The Violence Of Relentless Positivity In The Workplace

This post is enormous, clocking in at 7.5K words. Strap yourselves in, make some tea, and I hope you can forgive any typos.

Walsh: That's your opinion.

Hitchens: Well, guess what? Guess who's saying it? That's a very clever thing to say. Shall I ask, would you prefer I answer with your opinion? What a fatuous remark.


I have, for the most part, entirely ignored the most senseless negative comments on my writing. Scour the archives and you will see - I'll engage a coherent critique and ignore tone policing. Some of the stupidest and arguably most accurate comments are on this page, and I leave identifying the appropriate category as an exercise to the reader.

However, my reflections on leadership in Leadership Is A Hell Of A Drug held the #1 spot on Hackernews for some time, which comes with hundreds of comments. To recap, it was a rant about being dragged into an insane four hour meeting where nothing was said, and a reflection on how self-identifying as a "leader" is very concerning behavior. I have a great fondness for the Hackernews crowd, as they are by-and-large "my people", but some of the garnered criticism illustrated a class of corporate tone policing blatant enough to warrant some writing. Today, I want to talk about why positivity is so highly-prized in politicized environments, the psychological violence of tone policing and how it impoverishes people spiritually, and how I think about the cynicism of my writing as a person that wants to move beyond giving people hope and catharsis, and instead improving their material conditions too.

Of course, given that I am sure much of the critique was well-intentioned, I will reply in a respectful and proportiona-

This person sounds like an energy vampire. I don't disagree with some of the points, but the way they're conveyed and the writing style make it hard to empathize with them.


An image of an American warship firing a massive broadside.


There is a whole cowardly vocabulary available to attack your fellows in group settings, the most famous of which is "not a team player". I will concede that "energy vampire" is much funnier, more biting in two senses of the word, the writer probably means it because they stand to gain nothing, they didn't say something as personally targeted as "you're an energy vampire", and we don't share a social network so all charges of cowardice are dropped. They probably didn't really feel like they were addressing a real person, which is fine because I wholeheartedly embrace my vampire status. We would likely get along with a minimal of fuss at an office, if only because I suspect they would be a relentless source of nourishment, and I have said stupider things than this in my life. I really have no issue with this person in particular, they've just rolled the natural one and have been singled out. We can get coffee and laugh about how we've both behaved if you're ever in the area. And even though my audience is likely not large enough for this to be necessary, it goes without saying that anyone mentioned should be left in peace. There, that's enough throat clearing.

What a fucking stupid thing to say. What are you talking about? In a company that bills itself as remote-first, we're dragging somewhere between 20-40 people to a four-hour meeting that attendees only commented on with "absolutely hilarious" and "the world has gone mad" and I'm the energy vampire because I decided to write about it? Because you don't like my tone? What parasite do I need to avoid to steer clear of this particular strain of brain rot? The only saving grace of this comment is that it is the least asinine of those which will follow.

This person agreed with what I said. They said as much, so presumably the thing that makes me an energy vampire is that I thought it was okay to express my true feelings on a platform no one forced them to read. This, in itself, is fine, firstly because they also expressed themselves on a platform that I wasn't forced to read, and secondly because their frustration is the only thing that my fell species can subsist on. The only thing that needs explaining is how my expression of negativity, especially when it is very easy to infer that management has committed other transgressions, revealed my membership in the dread court of the night (my local chapter of Agile consultants).

So here's my attempt at explaining it. Amongst people in power at the average (read: dysfunctional) organization, non-positivity is incredibly dangerous. Amongst people that are not in power at an organization, they're so used to the dysfunction never changing, no matter what action is undertaken, that processing the reality of the situation is a waste of precious energy which they could spend staring blankly into space or daydreaming about living in a meritocracy.

III. The Instrumental Utility Of Positivity

To appreciate that positivity is both highly sought-after and is something that should be viewed with suspicion by moral people, we must consider the delicate balance of power in most companies. A family friend, who happens to run a major government institution, once told me that a manager's real job is to control the flow of negative information that reaches their boss. This is repeated independently in Jackall's Moral Mazes and again, equally cynically, in Slava Akmechet's How To Get Promoted.

Here's a first-hand example of the insane hoops people jump through in order to only project positivity. The most popular post I ever wrote was on saving half a million dollars for my employer. In summary, it turned out we were burning approximately A$500,000 per year on idling computers in an organization that is currently losing money every year. I fixed it despite immense pushback and was awarded... A$60 in gift vouchers. In the aftermath of this, I had to have a meeting with my team's lead engineer to prepare a presentation. This meeting was extremely blatant about burying the truth, and we removed everything which suggested a mistake had been made.

That presentation then went to my director, which went to our lowest-ranked member of the C-suite, which finally went to the CFO. At each level, the message was refined into a purer grade of bullshit. I obtained a copy of it a few months ago, and was absolutely gobsmacked by the sheer breathtaking audacity and ugliness of the lies, which consisted of statements just misleading enough to trick a non-technician, and visualizations that were totally inaccurate but could be claimed to be merely illustrative of the general phenomena.

For example, we had halved our bill and saved A$500K. How do you report on that without someone saying that we must have misconfigured something?

Misconfigured? Misconfigured? If you say such a thing in my presence again, I will demand satisfaction, sirrah! No, rather than halving our bill, we had doubled the possible capacity of users on the platform for the same price! Wow, we sound like we aren't fucking idiots when you put it that way! Of course, we had doubled it to the number it was supposed to be when we initially requested all this money from the organization, but we're just going to leave that out and hope no one asks about it. I'm sure glad that we didn't do anything wrong, or we would be culpable for the person that lost their job the week prior. Phew.

What about the actual fix? Surely someone is going to ask about how we set the literal UI field that said "How long do you want to idle this computer after a one second query for?" to ten minutes. Ah, well, you just leave all the absolute numbers out. They put in a little manually-fidgeted-out-of-Powerpoint-shapes chart that showed that previously the computer would operate for a minute, then idle for a minute. Thanks to "efficiencies we had identified through careful analysis of user behavior" (i.e, we did the thing I had been saying to do for months because it was obvious), the computer now operates for a minute, then idles for half a minute! Not bad.

Of course... the queries were actually running for a second and then idling for ten minutes, so we needed one pixel of "operate" to fucking six-hundred pixels of "idle". But we did this chart out of hand-drawn squares, so who could blame us for approximating! Oh, and the minimum timeout on these computers is one minute, so we still get one second of query for a sixty second bill. We genuinely can't help that, but we also don't tell anyone because it still sounds bad. Bad is verboten.

These are the absurd lengths people go to in order to prevent negative information flowing up the chain. The reasons for this are manifold.

Firstly, many people in power are simply nuts. I was speaking to a reader over dinner yesterday, who has a great deal more work experience than me and has served as a CEO of small companies. We were on the topic of avoiding narcissists in our consulting businesses, and I noticed that they had advised me to avoid narcissists about three times over our last two meetings. I have very little insight into the personality of my management because they're always lying to me (in very positive terms) so I asked this reader what percentage of people exhibited such behavior. Their guess was 5% in the general population, up to 10-20% amongst executives due to selection pressure. Very understandably, you do not want to give such a person ammunition to use against you, and because most senior leaders all behave in exactly the same way for complex reasons, you have no idea who you're talking to. A 15% chance, to meet that estimate in the middle, is very close to rolling a six when playing Monopoly. Would you roll the dice on giving someone like that more power over you?

Secondly, leaders, especially non-technical leaders, are completely reliant on reports from staff operating below them. This means that you're always in some dumb game theory experiment. If everyone is honest and the leader is sane, life is good. At any moment, a manager can begin under-reporting failures and then they're going to have meteoric career progression when competing against honest actors. Hell, you can't even be totally protected by a meta-heuristic of "only trust people that sometimes say negative things" because some people are cunning and this strategy is in the metagame. From Slava Akmechet:

Of course you can't seem like you never deliver bad news either. It's a matter of packaging. Bad news is never individualized. If you ever carelessly imply that some team may be doing something poorly, you will make yourself a target for every opportunist in the company. Instead, bad news is always delivered in general terms and always as a matter of slight adjustments to a continuous variable, never as a binary switch.

This, naturally, leads to a stable equilibrium where everything is always positive, unless the problems are minor, and the solution is preferably to hire more staff. Note that you don't even need real sociopaths to do this. Anyone that learns through Pavlovian conditioning that negativity is bad will do well, and anyone that believes hire more programmers is an effective way to deliver software projects faster (which is largely wrong but not obviously wrong to most) will also build an empire.

But it sure helps to be a sociopath, don't get me wrong.

The net effect of this is that positivity is suspicious because it has so much instrumental value and is deployed relentlessly by awful people. Yes, sure, that's good if it's true, but is also basically indistinguishable from someone that's secretly the worst. And then to make it worse, they say they can't be the awful ones, because why would an awful person be so positive? There's no justice.

This is why I loved the book Turn The Ship Around! but was unwilling to endorse it until I heard the author express negativity on the podcast Radio Free XP. Negativity is an expensive signal of honesty, and if it isn't expensive then it's a bad signal.

IV. Positivity Amongst Employees

Amongst employees, the phenomenon of positivity is not explained away so neatly. While it does help employees to get promotions, the average employee is even less likely to be a will-to-power freak that wants to crush everything around them like little insects. We mostly want to earn an honest wage, and are unwilling to cultivate an endless facade. For the most part, employees at dysfunctional organizations are simply conditioned, day in and day out, to view conflict as some sort of life-and-death struggle that must be avoided at all costs, and negativity as dumping barrels of toxic waste into their beautiful stream of thought. Where sociopaths derive material benefits from forced positivity, employees instead use it to blot out the reality of how they're spending forty hours a week of their precious lives attending meetings designed to futilely prevent clowns from making every production input a spreadsheet.

To my eyes, negativity, when not taken to perverse levels, is simply the act of saying "This thing is bad, and more than that, it is bad to the degree that it is a high priority to fix".

I was getting drinks with one of the saner engineer organizations in Melbourne last week - and this is a total aside, but the managers I've met through this blog seem to have staff retention ranging between 2-5x higher than the industry norm. A few drinks in, I remarked that most teams viewed conflict as something to be avoided at all costs. This is the point where both of the lead engineers at that table, who I respect immensely for both their people skills, ethics, and engineering talent, yelled out something along the lines of "Why?!". This probably wouldn't normally warrant a yell, but I must remind you that we were a few drinks in. It turns out that both of them actively cultivate cultures where disagreement is viewed as a good thing because that is an indicator that you're moving closer to the truth. And if you've hired adults, disagreement is actually quite pleasant. You learn a lot, it keeps you engaged, your work turns out better, and this in turn leads to more happiness down the line. And yes, you still get to clock out at 5PM.

If you haven't hired adults, then trying to improve anything is like pushing a boulder up a hill. You push, and push, and push, and then finally give up and it rolls back down the hill. It is very tiring and utterly pointless. Even if the boulder was at the top of the hill, it usually isn't going to cure cancer, but instead ensure that the organization is able to respond to customer complaints 3% faster. This has social utility, but not enough for me to push that boulder for forty years and then fucking die. You only get to push three boulders, if you're lucky, over your whole career. This is why people email me and say they're burned out - they've been pushing the wrong boulder for years, while grifters, morons, and well-meaning people that still think This Boulder Is Important occasionally make the rock heavier.

This, I believe, is why the commenter I picked out chose the phrase "energy vampire" - not because they really think I'm an awful person, but because it must be so exhausting if you agree with my points and further believe that it's inescapable. Everyone has resignedly decided to stop pushing the boulder and, blessedly, the organization has agreed to this in exchange for everyone loudly proclaiming that the rock is already at the top of the hill. The only possible outcome of someone pointing out that the chunk of granite is at an absolute nadir, if you have given up on ever escaping your prison, is that someone might ask you to push it again and now you have to think about what a wretched creature you have become.

In a weird way, I agree with the spirit of the energy vampire comment. The reason I don't say these things at work is largely not because I'm scared of being fired. It's because I don't want to drain people's energy for no reason. There is an approximately 0% chance that things are actually going to improve at most organizations, which is why I wrote exactly that and it resonated with many people. The remarkable thing here is that some people internalize that anti-negativity, knee-jerk, self-preservation reaction so deeply that they'll call me out over it over mediums where I am explicitly not complaining at my actual place of work and they don't have to show off to anyone.

Yep, I think both compulsory 4-hour meetings and long rants complaining about them are a bummer.

These comments are sad to see, and I commiserate, even with the "energy vampire" fellow. We can agree to disagree.

You get what you give and the tone in this piece doesn’t sound like someone willing to give anything, not even four hours of their already-shortened workweek.

Exactly. While he may be very good at something, this kind of person is a net negative for a team.

These comments are made by dweebs and society will be better off when I finish feeding off their auras, leaving naught but lifeless corpses undergoing a fifty year death rattle that just happens to sound like someone talking about sprint velocity.

V. Tone Policing

As someone that has, whether by luck or skill, consistently been able to get eyes on their writing - and here's some deep lore, I used to have another, now defunct, blog when I was 21 that also had a thousand readers on the first day - I can tell you right now that you cannot have real opinions on the internet without attracting criticism. Some of it is valid, but most of it is pretty stupid. My old writing was about epistemic issues in psychology, which are utterly unsurprising to any competent statistician on the field or anyone with a brain. I was young enough that I didn't swear or take an aggressive tone, and it was actually quite mild, but my critique was still ultimately scathing - and ten years later, it was still all correct. The only thing that has changed is that now I don't think undergraduate psychology courses being silly is that important. Nonetheless, some midwits from the University of Reddit immediately replied with accusations that I must be a Scientologist.

This was a formative experience.

To make matters worse, you will have to deal with the painful reality that some of the people who agree with you are probably the exact kind of person that you've been accused of being. Them's the breaks.

You need to be utterly okay with the idea of writing something stupid, and accept that you're going to get what's coming to you. Or be very arrogant. Again, an exercise for the reader to decide. It's not for everyone, but it's fine for more people than you'd think.

The only way to avoid this is to be so utterly bland and sanitized that there's nothing for anyone to object to. People don't object to my writing because I actually swear sometimes, they object because they don't like the broader tone, and that tone is one in which swearing might happen but is hardly the important part. I hated Taleb the first time I read him - I said The Black Swan was the worst book I'd ever read and that Taleb was a smug jerk - until I had enough life experience to go back and appreciate it. I've been the tone police, and I'm the poorer for it.

In some cases it is just people being stupid, but consider the psychologists that asserted that I'm a Scientologist. From personal experience, they are very happy when I turn up and say that we need to make some small improvements to our scientific rigor, because this is actually evidence that they don't need to change anything. Each discussion they have in calm, polite tones, very careful not to step on anyone's toes, does not move them closer to fixing anything, it moves them closer to doing nothing. In almost any large institution, be it a company, lab, or sports team, any priority that is not the highest is going to be completely abandoned. The mental model most people have (including me in the past) is that you're incrementally building the case for fixing the system, but you are actually consolidating the status of the issue as utterly unimportant. The two ways to avoid addressing an issue are to ignore it or to repeatedly discuss it in mild terms.

Ignoring it is dangerous, because someone might turn up and say "Holy shit, we've been falsifying our results! The emperor wears no clothes! Zimbardo was a fraud!", and now you are forced to respond.

Much safer is to firmly cement it as a priority... just a priority that isn't even close to the highest. That way you still get to ignore it, but whenever someone says "Oh my God, shouldn't we stop the database from burning A$500K, and why do we have all these meetings, and why does the codebase have no tests?", you can now say "Ah yes, we've collectively decided that nothing needs to change, and we've actually got lots of cultural history within the organization to confirm that you're acting crazy right now". All you have to do at most companies is pop open your Jira backlog and look at all the languishing low-priority cards - they are functionally deleted as long as higher priority work continues to come in, which is for eternity.

It is the same reason that it's so easy for people to behave poorly in short bursts over extended periods of time, be it a manager or your roommate that only cleans the dishes once every two weeks. If each individual transgression doesn't seem to quite warrant a HR complaint or a conversation, you just sort of sit there repeatedly thinking "That was an awful thing to do". When you finally snap, which I've seen someone do after being bullied for months, they were cast as being utterly unreasonable over a single slightly aggressive message. When they started to bring up the receipts over the past few months, they were quickly cast as an insane non-team-player, because who the hell keeps a log of those minor transgressions even though that is the only possible way to deal with such behavior? Yes, there are tones that are inappropriate for the workplace, but you don't deal with this by having oppressive social norms, you handle this by hiring functional people that are willing to learn and think of others, and certainly not by expecting your employees to be milquetoast robots.

Well, not if you want to be the sort of person that really cares about not wasting forty hours of precious human time and wisdom, per colleague, per week, for the entirety of your career.

Tone is a vital part of communicating your emotional reality and mental health situation. The relentless demand for employees to express themselves in ways that are necessarily inadequate for affecting organizational change, implicating others in unacceptable behavior, and voicing authenticity is, to my eyes, nothing short of a form of violence. I'd certainly take it over having someone work my kneecaps over with a lead pipe, but I assure you that vulnerable people have absolutely been harmed by this over extended periods of time.

Due to the nature of my writing, I am frequently in correspondence with people that have paid the price of dealing with toxic environments for years, before finally realizing that everyone around them has either been quietly suffering or actively exploiting them. I've been that person, though at least in my case I was born cynical and knew I was being exploited over visa conditions. A lot of damage can be done before you realize that it's time to distance yourself from such a relationship. I spend a fair amount of time connecting readers with each other, hopefully in a way that helps them find a better life.

Meanwhile, these absolute motherfuckers are out here vomiting whatever half-digested thoughts they've formed after admitting they didn't finish reading the article, then (metaphorically) accusing people of being Scientologists. I hope you stub both your toes, break out in an embarrassing rash, then get asked to manage your organization's SharePoint. Your opinions are but the minuscule, crystalline hell-facets of the jet-black chandelier hanging in Satan's bedroom.

I just punched the word 'gaslit' into my inbox. I have no idea what that word means anymore, but we all get the vibe.

Thanks for writing your blog. It decreases my anxiety a lot whenever I read it. Makes me feel normal and right instead of feeling frustrated and gaslit by various managers around me.

We're all people who work for a class of people that have built a cult around getting engineers to drink the kool aid and gaslight themselves into finding a third end to burn their candles at.

To this day, I'm not entirely sure what happened. I think I did make one or two mistakes, but instead of ever correcting or addressing them, my boss bullied and gaslit me, and then fired me anyway. It was traumatic.

I feel like I've spent the last 2 years being consistently gaslit by incompetents, self-unreflective rogues, and complicit psychos who won't get their personality disorders managed. I'm sure you've noticed it in the comments on HN whenever your blog is posted there: tone-policing, nit-picking, and more social theatre. Amusing if you can step back and see it for what it is, but very "unbalancing" (as you've aptly written before) when you're surrounded by it.

On behalf of these readers, get a backbone, some opinions that aren't corporate-approved kipple, and then go fuck yourselves to restore some karmic balance.

VI. The Case For Cynicism-Bred Optimism

There's a danger, upon really seeing corporate dysfunction for the first time, that one might become so cynical that they lose their will to continue striving or to give up on their values. It is a very, very real danger. I know at least one person who I otherwise like who has developed atrocious intuitions around how to treat people in the workplace... which he picked up from watching administrators at mental healthcare institutions and hospitals.

In February of 2023, I was in danger of falling into that first category. I was starting to believe that there was really no way to ethically earn a living (sufficiently good to own a house one day) that wasn't tantamount to accepting that I'd be pushed around by empty suits all day. Many of the happier people I spoke with simply had kids and didn't really care about all the time wasted at work as long as it kept their children happy... which is also fine, but I don't have kids. Many of the smarter engineers that I spoke to over that period admitted that they just want to earn the highest pay possible for the smallest amount of time - which I respect, but they said it in away that indicated they aren't actually very happy with that arrangement.

I get it. The world is frequently wearying. From your refrigerator breaking down to a family member falling ill, there are days where it feels like you're simply getting insult and insult heaped upon you, usually topped off by being stuck on traffic to mull them all over. In my case, I found there was a period where I wallowed a little bit, and then you simply have to get on with things. Everyone is allowed to fall into a miserable heap sometimes, for months if they need to, but eventually you have to get back on the horse, whether that's going for a run or getting back to work.

To me, there are many people who want to pretend that everything is awesome or are willfully blind. This is why someone so esteemed as Rich Hickey felt it necessary to say, in hammock-driven development that "not everything is awesome". Everything being awesome is a plague. They're highly-attuned to the good things that exist in nearly every person, and deathly allergic to cynicism as a vibe-killer. Hence the ol' "long rants are a bummer" viewpoint. Bummer aversion makes for pleasant people typing alongside you, or to get coffee with, but extremely reluctant allies against most institutional issues.

To quote one of the co-directors at my own company:

They're supportive! ...Just of everything.

Simultaneously, I run into tons of people that never leave the doom-and-gloom zone. Sometimes they have seen so much awful stuff with no visible way out that they give up. Sometimes, less attractively, they think cynicism is the same thing as wisdom. Everyone is allowed to be a sad sack - I was probably awful to be around when I was depressed - but I was allowed to energy drain friends and family long enough to write this today, more full of piss and vinegar than ever before. After a few months, if you're able, the "everything is hopeless" needs to be discarded. I'm fully of sympathy for someone that can't get themselves out of bed on some days, but I hope you'll try to get out sometimes.

More frequently though, the cynical people are highly-attuned to injustice and bullshit. If you really believe that the organization just needs to Be More Agile, there's nothing at all offensive in attending a four hour meeting on that topic. If you don't, then you see this meeting as representative of a process that drains people's souls every day across the world, and you think of the social patterns that allows that to happen, and the next thing you know you're livid because this four hour meeting is emblematic of why every database at every hospital I've worked at has been a fucking dumpster fire that statistically kills patients through sheer inefficiency.

So I'll lay a few things out, and they're going to be positive. I'm simply going to have to live with the fact that they may sound preachy or self-help. I'm very wary of falling into what one reader called the "advice-giving archetype", but I have advice to give nonetheless. It's all my opinion and some of it may not be good... but I can't give someone else's opinions.

Falling Headfirst Into The Advice-Giving Archetype

I. Finding Work

I've mentioned before that I don't believe that large, dysfunctional environments can be fixed from the inside. There are a few rare exceptions, such as David Marquet becoming a submarine captain and being able to just demand new initiatives be tried, but you aren't going to be a submarine captain. The case for hope lies not in trying to transform dysfunctional places (this strikes me as like trying to transform a toxic partner), but in playing a different game entirely. The recurring theme in my case for hopefulness isn't related to some wishy-washy "educate your stakeholders and they'll respect your work" LinkedIn-approved nonsense. It's that if your tactics are sophisticated and you leverage some authenticity, you can escape such environments or alter your relationship with them - such as coming in as a very expensive consultant or going freelance. Yes, my employer gave me a vaguely insulting gift card. On the other hand, I strongarmed them into letting me work three days a week for 1.5 years because they kept scoring own-goals, and their general incompetence was the fuel for this blog. That's not a terrible trade.

Dry land and good workplaces are not a myth! I've seen them! I haven't gotten permission to namedrop any of them here in Melbourne (okay, one company) but they're out there. I've got a standing invitation to get drinks with one group here - they play Factorio together, all their keyboards have thirty keys, and generally just seem to be having a great time.

Aforementioned good companies take a lot of work to find. There are a surprising number of them, and they avoid gross political issues due to staying small. Because they're nice to be at, they have lengthy average stays. I.e, they have a small number of positions that are infrequently vacated, so if you want to be at one of them, start networking now and you can probably get one in 1-2 years. Also they will sometimes implode if the founders move on. Them's also the breaks, but at that point you'll have a network that only accepts high quality. There, now you've got a responsibility to go find one.

Doom-and-gloom around big companies is warranted, but the best big companies are orders of magnitude better than the worst big companies. I'm pretty confident that I'm at a median institution and it still rots my brain, so just imagine how bad the worst ones are. Don't be at the worst ones, and keep pushing until you're happy. Don't compromise as long as your other life circumstances allow for it.

Some social causes require working at a big company, and that's okay if you really care about them. My friends and I joke about looking for the mythical data job of CancerDB, the terribly designed database that you maintain to help cure cancer. I'll push that boulder to cure cancer, I will not do that to increase Google's ad revenue 0.0001%. For many people, once you have kids, every company is basically CancerDB because it feeds your kids and sends them to college. That's fair enough, but it's no wonder that those of us that aren't at that stage of their life (or never intend to be) get so antsy in the same environments.

II. Health

I traded A$50,000 in 2023 (by going down to three days a week) in exchange for getting my health back. I really didn't appreciate my health until I lost it, and now that it's back and I can work again, you can be sure I'm not going to waste it on the kind of malevolent jerks I write about here. If you're younger than me (and I'm not old) and haven't been through the ringer yet, address any declines in your physical or mental health with an embarrassment of firepower.

III. Everything Is Tactics

Not having a degree doesn't matter if you're cunning. Frankly, if you aren't cunning, basically nothing moves the needle drastically, in my experience. However, they are a useful way to legally buy a temporary visa in a first-world country, which is probably very relevant to some readers. Other than that, they aren't an excuse to not try to do better. It takes three years to get a degree, and you can luck into several really good jobs by studying and networking for three years.

Over dinner yesterday, the reader I was with (the same David Kellam mentioned here) described Human-Computer Interaction as a series of models colliding. You have the model of the system, the mental model of the user, and the mental model of the designer. It is the designer's job to make the system's interface conform to what the user imagines. This is why I can reliably find the power switch on every model of kettle I've ever run into, but had to spend ten hours reading Pro Git to really understand how to rebase things. I mention this because my first thought was of the people I know that flail at institutions and their life circumstances ineffectively. Systems don't care what you think of them, only what they are, and this is why I think cynicism is a necessary component of personal happiness. Given that we know good workplaces and happiness exist, given sufficient time and adequate tactics, these things are attainable by most people. Positivity is well and good, but must be paired with the greatest strategy and tactics that you can conceive of and execute on. You have to take the right actions because material conditions and strategy matter. Cynicism lets you perceive this when well-calibrated.

This also means that everyone has to take responsibility for seeking a way out, not because you should be blaming yourself, but because no one is really able to do it for you. But we can help, which is why I still connect readers one-at-a-time while my partner disapprovingly mentions how many emails I'm replying to. By the way, you wouldn't believe the number of emails I get from people that say something like "I work in abusive shit-hole staffed by malicious demons", followed pretty quickly by "And I've been here for five years and haven't really looked for a new job".

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Ahem. You have to take the right actions because material conditions and strategy matter, and staying at a garbage organization without even trying to leave is terrible strategy.

Sometimes I meet people who say that they aren't too worried about money, usually after failing to negotiate at all beyond the first offer they ever received. They are not really fooling anyone - they panicked and wanted an excuse to not talk about money, which is convenient for employers and not for them. The reason I can work three days a week is that I maxed out the money slider enough that I could afford the pay cut, and frankly, I'm not that good at it. You have to take the right actions because material conditions and strategy matter, and not taking free money is terrible strategy.

If your exit plan is to start your own business that pays your income rather than aiming for bajillions of dollars, in 99% of cases, building something before a third-party has committed social or monetary capital is probably a bad idea. The most common failure mode for engineers is to build something and watch as the mythical "they" absolutely do not come, so you should have a violent reaction towards any course that could conceivably result in this outcome. You have to take the right actions because material conditions and strategy matter. Not noticing the trail of skulls of people that went down that pathway in the jungle is terrible strategy.

Look. I’m the last person who’s going to deny that the road we’re on is littered with the skulls of the people who tried to do this before us. But we’ve noticed the skulls. We’ve looked at the creepy skull pyramids and thought “huh, better try to do the opposite of what those guys did”.

Networking is not an ugly thing, provided you don't do it with ugly intent or disreputable people. I only became convinced of this when I realized that there are enough cool people in the world to allow me to network exclusively with the type of person that will play Helldivers 2 with me, at which point this is indistinguishable from friendship. Almost all good things will come to you through good people, so this is the most valuable resource that exists.

Applying to jobs by optimising your CV is dreadful. Build your network, then rely on your network. Understand that many people hiring don't know what they want, and if you desperately need an exit, just say whatever they want to hear. If they ask if you're good at Python and you think you're a beginner, just say you're an expert. This applies to all subjective questions. Anyone stupid enough to ask questions like that without verifying the answers makes you an expert relative to them anyway. This is another game-theoretic situation where you will lose to confident hucksters if you don't improve your game. Say it with me: You have to take the right actions because material conditions and strategy matter.

IV. On Evil

Being evil is not necessary unless you want to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, are desperate (in rare cases), or your tactics are so bad that you can't afford any constraints. This is a cause for great celebration because this is not a moral truth, just a convenient fact about how society is configured. There is another universe where everyone works in the acid mines and being honest is always incorrect, and we thankfully don't live there despite what some people say.

Don't lie to people that are well-and-truly in your network and tribe. No one cares what you tell an oil company when your spouse needs healthcare, but if you get a job through this blog, for example, you had better be telling the truth because real people are going out on a limb for you. And being a good person is better for your soul and your material circumstances, as long as you are careful to save true vulnerability for other good people.

There are certain people who tell any person they meet things that should only be confided to friends, unburdening themselves of whatever is on their minds into any ear they please. Others again are shy of confiding in their closest friends, and would not even let themselves, if they could help it, into the secrets they keep hidden deep down inside themselves. We should do neither. Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one (though I should call the first the worthier and the second the safer behaviour).

VII. A Personal Note

A commenter wrote this:

My rule is “If you’re complaining you better be quitting”.

Now that is a fair point. Also their name is Tea, Earl Grey, Cold. Such a person deserves respect.

I've been lounging around my mediocre employer for long enough, and I think it's about time I moved on. There's complaining for fun, and then there's complaining. I'm going to be 30 this year and it is dawning on me that I don't have time to waste on these people. While writing this, I reached out to my manager and let him know I'm looking for new work, which I promised to do when I took the job (they can hate me as much as they want as long I have fulfilled all my personal promises).

He asked if he should join the ongoing retro to see what the problem was, which was most adorable thing I've ever seen a manager say. Ah, to believe that people surface real issues at retros in dysfunctional organizations.

I'm out looking for better work, which may or may not kill the best of my writing when I get there (whatever that's worth). Only time will tell. If you're in Australia, NZ, or at an organization that would hire someone working from there, reach out to me. Even if you aren't hiring now, I'd love to hear about the work you do if you're vaguely happy, and what it took to get there - I'll also head back through my inbox and reconnect with anyone that has previously offered to talk to me about work.

Rest assured I am a reasonably well-adjusted person, or I wouldn't get invited to people's offices and introduced to their CEOs.

I suppose that's all for now. I feel a great peace washing over me.

Wow, if I was the leader of this person's company I would immediately terminate them.

It is so toxic to work with people who are this entitled. Getting this upset over a mandatory meeting? What a nightmare. You know this is just the tip of the iceberg for their bad behavior if they are the type to publish a seething screed over something so banal.

I don't like four hour meetings either. But give me a break. Running companies is hard, keeping teams aligned is hard. Sometimes keeping things going requires doing things that we don't like. That's just called being an adult.




You stupid son of a bitch. You drooling imbecile. Everyone thinks you're a dickhead, and I'd rather gargle knives than be within eight steps of you on an org chart, let alone work for you.

"If I was the leader of this person's company", holy shit, you wish, you fucking sycophant. The termites in your frontal cortex must have burrowed deep and feasted well to enable you to write this, and it is unsurprising to see that you'd write it on a throwaway account. The dual curse of being both a coward and loser must be unbearable. No one gives two shits what you would do if you ran a company because you're too impotent to even grift your way to the top. You remind me of a guy I knew who screamed at his employees while busily launching his literal eight failed company in a row. He'd sit in his office, flipping between negging interns and gazing wistfully at cars he couldn't afford, sometimes painfully joking-not-joking that he wished he could buy one. That's you, except you've taken the art form of being a fucking unlikable dipshit to new heights by doing this from the downvoted section of the Hackernews peanut gallery, the only place sadder than a $0 revenue startup.

What a fucking energy vampire.