The world of work changed tremendously over the three decades I spent in it. Much of that change has arisen as a result of the tremendous improvement in communications since I entered the workforce in 19821. Communications in 1982 were the telephone and the letter, computers were rare and accessed by expensive text terminals on RS232 serial lines and didn’t feature highly in the early days. Companies were much more hierarchical and experience was more valuable – equipment, technologies and staff didn’t change as often as they do now.
Over at Retirement Investing Today RIT has a fascinating post Will I want seclusion in FIRE – he is much more analytical than I am and identified trends which, looking back seem obvious but I sure as hell missed them 😉 Part of the thesis is that RIT self-identified as an extravert but he wonders if this was an adaptation to the performance art known as work.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung gave us the concept of extraversion and introversion, although they are commonly understood to mean something a bit different from his description. The general summary is
Extraversion tends to be manifested in outgoing, talkative, energetic behaviour, whereas introversion is manifested in more reserved and solitary behaviour.
RIT’s post set me thinking, it’s not surprising that the vastly improved range and nature of communications today will play well to extraversion, and it is my experience of the changes in the workplace. Early on I decided I wanted to work in research and design, and within the first few years of working had got myself into this field- something where the intellectual challenge is interesting and also areas of work that don’t greatly feature the endless flapping of lips that makes up a lot of human activity. Although humans are top predators which normally tend to be loners in the rest of the animal kingdom, we are social animals. But some of us are more social than others; I only just about get the point of Facebook and I am still trying to work out exactly what is the point of Twitter 😉
FI/RE tends to favour introversion
ERE Jacob called out that the group of people chasing early retirement tended to include more introverts than the general population. It’s not that surprising when you think about what you have to do differently to achieve FI early – you have to opt out of some of the shared experience of modern consumer life. For example I don’t have a television any more, not because I can’t afford it, but I don’t want to give headspace to ads and I don’t want to live other people’s dreams. It’s not cost-free – there is a hell of a lot of good stuff on TV. I aggressively block as much online advertising as I can – some popular websites just don’t work on my system, and when I see the web on other people’s computers I am flabbergasted at the amount of ads and moving crap there is everywhere.
Although I’d agree with ERE that the balance of FIers is shifted along the spectrum to introversion it is a trend not a requirement – after all Huw over at FFBF is enthusiastically organising meet-ups which get a good attendance so there are a decent number of the PF community who are towards the more extraverted end of the spectrum. I probably lie a long way to the introverted side, I have tried but I can’t really see what the point of a PF meet up is – which is not a criticism of the concept at all, it’s just something I can’t get my head around.
The workplace increasingly favours extraversion
In my thirty years at the workplace, I saw them knock down the walls of the roughly ten-person offices that were common at the BBC Designs and the early days at The Firm, first into sort of cubicles and then into the instrument of productivity destruction that is the open-plan office. The talented engineers of the early days were often very seriously weird human beings, some were almost totally unable to read human emotion and could piss others off deeply without realising it or meaning to. People could get away with being such oddballs if their work was great2, indeed I would say that probably most of the major advances in human knowledge have been made by people who had something wrong with them.
The rest of us are just a little bit too average to push the envelope that much. Some of these oddballs and misfit guys (they were mainly guys, engineering is just like that3) were strange, some of them just plain stank because their minds were focused on thinking rather than the issues of being a large animal rather than a brain on a stick. But when they got in their stride they would be talking about stuff that left me searching for the overdrive setting on my brain, regardless of the amazing hum in the office…
In those distant days although there were annual appraisements a lot of this was around what had happened in the last year. The designs and research were often easier to ascribe to one individual, and I was okay with that. I was happy to be judged by the results of my work – did this work well and was it reasonably in budget? I led an international team of guys doing some research on optical transmission, but communications were still largely done by fax and the phone, although there were primitive forms of email using UUCP and some DEC Vax technology. But the world of work started to change with the advent of the Web.
Many of the extremes were eliminated – there was much less individual eccentricity and excellence in the world of work I left that when I started. Some of that is good – some of those early workplaces carried deadweight. I applied to the University of Southampton do to a MSc in electronics in the mid Eighties after observing some 50-year olds in Studio Engineering at the BBC who were on the same 2N5P entry grade as me. If you always follow the path of least resistance, you tend to roll downhill. I was prepared to make the climb for a better view.
My experience was influenced by these external changes, but also that I was slowly creeping up the greasy pole and also that The Firm had shifted its emphasis away, and one Big Cheese openly admitted, from becoming a ‘first mover’ to becoming a ‘fast follower’. Apparently in MBA circles there is a sound intellectual basis for this policy, which is kind of depressing in a general way. Eventually the wellspring of human progress will dry up as we all try and follow each other
Astute fast-followers recognize that part of Customer Discovery is learning from the first-mover by looking at the arrows in their backs. Then avoiding them.
The changes in the world of HR seemed to be that it was all about performance management, writing lies and bullshit into dire computer systems, impose forced distributions that implicitly set everybody against each other – if I avoid helping you then you can become meat for the mincer rather than me, despite all the platitudes about teamwork. Performance management favours those who shout loudest and big themselves up the most – the clue is in the word performance, which has a double meaning in English for a good reason. It’s about the singer, not the song.
RIT has the edge on me – he was able to observe, and adapt, he will retire earlier in his life than me. And good luck to him – to be honest his daily experience of work sounds like a hell of a lot rougher than my three years of running out in lockdown mode – I didn’t spend much on useless consumer shit, didn’t eat out and didn’t go on holiday but it wasn’t that tough! Unlike RIT I was unable to play against type and eventually I came to the logical conclusion that I am better off out of there. Though I was tickled by some of the comments
I certainly don’t enjoy spending time with wider family and friends who continue to consume like the best of them. Their talk of how much their house has gone up in value or what new car they are going to buy now just bores me.
It’s called getting older 😉 Although it’s not for everybody, I find Carl Jung’s work a decent map for the territory of my life-cycle
It seems to me that the basic facts of the psyche undergo a very marked alteration in the course of life, so much so that we could almost speak of a psychology of life’s morning and a psychology of its afternoon. As a rule, the life of a young person is characterized by a general expansion and a striving towards concrete ends; and his neurosis seems mainly to rest on his hesitation or shrinking back from this necessity. But the life of an older person is characterized by a contraction of forces, by the affirmation of what has been achieved, and by the curtailment of further growth. His neurosis comes mainly from his clinging to a youthful attitude which is now out of season….
Carl Jung, 1929, CW 16, ¶75
and observation shows that a trend towards reflection and understanding is associated with ageing well4– arguably a shift from extraversion which is needed to be successful in the first half of life to introversion and deepening in the second half.
Countering that I became less introverted after retiring, because I own my own time and take things on my terms or walk away. The performance managed workplace made me mistrustful of other people because you don’t have to be stupendously clever to see the logical conclusion of a forced distribution – your end of the boat goes up at other people’s expense, and vice versa.
Some people learn to live in the matrix quickly. They are always seen as stars, but they have no real results to prove it.
I took a hit in a non-work area of life and interpreted the bad quarterly performance review after that as the starting gun to get out three years later. As it happened The Firm needed a legacy skill I had for the London 2012 Olympics and invested a little in trying to patch it up, but once the mainspring is broken the clock can never be rewound. I did that work because I needed the money to thread my way out of there, and it was satisfying in its way, but I struggled.
Modern performance management f*cks people up, particularly introverts.
I was particularly maladapted to it because I didn’t grow up with the problem, for most of my career performance management was about results, not narrative. I believe that there is a lot of fluff and peacockery now that just wasn’t possible in workplaces before, facilitated by easier and cheaper communications, from the cc CYA emails to the endless telephone conferences to try and work out what you are going to start to all do, it just grows, along with the empty metrics and targets collated because it can be done5. ERE again identified the problem – the workplace is becoming a game, with rules and levels – it rewards those who learn to play the game, the gamesmen, whereas I am more to the craftsman end of ERE’s taxonomy.
ERG may not like the stupid dance, but he probably grew up with it. Performance management is the #1 reason I retired early, I never, ever, wanted to have that feeling again. I was okay with what I was doing, but the writing was clearly on the wall – the workplace was becoming increasingly hostile to introverts. It is apparently possible to change this orientation, and if not then some people can fake it. But you get more cantankerous as the years roll by – WTF should I change myself to dance to this rotten tune when I can leave the stage altogether and navigate by the light of my own lamps? I’ve only got another three or four decades max, I have enough money to have a good time and indeed re-enter the middle class and inflate my lifestyle should I want to do that once I have access to my pension savings.
There’s a very good argument to be made that you should do this thinking about what you want to spend your time on earth doing at a much earlier stage, and it’s good to see such a lot of people in the PF community are indeed doing just that in their 30s and 40s. Life is short, use it well 😉
- of course as an engineer much change in what I did adapted to changes in technology ↩
- this is still present in some tech extremes – like the way Google employees can’t cook for themselves or do their own washing, which is why Mama Google sees to it to fix their household requirements. Free food, free laundry, free haircuts. free car… ↩
- when the IET which is the UK electrical and electronics engineering trade body has to establish a more female-friendly alter ego as the Women’s Engineering Society with nary a link to the IET then it shows that there’s trouble in Paradise – along with the carping about the status of engineers in the UK the lack of women is something that occupied the Letters page of the IEE when I joined in 1982 and still exercises them as much 30 years later ↩
- Jung himself did pretty well – anybody whose last words are “Let’s have a really good wine tonight.” is someone who knows how to cash in their chips in style ↩
- there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with metrics, but as Stephen Covey says, begin with the end in mind. Why are you collecting these metrics, and are you measuring it because it’s easy to measure or because it’s worth measuring? ↩