Thursday, 31 October 2013

Low-Odds Campaigns (1): Making Outsiders

Most of the things we do in our daily lives are learnable and predictable: we can learn to do them properly, and what we learn works every time. Making an omelette, shaving, buying the weekly groceries, driving a car from here to there, using the diary on your phone, swiping into the office, making half-useful comments during some interminable conference call at work, booking a theatre ticket... you get the idea. Stuff where your actions interact with Nature (omelettes), or with people who are following the rules (driving), tends to learnable and predictable.

At the other end of the scale is the really important stuff: job searching, number-farming, new product development, athletic competition, scientific and mathematical research, starting a band, electoral campaigning in a hard core Opposition constituency or getting your book published or your movie made (never mind distributed afterwards)... to name but a few. Stuff where you need other people, usually pretty much people who are total strangers, to approve, buy, and otherwise accept what you have made, or in some cases, the product that you made that is you... that stuff is not just hard.

It's random. Anything that depends on someone else saying that I nailed it is always going to have a strong element of random. This isn't the random of competition where I do well but on the day someone else does better - that's fair, that's the game. This is the random where what I did yesterday doesn't work today, where what plays in Putney doesn't work in Woking and positively bombs in Brighton.

Sometimes the random gets overwhelmed by numbers: they have fifty vacancies and ten decent applicants, guess what? I get a job. They have fifty vacancies and five hundred applicants, guess what? I get a formulaic rejection. And I know someone who got one of those jobs, and they are much the same as me in all relevant respects. There is nothing I can do right, and very little I can do that's guaranteed to sink the deal. Name any rule, there's always an exception. There's little to learn from rejections, because the rejectors usually use carefully neutral language to be polite and avoid legal action. Even when they do give real-sounding reasons, those that aren't about shaming are about personal preference - unless I really did turn up drunk or unwashed. It's random.

Combine a process that requires another person to give you the nod with a high applicant-to-opportunity ratio (anything over 5:1) and you have a low-odds campaign. What I'm going to suggest is when low-odds campaigns are compulsory, or nearly so, there are unexpected and undesirable consequences.

Let's say I'm out of work, looking for a job and the labour market has a case of flu. I do two things. The first is the mechanics of the job-search process. Then there's a bunch of stuff I need to do to survive that process. I cut down on expenses and simplify how I live to conserve money; claim benefits if I can't avoid it (it's amazingly depressing to do given how little time it actually takes and it exposes me to a bureaucracy that can send me to zero-hour no-money no-skill jobs just to keep thier numbers looking good). I need to un-identify myself from employment so that I don't feel worthless because I'm unemployed; I learn to value myself because I'm fit, healthy, interesting, have an immaculately clean house (I have to keep busy, right?), can cook nourishing low-cost meals and have read the entire canon of classical literature on my Kindle for free (the TV subscriptions go in the first month). If I'm one of the creative minority, I can work on some low-cost projects. I discover that much of my social life costs way too much and as a consequence I stop seeing a lot of "friends". I discover that my "networks" weren't about me, but my role at the company, and that nobody knows who's hiring. I learn to maintain my spiritual and intellectual health independently of the world of work and a lot of normal social contact. And by the way? People who can't do almost all those things collapse and rot inside. I have no idea how a married man with children survives, but here's a clue: I don't think they do.

If you think this sounds character-building?  Well, maybe it is, but look at the character it builds. I no longer derive any sense of value or identity in the institution of employment, nor much from the company of other people. I have survived without the support of "networks", of acquaintances, of social life, and probably without, uh, adult intimacy. I don't have a career, which requires emotional investment, but a day job; I focus on skills and re-sellable achievements, not on making your institutions work; I have seen behind the curtain of the mainstream job-seeking and career advice and smelled the bullshit.

This is an Outsider. And there's more ways of getting there than being out of work.

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