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Rules for Anchorites

Letters from Proxima Thule

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Michael Scott and the Economist's Stone
I think part of the habit of blogging--and it is a habit, one that can be developed and one that can be lost--is when you have a thought, writing it down before you forget it or decide it's dumb or get distracted by doing other things. Overthinking, but not so much you decide it's too much effort to write it all out, not so little that you have nothing to say.

I've been blogging for a decade--sometimes I'm better at posting and sometimes I'm worse, but when I'm worse it's inevitably because I've been saying: "I should post about that" a lot without posting. That and the sheer energy of essay writing can feel overwhelming when, say, you're on a book tour. This is where Twitter tends to come in, for me.

Blogging is not a dying art, really. It's just that most of the people who wanted to do it did it and are still doing it in their own sections of the internet or started and couldn't maintain it. New bloggers go for shorter and shorter posts, but there are still new Big Bloggers that crop up. It's just that, like any industry, the boom is over, and now it's tough to break in.

Which is all to say that I've been thinking about this series of essays all night and into the morning. So I'm going to post about it instead of idly Tweeting at midnight. Because it's a habit and you have to maintain it or it goes away. The piece is about The Office and actual management dynamics. Because the author is a genius but very bad at tagging (hey, me too, tagging is boring) and/or interlinking a series of essays, I will now pull them all together nicely for you.

The Gervais Principle: Part I
Part II: Posturetalk, Powertalk, Gametalk and Babytalk
Part III: The Curse of Development
Part IV: Wonderful Human Beings

Don't say I never did nothing for you, because this is sheer genius-level stuff. It's also one of those beautiful things that comes out of blogs--this isn't long enough to be a book, and in a magazine only a certain section of people would even read it--and it's too long for a magazine, really. But blogs give us these gems sometimes, and it blows me away.

So yes, this is about how actual offices work, actual companies, and it gives terminology to a very observable phenomenon. (Companies are run by sociopaths, managed by the clueless, and staffed by losers--not in the sense of them being social or psychological losers, but in the sense of having entered into a losing economic proposition, ie wage work, in order to obtain safety and benefits while finding life meaning elsewhere. All companies need the clueless section, but when it swells, as it inevitably does, to make up the mass of the company, the losers and the sociopaths depart for other shores, leaving a wreck behind to stutter along.) It also makes me realize why Jim is the most emotionally affecting character on the show--he is the only one who is becoming, rather than in a holding pattern. Ryan, too, I suppose, but Ryan is awful while Jim is a becoming labrador of a person. So whether he will become a player is interesting in a way that Ryan is not, because Ryan is all about being a player. Anyway.

The essay is also about how social capital is traded, a subject endlessly fascinating to me, and endlessly relevant to the blogosphere, which basically runs on social capital without personal presence/charisma to provide lighter fluid for it. Also, given the geek obsession with reputation economies, social capital in the geek world is almost on a level with actual capital at this point. Rao says all of this better than I, and it's his riff, so just go read it.

And then come back and think about how terrifyingly applicable this is to the Borders situation.

Seen through Rao's lens, this sad and compelling article is a textbook rundown of how a company that started out with sociopaths (founders) and losers (people willing to work low-wage jobs in order to be involved with books on some level and have that Empire Records style community, to make that bad economic but good social bargain) was eaten from the inside by the high-performing clueless until there was nothing left, not even a bargain for losers to make.

I find myself wondering how it applies to my world--which is ostensibly made up of many sociopaths (authors) working in isolation and then outsourcing all production to a (hopefully benevolent, sometimes not) company or companies (which have their own pyramids). But at cons I often feel that we are a distributed work team, and our product is science fiction and fantasy as a genre, as a whole. In which case, where do each of us fall in that joke-but-not-really-a-joke pyramid? Is it even applicable to us, given that we are independent contractors (yet also employed by huge corporations to greater and lesser extents depending on the number and depth of contracts at hand).

I suppose it's easy for me to find this kind of analysis fascinating instead of chilling because I'm lucky enough to not work in an office environment. But how humans behave is never not interesting, and I do so love connecting television and movies to the mythic and the real.

I'm curious what you all think of it, both in terms of the text of The Office and of Real Life (tm), and if you're an author, how you think it applies to our sphere.

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There's some really interesting stuff in those essays, mainly about the ways in which "sociopaths" (read: hyper-competitive people) interact. I'll definitely be giving that some thought when writing about such characters.

However, the author seems to be suffering from "I have a hammer" syndrome, in that he reduces every form of human interaction to this kind of zero-sum power struggle, and the only difference is whether you win (sociopath), lose knowingly (loser), or lose unknowingly (clueless). The essays positively ooze contempt for people in the latter two categories.

The idea that all humor requires a victim, and therefore humor between two people is inherently "clueless," is an example of this blinkered vision. A common form of humor goes like this: I spot a clever, non-obvious link between two seemingly unrelated things. I put those things in front of you and invite you to spot the same link. You laugh, telling me that a) you spotted the link and b) it was indeed clever and non-obvious. This is not victim-based humor, it works just fine between two people, and it's quite common among us geeky types.

I don't think he's got it all right. You're right in that he doesn't see much outside the thesis--but I don't see contempt for losers besides the name. It's a knowing calculation, and one I find many people, including myself, to some degree, make.

All right, perhaps "oozes contempt" was putting it a bit strong. Nevertheless, the fourth essay spends a whole lot of time asserting that the value "losers" give each other in their social groups is delusional--a cover for the mediocrity inherent in being somebody who chooses not to compete.

I'm thinking in particular of the "uniqueness game," which is labeled delusional because it involves giving everyone a way to be "above average." Which is completely missing the point. In a group of two, where I'm a strong dumb fighter and you're a smart frail wizard, neither of us is "above average" overall. Yet each of us is above average in some respect, and that lets us make real contributions to the group. You come to me when you need a door kicked down. I come to you when I need a mystic text translated. There is a real synergy going on.

This is the main way that people in the "loser" category build social capital for themselves. By dismissing this whole idea as delusional, the author is pushing hard to convey the idea that only sociopaths create value or accomplish anything.

Which is a load of crap. Sociopath-behavior, as described in these essays, is not creating value. At best, sociopaths are defenders of value, soldiers the rest of us rely on to protect us from others like themselves. At worst, they are the ones we need protection from. Loser-behavior is what creates good things.

(Deleted comment)
I came across this series of essays about two years ago — which was, in itself, about two years too late to apply some direly needed lessons.

I'm curious, though, about your idea that authors = sociopaths. Based on what I read in the essays, artists are, by necessity, losers (or potentially clueless losers) — the value of what they create is determined by the in-group evaluation of their audiences, and seldom play with stakes of money/sex/power in the way that the sociopath-class does.

You know, that occurred to me after I posted. But also, we are entrepreneurs, our product is ourselves and our work, and a certain amount of money, sex, and power are available to the high levels of play. So maybe we're just low-performing sociopaths?

As described in the essays, a sociopath's every interaction is about one-upsmanship. They live and breathe competition. There is no such thing as a casual remark for them; every word is an effort to shift the balance of power. Is that you? Would you want that to be you? It sounds exhausting and miserable to me. The author himself admits that the first step to becoming a sociopath is to give up on happiness.

I can't pretend that's not part of the interaction when a bunch of authors get together, and there are some authors who play that game hardcore and some who do not. I think we do fall into different groups within the world we inhabit. I have a certain amount of competitiveness but nothing like what he describes. However, I do know authors who play that field very well.

Everyone plays social dominance games to some extent. So you could say we all have a bit of sociopath, but is it central to your identity? Or to focus on the career aspect: Is it central to being a writer?

I don't know... the whole thing has a kind of Nietzschean admiration for the full-time sociopath that puts my hackles up. I see all the people in comments saying they want to be sociopaths when they grow up, and I'm thinking, "Uh, you realize you are setting out to be Lucius Malfoy, right? That's what you want out of life?"

Edited at 2011-08-09 10:16 pm (UTC)

I saw those comments! Crazy kids. Though when I read the articles, I came away thinking, "I'm a loser, thank God!" As long as I'm part of any corporate structure, being a loser sounds like the best option. The idea is to either be a loser with real meaning in life or get the heck out of here to do my own thing. So, I either want to be Arthur Weasley or run my own version of the joke shop like the twins.

I came to the conclusion, reading this, that we're clueless. The defining characteristic of the clueless, after all, is that they overperform -- they put more effort into something than can be justified by a rational assessment of the situation -- and frankly that describes me, every other aspiring writer I know, and many published writers I know perfectly. You can even see that dedication to the system (albeit in a watered-down form because even the publishing industry is not that awful, thank god) reflected in the self-publishing debate, and in the desire to be validated that gets people burned by scam agents and publishers.

Of course, outside the pathological pyramid structure of the corporate world, this is not necessarily a terrible thing to be. Most artist-types have moved on past the stages of arrested development he describes and overperform largely for their own satisfaction. But this series has certainly validated my decision to avoid corporate employment like the plague. I'm a terminal overachiever, and I can see how badly such a thing could warp and destroy me in that environment.

I'm surprised that you describe authors as sociopaths.

I thought that authors were driven primarily by professional vocation (that is, authors want to be authors when they grow up), rather than switching profession to whatever pays best (sociopaths). The "loser" level of the hierarchy seems more appropriate (with Bezos and similar sharks-of-publishing at the sociopath level).

See my above comment. This is also a valid interpretation.

Though many of us bounce genres and styles and publishers depending on prevailing winds.

Interesting stuff. I printed it all out to read later, though, as I'm cat-vacuuming instead of writing my 7-10 page paper on the ethics of special education reform for my Ethics of Interpersonal Neurobiology class...and when I'm done, I may well write a review of the whole dang thing from an IPNB perspective....

I read the first one last night from your twitter link. For a corporate gal over 10 years in, it resonated uncomfortably close to home. I'll have to read the others and weigh in more once I get home...

I wrote a comment on one of Rao's posts back in 2009 -- I don't know how to link to it directly, but it's here under the name ASG, maybe 4/5 of the way down the scrollbar. In short, I love the close reading, but I bristle a bit at the temptation he indulges in his posts (and which I see traces of in this post here) to make a Facebook quiz out of it. "Which one are YOU! Sociopath 31%, Loser 16%..."

I think Rao's analysis works because he reads a specific text so carefully -- his understanding of the psychological/narratological/social/comedic patterns at work in The Office is amazing and I've spent a lot of time thinking about it since I first read it. Obviously those patterns are applicable to our lives more generally, or else we wouldn't have anything to talk about -- that's true of any academic or cultural critique. But making it into a Myers-Briggs-style cookie cutter smacks of self-help fluff to me (or, to be maybe a bit more charitable, a nineteenth-century metanarrative), which is why I consider the questions you closed with sort of meaningless. Different writers are different things. Some of them are like Dwight and some of them are like Kelly. It's good to have a vocabulary to talk about that, I guess, but I'm uneasy with any critical system that divides the world into four categories.

Thank you a hundred thousand times for posting these links. I think this may actually do me some real good in figuring out my next career steps. Or path. My eyes are being opened.

Just... wow.

I haven't seen any episodes of the show at all, but I have read these essays.

I suspect that the dynamic he's describing is reasonably accurate for any large organization, though I don't know at what size you have so many people that it becomes true. But it seems like it just couldn't exist the same way in a small company, especially one where people have to work together a lot all the time (I'm thinking of design firms in particular).

My role has consistently been in the loser pool, due to not working anywhere I really cared about the job, though I've never gotten into all of that intraoffice socializing/drama/whatever, either. If I were in a company I wanted to be in, I'd probably be aiming for sociopath level, 'cause I don't want to be either craptastic middle management or at the level of gruntwork, with no control, forever.

I like to think I'd be a benevolent sociopath, though. And I don't have the patience for those bullshit power games.

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