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“Doing Nothing”

by Rob Friesel

This New Yorker piece by Nathan Heller (“Bay Watched”) came across my radar within the past couple of days. This is the sort of thing that would normally show up here as part of a “linkdump” but I had just a little bit more to say about it than that, so…

It took me a couple of attempts to get through it, partly because of the visceral reaction it kept causing. The knee-jerk pull-quote I yanked on my first time through:

…when Bahat reported on LinkedIn that he was leaving a job by changing his status to “Doing Nothing,” his New York friends fretted, and promised to let him know if they heard of any openings. His Bay Area friends, meanwhile, congratulated him on his exit.

As I mentioned elsewhere: maybe it’s the Type A East Coaster in me, but it made me feel ill. And maybe even a little bit angry — although maybe anxious is the more appropriate adjective.

Example:

All this scaling down, Ravikant thinks, has encouraged new, more rewarding life styles. “I have this guy who’s driven me around in Sidecar a bunch of times,” he said. “He lives in Tiburon. He golfs every day at noon in Palo Alto. On his route from Tiburon to Palo Alto, he stops in San Francisco. He hits a button, turns on his Sidecar, picks his rides, does five or six, rejects two, meets new people, chats them up, and then he continues driving to Palo Alto, having picked up his golfing money for the day.” Ravikant envisages a future in which everybody is a private contractor, snatching jobs out of the ether, working for one another as they please–a future much like today’s San Francisco.

This set my teeth on edge. There’s a latent undertone throughout the article this “everyone is an entrepreneur” attitude — which Heller portrays as endemic in San Francisco — is a rising phenomenon that will inevitably spread to everywhere else. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with having an entrepreneurial spirit nor with the notion that you should want to be your own boss (for varying definitions of “being your own boss”) nor that you should aspire to me leisure time nor any number of other little liberties and/but then… there it is: “snatching jobs out of the ether, working for one another as they please”. And this is something that I can’t quite make sense of — every man and woman is but an ion just searching for the right valence until something else pulls them along.

Hold that thought.

I caught myself on that point there. I’m long overdue in taking my notes from Taleb’s Antifragile and writing them up into some coherent essay.1 I mention this because Taleb would probably mock my discomfort about the above statements. The thing that came to mind was his research/anecdote about the two brothers — the one that was a cab driver and the other that was some sort of office worker in an agency, and how the latter only appeared to make more money and have more stability. I can imagine Taleb eating up the above and excitedly shouting “Yes! Exactly that!” Seeing as how (by and large) I agree with Taleb’s larger thesis, I admit that part of my distaste for the above stems from my not-so-inner introvert and how such a system would completely exhaust me. But that’s a small knock compared to the fact that I see it as a system which could be easily twisted into one that’s exploitative. For all the latent talk in Heller’s piece about how this ethos rejects larger corporate culture, there’s also plenty in there about how these mini-start-ups become little more than cheap R&D for exactly those same corporate cultures they’re rejecting.

Come back to that metaphor about the ions.

Our ions are bouncing all over the place (“three-business-card life”, anyone?) and following their dreams and apparently making some large sums of money doing it. And good for them. But — and this is the part that got me out of bed to start scribbling in my notebook — it starts to sound an awful lot like “idea fracking2 after a while. Our ions have these ideas (some good, some mediocre, some noble, some downright trashy) and they put a bunch of work into them3 until that idea is just ripe enough to sell. Then they cash in. And then (according to the picture that Heller has given us) that’s it; they’re off the map and getting pulled into the next metaphorical chemical bond. Their “innovations” and/or “disruptions” give them a pay-off and then what? “Doing nothing”? Who curates the big idea then? Does it languish inside the guts of whomever bought it?

It seems a sad state of affairs. The picture painted by Heller is one of a bunch of dilettantes. I feel like I’m arguing from this position of Victorian propriety, but there it is. I wouldn’t argue that you should be “stuck” caring for “your idea” for the rest of your life, but so much in Heller’s essay rings in my ears as hollow and vapid. It’s hard for me to think positively about someone who is not committed to what they’ve created. No one should be shackled forever to their every creation, but neither should it be so easy to walk away from them.

  1. At some point I’ll just admit that I won’t get around to it… []
  2. I wish-wish-wish that I could take credit for this one, but I’m rather blatantly stealing it from a friend. Sorry, Bob. []
  3. And/but how much work could you be putting into them if you’re rocking three business cards? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

One Response to “Doing Nothing”

Otto Fazomi says:

Yes, reading Heller’s article left me queasy as well. The private taxi driver scenario is slightly terrifying if expanded beyond the rich guy playing driver for pocket money, and slighly nauseating as-is with rich guy collecting and discarding people of conversational interest as he travels between islands of wealth.
Beyond the reasons you cite I your comments above, I am also concerned with demographics of the world depicted. Where are the women, un-ironic store clerks, and the people who don’t feel that living in a neighborhood where people carry knives makes them more authentic?

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