turning work into performance art by gamesmen

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.

and so the cycle will turn again, and start anew
a fast follower

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 😉

  1. of course as an engineer much change in what I did adapted to changes in technology 
  2. 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… 
  3. 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 
  4. 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 
  5. 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? 

17 thoughts on “turning work into performance art by gamesmen”

  1. I recently did one of the online Myers & Briggs test sent to me by my son (INTP or INTJ due to marginal J/P should anyone be interested). Excuse the jargon. We did such tests in my last few years at work as part of group soul-searching to improve happiness and efficacy, with various permutations of a quadrant being used to portray qualities under discussion. The workshop that I found most interesting was how to get an effective team working by getting the best out of people with different personality types. Unfortunately, that I have to keep re-taking such tests to discern being something more than being an introvert marks that whilst piquing my interest as an analyst, it did not impact in any way on the way I worked.

    I had a more worrying chat with my son over some online tests that seemed to celebrate discovering one’s inner psychopath in the business world. We differed on whether it was bad to be a psychopath (he felt the term was misunderstood), particularly since it almost seemed to be held in regard in some business fields. I think I won the argument that such DIY self-assessment was very damaging if one did not understand the significance of extreme positions.

    I never read books about successful businessmen (I spent my life avoiding egomaniacs so why celebrate them). Not so my son, which is where the DIY assessment gets compounded by the example of extreme outliers. My concern is that a small group of people can get locked into this kind of mentality. I guess sales or advertising teams might be prone to such excess (he says with no evidence whatsoever to back up that prejudice) whereas the hard-headed analyst is far less prone (scientists tend not to be enthused by rah-rah sessions in my experience).

    I am three weeks away from the second anniversary of my gardening leave and early retirement. Strange how quickly one loses any attachment to the peripheral baggage of the corporate working life, even if some of the stress damage took a bit more shaking off. I am not bored yet, nor have I started any of the things I planned to do when I had time. Perhaps only now do I have a mild interest to re-engage with the world more directly (although please do not mention the W word). In my case the two years break was a necessary hiatus to the previous complexification of corporate life. Pause, do nothing but look and listen would be my recommendation to a retiree before they re-engage with their plans.


  2. > Pause, do nothing but look and listen would be my recommendation to a retiree before they re-engage with their plans.

    Absolutely – it also took me two years and looking back the process is still continuing. Even regular retirees may want to consider a few months before making major life changes, lest they play out the dreams of a cubicle slave in their early retirement.

    Congratulations on your upcoming two year anniversary!

    > I think I won the argument that such DIY self-assessment was very damaging if one did not understand the significance of extreme positions.

    good old survivorship bias sticking its oar in. Like so many tales of success you never get the perspective from the guys who crashed and burned!


  3. Great post, I agree that performance management really does suck, both for staff and management. Every six months we have this stupid process to go through that takes up hours and hours, even though you already know who is performing well and who isn’t. Thankfully I have reached a point in my career where performance management (for my own performance) means a lot less than it previously did, but I still have to go through the same crap for the staff!

    I have previously come to the conclusion about introverts being better suited to FI/RE than extroverts, and even at the age of 33 have seen how I have changed between the two ends of the spectrum in my FI/RE journey.

    What I have also found is that to be successful in the era of performance management, you need to be comfortable with having two personalities – one for work and one for personal life. For me, I force myself to be more extroverted in certain ways at work than I would have otherwise been, whereas in my personal life I have become more introverted as I have got a lititle bit older. Let’s hope I don’t end up with some sort of split personality disorder!


  4. Greetings from Canada. Your comment “there was much less individual eccentricity and excellence in the world of work I left that when I started.” resonates with me in spades. I also agree I think ER may well lean towards introversion, perhaps they are more at one with themselves, not needing the recognition/validation that a job ‘can’ provide.

    Enjoy reading your stuff, we have many parallels. I wanted to work for “The Firm” at MH after Uni in 1981. Got turned down – (they also had some weird personality screening tests there that I am sure I failed!) Got an R+D job in the US version of the firms R+D site in Harlow. Eventually wound up at the Canadian version of the Firm that collapsed. Eventually forced into ER and enjoying it. Very interesting to compare the financial tools/options available to ER in UK vs Canada, looks a lot more restrictive and complicated for UK ER’s.


  5. Fantastic, thought-provoking post Ermine. Or perhaps now I’m happily entering the afternoon of my life I should say a “pondering-provoking” post.

    In a previous existence I was a military pilot. Talk about having to learn to behave in an extorverted way! Try standing in front of a briefing a room full of jet-pilot egos when you are an introvert in your early twenties. You learn rapidly how to “behave as if”…

    At one stage I was an instructor and we had a civilain psychologist on staff who used to assist the trainees with ego/confidence issues (mostly insufficiencies of both for the task) What he prescribed was basically a sort of method-acting technique. It was all pretending, but it worked. One problem was young guys (and back then, they were all guys) learning how to turn on this big-swingin’-dick side of them for work, but then not knowing, due to lack of maturity, how to turn it off outside of the environment where it was adaptively advantageous – made for some amusing situations that just fed the stereotypes of all military pilots being assholes.

    I suspect, however, that much of this “requirement” for extroversion in some roles is just a fashion and not really necessary for the task, but such is the power of group-culture.

    I’m 52 now, and only about six months to go until I commence my long convalescence and a slightly early retirement. Looking forward to spending some time going low and slow in an old biplane and walking mountain trails in solitude. Also looking forward to much pondering.

    And you’ve brought be back around to Jung 😉


  6. @Insider – every six months eh – we had this every quarter at one stage! Interesting that you and @Jim could both play both roles. I never really either had the need or believed it was possible – that clearly was a limiting belief because it seems you both and RIT adopted the work persona as a workaround.

    @Gary – that’s a fascination alternative route, sound like the paths led to ER in end! The UK pensions scheme is certainly more complicated – whenever I’ve heard Canadians describe the options they have seemed both sensible and reasonably well-thought out. Which is presumably why we had to poach your central banker to sort our mess out 😉

    I haven’t missed the role of work at any point in the ensuing three years, and I don’t expect to – perhaps this is the counterbalance of the value of extraversion in work!

    Does make me wonder where all those oddballs and misfits are now – they used to do good work at The Firm. I don’t know if the increasing homogeneity is because The Firm went down the ladder creatively or if it’s a wider trend at work.

    @Jim – wow, that sounds like a baptism by fire! and definitely a shape up or get out sort of thing.

    I think some of the increased requirement for extraversion is because work is more collaborative now partly as a result of those better and richer communications. Whether that has led to greater individual productivity and higher innovation is hard to fathom. It didn’t play to my strengths and weaknesses!

    > learning how to turn on this big-swingin’-dick side of them for work, but then not knowing, due to lack of maturity, how to turn it off outside of the environment where it was adaptively advantageous – made for some amusing situations that just fed the stereotypes of all military pilots being assholes.

    We seem to have this problem in other walks of life too – finance seems to foster the Wolf of Wall Street in some folk who could to well to flick the switch after work too!

    That convalescence sounds good. As does the pondering – there is much of interest out that that rewards considered reflection, one of the joys of retirement 😉


  7. “Although humans are top predators which normally tend to be loners in the rest of the animal kingdom, we are social animals.” That, and rather more, is packed into the Latin tag “Homo homini lupus” i.e. man is wolf to man.

    “For example I don’t have a television any more”: we’re not big TV watchers – in thirty years we’ve gone from my mother giving us a new telly because she couldn’t bear watching our tiny black-and-white set when she visited, to our daughter giving us a modern digital telly because she couldn’t bear …….

    One of the things that annoyed me before I sloped off early was working for a Head who was simply not up to snuff – a plonker, a narcissistic dud: not an ogre, mind, just incompetent and lazy. An uprising of the underlings got him moved out of his post so that he retained most of his salary but lost his authority. Eventually he retired early, forever bitter. It was his own fault, I’m afraid; he shouldn’t have applied for a post for which he was so ill-suited in the first place. Interestingly, the underling who first diagnosed the scale of the Head’s shortcomings was the least mature of us, the extrovert, permanent teenager, pain-in-the -pinny whom the rest of us tolerated because of his cheerfulness, his enthusiasm, and his flow of chatter, from which fertile ideas could occasionally be rescued. It takes all sorts.


  8. Hi Ermine, I’ve been pondering whether introverts or extraverts deal better with ER. I always felt the workplace did tend to favour the latter – all the world’s a stage and the biggest actors get the biggest parts – and you do get a bit tired of it. As for performance appraisals, you’re so right about not being able to deal with this as you get older. Now I’m out of my equivalent of The Firm, I find it hard to imagine going back to Big Corporate. I still am attracted to the idea of “paid work” though, just more on my own terms.


  9. hi Ermine, I loved this post, thank you. I am totally introvert and you have struck a real chord for me.

    My father was one of those strange, rather dysfunctional engineers. He had a “job for life” and his workplace looked after him. I bet that wouldn’t be true today.


  10. I just wanted to take a moment to let you know how much I enjoy your writing and blogging! I’ve been reading you for several years, and you keep getting better.

    I especially appreciate your creative use of HTML coding to communicate your thoughts so effectively.

    I’m a fellow electrical engineer, though on the other side of the Atlantic (about 3,653 miles away, according to google 🙂 ) I just hit 50 years of age, so I’m winding down my career. My plan is to FIRE at 55, God willing. The numbers appear as if I could do it a bit earlier, if need be.

    I just spent 3 hours watching football (American style) and reading your most recent posts and many of the useful links. And it was wonderful! And educational too.

    So, thanks again!


  11. I’ve yet to attend one of Huw’s meetups but hoping to do so at the next southern one (would be rude not to, only an hour away). For me, I always find it interesting to put a real person behind the words on the screen. I’m especially looking forward to being able to have 2-way discussions on finances in a way that I can’t with most of my friends and family.

    It can become very tedious and disheartening to have an almost constant stream of people telling you that you’re mad to want to retire early or that it just ‘isn’t possible in the current economic climate’. This is the main reason I’m intending on going to one of the meetups.


  12. @dearieme – Googling Homo homini lupus led me down some interesting rabbit holes for half an hour – interesting!

    @Jim Mcg – I’m intrigued –

    > I still am attracted to the idea of “paid work” though, just more on my own terms.

    Is this for the pay, the status, or something else? Now’t wrong with it, just interesting. One of the greatest gifts I found FI gave me was to make me indifferent to work, it is a delicious freedom from a concealed angst of insufficiency I must have had ever since starting work.

    @cathybird eccentricity does seem to have been tolerated more widely in the past. Perhaps a less collaborative workplace means the cost of eccentricity was lower. Some of that is expressed so well by Erica Goldson’s valedictory speech – a precociously clear description of the fade to grey. The workplace and the school system seem to be stamping out outlying behaviour.

    @Jay Jay – thank you – and good luck with your five year journey to freedom!

    @ERG interesting – and I guess I missed the obvious attraction of hearing from fellow travellers because I am on the other side of the FI divide. A bunch surprisingly unrepresented in the PF space, though Jim is a welcome addition to the ranks!


    1. Hi ermine – I wish I knew why I pine for “paid work” in my current “early retirement”! Maybe I’m just too conditioned after thirty years of a career to feel a bit lost without it. I tried Voluntary Work but that didn’t do it. It’s not really the money either. It might be a “status” thing, in the sense that work is what I “do” and the pay is a measure of how well it’s being done? In the scheme of things though – having the choice to return to work or not – it’s quite a nice thing to puzzle over.


  13. I’ve always been an introvert – my MB type is INFJ. And as I get older I suffer fools less and less gladly.
    In my career I was always a top notch technologist and a poor manager. Cared too much for my people and got frustrated as a result. In the end I just stuck to the lab as long as I could manage myself.
    When the teams I worked with confronted a technical issue I was probably a suboptimal member – I was often the expert in the room and I got tired of trying to get all the extroverts to listen to my views.
    I probably wouldn’t pass the personality test today to get hired. Sometimes being an early Boomer has its advantages.
    And performance management is just as much an oxymoron as common sense in my view.


    1. Ray, I completely understand – towards the end of my stint I was finding myself increasingly frustrated with the “he who shouts loudest gets to define the solution” style of meeting I was required to attend. I think “required” is probably more accurate than “invited” too.

      I’m definitely an introvert – was happy to work in a team IF the “we’ll listen and take on board any ideas you have” stuff at the beginning was genuine. Usually though, I preferred someone just lob me a chunk of the problem to work on on my own and get on with it undisturbed.

      The micro-management Ermine talks about is, for me, totally counter-productive: do you want the damned job doing, and me out of here (I was a contractor for much of my working life) or do you want this to wind up costing twice as much as it should ? Your call, it’s your money.

      I cannot imagine working in the sort of environments I used to work in now. I’d be totally unemployable in those places now (assuming they still exist – they were handing anything to do with software design and coding off to places in Asia and Eastern Europe before I left the scene, and that wasn’t always yielding the results they expected).

      Like so many others, I really honestly enjoyed my earlier years of work, but like Ermine, I’m glad I’m out of all that now. I couldn’t go back to living out of a suitcase four nights a week with all the weekly driving I used to do either, yet at the time I actually quite enjoyed that too.


  14. Your Erminence,

    I love your rants, [philosophical musings is a more elegant term] this one particularly resonated because it was so close to my personal experience & it’s so good to know you’re not the only one who feels that they can’t hack it in the modern day bee hive of buzzwording, corporate, clone-drones.

    I think that more & more the modern day corporatist workplace is becoming so extreme that the youth sucked in at the inlet pipe now are spat out burned out from the outlet pipe in shorter times. I have had the privilege of working with some wonderful people, some very smart ones & some lucky enough to be both. It was horrible seeing them never having a chance over the long run, especially if they were introverts – whose natural instinct is to shy away from vulgar self-promotion & back-stabbing as an olympic sport.

    My last significant workplace was a twisted Orwellesque microplanet, with it’s own ecology & species making up a unique environment, having the trirumvirate of evil – narcisists, sociopaths & psychopaths as the apex predators. Smart young things coming in fresh from educational institutions after the protection of their parental homes, with little experience of human nature, were like canon fodder. They had to survive a gauntlet of the aforementioned evil trio at board/senior management level, then the parasite class of pissant middle management, just to get to do some work & prove they could do their job. Those remaining were noticeably chastened, silenced little lambs after that ordeal.

    I wonder if the much lamented massive drop in productivity in this country is in a large part due to the haemoraging of talent, from both ends of the workplace age spectrum as decent people try to get off this brutal treadmill that makes so many sick & unhappy just to pay their bills & support their families?

    I know so many who have dropped out prematurely just to save their sanity, I am one,



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