We recently recorded an episode of Blind Insights about David Graeber’s book, Bullshit Jobs, with returning guest Jessica Freund. If you already know what a Bullshit Job is and are intending to read the book, then definitely skip chapters 3 to 5, as they are unnecessarily repetitive. What Graeber has to say about where Bullshit Jobs come from, as well as what we could do about them, is thought provoking. Our discussion goes beyond Graeber’s argument to consider the importance of knowing whether you are predominantly intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, as well as considering how our personal need for meaning shapes how we experience different kinds of work. If you would like to hear a short summary and extended discussion of Graeber’s book, I encourage you to listen to our podcast.
Blind Insights, Meaningless Work is Bullshit, with Special Guest Jess Freund:
Early on in the book Graeber discusses the place of cause and effect in childhood development, as well as the role that cause and effect plays in our broader lives. This minute of the audiobook switched my brain from only just paying attention to deep, engaged thought. I remembered some part of a first year Psychology lecture at University being about the important role that recognising cause and effect has on childhood development, but I don’t remember learning anything about how cause and effect impacts on adults.
When a child discovers that they can cause an effect they get rather excited, because they start to grasp that they can shape the world to suit their preferences. At some point they discover that they can’t always cause the effect they prefer and become emotional, alternating between distress and anger. If a child can’t cause an effect for an extended period of time, beyond the point of distress or anger, then they become passive and withdrawn.
While we can all become passive and/or withdrawn from time to time, we should aim to avoid being so for an extended period of time, else we risk succumbing to Learned Helplessness. Agency is fragile; it takes a lot more work to rebuild it than it takes to develop it in the first place.
From Learned Helplessness to Learned Hopefulness with Martin Seligman || The Psychology Podcast:
Until I listened to Graeber’s book and we recorded our podcast about it, I had thought of Learned Helplessness as something that generally happens to children and animals in laboratories, not as something that can happen to us throughout our lives. I have often thought about how I dodged the bullet of Learned Helplessness at the primary school for the blind I attended as a child, and I’m still not entirely sure how the agency I gained from my family, time on my Grandmother’s farm, and learning to use a white cane enabled me to avoid it. Now that I have reflected on Bullshit Jobs and our podcast, it appears clear that attempts to build and exercise agency can regularly be thwarted throughout our lives, and that, as a consequence, people suffer when they can’t cause their preferred effect.
For years I have observed talented young people going from being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the time they start university to being glad to see the back of it by the time they finish their studies. It is no mystery that university bureaucracies are labyrinthian and illogical, but the adverse impact they have on many students is far too high. Universities promise students a chance to grow and to become autonomous, while demanding conformity to a raft of requirements that limit students’ agency. Universities very often encourage students to believe that they can choose what cause they wish to effect, only to then limit what students can do and when they can do it.
When these same young people apply for and attain graduate employment, they are told that their talent will be utilised in innovative ways and that they are going to make a significant and meaningful contribution. This is sometimes the case, but, more often than not, they find themselves being conditioned to do what the institution did last year in the way it did it a decade ago. The idea of being innovative and doing something meaningful is periodically dangled in front of them like a carrot, but this is often too little, too late to save their sense of agency at work.
By the time a manager hires me to train their team to work and solve problems in a new way, there are normally three groups within any team. One group is keen to learn and do new things: they still have a sense of agency and they want to believe that they can cause an effect. The second group is sceptical that they will be allowed to cause a different effect at work, but, if they are supported, they will grab hold of the opportunity to have agency. The third group have succumbed to Learned Helplessness and require proof of meaningful change before they will consider acting with a renewed sense of agency.
In short, too many institutions promise agency and then either don’t permit individuals to exercise it, or, worse, actively discourage acts of agency that do not directly contribute to what the institution already does. Many institutions claim to encourage agency, but this is frequently not the case.
People have been talking about educational reform for well over a century, and there cannot be many institutions that have not discussed changing their organisational culture during the last decade. Nonetheless, talking alone does not protect or foster agency.
If you have the desire and capacity to change your institution, by fostering agency and empowering your people, then reach out to me to discuss how I can help.
Unfortunately, most people do not have the opportunity, or capacity, to directly improve the culture and behaviour of an entire institution. Instead, if possible, they move to a healthier environment, or try to survive the imposed loss of agency if moving is not a viable option.
I would like to offer a few suggestions of what to do if you can’t get out of an institution that is making you passive and withdrawn. If you can’t meaningfully exert agency in one part of your life, then you have to be active in all the other parts of your life. Try not to come home and sit in silence: talk to your partner, family, or friends. Don’t just sit and watch sport: have a go at getting fitter in a group environment. Try not to order junk food and eat it on the couch: learn to cook a meal and make it for people who matter. Don’t just listen to music: make music and dream of being on stage performing to people who want to hear you. Don’t just dream of being somewhere else: learn to grow plants and make your environment bloom.
Our personal sense of agency has a massive impact on who we believe we are and on what we believe we can do. We can’t always develop and apply our sense of agency wherever we would like, so we have to be active and engaged whenever we can. You can learn to be helpless, or you can learn to be active, and you get to choose what you intend to practice.
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