The fallacy of work-life compartmentalization

post by Morendil · 2010-03-04T22:59:01.986Z · score: 14 (41 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 92 comments

Related to: Outside the Laboratory, Ghosts in the Machine

We've all observed how people can be very smart in some contexts, and stupid in others. People compartmentalize, which has been previously hypothesized as the reason for some epic failures to understand things that should be obvious.

It's also important to remember that we are not immune. To that end, I want to start off by considering some comfortable examples, where someone else is the butt of the joke, and then consider examples which might make you more uneasy.

"The mere presence of a computer can short circuit normally intelligent people's brains." -- Computer Stupidities

The reassuring cases concern smart people who become stupid when confronted with our area of expertise. If you're a software developer, that tends to be people who can't figure out something basic about Windows. "I've tried closing the app and restarting, and I've tried rebooting, and it doesn't work, I still can't find my file." You take a deep breath, refrain from rolling your eyes and asking what the heck their mental model is, what they think closing-and-restarting has to do with a misplaced file, and you go looking for some obvious places, like the Desktop, where they keep all their files but somehow neglected to look this time. If it's not there, chances are it will be in My Documents.

It's sometimes draining to be called on for this kind of thing, but it can be reassuring. My dad is a high calibre mathematician, dealing in abstractions at a level that seems stratospheric compared to my rusty-college-math. But we sometimes get into conversations like the above, and I get a slightly guilty self-esteem boost from them.

Now, the harder question: how do we compartmentalize?

I propose work-life compartmentalization as a case study. "Work-life balance" is how we rationalize that separation. It's OK, we think, to put up with some unpleasantness from 9 to 5, as long as we can look forward to getting home, kicking our shoes off and relaxing, alone or among family or friends. And perhaps that's reasonable enough.

But this logic leads many people to tolerate: stress, taking orders, doing work that we think is meaningless, filling out paperwork that will never actually be read, pouring our energy into projects we're certain are failure-bound but never speaking up about that to avoid being branded "not a team player", being bored in endless meetings which are thinly disguised status games, feeling unproductive and stupid but grinding on anyway because it's "office hours" and that's when we are supposed to work, and so on.

And those are only the milder symptoms. Workplace bullying, crunch mode, dodgy workplace ethics are worryingly prevalent. (There are large variations in this type of workplace toxicity; some of us are lucky enough to never catch but a whiff of it, some of us unfortunately are exposed to a high degree. That these are real and widespread phenomena is evidenced by the success of TV shows showing office life as its darkest; humor is a defense mechanism.)

Things snapped into focus for me one day when a manager asked me to lie to a client about my education record in order to get a contract. I refused, expecting to be fired; that didn't happen. Had I really been at risk? The incident anyway fueled a resolve to try and apply at work the same standards that I do in life - when I think rationally.

In everyday life, rationality suggests we try to avoid boredom, tells us it's unwise to make promises we can't keep, to avoid getting entangled in our own lies, and so on. What might happen if we tried to apply the same standards in the workplace?

Instead of tolerating boredom in meetings, you may find it more effective to apply a set of criteria to any meeting - does it have an agenda, a list of participants, a set ending time and a known objective - and not show up if it doesn't meet them.

You might refuse to give long-term schedule estimate for tasks that you didn't really believe in, and instead try breaking the task down, working in short timeboxed iterations and updating your estimates based on observed reality, committing only to as much work as is compatible with maintaining peak productivity.

You might stop tolerating the most egregious status games that go on in the workplace, and strive instead for effective collective action: teamwork.

Those would be merely sane behaviours. It is, perhaps, optional to extend this thinking to actually challenging the usual workplace norms, and starting to do things differently just because they would be better that way. The world is crazy, and that includes the world of work. People who insist on not checking their brain at the door of the workplace are still few and far between, and to really change a workplace it takes a critical mass of them.

But I've seen it happen, and helped it happen, and the results make me want to find out more about other areas where I still compartmentalize. The prospect is a little scary - I still find it unpleasant to find out I've been stupid - but also exciting.

92 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-03-05T00:42:03.383Z · score: 22 (24 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think a lot of the 'irrational' workplace behaviour you describe can also be seen as a rational response to bad incentives on the part of employees. It is relatively rare for jobs to consistently reward employees for performance that contributes directly to company profits so much employee behaviour is instead a response to what is actually rewarded by a perverse incentive structure.

One of the reasons small companies and startups can be successful despite lacking the resources or economies of scale of larger companies is that large companies have great difficulty maintaining a structure that rewards employees for productive activity.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T02:25:13.562Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree. My strategy has always been to determine what my supervisor / professor / etc really wants, and give that to them, as opposed to what they say they want. Occasionally, this requires a great deal of effort and skill, as they demand brilliance, but quite often all they really want (and will reward) is for every print-out to be in color or something equally useless.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-05T02:41:44.775Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The frustrating thing is that what some of my supervisors have wanted from me is failure. Robert Greene lists the first rule of power as 'Never Outshine the Master'. This has meant sometimes sabotaging projects to increase my status (and prevent hostility). I sometimes find that just a few hours per week on a project is an optimal contribution and I have had some success with using the remaining work time to work on external projects.

Unfortunately, playing that game in the long term requires either the right personality or psychological reserves that I did not have at the time so I left what was at least superficially a perfect opportunity to get paid a full time wage while actually working on my own entrepreneurial interests.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-03-05T10:39:07.386Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might be nice to think about how you would have to think about things in order to not have your psychological reserves depleted by such situations.

We have this crazy tendency to be hurt just by other people being crazy.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-05T12:29:14.796Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a good point, and I given the chance I may actually accept such a role in the future because I suspect I would be far better at it now.

We have this crazy tendency to be hurt just by other people being crazy.

Some of this, the emotional frustration, can be reduced through introspection and personal development. On the other hand there are some parts of the problem that aren't a matter of mere preference or weak boundaries. Dealing with crazy people can actually be a genuinely challenging task. It is easier to think straightforward thoughts but it can be hard to account for exactly the right amount of crazy.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2010-03-05T11:34:48.181Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've encountered quite a bit of hostility when proselytizing that viewpoint. I just can't wrap my head around the sort of worldview that causes people to feel bad for giving their boss what they want. I think a lot of overly smart engineering types extend their ego boundaries excessively into the workplace and think of it as their job to "save the company from those bumbling managers."

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-05T12:31:22.231Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've encountered quite a bit of hostility when proselytizing that viewpoint.

It's the sort of viewpoint you're supposed to have, not admit to having.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T11:50:13.602Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted for the point about ego boundaries, but pardon me, "overly smart"??

Yes, when you take on a job for someone, it's wise to focus on fulfilling the request, and to avoid inflicting help that they haven't asked for. And if the managers are bumbling their way around, your interests are also partly at stake (i.e. you may lose your job if the company fails), so it's legitimate to want to do something about that. You have no obligation to do more than update your resume, but you also have the option of trying to improve things.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2010-03-05T16:07:01.778Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

overestimating your own impact on the company is a classic bias. thinking that you can save a sinking ship is usually kind of silly.

by overly smart I mean that most engineering jobs require quite a bit less rigor than engineers are trained for. at least in the experience of myself and my engineering friends.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-05T16:56:41.144Z · score: 6 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Use of the shift key is preferred.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-05T12:34:00.864Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, when you take on a job for someone, it's wise to focus on fulfilling the request.

It is sometimes even wiser to focus on giving the manager what they really want.

comment by teageegeepea · 2010-03-05T17:59:51.934Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tim Harford gave an argument like that in "The Logic of Life". It's not that he had data backing that up, the book is heavily based on economic theory & reasoning.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-03-05T18:50:06.451Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I've read the book. Having worked in large companies where a lot of unproductive activity went on it always seemed fairly clear to me that people were generally responding rationally to the incentives that existed when they took actions that didn't maximize shareholder profits. I work at a startup now where the incentives are rather different.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T02:16:00.879Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm in the top 30th percentile for household income in the United States. I recently had a performance review, was qualified "fully successful," and when I specifically asked my supervisor if I was doing anything wrong, he reassured me that there was not a thing I could change to do better. I receive regular monetary bonuses and praise, and was rewarded with a certificate of achievement just two days ago.

All of this despite the fact that I perform real, skilled work approximately one or two hours per week, and spend the rest of my time surfing the web, in plain view of everyone walking down the hallway, not even bothering to alt-tab when my supervisor comes into my cube to chat with me. (ETA: personally, I consider my work ethic to be atrocious, and if I were my supervisor, I would not tolerate what I have just described.)

I take the money provided and I spend it on various frivolous pursuits, and donate to SIAI. I'm not sure about long-term promotion potential, considering my lack of actual work, but it seems fairly rational in some sense that I take from the irrational and put in only what effort is required to achieve my goals, thus maximizing output/input (productivity).

The emotional impact of not making a difference is distressing, I agree, but that's a different, rather involved, topic.

comment by hugh · 2010-03-05T02:51:33.436Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of my coworkers (like you, at a government job involving software) had occasionally said "you can only read Dinosaur Comics so many times before you have to find an open-source project to start contributing to".

We created a lot of our own work; we were given a lot of leeway to find and fix problems ourselves, even if the problems hadn't actually appeared yet. We were encouraged to find research areas to work on, and use our time to do that as long as it didn't detract from our other duties, which probably only consumed 4-10 hours a week. So, we had license to work as diligently as we wanted, and for the most part on nearly anything we wanted. However, we generally found that most days, we weren't able to be productive for more than 4-6 hours, and ended up spending a lot of time reading webcomics, writing toy programs, and drinking tea in the break room.

I think for most people, 30 hours of high-quality creative work a week is about their limit. I'm sure some people are exceptions, but some of the most productive programmers I know (from FOSS projects I worked on to government jobs I held and even a stint at Microsoft) spend about half their "day" goofing off.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T02:56:11.320Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A similar statement I use: "It's a lot harder than you might think to do nothing all day."

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T08:24:51.700Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can your job description be in any sense likened to guard labor? That might change my interpretation of your position somewhat. (I don't mean to pry, by the way; disclose as much as you feel comfortable disclosing.)

Why do you interpret the situation as reflecting poorly on your work ethic? Both you and your employer have exit clauses from this work contract, and nothing you wrote suggests you are deceiving your employer into keeping you on the rolls. I'd feel perfectly OK about the situation, ethically at least.

Emotionally is, I agree, a different matter. I once found myself in a slightly similar situation (temporary rather than long-term, a couple months more or less). My issue wasn't so much that no-one was interested in giving me work to do, and that I could for a while show up at the office a couple of hours a day and get away with it. The main issue was that I wouldn't knowingly violate the exclusivity clauses in my contract, and so this job was preventing me from doing meaningful work. So eventually I quit.

But I wouldn't mind at all a situation in which I got paid by someone who didn't get anything in return, if the contract otherwise allowed me to to meaningful work. (You wouldn't call someone like that an employer but probably a "patron".) I'm self-motivated enough that I believe this would be a net gain to society.

it seems fairly rational in some sense that I take from the irrational

...and you give to the rational. A modern Robin Hood, I like that. ;)

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T13:06:43.497Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can your job description be in any sense likened to guard labor?

It's "firefighter labor." Supposedly, if the system I support goes down, it's $1,000,000 per hour, which would mean if I save an hour of downtime, I've paid my salary for several years. But the number was likely a wild guess in the first place, and I received it 5th hand, so I have no idea as to the truth of the matter. All I know for sure is that it's an important and costly system.

I can't feel that number at all, and certainly no one around me seems to care much about it, either. Everyone I work with on problems with the system cares more that there's a "red light" that our Big Boss will see. Big Boss gets upset with red lights, not that anyone ever gets blamed, punished, or held accountable. Must be a status thing.

Why do you interpret the situation as reflecting poorly on your work ethic?

Potentially because I'm idealistic, and realize that I have "untapped potential" and other buzz-phrases. More likely, I have emotional problems dealing with an on-call, firefighter position, and inappropriate low self-esteem. This is not helped by the fact my bonuses are not linked to actual events, nor are the awards. My supervisor lies on the applications for political reasons (quotas, etc.).

But I wouldn't mind at all a situation in which I got paid by someone who didn't get anything in return, if the contract otherwise allowed me to to meaningful work.

I don't have an exclusivity contract preventing me from doing additional work, but I do have rigid security on my work computer, and I don't have any projects I feel like contributing to at the moment. "Meaningful work" is an elusive concept to me.

I'd rather be reading a book, but that's too blatant to get away with.

comment by gwern · 2010-03-05T18:11:14.566Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do have rigid security on my work computer

Fire up a VM then, or shell out somewhere. You're technically competent enough that any network access - much less unfettered recreational web-browsing access - is enough.

and I don't have any projects I feel like contributing to at the moment. "Meaningful work" is an elusive concept to me.

I feel like you're not even trying. There genuinely are no FLOSS project you want to contribute to? Well, I suppose that's possible. Then why not become an auto-didact and start working through textbooks? SICP may be too elementary for you, but SICP is far from the only textbook available online. Why not pick up a productive hobby like Wikipedia editing, or proofreading for Project Gutenberg? Or, or, or...

If you have plausible rationales for all of these, I think I would diagnose your real problem as akrasia or general depression/lack of energy.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T18:40:50.975Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would like to explain that, intellectually, I understand that I have severe akrasia and likely clinical depression. However, it primarily manifests itself in the form of the phrase, "I don't care," and it is a recursive lack of caring, such that I do not care that I do not care; at least, that's how it feels. I find it very difficult to acquire motivation under such conditions.

How does one start to care? I've thought about it a great deal, and never came up with an answer outside of, "you just do."

comment by rortian · 2010-03-06T01:56:24.610Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm surprised no one has suggested it, but if you think that you have clinical depression I would strongly suggest seeking help. I have been depressed, I sought help and life moves on.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-06T02:43:01.630Z · score: 1 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Congratulations.

comment by rortian · 2010-03-06T02:53:15.617Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

?

I hardly needed a sad person's false praise. Not being in pitiful emotional state, that has been described more lucidly that I could by others, is all the reward I need.

You asked for advice, I gave some. If you're a jerk to others in a similar situation you may not have much to care about afterwards.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-03-25T16:16:46.701Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know about you, but if I eat too much high glycemic food, I get "I don't care, I don't care" running in my mind, and it's very hard for me to do things.

I've got akrasia problems anyway, but too much refined carbs makes it worse, and it took me quite a while to find out that the "I don't care" soundtrack wasn't just an emotional problem-- I was poisoned.

The other traps in this are that it's hard to remember that I need to eat more carefully if I'm knocked out, and the taste of sweetness does a good job of briefly cutting through the depressive haze.

comment by thomblake · 2010-03-05T21:36:31.856Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How does one start to care?

I'd be surprised if anyone who doesn't care has cared enough to figure it out.

That said, you might start examining the things you do care about. You bother to go to work every day, after all. And you eat food rather than poison. You might try to examine those for general categories of things you care about.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T22:50:06.888Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd already thought of that: looking at implicit cares and attempting to shift them into a position of explicit cares, but it's not easy, especially since most of it feels arbitrary and is carried out through habit or aversion to discomfort. If all I "really" care about is present physical comfort, I'm in bad shape.

comment by aleksiL · 2010-03-07T08:43:54.648Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

aversion to discomfort

This made me think of what pjeby calls the pain brain. In short, our actions can be motivated by either getting closer to what we want (pull) or away from what we try to avoid (push). Generally, push overrides pull, so you may not even notice what you want if you're too busy avoiding what you don't.

It may be useful to explore your goals and motivations with relaxed mental inquiry and critically examine any fears or worries that may come up.

comment by gwern · 2010-03-05T20:07:46.099Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would like to explain that, intellectually, I understand that I have severe akrasia and likely clinical depression.

Oh. Well, I suppose if you already understand and accept it, then there's nothing more for me to argue for.

comment by whpearson · 2010-03-05T18:56:11.291Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of my side projects is trying to figure out whether programs in a self-maintaining computer architecture I'm in the middle of designing would be pushed to foom. If they would, obviously I wouldn't build it. If they wouldn't it might have a fairly big affect on the future trajectory of computer systems.

Be warned though making it and making programs in it to make it actually useful is far more than a two man project.

Fancy wrapping your brain around that?

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T19:01:38.658Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, thank you. I'd rather suffer where I am.

ETA: I've become uncomfortable with this line of conversation, and feel that people are putting too much pressure on me in an attempt to other-optimize. Thank you for your attempts to assist, but I would rather that this thread end here.

comment by whpearson · 2010-03-05T19:12:59.488Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No requirement for moving, just something to do rather than surf pointlessly during you job.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-03-05T13:37:15.401Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was in a similar situation. I fixed it by convincing my employer to allow me to work from home. Now I spend my slack hours on other contract jobs, math or music, not surfing the web.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T13:52:42.806Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, that would help a great deal.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-03-05T02:28:40.850Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you work for the government?

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T02:34:16.617Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes.

Did you know the phrase, "good enough for government work," actually used to be a compliment?

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-03-05T02:22:33.117Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you get done in two hours what they expect to take a week, more power to you.

comment by LucasSloan · 2010-03-05T02:21:19.829Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you do when you're performing skilled work?

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T02:31:32.836Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Troubleshooting, enabling new functionality in, or patching a ridiculously expensive piece of software managed by a ridiculously large team of technical people.

ETA: I understand that those one or two hours are potentially capable of making up the rest of my salary, at least from the perspective of someone who might want to pay me to perform such a duty, but I would also state that the lack of general feedback for the other 38 to 39 hours, and the requirement to show up to the office and generally pretend not to be blatantly non-busy, is akin to the problem humans have with large numbers: it's very difficult to feel like I've accomplished something for a few, tiny moments of work involving check boxes and following documentation, and it's highly irrational that I have to pretend I'm getting paid for 8 hours of hard work a day, when all they really want is 1 per week. That's in addition to the fact the dollar amounts involved invoke the large number problem itself...

comment by komponisto · 2010-03-05T18:43:45.893Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do they actually, explicitly expect you to be doing when you're not doing what they (really) pay you to do?

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T18:59:16.282Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reading and updating documentation; assisting related teams; developing improvements to the system; refining existing business or technical processes; coordinating between various technical teams; other things I can't think of right now, I'm sure.

The reason I don't do any of that (or make it my one hour a week for a particular week) is that I get all the rewards without it. See the thread on incentive structures.

comment by LucasSloan · 2010-03-05T04:06:47.760Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, is your quality of life suffering because your employer is being blatantly stupid? Would you be happier if you were actually working 40 hours a week?

comment by hugh · 2010-03-05T13:28:00.474Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you do? Having something to do, and having something asked of one, is far more fulfilling than being asked to do nothing. Eliezer's example of the exhausted peasant comes to mind. Who would actually enjoy doing nothing all day?

comment by LucasSloan · 2010-03-05T18:30:50.513Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am afraid your question is based on a misreading of my question. I didn't mean to imply that the "correct" answer was that having nothing to do was better than having to do work. I was honestly asking, so that I could provide actually useful advice, instead of simply assuming and possibly saying something stupid.

comment by hugh · 2010-03-07T03:19:50.558Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My apologies. I took "Would you be happier if you were actually working 40 hours a week?" to be sarcasm, since it seemed like Rain had already answered the question. I hope I didn't offend too greatly.

comment by hugh · 2010-03-07T03:19:35.441Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My apologies. I took "Would you be happier if you were actually working 40 hours a week?" to be sarcasm, since it seemed like Rain had already answered the question. I hope I didn't offend too greatly.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T12:51:43.393Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, it is suffering, and I would be much happier. For the moments when I have had steady work, in the form of large projects taking actual effort (the last was a couple years ago), I much enjoyed showing up to work and oftentimes would stay a bit late just to solve the intellectual puzzles.

Note that "work" like pointless meetings, forms, etc, are not satisfying either, but I'm able to largely ignore that part of the environment if I wish.

comment by LucasSloan · 2010-03-05T18:41:19.725Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you considered working in a start up? Rolf Nelson who writes The Rational Entrepreneur may be able to help. I assume that you are relatively skilled at programming and thinking, since you post here and get away with only 2 hours of work a week. Where are you currently working? A really well known firm, a legacy firm, or what? If a start up wouldn't work (if, for example, you need someone to enforce the work on you), you might want to consider applying to work at Google or another top valley firm.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-05T19:01:53.871Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, thank you. I'd rather suffer where I am.

ETA: I've become uncomfortable with this line of conversation, and feel that people are putting too much pressure on me in an attempt to other-optimize. Thank you for your attempts to assist, but I would rather that this thread end here.

comment by jhuffman · 2010-03-08T18:08:40.910Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've worked for a dozen years in IT at a very large, very stupid corporation which has gotten larger and stupider every year. I've been phoning it in almost my entire career, and despite that I get ridiculous raises and promotions all the time. Most of my projects I consider to be failures in one way or another. Either came in late and over-budget, undelivered on features, was poorly designed and difficult to use etc. The only successes were the small projects early in my career where I wore all the hats and did everything myself. So that is really all I am good for but instead I manage teams working on projects worth as much as 12 million a year.

I recently tried to take a step sideways and get a different job in the company where I'd be more hands on and six months later they had me take over the group. Despite the fact that I mostly wasted my time here. My only real useful survival skill here is sounding smart on the phone and winning lots of the status meetings, and that seems to be the key success criteria.

So I just sort of look at it as one big joke and tell myself I'm just here for the lulz and the fat paychecks as long as they are dumb enough to keep writing them but...that's not exactly true. Sometimes I do get stressed out and angry about how lame we are. Usually this happens when I work with a very small software vendor and can compare their productivity to ours.

I'm going to spend the better part of my life doing this work, and its meaningless. And I tell myself I do this so...my kid can have the same great opportunities that I passed up. He will probably do the same.

Sometimes I'll resolve to try harder and make a difference but I probably have similar akrasia and ennui issues as Rain. I had the same problems in school. I'd score in the 98-99th percentile on all standardized tests and average Cs in most classes since I would never do homework.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-03-08T20:14:56.510Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So I just sort of look at it as one big joke and tell myself I'm just here for the lulz and the fat paychecks as long as they are dumb enough to keep writing them

Why can't anyone tell you're wearing that business suit ironically?

comment by jhuffman · 2010-03-08T20:30:04.354Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Onion has got me through many an afternoon here. I don't work here ironically though. I just don't work very hard.

Treating it like a game or a joke helps with the cognitive dissonance.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-08T18:30:38.005Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The sad truth is, it doesn't take much to excel in IT. I'd put it down to the terrible state of education in that field everywhere I've looked or heard from.

To the extent that I think of myself as having something to protect, this is it. I'm not "clicking" as far as the Singularity yet, but it's clear to me that people in the IT professions, and in particular programmers, represent, at the same time, a huge potential to improve the lot of humanity, and a huge waste of that potential at this moment.

comment by Bo102010 · 2010-03-09T04:00:13.152Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The sad truth is, it doesn't take much to excel in IT. I'd put it down to the terrible state of education in that field everywhere I've looked or heard from.

Can you elaborate on this? I went to school for electrical/computer engineering, and would occasionally hear about people who couldn't hack it in those programs changing to IT-related ones. I figured it was an OK choice (maybe they hit their limits when it comes to math), but could still learn to good things.

I've now worked in small, medium, and large organizations, and have (in most cases) found that whatever best resembles an "IT" department is something you do your best to avoid working with. I've seen rigid adherence to obviously bad policies and protocols, failure to complete things on-time or correctly, and a near-religious pursuit of maintaining the status quo in nearly every interaction.

What is it about the education of IT students that encourages this? From looking at my school's degree requirements, it seems like there's too much of a focus on "business" skills and middle management, and too little focus on using and applying technology. Is that a fair summary?

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-09T07:21:18.093Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

it seems like there's too much of a focus on "business" skills and middle management, and too little focus on using and applying technology.

We'd have to draw some distinctions, as "IT" is a big field. My main beef with the curricula is that, in a nutshell, they fail to teach people to think, to reason conceptually about the tools in their toolbox; and to a lesser extent that they fail to teach the craft, the technology-independent tips and tricks that experienced pros have picked up.

Sometimes that manifests as an excessive focus on technology: specifically curricula that teach people how to use tools X, Y and Z but not why these tools are useful or when to use them. Sometime that manifests as an excessive focus on this or that fad of management or scheduling; for instance, curricula heavy in "estimation models" such as COCOMO.

I'm an autodidact but I later went back to university to pick up a degree with very light course requirements in view of my experience. The one class I sat on was about distributed systems. I was told practically nothing about distributed systems, save for a brief reference to Lamport clocks, the rest of the course was spent on the details of writing "Hello world" equivalents in CORBA and Java RMI: basically running programs on the command line and learning bits of syntax. I distinguished myself by being the only student who was using unit tests to demonstrate properties of my programs.

In other words, this was a Master's degree at one of the top scientific universities in Paris, and to this autodidact the course looked like vocational training.

comment by Rain · 2010-03-08T18:43:41.522Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it worse to know what should be done, and then decide not to do it? Or worse to not know in the first place?

I'm angry; I shouldn't hit my friend because it's wrong and will only make the situation worse for me and for everyone else, providing no benefits whatsoever; I hit my friend. I have committed malice aforethought. I'm sociopathic. I have no concern for the wellbeing of others.

I'm angry; I hit my friend. Oops. Sorry.

The former case is a half-step in the right direction ("I didn't hit my friend"), in that I'm capable of identifying the correct action to take. However, it may produce a greater emotional burden should I then fail to take the correct action. In this way, perhaps those who fail to make a full transition are hurting more than those who have not even started on the path.

I remember this being discussed earlier, where aspiring rationalists lose the support of some irrational beliefs which had been propping them up, providing quality of life benefits.

comment by MonBonify · 2010-03-04T23:44:42.746Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Teamwork only happens when everyone in the group respects each other. Without respect, people don't try to understand different ways of thinking and communication breaks down. You end up with an environment where everyone has their own agenda, no one speaks the same language or subscribes to the same logic, and junior-level employees are forced to operate within a uniform system to which only small incremental changes can be made. It's so difficult to be understood that a very limiting lexicon of cliches develops to compensate, i.e. "reinvent the wheel" and "think outside the box." Even with respect, people don't have time to listen to each other. I agree that rational thinking could improve the workplace, but time is money and rational processes take time. If it was my company, I would say it was worth it--I crave efficiency in every system I chose to participate.

That said, I think it's inefficient to try and change corporate culture from the bottom up--but that doesn't mean I will stop trying. My reasoning being that if I'm not successful, at least I will have significantly honed my communication skills (hopefully).

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-04T23:55:43.404Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep, good points on teamwork.

I think it's inefficient to try and change corporate culture from the bottom up

The apparent alternative, top-down, doesn't fare much better - I speak from some experience.

Culture change in general is very hard to bring about, because what we think of as "culture" tends to be precisely that which people do without thinking about why. To even describe cultural aspects often requires talking to an outsider: "Sorry about that, I should have explained that we don't greet people with handshakes here."

comment by Hook · 2010-03-05T21:31:05.909Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of the anecdotes I can recall about changing work place culture are examples of unintentionally changing it for the worse. Has there ever been a high profile positive culture change in a large corporation?

Joel Spolsky wrote an article about companies following the get-big-fast strategy or the grow-slow strategy. One of the disadvantages to the get-big-fast strategy is so many people come on board that any existing corporate culture is overrun. The implication here is that the only way to establish a good culture is to have it established in the founders and grow slowly.

comment by nerzhin · 2010-03-08T19:45:36.272Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The implication here is that the only way to establish a good culture is to have it established in the founders and grow slowly.

This is why we should focus on a workplace culture that is not only good, but provably good and provably maintains its good properties (self-correcting if necessary) as the company or organization grows and adds people. The theory of such an organization could be called Friendly Workplace Culture, or FWC.

comment by MonBonify · 2010-03-05T00:12:01.672Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So is there hope for corporate culture? I sort of think the ability to articulate your ideas clearly and quickly is the key. It would be interesting to see how corporate culture changes if a company tries to only hire the most articulate people. They could even create an articulation test I bet!

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-03-05T01:29:18.350Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can change your organization, or change your organization.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-03-05T08:35:11.235Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That site could be as big a time hole as TVTr*p*s -- but far more useful. But there's so much of it that even after spending...er, a while...browsing it I don't have a clear idea of the shape of the whole thing.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T08:56:55.946Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"That site" isn't just any Wiki. It's the father of all Wikis. Ward's original creation, after which all the others are patterned. It would be notable for that alone.

I wear my badge of RecentChangesJunkie with pride. I was there at the peak of its golden age, in 2000, learning an insane amount of stuff I hadn't even suspected existed. Happy memories.

It helps to know that it was a hangout of a substantial part of the Patterns community, and hosted the conversations which helped define Extreme Programming. At one point the Road Maps were created, somewhat similar in intent to the Sequences here, perhaps you'll find some help there.

It's no longer a living community as far as I can tell, more of a monument. Some crucial features (quickChanges and quickDiff) even appear to be broken.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-03-05T19:04:39.748Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The computer example confused me, because I'm not sure what it has to do with compartmentalization. Compartmentalization means you neglect to apply knowledge from one domain in another; people being unable to understand computers seems to happen because they don't have any applicable domain knowledge in the first place.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T19:30:31.316Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, that's a good point. There's some authorial sleight of hand going on with that anecdote: I'm telling it to give the reader the feeling of what it's like to see a smart person fail at something basic because they fail to cross domains, but when writing I couldn't actually come up with a real example that was simple enough to fit in one paragraph.

The kind of real examples I had in mind involve the "tests" that people come up with when trying to diagnose a bug or other kind of breakdown, and they make a basic category mistake like trying to "fix" a keyboard stuck in AZERTY instead of QWERTY by unplugging the keyboard and plugging it back in. (And here again, I'm resorting to a simplified example to get my point across.) They know the hardware/software distinction, but they're failing to apply it to their current situation, and instead falling back on "trying" random things. With some justification, because quite often it's what they see "experts" do...

comment by mattnewport · 2010-03-05T19:50:28.577Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oddly though, 'turn it off and back on again' or 'try disconnecting and reconnecting the cable' really does solve a remarkably large number of tech related problems. Arguably a non-expert without any special knowledge is probably quite rational in trying that as the first approach to solve any given tech related problem. It may even be that the next best thing to try if it fails is to try it again. Further attempts probably have rapidly diminishing utility however.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-03-05T19:52:04.918Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It actually seems to me that the trouble computer-illiterate people have is often a case of insufficient compartmentalization, not too much. To take your keyboard example - they know things that work in a software domain, and know things that work in a hardware domain, and are failing to keep these separate. Kids, who start with far fewer preconceptions of how things should work, pick up the use of computers much faster.

Also, we computer-literate people probably underestimate how sheerly arbitrary many things must seem like to people who haven't had a long exposure to computers. (How is a person to know that keyboard settings aren't stored in the keyboard? After all, you could toggle the write-protect status of a 3½ inch disc by flipping the right tab on the disc. And the amount of region switches on a DVD drive is stored in the device itself. And once you know that electrical devices lose at least some of their settings when the power is turned off, it isn't too unreasonable of a hypothesis that unplugging the keyboard might reset the settings.)

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-06T00:27:05.563Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the keyboard was USB I might have given unplug and plug in a shot. That's the kind of software intervention that often works. I have never had cause to investigate where keyboard settings are configured.

comment by soreff · 2010-03-07T06:30:54.707Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In general, as the devices become more complex and "intelligent" the number of plausible hypotheses about any failure starts to rise rapidly. Also, the ability to rule out possibilities on the basis of knowledge about the system starts to drop... When I was a kid, most communications channels were analog, and unidirectional. I could bound what was failing by knowing that the transmitter had no clue what happened at the receiver. That is no longer true. "sheerly arbitrary" things are a problem - "sheerly arbitrary" things that sometimes change from release to release of code can be much worse...

comment by brian_jaress · 2010-03-07T07:10:19.091Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm telling it to give the reader the feeling of what it's like to see a smart person fail at something basic because they fail to cross domains, but when writing I couldn't actually come up with a real example that was simple enough to fit in one paragraph.

I would suggest the example of someone not getting the evil bit joke.

It's good because it works both ways. You only need common sense to understand it, but lay people can be intimidated by the context into not applying common sense, and you'll sometimes see domain experts try to implement essentially the same thing because they turn off common sense while in their domain.

comment by xamdam · 2010-03-05T11:38:56.347Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just tried to find work that is, basically, as close to pure thinking as I can get in corporate situation, with little chance of micromanagement - being the only data mining guy at my co.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-03-05T02:08:05.019Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

being bored in endless meetings which are thinly disguised status games

You seem to be assuming that the meeting is useless just because people lied to you about its purpose. The status games may well be important to the functioning of the firm.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T08:00:36.917Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not saying these meetings are useless to the firm, necessarily; but if they require you to believe in a lie, they are dangerous, toxic even, to someone who prefers their beliefs to track reality.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-03-05T10:42:25.169Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Who's believing a lie? People are just talking less than literally.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-03-05T00:36:02.602Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I enjoyed reading this, but I'm not sure what the fallacy is.

You're testing out whether people will allow you to lead beyond what official authority you have. Provided you're not squelched, I imagine this will make you less stressed and more engaged. It will boost your status at well.

Clearly, you have to measure the gain of setting your own course against the risk of being perceived as overly slothful, rude, idealistic, or independent.

Passive-aggressive tactics, like making only a token effort on projects you expect to either fail or prove worthless, are indeed unsatisfying and stressful.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T01:00:50.796Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure what the fallacy is

I'm alluding to phrases such as "work-life balance", which presuppose that work and life are two different things. They're not; it's all life.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-03-05T02:47:51.567Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would it be better if they said "work/social life balance"?

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T08:33:33.902Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd say worse, since "social life" strikes me as further compartmentalization of "life". I don't, separately, have a life and also a social life. Rather, I value having friends, and I will seek to make friends anywhere, including at work. Some of my best friends are colleagues or clients.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-03-05T15:24:00.141Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm pretty sure it's a euphemism for "family." If you don't have kids (or at least a spouse), then you're not really supposed to talk about it.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-05T02:50:01.079Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Only slightly.

comment by MonBonify · 2010-03-05T00:00:24.560Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On another note, I don't think anyone has ever shut down their computer in the hopes that it would help them find a file. That example throws me off for a few reasons actually. I think your thoughts not being true to yourself at work are very valid, but I think the reason it happens is because we're trying to fit within a system (not such an irrational idea in many cases). Learning how that new system operates is key to mastering it--weather it's corporate culture or a new type of computer platform. I would argue that it's a lack of familiarity with a given system that makes us seem "stupid" when we try to work within it. Going back to my previous comment, it's all about communication rather than force-fitting your own more rational system. Lucky for us, computers are easy to communicate with once you learn their language--it becomes a very rational relationship in a way. Communicating with other people, however, is not so reliable and organized.

comment by hugh · 2010-03-05T03:14:30.588Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On another note, I don't think anyone has ever shut down their computer in the hopes that it would help them find a file.

Not that this matters, but one of my father's friends frequently asks me for computer help. He was rebooting because he was "missing emails". He was also opening the wrong program (he uses webmail in a browser, but was opening outlook express) in order to find them. For some reason, he thought that "they" had changed the interface on him, and didn't realize he was clicking on the wrong icon.

comment by MonBonify · 2010-03-05T14:13:42.447Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I stand corrected!

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T15:00:13.884Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Real users would never do that" is a phrase of art among professional software testers, and they use it with heavy irony. For vastly more values of that than you care to imagine, there are real users who in fact not only do it, but expect it to work.

comment by MonBonify · 2010-03-05T20:19:31.360Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I still don't understand how a normally smart person's inability to work with a computer is parallel to the way rational people operate irrationally in the work place. The latter, I agree, is an example of compartmentalization, as people prioritize their personal life to the extent that they are willing to rationalize operating in a lousy office environment to support their lifestyle. But I don't think people are compartmentalizing when they can't understand computers--I think they simply aren't familiar with the system. If it was compartmentalization you wouldn't see computer literacy increase with familiarity--which you do. And you wouldn't see people's ability to become more literate increase when the percentage of their life in which they have been exposed to computers increases--which you also do.

Your other example about your mathematician father doesn't clarify things for me either. It actually seems like a non sequitur.

My dad is a high calibre mathematician, dealing in abstractions at a level that seems stratospheric compared to my rusty-college-math.

Wikipedia Entry for Compartmentalization

I don't interpret your thoughts on work-life compartmentalization to be a criticism--so I don't think you need to set it up with an example to soften the blow, especially since it's confusing (to me at least) how your example logically supports the second half of your post.

Let me know if I'm misinterpreting something.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T20:55:32.075Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The idea I'm trying to get at is "failure to apply insight across domains". Scientists, including mathematicians, gain in the domain of science insights such as "formulating experiments that provide evidence for hypotheses", or "observing regularities in behaviour", or "forming conceptual models which explain phenomena".

When these scientists, faced with a computer, tell me that they have "tried" various random things and appear unable to express these "tryings" in the language of experimentation and regularities, I come to the conclusion that they are failing to transport these insights from the domain of science into the domain of "dealing with the goddam computer". Hence the quote about people's brains switching off.

This generalizes somewhat from trained scientists to "smart" people in general, if you allow that by "smart" we often mean people who use insights of the same sorts that scientists use: logic, deduction, and so on.

comment by almost · 2010-03-11T13:59:22.054Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great posting. I think it's important to go for direct action where possible. Challenge bad workplace behaviour when it happens. Talk to people openly about bad practice. When the boss is demeaning, say straight out that it's not acceptable and ask how he would feel if the roles were reversed.

Importantly, don't forget to be friendly - especialy friendly to the nice people. Smile at everyone you meet. Ignore the assholes and find ways to quickly recover after negative encounters.

The No Asshole Rule book really helped me to deal with my current work situation - definitely recommended.

comment by Singularity7337 · 2010-03-05T17:59:47.597Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious--I was under the impression that lesswrong.com was a community dedicated to rationality. Some may be like your father--good at math, but bad at navigating computers. Why did you assume that people on this site are computer oriented?

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-05T18:13:24.509Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a fair question.

I know that a number of people here are programmers, for one thing. For another, I deliberately aimed very low with the anecdote about "clueless users", so that even LW readers who are not programmers would feel, with respect to someone that clueless, the same way I feel with respect to my dad, whose confusions about computers are quite a bit more sophisticated.

The implication isn't that the reader is a computer expert, but that they have some area of expertise in which they feel as clued in as I feel in computers, and I'm inviting them to identify with me when I tell the anecdote about my dad.

Would it make more sense for you if I amended the sentence starting "If you are a software developer", so that it read "I'm a software developer, so for me that tends to be..."

comment by simplyeric · 2010-03-05T20:49:34.826Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As an anecdotal comparison: my father has been a computer programmer since back in the day when there was no such thing as "software". He changed vacuum tubes...and went with it through I am not even sure how many iterations. He was still doing pramming until he retired last year. He, cliche-edly, can barely program a VCR (blinking noon for 6 years...) On another note, I teach the use of software for architects (it's a side thing I do), and I watch students try to come to grips with modes of thought they are not familiar with (vector based v. raster images, for example). I can sit and watch a person freeze solid in dismay when I've asked them to do something I've seen them do dozens of times within the last hour. Sometimes it's not an issue of "being" clueless as it is "feeling" clueless. A student who has done a task recently is not actually clueless when flummoxed by something he/she has done before, nor is my father actually clueless about VCR's. But they definitely feel clueless.
Behavioraly the result is the same: inaction or incorrect action. But the source is different.

comment by Singularity7337 · 2010-03-05T19:34:57.600Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It looks like you say:

"To that end, I want to start off by considering some comfortable examples, where someone else is the butt of the joke, and then consider examples which might make you more uneasy."

This is before you mention software development. Software developers are over-represented in general on the internet, and I sort of glazed over and wondered if I was back on Reddit/digg/slashdot/... .

comment by mattnewport · 2010-03-05T19:46:42.636Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Software developers are over-represented in general on the internet, and I sort of glazed over and wondered if I was back on Reddit/digg/slashdot/... .

I don't think 'the internet' and 'Reddit/digg/slashdot/...' are really the same thing anymore... Software developers are a disproportionate percentage of participants in some parts of the internet but probably not on, say, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube or many of the other sites with the highest traffic. It is not really true any more that software developers are 'over-represented in general on the internet'. They probably are on this particular site however.