’ rather than on their children and essentials such as food, clothes, and heating.

Obviously, this is a thoroughly paternalistic line of attack. Where to draw a line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Why should a rich person have the freedom to buy and consume whatever the state bureaucracy deems a ‘bad,” but not a poor person?

Good vs. bad, work that counts vs. work that doesn’t, necessities vs. luxuries… the UBI debate is littered with polarities and prejudices. Suppose the cultural pendulum swings all the way to a state of “total work” — what would that be like? We’ll look at that next time.

Kevin Rhodes studies and writes about economics in an effort to understand the world his kids are growing up in, which is also the world he’s growing old in. You might enjoy his latest LinkedIn Pulse article “The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.”

Work and Money

He’s a gentleman with a family
A gentle man, living day to day
He’s a gentleman with pride, one may conclude
Sign reads, “Gentleman with a family will work for food.”

Manhattan Transfer, Gentleman With a Family

Norwegian Petter Amlie is an entrepreneur, technology consultant, and frequent contributor on Medium. Work runs our economy, he writes in a recent article, “but if future technology lets us keep our standard of living without it, why do we hold on to it?” It’s a good question — one of those obvious ones we don’t think to ask. Why would we insist on working for food — or the money we need to buy food — if we don’t have to?

As we’ve seen, at the center of the objections to robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, marketing algorithms, machine learning, and universal basic income is that they threaten the link between work and money. That’s upsetting because we believe jobs are the only way to “make a living.” But what if a day comes — sooner than we’d like to think — when that’s no longer true?

Work comes naturally to us, but the link between work and money is artificial — the function of an economic/social contract that relies on jobs to support both the production and consumption sides of the supply/demand curve: we work to produce goods and services, we get paid for doing it, we use the money to buy goods and services from each other. If technology takes over the production jobs, we won’t get paid to produce things — then how are we supposed to buy them? Faced with that question, “the captains of industry and their fools on the hill” (Don Henley) generally talk jobs, jobs, jobs — or, in the absence of jobs, workfare.

John Maynard Keynes had a different idea back in 1930, just after the original Black Friday, when he predicted that technological progress would mostly end the need for jobs, so that we would work for pay maybe fifteen hours per week, leaving us free to pursue nobler pursuits. He spoke in rapturous, Biblical terms:

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue — that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable, that those who walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not neither do they spin.

But then, after a second world war tore the planet apart, jobs rebuilt it. We’ve lived with that reality so long that we readily pooh-pooh Keynes’s euphoric prophecy. Amlie suggests we open our minds to it:

Work and money are both systems we’ve invented that were right for their time, but there’s no reason to see them as universally unavoidable parts of society. They helped us build a strong global economy, but why would we battle to keep it that way, if societal and technological progress could help us change it?

We have a built-in defense mechanism when the status quo is challenged by ideas such as Universal Basic Income, shorter work weeks and even just basic flexibility at the workplace, often without considering why we have an urge to defend it.

You’re supposed to be here at eight, even if you’re tired. You’re supposed to sit here in an open landscape, even if the isolation of a home office can help you concentrate on challenging tasks. You have exactly X number of weeks to recharge your batteries every year, because that’s how it’s always been done.

While many organizations have made significant policy adjustments in the last two decades, we’re still clinging to the idea that we should form companies, they should have employees that are paid a monthly sum to be there at the same time every morning five days a week, even if this system is not making us very happy.

I do know that work is not something I necessarily want to hold on to, if I could sustain my standard of living without it, which may just be the case if robots of the future could supply us with all the productivity we could ever need. If every job we can conceive could be done better by a machine than a human, and the machines demand no pay, vacation or motivation to produce goods and services for mankind for all eternity, is it such a ridiculous thought to ask in such a society why we would need money?

We should be exploring eagerly how to meet these challenges and how they can improve the human existence, rather than fighting tooth and nail to sustain it without knowing why we want it that way.

The change is coming. Why not see it in a positive light, and work towards a future where waking up at 4 am to go to an office is not considered the peak of human achievement?

One gentleman with a family who’s been seeing change in a positive new light is Juha Järvinen, one of 2,000 Finns selected for a two-year UBI test that just ended. He’s no longer working hard for the money, but he is working harder than ever. We’ll meet him next time.

Kevin Rhodes studies and writes about economics in an effort to understand the world his kids are growing up in, which is also the world he’s growing old in. You might enjoy his latest LinkedIn Pulse article “The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.”

Social Contract

“Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract & Discourses

What do Fortnite, New Year’s Day, and the USA have in common?

They all exist because we believe they do.

Political theorists call this kind of communal belief a “social contract.” According to Rousseau, that’s the mechanism by which we trade individual liberty for community restraint. Similarly, Thomas Hobbes said this in Leviathan:

As long as men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition known as war, and it is a war of every man against every man.

When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, he should be willing (when others are too) to lay down his right to everything, and should be contented with as much liberty against other men as he would allow against himself.”

In Fortnite terms, life is a battle royale: everybody against everybody else, with only one left standing. As Hobbes famously said, that makes life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As a recent version put it, “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.”[1] A social contract suggests we can do better.

Can we really create something out of nothing, by mere belief? Yes, of course — we do it all the time. My daughter can’t figure out why New Year’s Day is a holiday. “It’s just a day!” she says, unmoved by my explanation that it’s a holiday because everyone thinks it is. Same with Fortnite — as 125 million enthusiasts know, it’s not just an online game, it’s a worldwide reality. And same with the United States — the Colonies’ deal with England grew long on chains and short on freedom until the Founders declared a new sovereign nation into existence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The new nation was conceived in liberty, but there would be limits. Once the Revolutionary War settled the issue of sovereign independence[2], the Founders articulated a new freedom/chains balance:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

That social contract + 250 years of history = the USA. We are a nation borne of imagination and belief, continually redefined and updated since its founding through interpretations and amendments to the terms of our social contract.

Our economic system works the same way. Adam Smith’s capitalism survived the trip to the new world, produced astonishing quality of life improvements in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and then was recast into the neoliberal framework that powered the world’s recovery from WWII. That version of our economic social contract thrived for three decades, but began to falter in the face of several unforeseen developments:

  • the democratization of knowledge in the information age;
  • accelerated automation, mass production, and eventually robotics;
  • software that at first only did what it was told but later morphed into machine intelligence; and
  • globalization, which shrank the world, homogenized culture, opened international trade, and recast national borders.

Neoliberalism couldn’t keep up with these developments. Tensions grew until the year 2016 became a worldwide referendum on the social contracts of democracy and neoliberalism. New social contracts would have required a new freedom/chains balance. 2016’s response was, “Not on my watch.”

That’s the context into which universal basic income would now be introduced. For that to happen, the American Dream of independence and upward mobility fueled by working for a living must give way to a belief that basic sustenance — job or no job — is a human right so fundamental that it’s one of those “self-evident” truths. As we’ve seen, that radical belief is slowly changing the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation’s culture of poverty, and has caught the fancy of a growing list of techno-plutocrats. As Mark Zuckerberg said, “Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation.” Law professor James Kwak makes the same point[3]:

We have the physical, financial, and human capital necessary for everyone in our country to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, and within a few generations the same should be true of the entire planet, And yet our social organization remains the same as it was in the Great Depression: some people work very hard and make more money than they will ever need, while many others are unable to find work and live in poverty.

Millions if not billions of people today hunger to live in a world that is more fair, more forgiving, and more humane than the one they were born into. Creating a new vision of society worthy of that collective yearning … is the first step toward building a better future for our children.”

To be continued.


[1] Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists (2016).

[2] In Hobbes’ terms, social contracts end the battle royale. Ironically, they often also create war as ideals of one contract conflict with another’s.

[3] James Kwak, Economism (2017).

Kevin Rhodes studies and writes about economics in an effort to understand the world his kids are growing up in, which is also the world he’s growing old in. You might enjoy his latest LinkedIn Pulse article “The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.”