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.

[Read more…]

The Genealogy of the Gervais Principle

Series Home | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI ebook

One reason I have delayed posting the next part in the Gervais Principle series is that as expectations have grown, I have gotten more wary about shooting from the hip. Especially because the remaining ideas in the hopper (there’s enough for two more posts before I call the main series complete) will likely be even more controversial than the first two. So one of the things I have been doing is testing the foundations laid in the first two posts more rigorously. So here goes, a (very pictorial) survey of the ancestry of the MacLeod hierarchy and the Gervais Principle. This is not Part III. It is another side trip. Not many new ideas here, but genealogy should prove interesting for at least some of you. A sense of history is a necessary (though unfortunately not sufficient) requirement for  effective sociopathy. For those who came in late, this post will make no sense to you. Read The Gervais Principle and The Gervais Principle II before you tackle this one.

[Read more…]

“Up in the Air” and the Future of Work

“Up in the Air” (based on a Walter Kirn novel) is a curious, and possibly accidentally accurate, look at the emerging world of work. Reader Sean Lyng emailed me to point out that the movie touches every theme I’ve talked about in the Cloudworker series, and suggested that I blog about it. After watching it, I have to agree. The movie hits every theme I touched, and vice versa.  The overt thesis appears to be classed-up, schmaltzy community-values nostalgia, but the actual plot and characters are surprisingly true to the lonelier and starker realities of the evolving world of work and life. Whether or not the director, Jason Reitman, intended this (and intended the superficial thesis as satire), is debatable. So here’s the first-ever movie review analysis on ribbonfarm. I am avoiding spoilers, so my take is going to seem incomplete, but if you’ve seen the movie, you should be able to fill in the blanks, based on the ending.

[Read more…]

Drive by Dan Pink

At the heart of Dan Pink’s new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is an insight that makes you want to yell in frustration at perversely obtuse academic worlds that marginalize seminal clarifications of the blindingly obvious: trying to motivate creative work with carrots and sticks backfires. As the book notes, this truth has been known to folk wisdom at least since Mark Twain wrote the famous fence-whitewashing episode in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Apparently — and I did not know this — this folk insight has been repeatedly validated by the discipline of psychology since 1949, when the first clear evidence appeared in a serendipitous accidental experiment by Harry Harlow. Yet, mainstream psychology has systematically ignored and marginalized this line of research, even going to the dystopian extreme of firing those intellectually honest enough to pursue the work anyway.

The major contribution of Drive is in elevating what ought to be a basic axiom of business from the level of Twain-ian (and Drucker-ian) opinion, to the level of scientific, not-optional, fact. The “Aha!” element of the book isn’t this bald fact (which isn’t surprising in isolation), but in pointing out the gap between “what science knows and what business does.”  The marginal status of the body of research in psychology is no excuse: major business thinkers from Drucker onwards have been saying the same thing for decades. Yet, nearly all businesses run on carrot-and-stick motivational architectures.

[Read more…]

Work-Life Balance: Juggling, Spinning or Surfing? (Rerun)

More rerun fun. About a year ago, I was doing a lot more highly visual posts. This one is one of my personal favorites. Good fodder for end-of- the-year work-life musing.

Work-Life Balance: Juggling, Spinning or Surfing?

So which metaphor do you prefer?

How to Make New Year’s Calibrations (Rerun)

Last year, I wrote a New-Year themed article that got to be quite popular. It suggested that you should make New Year’s calibrations before you attempt to make resolutions.

So I thought I’d pipeline and rerun it while I am out on vacation. So here you go:

How to Make New Year’s Calibrations (Dec 15, 2008)

Happy Calibrating!

Social Objects: Notes on Knitting in America

I recently bought a classic, cherry-finish  River City hourglass. It was the first time I deliberately bought something to serve as a social object, which I’ll define as any tangible entity that can catalyze a characteristic social chemistry. In this case, the hourglass helped me tweak the ambiance of a writers meetup I run in the Washington, DC area.


I’ve wondered for years about how people connect over particular elements of their environment, ranging from water coolers and YouTube videos to parrots. We are currently in the thick of social object season:  turkeys, Christmas trees, mistletoe.

Social objects are a complex idea. We need a theory that can provide a conceptual framework and vocabulary, suggest conjectures that might become laws, and distinguish between social objects and related but distinct creatures such as memes, social signals, brands and ritual objects. A good theory should also shed light on specific questions, such as “why have so many hip young American women taken up knitting in recent years?”

I am finally beginning to see the outlines of such a general theory. The first useful inference I have been able to derive is this: when communities digitize, social objects replace walls. I call this the first law of social objects. Let’s work our way up to that. (before more people yell at me… yes, this is an early beta stab at a new theme, so apologies for the length and looseness of editing).

[Read more…]

The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”

My neighbor introduced me to The Office back in 2005. Since then, I’ve watched every episode of both the British and American versions. I’ve watched the show obsessively because I’ve been unable to figure out what makes it so devastatingly effective, and elevates it so far above the likes of Dilbert and Office Space.

Series Home | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | ebook

Until now, that is. Now, after four years, I’ve finally figured the show out.  The Office is not a random series of cynical gags aimed at momentarily alleviating the existential despair of low-level grunts. It is a fully realized theory of management that falsifies 83.8% of the business section of the bookstore.  The theory begins with Hugh MacLeod’s well-known cartoon, Company Hierarchy (below), and its cornerstone is something I will call The Gervais Principle, which supersedes both the Peter Principle and its successor, The Dilbert Principle. Outside of the comic aisle, the only major and significant works consistent with the Gervais Principle are The Organization Man and Images of Organization.


[Read more…]

A Brewing Storm in Psychology

For several months now, I’ve been noticing a distinct pattern in psychology-beat reporting in major sources of commentary like the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. I sense that something really big is brewing in psychology. Big enough to deserve the overused phrase “paradigm shift.” Some of the more obvious elements are a renewed focus on longitudinal studies, narrative analysis, and the impact of social network approaches. But overall, I haven’t been able to put the whole picture together, so I thought I’d share a bunch of (excellent) articles that highlight important aspects of what is going on, as well as my preliminary conclusions. This should make for good weekend reading: many of the pieces I am linking to below are in-depth multi-page pieces.  It’ll take me probably another 3-4 months of simmering before I can figure this picture out, but maybe you can beat me to it or help me get there faster.

[Read more…]

The Tao of Frogger

Remember Frogger? The classic video game that inspired a memorable Seinfeld episode? It struck me that the game illustrates the difference between working smart and various flavors of working stupid. So here is one of my world-renowned cartoon philosophy illustrations (haven’t done one in a while).  Of course, the full-blow version also has crocodiles, turtles and a busy highway, but let’s keep it simple.