who’s got your back?

Emily has been sticking with me throughout my job search.  It’s kind of hard for her not to, since we share an address, but she’s been an especially good sport about it.  This evening, while the waning heat of the Australian summer leaked out of the pavement and up into the wideness of the sky, we went out for noodles along the lakeside and admired the colors the clouds were turning.

After a while, as often happens, I tried to talk through what I’ve been experiencing lately while she listened and provided feedback.  Most of the time she’s playing devil’s advocate.  She had many good questions, and plenty of gentle and not-so-gentle mockery, for me relating to various irrational feelings I have about my career so far and how well I feel I’ve done.

One exchange in particular stands out for its simplicity:  she was wondering why I appear to be so obsessed with productivity.  As its own thing.  I don’t write a productivity blog, and I don’t even see myself as being particularly good at implementing productivity tricks — I attribute everything I’ve accomplished thus far to having a clear vision of what the hell I’m supposed to be doing at the time (almost never what my employers expected me to be doing when I was hired) and pursuing that vision doggedly with all available resources, and my productivity suffers when that vision is not razor-sharp.  Most other effects are second-order at most.  But I still spend a lot of time and energy worrying about it.  Why is that?

“Okay, so,” I said as we got inside from our bike ride through the deep blue evening and poured ourselves some tea.  I sat for a bit and collected myself.  “The narrative I’ve got inside my head…  that I’m acting on…  goes something like this:  The world is basically a cruel and indifferent place which is trying to extract as much value from us as possible, and only the strongest survive.

“And also fair,” she said, “so that the amount of value you get out is proportional to what you put in?”  We had had some discussions earlier during which we both agreed that the world worked in deeply unfair ways, and also never according to plan.  This would be true even if it weren’t riddled with all kinds of institutionalized privilege, and even if humans didn’t come in tribes; she had recommended me one of Malcolm Gladwell’s essays from which she took the main point that it was practically impossible to be both fair and efficient, or sometimes even to be either.

“Oh no,” I replied, “I have  no assumption that the world is fair either.  Working as hard as you can is necessary, but not sufficient.  You need to work as hard as you can to have even a chance at being successful.  Whatever ‘success’ means.”

(I’m thinking about rising inequality, about how technology is inherently a destabilizing force with the function of erasing jobs which once were well-paid.  A highly nonlinear force.  Something I’ve been reading about a lot lately, and have written about before as well.)

She digested those words for a few seconds.  “So, fear then,” she said.

“Yeah.  I guess.  Yeah.”

She paused again.  “Well, I’m sad to hear that.”


“I’m sad to hear that you’re basically afraid all the time.”

“Well,” I asked, “why aren’t you afraid all the time? — That’s an honest question, I mean you must have some reason, do you just not think about this all that much or …?”

“Because I have a huge network of people whom I can trust to catch me if I fall.”

“Like — uh — ”

“You’ve got stacks of people,” she reminded me, “everyone loves you!  Just think about everyone you go couchsurfing with in other countries.”

“Yeah, you’re right, I guess I just hate asking favors.”

“You’re not asking favors, are you?  You’re asking them to be there for you, and if you were really down and out who among those people would push you away?”

I wasn’t so sure at the time.  But as I type this after the fact, perhaps due to the lateness of the hour (or my unwillingness to talk about my friends as “human capital”) I don’t really have much to come back at this argument with.  Thanks, everyone.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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