Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor

What did you want to grow up to be, when you were a kid? Where did you actually end up? For a few weeks now, I have been idly wondering about the atavistic psychology behind career choices. Whenever I develop an odd intellectual itch like this, something odder usually comes along to scratch it. In this case, it was a strange rhyme that emerged in Britain sometime between 1475 and 1695, which has turned into one of the most robust memes in the English language:

tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor
richman, poorman, beggarman, thief

Everybody from John LeCarre to the Yardbirds seems to have been influenced by this rhyme. For the past week, it has been stuck in my head; an annoying tune that was my only clue to an undefined mystery about the nature of work that I hadn’t yet framed. So I went a-detecting with this clue in hand, and ended up discovering what might be the most fundamental way to view the world of work.

The Clue in the Rhyme

With the tinker, tailor… rhyme stuck in my head, I was browsing some old books in a library last week. A random 1970s volume, titled In Search of History, caught my eye. In the prologue was this interesting passage:

Most ordinary people lived their lives in boxes, as bees did in cells. It did not matter how the boxes were labeled: President, Vice President… “butcher, baker, beggarman, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief,” the box shaped their identity. But the box was an idea. Sir Robert Peel had put London policemen on patrol one hundred fifty years ago and the “bobbies” in London or the “cops” in New York now lived in the box invented by Sir Robert Peel…All ordinary people below the eye level of public recognition were either captives or descendants of ideas… Only a very, very rich man, or a farmer, could escape from this system of boxes. The very rich could escape because wealth itself shelters or buys identity…And farmers too…or — perhaps? — not even a farmer could escape. After all [in the 1910s] more than half of all Americans lived in villages or tilled the fields. And now only four percent worked the land. Some set of ideas…must have had something to do with the dwindling of their numbers.

It was rather a coincidence that I found this passage just when I was thinking of the tinker-tailor rhyme (the “butcher, baker…” bit is an American variant). A case of serendipitously mistaking the author, Theodore Harold White, who I’d never heard of, for Terence Hanbury White, author of The Once and Future King, which I love. That sort of coincidence doesn’t happen too often outside of libraries, but oh well.

The important insight here is that the structure of professions and work-identities is neither fundamental, nor a consequence of the industrial revolution. Between macroeconomic root causes and the details of your everyday life, there is an element of deliberate design. Design of “profession boxes” that is constrained by some deeply obvious natural laws, and largely controlled by those who are not themselves in boxes. The tinker, tailor… archetypes began emerging four centuries before the modern organization of the workforce took shape, during the British industrial revolution (which started around the 17th century).

Besides the peculiar circumstances of late medieval Britain, and the allure of alliteration and rhyme, ask yourself, why has this rhyme become such a powerful meme? We’ll return to this question shortly. But for now, let’s run with Theodore White’s insight about professions being conceptual boxes created by acts of imagination, rather than facts of economics, and see where it gets us. We’ll also get to the meaning of a revealing little factoid: the rhyme was originally part of a counting game played by young girls, to divine who they might marry.

And yes the basic political question of capitalism versus social justice rears its ugly head here. Choosing a calling is a political act, and I’ll explain the choices you have available.

The Central Dogma in the World of Work

There are three perspectives we normally utilize when we think about the world of work.

The first is that of the economist, who applies the laws of demand and supply to labor markets. In this world, if a skill grows scarce in the economy, wages for that skill will rise, and more people will study hard to acquire that skill. Except that humans perversely insist on not following these entirely reasonable laws. As BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) statistics reveal, people insist on leaving the skilled nursing profession perennially thirsting for new recruits, while the restaurant industry in Los Angeles enjoys bargain labor prices, thanks to those hordes of Hollywood hopefuls, who are good for nothing other than acting, singing and waiting tables.

Then there is the perspective of the career counselor. That theatrical professional who earnestly administers personality and strengths tests, and solemnly asks you to set career “goals,” think about “marketability” of skills, weigh income against “personal fulfillment,” and so forth. I say “theatrical” because the substance of what they offer is typically the same, whether the mask is that of a drill sergeant, guardian angel or an earth mother; whether the stance is one of realism, paternalism or romanticism. Somewhere in the hustle and bustle of motivational talk, resume critiquing and mock interviews, they manage to cleverly hide a fact that becomes obvious to the rest of us by the time we hit our late twenties: most of us have no clue what to do with our lives until we’ve bummed around, test-driven, and failed at, multiple callings. Until we’ve explored enough to experience a career “Aha!” moment, most of us can’t use counselors. After we do, they can’t really help us. If we never experience the “Aha!” moment, we are lost forever in darkness.

And finally there is the perspective of the hiring manager. That hopeful creature who does his or her best to cultivate a pipeline of fungible labor, in the fond and mostly deluded hope that cheap “talent” will fit neatly into available “positions.” It is a necessary delusion. To admit otherwise would be to admit that the macroeconomic “purpose” an organization appears to fulfill is the random vector sum of multiple people pulling their own way, with some being fortunate enough to be pulling in the accidental majority direction, while others are dragged along, kicking and screaming, until they let go, and still others pretend to pull whichever way the mass is moving.  Mark Twain’s observations of ants are more applicable than hiring managers’ ideas that “talent-position fit” is a strongly-controllable variable.

Here’s the one common problem that severely limits the value of each of these perspectives. There is a bald, obvious and pertinent fact that is so important, yet so rarely acknowledged, let alone systematically incorporated, that each of these perspectives ends up with a significant blind spot.

That bald fact is this: it takes two kinds of work to make a society function. First, there is the sexy, lucrative and powerful (SLP) work that everybody wants to do. And then there is the dull, dirty and dangerous (DDD) work that nobody wants to do. There is a lot of gray stuff in the middle, but that’s the basic polarity in the world of work. Everything depends on it, and neither pole is dispensable.

The economist prefers not to model this fact. The career counselor does not want to draw attention to it. The hiring manager has good reason to deny it.

This brings us to the central dogma in the world of work: everyone can simultaneously climb the Maslow pyramid, play to their strengths, and live rewarding lives. That somehow magically, in this orgy of self-actualization, Adam Smith will ensure that the trash will take itself out. Like all dogmas, it is false, but still manages to work, magically.

The dull, dirty and dangerous work does get done. Trash gets hauled, sewers get cleaned, wars get fought by cannon-fodder types. And yet the dogma is technically never violated. You see, there is a loophole that allows the dogma to remain technically true, while being practically false. The loophole is called “false hope.”

The False Hope Tax and “Dull, Dirty and Dangerous” (DDD)

The phrase dull, dirty or dangerous became popular in the military in the last decade, as a way to segment out and identify the work that suits UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, like the Predator) the best. It also describes the general order in which we will accept work situations that do not offer any hope of sex, money, or power. Most of us will accept dull before dirty, and dirty before dangerous. Any pair is worse than any one alone, and all three together represent hell. There’s a vicious spiral here. Dull can depress you enough that you are fired and need to work at dull and dirty, which only accelerates the decline into dull, dirty and dangerous. And I am not talking dangerous redeemed by Top Gun heroism. I am talking “die in stupid, pointless ways” dangerous.

William Rathje,  a garbologist (a garbage-archeologist) notes in his book, Rubbish (to be reviewed), that once you get used to it, garbage in landfills has a definite bouquet that is not entirely unpleasant. But then, he is a professor, poking intellectually at garbage rather than having to merely haul and pile it, with no time off to write papers about it. Dull, dirty and dangerous work is stuff that takes scholars to make interesting, priests to ennoble, and artists to make beautiful. But in general, it is actually done by some mix of the deluded hopeful, the coerced, and the broken and miserable, depending on how far the civilization in question has advanced. You might feel noble about recycling, but somewhere out there, near-destitute people are risking thoroughly stupid deaths (like getting pricked by an infected needle) to sort your recycling. Downcycling really, once you learn about how “recycling” works. On the other side of the world, ship-breakers are killing themselves through a mix of toxic poison and slow starvation, to sustain the processes that bring your cheap Walmart goods to you from China.

The reasons behind the mysteriously perennial talent scarcity and inelastic wages in the nursing profession, or the hordes of waitstaff in LA hopefully (Pandora be praised!) waiting for their big Hollywood break, are blindingly obvious. The obviously germane facts are that one profession involves bedpans and adult diapers, to be paid for by people on fixed incomes (so there’s a limit to how much nurses can make), while the other involves tantalizingly close-at-hand hopes of sex, money and fame.

False hope is the key phrase there. Nurses hope from afar, waiters in LA hope from the front row. The trick Adam Smith uses to get the dull, dirty and dangerous work done — work that took slavery and coercion until very recently — is to sustain hope. American Idol is the greatest expression of this false hope. A quick ticket from dull, dirty and dangerous to sexy, lucrative and powerful. The fact that one in a million will make it allows the other 999,999 to sustain themselves. It is one year of hope after the other, until you accept the mantra of “if you don’t get what you like, you’ll be forced to like what you get.”

That is why the Central Dogma of work is never technically violated. You could self-actualize, no matter where on the SLP-DDD spectrum you are. It is just that in the Dull, Dirty and Dangerous part of the world, the probability that you will do so becomes vanishingly small. To believe in a probability that small, you have to be capable of massive delusions. You have to believe you can win American Idol.

But that one technically possible, but highly improbable piece of hope can replace the whips of an entire class of slave-drivers and dictators, and replace it with something called “democracy.”

Snarky probability theorists like to call lotteries a “stupidity tax” imposed on people who cannot compute expected values. What they don’t realize is that most professions (probability theorists included) carry a heavy “stupidity tax” load: the extraordinarily low-probability hope of leaping into the world of Sexy, Lucrative and Powerful. The only difference is, unlike the lottery, you have no option but to participate (actually, by this reasoning, the hope of winning a lottery is possibly more reasonable than the more organic sorts of false hope embedded in most work).

Sexy, Lucrative and Powerful (SLP)

The promised land may not be all it seems to those who aren’t there yet (rock stars certainly whine, with drug-addled words, about it), but it certainly exists.

Again, the order is important. Just as dull, dirty and dangerous is a vicious spiral towards a thoroughly stupid death, sexy, lucrative and powerful is a virtuous cycle that gets you to a thoroughly puzzling nirvana. If you can do rock star or model, it is a relatively easy slide downhill from sexy to lucrative and from lucrative to powerful. If you are not blessed with looks or a marketable voice (and Beyonce’s dad), but can hit lucrative by say, starting a garbage-hauling business staffed by Mexican immigrants, you could still claw uphill to sexy. Or you could start with powerful and trade the gossamer currency of influence for hard cash, and hard cash for sex (figuratively and literally).

I have much less to say about sexy, lucrative and powerful because most of you know all about it. Because, like me, you’ve been dreaming about it since you were 10.  You can easily tell SLP work apart from DDD work by the structure of labor demand and supply. In one sector, people are dragged down, kicking and screaming. In the other, they need to be barricaded out, as they hurry from their restaurant shift to auditions. You don’t need a behavioral economist to tell you that career choices are not entirely defined by the paychecks associated with them.

So let’s move straight on to the reason little girls play their tinker, tailor counting games.

The Developmental Psychology of Work

In Time Wars (to be reviewed), Jeremy Rifkin cites a study that shows that young girls typically switch from fantasy career dreams  to more pragmatic ones around the age of ten and a half. For boys, it is about eleven and a half. For both, the switch from fantasy to reality occurs on the cusp of adolescence.  It is fairly obvious what drives childish job fantasies. Little children like being the center of attention. They like to feel important and powerful. What drives realism-modulated adolescent dreams, which have a more direct impact on career choices, is less clear. What is clear is that the SLP dreams of pre-adolescents are not abandoned, merely painted over with some realism.

The first profession I can remember wanting to join desperately was “road-roller driver.” Growing up, my house was down the street from a lot where the city administration parked its road rollers. They were big and powerful, and I wanted to drive one for the rest of my life. Later, I expanded my horizons. An uncle who worked in the railways took me for a ride in a tower wagon (a special kind of track-maintenance locomotive), and I was convinced I wanted to drive some sort of locomotive for the rest of my life.

When I hit adolescence, my twin passions were military aircraft and astronomy. I was already realistic enough to not hanker after Top-Gun sexy (revealingly, my one classmate who joined the Indian Air Force dropped out within a year). I was headed for engineering or science, which were neither sexy nor lucrative, but held out a vague promise of powerful. Somewhere in college, by turning down an internship at a radio astronomy center, and picking one in a robotics lab, I abandoned the slightly more romantic world of astronomy for the less romantic world of aerospace engineering (I did work on space telescopes in grad school though, so I guess I didn’t really grow up till I was 30).

You probably have your own version of this story. You think it is heartwarming don’t you?

In actual fact, this sort of story reveals something deeply, deeply ugly about childhood and adolescent yearnings; something on par with Golding’s Lord of the Flies: our brains are prepared for, and our environment encourages, a hankering for sexy, lucrative, powerful. No kid ever dreams of a career sorting through smelly, toxic garbage. Or even the merely dull (and not dangerous or dirty) work of data entry.

But the world does not run on SLP alone. It needs DDD, and no matter how much we automate things, it always will. By hankering after SLP, we are inevitably legitimizing the cruelty that the world of DDD suffers.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Sailor

Let’s circle back and revisit tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman, beggarman, thief.

Why did little 17th century girls enjoy counting stones and guessing who their future husbands might be? Was their choice of archetypes mere alliterative randomness?

We tend to think of specialization and complex social organization as consequences of the industrial age, but the forces that shape the imaginative division of labor have been at work for millenia. Macroeconomics and Darwin only dictate that there will be a spectrum with dull, dirty and dangerous at one end, and sexy, lucrative and powerful at another. This spectrum is what creates and sustains social and economic structures. I am not saying anything new. I am merely restating, in modern terms, what Veblen noted in Theory of the Leisure Class. From one century to the next, it is only the artistic details that change. Tinker, tailor… evolves to a different set of archetypes.

We’ve moved from slavery to false hope as the main mechanism for working with the spectrum, but whatever the means, the spectrum is here to stay. Automation may nip at its heels, but fundamentally, it cannot be changed. Why? The rhyme illustrates why.

At first sight, the tinker, tailorrhyme represents major category errors. Richman and poorman are socioeconomic classes, while tailor, sailor and soldier are professions. Tinker (originally a term for a Scottish/Irish nomad engaged in the tinsmith profession) is a lifestyle. Beggarman and thief are categories of social exodus behaviors.

Relate them to the DDD-SLP spectrum, and you begin to see a pattern. As Theodore White noted,  Richman enjoys the ultimate privilege: buying his own social identity at the SLP end of the spectrum. Poorman is stuck in the DDD end. Beggarman and thief have fallen off the edge of society, the DDD end of the spectrum, by either giving up all dignity, or sneaking about in the dark. Sailor and Tinker are successful exodus archetypes. The former is effectively a free agent. Remember that around the time this rhyme captured the popular imagination in the 17th century, the legitimized piracy and seaborne thuggery that was privateering, had created an alternative path to sexy, lucrative and powerful; one that did not rely on rising reputably to high office (the path that Samuel Pepys followed between 1633 and 1703; The Diary of Samuel Pepys remains one of the most illuminating looks at the world of work ever written). The latter, the tinker, was a neo-nomad, substituting tin-smithing for pastoralism in pre-industrial Britain.

The little girls had it right. In an age that denied them the freedom to create their own destiny, they wisely framed their tag-along life choices in the form of a rhyme that listed deep realities. Today, the remaining modern women who look to men, rather than to themselves, to define their lives, might sing a different song:

blogger, coder, soldier, consultant
rockstar, burger-flipper, welfareman, spammer

Everything changes. Everything remains the same.

The Politics of Career Choices

Somewhere along the path to growing up, if you bought into the moral legitimacy argument that justified striving for sexy, lucrative, powerful, you implicitly took on the guilt of letting dull, dirty and dangerous work, done by others, enabling your life. If that guilt is killing you, you are a liberal. If you think this is an unchangeable reality of life, you are a conservative. If you think robots will let us all live sexy, lucrative, powerful lives, you are deluded. You see, the SLP-DDD spectrum is not absolute, it is relative. Because our genes program us to strive for relative reproductive success in complicated ways. There is a ponderous theory called relative deprivation theory that explains this phenomenon. So no matter how much DDD work robots take off the table, we’ll still be the same pathetic fools in our pajamas.

Can you live with what you’ve chosen?

Here’s what makes me, at a first approximation, a business conservative/social liberal. I can live with it, and shamelessly pursue SLP, without denying the unpleasant reality that starving and poisoned ship-breakers and American-Idol hopeful garbage haulers make my striving possible. In my mind, it isn’t the pursuit of SLP that is morally suspect. It is the denial of the existence of DDD.

So what are you? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman, beggarman or thief?

There is a trail associated with this post that explains the history of the rhyme.

I wrote this post while consuming three vodka tonics, so if it turns out to be a successful post, I might change that link down there to say buy me a vodka tonic instead of buy me a coffee.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. If I had time this morning, I would try to create some chart or graph demonstrating how tinker, tailor, etc., and SLP/DDD, fit together (or not) with sociopath, clueless, losers. An interesting exercise in information design.

    I’m new to this blog by the way, & very much enjoy your work. Your Gervais Principle posts were quite illuminating.

    • The mapping is actually fairly straightforward if you include those who exit the traditional organization in one way or another, but I didn’t want to beat the GP categories to death, so I’ll leave you guys to figure it out :)


  2. I was initially going to argue your comment about DDD being relative and Robots not being the answer but then it put to mind the (now dated) futuristic Jetsons cartoon I used to watch as a kid. The father, George, worked at Spacely Sprockets where his sole occupation consisted of pressing a single button on his control panel and after a ‘hard’ day at the office he’d complain of his button-pushing finger being sore. I then realized you were right because, although a childish cartoon, it illustrated the point perfectly.

  3. Wow, there’s so much I disagree with your post that I’ll need to block out some time to properly reply but, in the meantime, I want to point out two sources that add further nuance to your model:

    Mike Rowe talking at TED about Dirty Jobs and the fulfilling nature of unpleasant jobs: http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_rowe_celebrates_dirty_jobs.html

    A blog post I wrote called the three types of passion: http://blog.figuringshitout.com/nov-5th-day-23-three-types-of-passion/ which talks about how there’s a persistent misunderstanding of motivations across 3 archetypes.

  4. This one was a really fun read for me, maybe I sensed to booze in your tone. Loved the link “3 Types of Passion” too @Xianhang Zhang. Thanks for that. I’m “deluded,” by the way.

  5. boozed Ribbonfarm post : nice 75% cacao bar :: caffeinated Ribbonfarm : Hershey’s bar

    moar morbid delusion-ripping plz :)

  6. In no particular order:

    * The phenomena of being able to choose your career is somewhat of a modern social change. A more appropriate rhyme for much of civilization would have been peasant, peasant, peasant or peasant. As a society, I don’t think we’ve fully had time to digest these changes yet and social norms are still evolving. As a result, I don’t think it’s possible to extrapolate any of this to some sort of universal trend. (There’s an entire fascinating body of work on the development of adolescence as a response to this vast expansion of social mobility and it’s subsequent lack of guidance with adolescence rising to fill the void). Your stereotype of the 20 year old bumming around not having a clue what to do is very much situational, not a universal truth.

    * Building off that, this change has always traditionally moved from the upper class down and I think your perspective on this issue comes from a very specific upper-middle class milieu and that needs to be recognized.

    * Stephen Levitt in Freakanomics wrote about “tournament” systems specifically when applied to drug dealing where a very small minority of highly visible people made disproportionately large wages while the mean & median wage were grossly underwhelming for the work done (the average street level drug dealer earned less than a fast food worker and was in more danger than a US marine). I think a discussion of tournament vs conventional job structure is somewhat orthogonal to the discussion you’re having and the effects need to be teased out.

    * Your one dimensional scale for labor is, I think, an inadequate description, even as a simplification. At the very minimum, I would suggest a two dimensional scale of life affirming/soul crushing & comfortable/struggling. One thing I’ve always been enormously grateful for is that, my chosen field of computer science seems to be one of the very rare ones which manage to intersect comfortable & life affirming. But for many of my peers, the real hard choice is between comfortable/soul crushing & life affirming/struggling. PhD in physics or work at an ibank? Law school or environmental science, art house theatre or commercial voice work. The choice of art vs commerce is, I would say, the overweening obsession of the comfortable middle class.

    * A powerful experiment has been has been occurring for the last 30 years of a vast demographic sorting for similarity (I wish I could recommend the book The Big Sort but it’s sadly really poorly written). One side effect of this is it’s easy to ignore large parts of human experience through a lack of exposure. “Middle America” to put it crudely, would find your entire article very alien.

    * I don’t know if you are endorsing the SLP/DDD model of the world or merely observing it but I would argue that this perspective of looking at the world is both deeply broken and dangerous. The revulsion from DDD work and striving for SLP work has lead an entire class & generation of people to fall greatly off the tracks and to become deeply uncontent, whether they achieve their goals or not.

    I think Mike Rowe said it best in his TED talk. We need to treat work, real work, as something to be cherished, not cheated over and skipped whenever convenient. I could go on about this but that’s an entire separate discussion.

    * There’s a certain fetishistic idealism about the rosy state of childhood which lends more credence to their opinions. You wouldn’t trust a child’s views on how to bake a cake or drive to Mexico so why would you trust their views on career?

    Maybe it’s you posting drunk but there was something about this post that irked me in a special way. That’s a good thing though, I far prefer to read something provocative than something I already agree with :).

    • Heh, heh! I always aim to annoy a bit as part of my top 5 buttons to push with every post. But I take umbrage at the idea that I can only hold 3 vodka tonics before I am officially ‘drunk.’ The number is actually 5 :). As Evil Rocks spotted, 3 drinks only get me to a mellow-bitter 75% cacao state.

      On to the substance.

      Point 1: Am not talking all history. Am talking 13th – 21st century as frame of reference, and pre-industrial Britain only, for the earlier part of the argument, containing as it did the seed of most of the modern global order DID have enough complex economic structure to merit tinker, tailor rather than peasant, peasant. Re: 20-yr-old bumming around… agree, largely a 20th century post-Kerouac phenomenon.

      Point 2: Yes and no. It’s been both bottom up and top down. Veblen analyzes this the best. There has always been a ‘lower class delinquent type’ that bummed around in a different mode than the 20th century soul-searcher. This class was practically coerced into industrial labor starting in the 14th century. But the direction of lifestyle influence is not central to my argument.

      Point 3: Yes. Agreed. Not sure why you are bringing that up. That’s the DDD-SLP spectrum operating within crime. Somebody did a gervais principle response post that applied the classes to criminal orgs and made the elaborate version of your point. I agree.

      Point 4: Is the 1-d too simplistic? Matter of judgment. It serves some useful clarifying purposes for me. Yes, I have my own 2×2 and 100×100 models that serve different purposes…

      Point 5: Again precisely my point, so we are agreeing violently. The sorting has put SLP types together and swept the DDD types under the rug in Middle America (and more dramatically on the other side of the planet). A lot of this article is informed by reading about stuff happening in DDD corners of the world that I *don’t* see often. Middle America WOULD find my article alien, but I think they’d recognize that I am talking about them at least, unlike most SLP echo-chamber conversations which never get beyond (for instance) startup-talk to consider, say, landfills hidden in Middle America.

      Point 6: I try to avoid prescription always… so it is an observation. Do I endorse it? That’s like asking me if I endorse the law of gravity. I think of this spectrum as a natural law of sorts. To be lived with to a large extent. Techno-utopians believe you can get rid of DDD entirely. I don’t. The revulsion from DDD/attraction to SLP… I think it has innate biological roots (in terms of ‘drives’ … my ‘drive’ views are much more borrowed and biological/pscyhological than your original views that you linked to) . I think there is a limit to how much you can wrap it in philosophy/work ethic talk and turn it into noble striving. As for the discontent, I don’t think it is an illusion. It is real discontent coming from the real reasons for aversion from DDD work.

      Point 7: Re: Rowe talk. I don’t disagree. But ‘real work’ appears in both DDD and SLP guises. I think it is perfectly legitimate to try and avoid DDD hard work and look for SLP hard work. And unlike you and him, I think there is a much deeper legitimacy to attempting to cheat, cut corners, find shortcuts etc. than you. Not in the sense of exploitation or crime, but in the sense of always looking out for opportunistic and leveraged paths to ‘wins’ that are out of proportion to the effort. In other words, I think it is okay if 2 people work equally hard, but one gets 100x the returns because he/she is also being canny/short-cut oriented in terms of where to apply effort. I have no problem banking unexpectedly easy wins, and I do not believe effort and reward are or should be “morally” correlated. Effort = your table stakes with which to gamble in the world. Some just cash in their effort-chips without gambling at all. Others take their chips and head to the tables.

      Point 7: Do I trust the child’s views of reality? No. That’s why I called it false hope. Do I think they are expressing deeply ingrained motivations that arise from genetics? Yes. Do I think it is delightful, praiseworthy quality of children that they have these motivations? No. I called it deeply ugly. Can we do anything about it with nurture? A little. Not as much as idealists think we can. It takes 10x investment to elevate a child’s thinking before he/she can see the beauty in hauling garbage. They’ll see the beauty in being a rock star out of the box. That basic bias is what creates the spectrum. It is hard to make all of humanity swim upstream against such a strong current.

      I think I understand what you might be finding unpleasant about this post. I think we agree about most of the relevant facts, and the few disagreements are peripheral.

      I think what you possibly object to is that I am basically saying “there is unpleasant work in the world that nobody wants to do, and there isn’t a whole lot you can do to either make it go away, or make people want to do it.”

      In other words, I think we are down to a dystopia-utopia divide. I’ve pretty much always been dystopic in my views :)


  7. You have it all wrong. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a and neither, I suspect, did anyone else. I grew up wanting to be someONE.

    Specifically, I wanted to be Colonel Robert Hogan. Or maybe Columbo. Nah. Definitely Hogan. And I’m almost there. Still looking for the heroes.

    Who did you want to be when you grew up, really?

  8. Oh. I unthinkingly used brackets in my post and WordPress stripped them out. The sentence is supposed to say “I didn’t grow up wanting to be a (NAME A PROFESSION HERE)”

  9. For some reason this post sparked lots of semi-disconnected thoughts in my mind:

    1. The motivation of false hope (maintained via intermittent reinforcement) can also work across generations: “I may not be able to escape my DDD job, but I’ll make sure my children have a chance at SLPhood.” See for example the countless stories of the steelworkers/hotel maids/immigrant store owners who work seven days a week so that their children can be doctors/lawyers/engineers.

    2. On “sailor” as a “successful exodus archetype” see Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, in which Captain Wentworth (the love interest of the novel’s heroine, Anne Elliot) achieves his SLP dream through naval service: marriage to the a-bit-old-but-still-attractive Anne, 25,000 pounds in privateering profits (making him a multi-millionaire in today’s terms), and command of his own vessel.

    In the essay on “Persuasion” in his book “Jane Austen” Tony Tanner has some interesting comments about Austen’s portraying service in the navy as a morally and socially preferable alternative to life as a quasi-feudal landowner in England’s decaying aristocracy. This was quite a change for Austen, who in previous novels like “Mansfield Park” valorized landowning as the foundation of English society, and is very reminiscent of the late 20th century praise of the high-tech Silicon Valley entrepreneur as a libertarian-egalitarian alternative to the traditional industrial capitalist/manager.

    (Brief digression: I don’t know what Austen specialists think of Tanner’s work, but I found his essays very interesting for their insights into Austen as a commentator on the emerging modern society caught at the cusp between the ancien regime and the Industrial Revolution. Highly recommended.)

    3. I appreciate the comments re Mike Rowe and others who want to valorize work no matter how hard and seemingly distasteful. However, there’s a danger here I think of looking past the person and fetishizing the work, e.g., chimney sweeping as a “noble profession”. It reminds me of the scene in (I think) “Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand” where the science fiction writer Samuel Delany tries to re-imagine garbage collection as an urban archeological expedition cum art project — an interesting fantasy, but in the end humping trash is humping trash, and most people recognize it for what it is.

    In this connection: I’m not much for Renaissance fairs, but I think it would be an interesting exercise to go to one and catalog exactly which actual medieval professions are brought forward for the participants’ role-playing enjoyment and which are not. Kings and queens, certainly. Monks, knights, farmers, and serving wenches, to be sure. Rag pickers and chamber-pot emptiers? I’d be surprised.

    I don’t agree with Venkat’s views on everything, but I think he is right in his “business conservative/socially liberal” perspective that “[It] isn’t the pursuit of SLP that is morally suspect. It is the denial of the existence of DDD.” I’d only add that we also have the moral obligation to reduce the overall amount of truly DDD work that has to be done, and to ensure that everyone is afforded equal opportunity, education, etc., to try to avoid DDDhood as much as possible, both for themselves and for their children.

    • Frank:

      Good points about wanting kids to break out of DDD. I don’t have kids so I didn’t think of that angle.

      The Jane Austen stuff intrigues me. I’ve only read one Austen novel, and that was way back in high school. Didn’t get into her work at all at the point, but seems like it would be worth a revisit.

  10. And yet some liberals insist on glorifying DDD and throwing the American upward-mobility engines into reverse by making our children garden instead of learning their maths.

    • Old Charlie says

      I think you are missing the point, Evil.

      There might be some component of liberal guilt here. But I think many people involved in the gardening/DIY communities are really doomers that recognize SLP is not an option for everyone. That being the case, they fold early and settle for merely Dull and (slightly) Dirty, in the hope to escape from any of the Dangerus combos.

      Note how the article is colored. They tell all the wonderful thing this kids *could* do if they got an education. Never mind they may not be able to pay for that education over more than a decade, and still owe the opportunity cost.

      • Farming is not a first-world occupation. Teaching children to farm in place of arithmetic will destroy the generation of engineers we *all* need to fix the energy problems *your* generation ignored into existence. “Doomers” (in collusion with guilt-ridden Boomers) ruining our education system will guarantee that we face a low-energy-budget future, while dreaming big and teaching our children to do the same may postpone the entropic collapse of our civilization for another generation (which will require another generation of engineers to postpone further. You may begin to see why I get angry about people undervaluing maths and science relative to frippery like gardening).

        We should preach hope, not despair. My turnkey robotic home-farm-system will produce infinity times more pounds of biomass per hour of human labor than all the dirty-finger-work in the world (x/0 = infinity, which is always greater than x/[some integer]). None of our children will “need” to farm in the strict sense of the word (although their land will yield food, via robots), and teaching them to do so will take up valuable maths and science brainspace.

        And with regards to your comment about opportunity cost, liberal arts degrees have no ROI, and science/math degrees have awesome ROI. That’s the difference between school for school’s sake as preached by the Academy and school for the sake of learning skills and increasing income (as preached by conservative American philosophy). It should surprise nobody that degrees that don’t yield hard skill improvements (reading and writing don’t count, children should know how to do those things before they begin paying for their own education) also fail to yield lucrative careers.

  11. Another dynamic I’ve noticed is that careers perceived as SLP often succumb to the economics of oversupply. Employers have all the bargaining power and employees have none. If you don’t accept a low-ball offer, there a fifteen other people out there who will. So often, what might appear to be an SLP career really isn’t.

    Rockstar is the perfect example. In the public imagination, it’s all about sex, fame and canvass bags full of cocaine and fifty-dollar notes. In reality, the rockstar’s job is to operate high-voltage electrical equipment in a room full of drunk people (dangerous). Until quite recently, it also involved breathing obscene amounts of second-hand cigarette smoke (dirty). And because its very easy to oversaturate local markets, being a rockstar involves touring, which makes it more like long-haul trucking than anything else (dull).

    But at least nobody’s under any illusions about long-haul trucking. I’d bet that truckers don’t often get asked to work for free, but that happens to musicians all the time. Why? Because even if you refuse, there’s bound to be someone out there who’ll do it — someone who wants to live the rockstar dream, even if it means paying for the privilege. So the hardest thing about being a rockstar is getting people to pay you enough money to meet expenses. It’s been twenty years since there’s been any money in the music industry (so, not lucrative then).

    Of course, no one wants to hear that. They much prefer the fantasy. So the cycle gets perpetuated. I imagine that a lot of other high-profile “sexy” jobs are much the same.

    • Excellent points all. I think all SLP professions have this profile. What makes people still flock to them is that the upside for being in the top 0.1% of celebrities is basically limitless. If you hit the lottery and become a chartbuster, you can enjoy the ridiculously overpaid first-class version, with an entourage to deal with anything unpleasant.

      In DDD on the other hand, even the top guy doesn’t have it that much better than the bottom guy.

  12. “I’ve only read one Austen novel, and that was way back in high school.” I’m of the firm opinion that people should be discouraged from reading Austen until they’re at least 30 years old and have some reasonable experience of the world. “Pride and Prejudice” is of course the most well-known Austen novel, but I think “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion” are her most profound in terms of their insights into modern society as it emerged in the early 1800s. “Persuasion” is shorter and livelier, so I recommend reading it first over “Mansfield Park”.

    Note also that the Penguin Classics edition of “Mansfield Park” has as an introduction the same Tony Tanner essay later collected in his book “Jane Austen” that I recommended earlier, so it’s a good cheap way to sample Tanner’s ideas on Austen.

  13. As usual, very interesting post. You get a lot of added value from your commenters.

    Beyond the question of you’re being right or wrong lies a bigger issue for me: the reduction of complex human behaviors into a false dualism that purported acts as a model for at least one understanding the nature of work. We’re all by now familiar with a variety of false dualisms: conservative and liberal, with us or against us, or according to the Gervais principle, manipulating someone (everyone?) or being someone else’s chump. You know that the SLP-DDD continuum is a false dualism because you already built into it six subcategories, making it something more like a 6×6 matrix, which is far more complex (perhaps even useless).

    To take the example already developed in the comments, being a rock star (or even a wannabe) has both its upside and downside so functions on both sides of the SLP-DDD divide. Although it is just one example, it fails to support your thesis because, as a human endeavor beyond simply being work, many are motivated towards that ways of life for reasons other than S, L, or P. And in fact, considering the sacrifices necessary to position oneself for success, there is a considerable degree of self-destructiveness and narcissism involved. The punk ethic is perhaps the most extreme manifestation. And if you’ve never been onstage and experienced the energy, even lacking an arena-sized audience, you probably don’t get what a powerful drug the emotional energy and sound levels deliver. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect rockers burn out and end up dying early in much higher numbers than the general public.

    Since most of us in the First World are not living at a subsistence level (a trend that is reversing), we have a lot of surplus wealth that allows us to seek endeavors that create identities beyond those of our work lives. More people are recognizing all the time that not all jobs are careers, and even careers don’t necessarily have to be defining if one would rather seek meaning elsewhere. Religion is probably the most profound example. Late-stage capitalism has passively reduced many members of the public to mere economic units, whose lives are more about consumption than community or belonging. But that inevitably breeds discontent, and people stumble blindly toward something else. Fools still buy into the SLP complex, but thoughtful folks repudiate that without a second thought. Even those trapped in the death spiral of DDD seek to transcend themselves, though not usually by crossing over to SLP. Except for the stray lottery winner, that way is closed. They seek beauty and meaning elsewhere.

  14. An interesting post. I think the SLP-DDD spectrum is a compelling framework.

    I wonder if one way out of the dilemma is craft, i.e., doing work for its own sake (to an extent – the pure form of this must be art, which one does with no expectation of return. Craft I think of as something of a mix, something you do primarily to make a living, but in which you nonetheless take pride for its own sake). I don’t think craft is mutually exclusive with DDD work, nor does SLP work all entail some mastery of craft, so that someone motivated by craft might actually find some kinds of SLP work unsatisfying.

    Re DDD work and craft, take a couple of your examples, e.g., that soldiers are cannon fodder, or that someone has to fix sewers. Certainly true in the past that many soldiers were cannon fodder, i.e., just chess pieces moved around on a battlefield. Not sure that remains true – just watching footage from Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems like even enlisted and NCOs over there, not to mention field officers, are exercising degrees of situational awareness, living by their wits, and generally being prepared for any kind of situation, i.e., having mastered their craft, that I find intimidating, i.e., could I do it myself? I have my doubts. I imagine a major incentive for professional soldiers like that is the regard of their peers, i.e., being known as a “good Marine” or “a man who knows his job.” The work is still dangerous, somewhat dirty, and probably dull at times – doesn’t mean it has to be degrading. Same thing with plumbers and pipelayers (or any other building trade) – it’s work that can be dirty, possibly dull, and sometimes dangerous, but it’s also work that really can be done better or worse, and really holds the potential for some mastery of craft. I couldn’t go out tomorrow and do a good job fixing someone’s plumbing.

    Which brings me to drudgery – I probably could go out tomorrow and do a decent job hauling trash, b/c there’s really nothing to it. It’s not a craft of any kind, it’s just drudgery. So my question is, as we move the spectrum of SLP-DDD work with mechanization, is it possible to move drudgery off the table, even if DDD work remains in some form? And to encourage the notion of craft in all the kinds of remaining work, including DDD? So that the external incentives of SLP become, if not irrelevant, less commanding?

    Just some thoughts. Thanks very much for the post, just found your blog recently and I find your writing very interesting.

  15. tbm: Yes, “craft” as a way out is a time-honored hypothesis in philosophy. In Hegelian thought, the “slave” self-actualizes through work. In the Veblen model, the “industrious man” finds meaning in craft. The issue of course, is that in the first ‘D’ there is increasingly less craft to be found. It started with Frederick Taylor taking all the craft out of manufacturing work (there is a theory that views what Taylor and his followers did as a sort of intellectual property grab… taking workmanship knowledge out of people’s heads and putting into managers’ heads).

    Brutus: I am glad my attempt to make smart commenters do more work than me sometimes succeeds :). Re: your point, I don’t contest the fact that some people are operating at higher levels of the Maslow pyramid. SLP is the ‘extrinisic’ social-needs layer somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, while DDD is the bottom two ‘survival’ type needs layers. I think we disagree not on the framework or substance (of course all dualities are false; “All models are false, some models are useful” – George Box). Where we part ways, I think, is in our degree of optimism in our speculations about how many people are at what level of the pyramid. Most people who think they are self-actualizing, are really stuck in a status-seeking “social needs” rut, where SLP are viewed as proxies for growth.

    But maybe my anecdotal data is misleading. BTW… having experienced being on the stage (see my post The Allegory of the Stage) I understand what you mean, but though I can’t claim to have rocked arena-sized audiences, I still think that “high” is primarily a social-needs-fulfillment high, not a self-actualization high.

    But let’s continue this conversation through future posts. I’ll be beating this drum a few more times.

    Frank: thanks for the Austen reading guide. I am now safely and irreversibly past 30, so I should attempt stab 2 at Austen!


  16. I won’t even pretend I understand 1/10 of this post.
    However, it is very interesting and the comments are enlightening.
    Personally, I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up. Earth Mothers notwithstanding, I never received the guidance that would have put me on that track. Everyone pushed me towards Computer “Science”, once they discovered that I liked computers. (Duh)

    I certainly did not bum around looking for my aha moment in career choices: I jumped at the first viable opportunity and stayed there until I nearly died from the stress (Philadelphia Police Department – Fingerprint Technician. I suppose there is a bit of science in that :O )

    Now, in my late 40’s, I have found the whiff of SLP in entrepreneurship. Presumably, I should have listened to the child in me all along: I was hustling since I was 11 years old!



  17. Mitchell:

    Yes, circumstances of course limit how much freedom you have to bum around. But within the constraints of the choices you are forced to make, there is always more room to bum around a bit more. So really, I guess I mean bumming around within whatever fences you are inside.

    Thanks to CSI, a lot of people would view your fingerprint tech job as an SLP btw :D Though I guess Dexter has made ‘blood splatter tech’ even more SLP.

    But glad you caught the entrepreneurship bug!


  18. Concojones says

    Venkat, interesting article (and blog!). You’re definitely on to something here.

    I’m a career changer. I’m actually trying to change between 2 types of SLP careers, but doing DDD in the meantime (as preparation for career #2). One of the things that I realized is that I do miss the status associated with my previous SLP job – which is surprising to me, as never considered myself ‘that’ kind of person. So, yes, you’re on to something.

    On to my main point. I’m looking at a job (drilling) that is dull AND dirty AND dangerous – “hell” according to your post. Okay, 90% of new recruits don’t last in this type of work for more than a few months. But because of that, it earns you a lot of respect among the DDD class, plus, it’s quite well-paid (an SLP trait) and that’s the main reason why people go into it. So, while I see value in your simple model, reality can be more nuanced.

  19. Concojones says

    One more thing: you say S, L, P – in that order, from most desirable to desirable. I think that for me personally, P comes before L and S. My childhood dream was being a king. My favorite movie The Godfather. If I ever become a billionnaire, I won’t buy private jets or islands. I will buy power (a country).

  20. This is a subject that’s on my mind a lot — the questions surrounding work, “self-actualization”, and inequality. I understand your post to mean that psychological, social hierarchies are pretty much ineradicable, and I agree with that. I fall a lot closer to the “techno-utopian” side than you do, but the only claim I make for technology (and capitalism) is that it reduces physical danger and want. And that actually doesn’t work well with your thesis. Low status work will always be dull, but automation makes it less physically dirty and dangerous. After all, even in your example, the Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous jobs are the first to be replaced by unmanned vehicles. And wars, to take an example, are getting less and less deadly to US soldiers. Unequal ranking of jobs may be a human inevitability, but their absolute badness or goodness can and does vary in response to technology.

    For what it’s worth, my earliest childhood fantasy profession was to *not* work. It took a lot of explaining to convince me (at four) that I couldn’t simply buy a printing press and print my own money. Make of that what you will. By the time I was eight I had started a lifelong pattern of being enamored with various kinds of science, and so far that hasn’t let up.