the life-changing magic of a bullshit job

to cope or not to cope, that is the question....

good morning! my latest for techworker below, and a list of some miscellaneous things i’ve recently enjoyed below that. do you have a story about your bullshit job or the tyranny of the PMC in your workplace? perhaps you’re one of prince harry’s “direct reports” in his capacity as chief impact officer of a valley startup “lifting up critical dialogues around mental health”? i want to hear about it @ askclairest@gmail.com!

Dear Tech Support,

My corporate tech job is technically prestigious but the work is not meaningful and the backdrop of the pandemic has made it feel especially pointless (as one of my teammates said recently, “we all just build sand castles” :(. But one silver lining of the pandemic is that we can talk openly about the meaninglessness of it now!).

What’s kept me hanging in there during this very hard year-plus is that my role has been, until recently, quite low-stress and chill. The problem is we just got a new manager. She’s extremely Type A and ambitious (an Ivy League MBA, I assume you know the type). Obsessed with make-work and jargon. The hours of the day that I would’ve spent doing things that made me feel at least somewhat OK are now consumed by all these new workstreams she has invented for us to do. Every ping from her fills me with rage and they are frequent. With the onslaught of devastating news all the time, all of her talk about how impactful our work is feels a little like gaslighting?!

Any strategies for coping with this new reality? I would consider looking for another chill role but transfer prospects are slim at the moment and I am still paying off student loans so can’t go follow my dreams to work on a cheese farm (kidding but not).

What are the chances she will eventually chill out and realize the world is dying so we probably don’t need to do 17 upstream reports to increase our visibility every week?

Thanks,

Longing to find my chill again

HONEY.

Simply devastating plot twist. If only we were in the same space, both comfortably double-vaxxed, and you’d provided your full written consent, I’d be going in for a hug right now. We’d queue up some Bonnie Raitt, make a voodoo doll in the likeness of your new manager, light a candle to honor all of the fleeting chillnesses of life that we’ve loved and lost. Eventually, after some sun salutations (in my post-covid fantasy, we’re all doing vigorous yoga next to each other all the time for some reason), as we lay sweaty in corpse pose, I’d roll over and whisper in your ear: “Guess what? This is actually good for you.”

For starters, what a liberation to admit that your job feels/is pointless. Despite how ubiquitous that experience is (David Graeber, the author of Bullshit Jobs, estimated that up to 40% of workers believe their jobs don’t need to exist), it’s something we mostly harbor privately—a secret shame, a social taboo. It’s much easier to admit post-facto. My various YouTube jobs seem cartoonishly dumb now, bad drafts of an episode of the HBO show “Silicon Valley,” yet damn did I workshop my cocktail party schpiel at various points to make them sound important!

In one stint as a “curation strategy manager,” I watched YouTube videos all day and updated playlists on YouTube’s house channels that no one ever visited because they were functionally impossible to find. Occasionally, I had to write a line of copy for said playlists and my manager would tell me to tone down the personality–it shouldn’t sound like a human wrote it, he said, explaining that because of a settlement with Viacom, YouTube needed to strenuously avoid the appearance of any human curation on the site (so then what…exactly…were all of us doing there?).

It is wrong to boast, but my next job—social media manager for YouTube—was the absolute apotheosis of bullshit jobbery. The content of the work was straightforward enough, but the setup was depressingly complicated and bloated, somehow requiring dozens of people and multiple agencies to produce a couple of cheerful, inoffensive tweets and Instagram posts a day with the occasional hollow gesture of performative activism in support of women/the LGBTQ+ community/minorities.

That the world did not want or need this content was an unavoidable fact. Nearly every constituent who engages with YouTube on social media is angry at the platform. K-Pop fans, PewDiePie stans, people concerned with social justice and democracy, the right wing just in general: anytime we would tweet, people would take the opportunity to broadcast their grievances, complaints, and feedback about how to run the business (e.g. “you should all fire yourselves.” “thanks we hate it here!”). None of this mattered at all to the team lead, whom I’ll call “Magda,” whose sole interest seemed to be building her own mini-empire. She was curiously non-knowledgeable about social media–she had never used social media herself as far as anyone could tell—but knew how to play and win whatever corporate game that required taskmastering the team to create strategy decks, best practices docs, and data reporting (the data, which usually served to try and disguise/hand-wave around the reality that the Internet either hated or was resolutely unaware of the marketing team’s work, was churned out CONSTANTLY. the number of staff analysts grew so rapidly it was ultimately spun out into its own team, make it make sense!) on a near-constant basis. Magda’s vision for the team (“24/7 global community management”) wasn’t rooted in anything real, either. I can only imagine how much emptier it feels for the team to be overseeing this operation now: the constant, mindless deployment of heart-eyes emoji replies every time someone tweets a cat video in a global pandemic, being forced to play along that it all matters.

I wouldn’t hold out much hope that your manager magically chills out or clues you into her own existential unrest. I wondered about Magda’s inner life occasionally: what was it like to have an enormous team whose misery over the slavish bullshit of their work was both so deep and right at the surface? She never seemed to mind. At the twice-yearly offsites she would sometimes be asked what her own career goals were and she would always cheerfully say the same thing: to have a Harvard Business case study written about her team’s work and to get a patent. Inspirational stuff!!

But back to you. As Graeber puts it, bullshit jobs violate a basic principle of human nature, which is that we want to be useful, to affect the world in some positive way with our time. It sounds cushy to get paid so well to do so little, but inevitably it starts to erode something deep within, and you’re not a bad or entitled or ungrateful person for feeling that way. This is really challenging in big tech, with all the propaganda about how special you are and how amazing and world-changery the work is, such that you shouldn’t have to walk more than 50 feet to a snack kitchen lest you lose your train of thought and now humanity will never invent an algorithm that eliminates car accidents. And don’t forget all the money and stock options and wellness walks and if you lose your job, you lose your health insurance and get deeper into debt and you’re going to have to do a gofundme if you get cancer and wait what was wrong with your cushy job again? Just do a corporate-sponsored meditation course that has no ulterior motive whatsoever and forget about it!

All this is to say: resist coping too much. If you start numbing yourself further or rationalizing why this job actually is OK or the manager is not that deranged and bad, I’m going to be mad at you. The only Tech Support-sanctioned form of corporate cope is trauma-bonding with your teammates. Gossip (and analyzing the incompetence and corruption of bad managers and the system itself) is power-building and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The question remains, though: what does fulfilling work look like? What is one supposed to do in lieu of a bullshit job? We can’t ask David Graeber, who suddenly and tragically died in September, at the peak of his powers as one of capitalism’s sharpest activist-critic-scholars, before finishing his next manuscript (no, my mind isn’t wandering to a dark conspiracy place, YOUR mind is wandering to a dark conspiracy place….). But anyway, this isn’t his or anyone else’s question to answer, heaves sigh as long and mournful as a foghorn, it’s yours/ours alone. There’s a Rilke quote about how we aren’t ready for the answers, we have to live the questions first. The chill bullshit jobs can numb and distract indefinitely, the intense ones can’t. Let yourself get burned out and mad. Your inner voice is going to scream at you every day and little by little that’s going to say/reveal something clear to you. You may not be able to make this bullshit job work. But in the long run, that’ll get you where you’re going faster.

**

ADD’L TROUBLESHOOTING:

  • Carrie Battan on how the Trump years cleaved the online knitting community is my favorite thing I’ve in a long time, an absolute rollicking ride, the Internet is hell and also quirky as hell!

  • A delightful Talk of the Town by Hannah Goldfield on ABC carpet neglecting to BCC when they sent a delivery delay email to 200 people has me begrudgingly admitting reading can be good for a laugh sometimes :(

  • Now that I have AirPod Pros and can reliably tune my children out when they are in my charge I’m finally getting into podcasts/podcast personalities with religious fervor. POOG with Jacqueline Novak and Kate Berlant (also reviewed in the new yorker last week—third new yorker mention in as many bullets….is the new yorker good again? was it ever not good? were we just not good enough to appreciate its goodness for awhile?) remains the most important thing in my life (which is weird because I have children), but Celebrity Book Club with Steven and Lily — similarly an absolutely perfect showcase for two brilliant/unhinged/of-the-moment minds —is quickly careening up the ranks. Love to lol in end times!!

  • Genuinely confused that I missed this 17-minute long Jemima Kirke-directed John Early masterpiece when it came out in 2019. I cleared my schedule when Carrie from bullet #1 sent it to me last week and had the honor of paying it forward to another bejohnce connoisseur yesterday. “omg we’re eating good tonight,” Hunter immediately texted in reply, “17 minutes!!” If there’s a purer, truer pleasure in these colorless times than being a stan, I’m unaware of it.

see you soon!