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You know you’ve hit the big time when people offer to do free work for you. Is there anything more rat-faced than getting other people to prepare content for which you can take all the credit? (If there is, please let me know, and please show me, for free, how to do it.) It is therefore in this spirit that I offer up my first guest post, by “a Microwave Engineer.” My comments are in square brackets/italics here and there.


How to Interview for a Job
by a Microwave Engineer
Preparation

If you’ve actually gotten a job interview in today’s economy, congratulations!  Many people are having trouble even getting to this stage. Now it’s time to sell yourself to your prospective employer.  The sales job is not an act of telling how awesome you are.  Instead, it’s a conversation between two parties (you and your prospective employer) about what the job requires, who you will be working with and for and whether your skills are a good fit for the job.  Be sure to show up ahead of schedule, treat the front desk people with politeness and respect, and wear a wedding/funeral suit that fits.  Bring a notebook to write down each interviewer’s name and what was discussed. [This is absolutely key, because you will be joining a business team, and this shows awareness of this fact. -rfm] The higher the position you are interviewing for, the longer the interview will take. Do as much research on your interviewers and their work as possible before you are in front of them.  If someone has written an interesting paper or article or was in the news, be prepared to discuss it with them.  If you don’t know who will be interviewing you, ask.  If the job is technical, be prepared to answer technical questions correctly.  This can involve a couple of weeks of guessing at the questions you may be asked and preparing answers.  Make flash cards, etc. [All of this bolded advice in particular is solid gold and will greatly increase your interviewers’ affirmative commitments to hiring you. -rfm] None of this prep is wasted if you don’t get the job.  After prepping for the current interview, you may choose later to interview with this employer’s competitors or you may discover how your current experience is related to another job that is a better fit or pays better.

The Job
During the interview, step one is to ask a lot of questions about the job and take notes.  At this stage, prove you are a good listener by letting the interviewer speak and, when he is done, repeating an accurate summary of the job back to him and then asking, “Do I understand this correctly?”  It’s axiomatic that employers like good listeners.  You are also trying to determine if you can do the job.  You don’t want to take a job you can’t do.  While it’s great to take a job that’s a stretch for your current skills, it’s a terrible idea to take a job where you’ll be fired in six months for selling yourself into a job you can’t do.
Your Experience
After you understand the job, the next step is to explain how your experience relates to the job.  This involves explanation.  Don’t over-think this: be confident and sell yourself.  It’s great to practice this part with a wife or friend who is a known solid performer in some field.  Becoming successful in any field follows a similar process, so your successful friend/wife/husband is the right person to practice-interview you.  Solid performers hate have trash-cans on their teams and know how to weed them out.  Remember: relate your experience and interests to the job description above.  SPEAK TO THE PROMPT.  Don’t yammer on about how awesome you are generally, because you’re not.  Managers have a huge fear of hiring someone who doesn’t work out who they can’t get rid of.  Set their minds at ease.  Always remember that you are being hired to bring more money into the company than you cost in wages, benefits and taxes.  Make them believe you will do this.  This is especially true for jobs that pay a lot of money.  If you’re getting high pay, you’d better deliver on it.
The Team
Interviews are conducted by your direct manager and your potential team.  While you’re interviewing, ask yourself, “Can I work for/with these people? Do I like them? Will they like me?  Where will I be working?”  You’re well advised to be curious and ask probing-but-respectful questions that can help you avoid years of heartache in the future.  Just as managers are afraid of hiring the wrong person, you should be afraid of taking a job with the wrong people.  Almost any job can be good if the team is fun, hardworking, and creative.
Wrap Up
Thank every interviewer for their time.  Figure out how to get them a thank you note before you conclude with each of them. Write thank you notes and deliver them.  [This advice is, IMO, situational. In some jobs it is not expected and might look funny—for example, in on-campus recruitment for legal or banking jobs. -rfm] Follow up with the hiring manager.  Be sure to get his contact information.  Put yourself in the shoes of your hiring manager: interviewing really sucks and it’s hard to find good talent.  If you act like a professional, it’s easy to set yourself apart from your competitors for the job.
Closing thoughts
If you don’t get the job, it doesn’t mean you are a loser.  Rather, the job wasn’t a good fit for you or someone else was better-qualified.  Every interview is an opportunity to get better at interviewing.  I often interview for jobs I am only modestly interested in just to hone my skills.  I find it fun because I know I’m going to win.  Once they think they have to have you, negotiating salary should be pretty easy.
Ask questions in the comments.

Stevedore Jobs

 

The Rat-faced Man wants to draw your attention to salience. This is the house term I’m using to describe how much attention a career path (or a life script) commands. No one can think of every possible job or opportunity. What’s more, our socializations run along similar lines, so all of us are likely to have gaps in our maps of possibilities.

Popular media doesn’t help, because when it does address the question of unusual jobs, it tends to do so from a sensationalist, clickbait position that is grossly disinformative to people trying to make life decisions. Stuff like that isn’t far removed from “it’s the ice roads for you, my son!” If you’re the kind of person who’s going to go into crab fishing, you probably aren’t getting the idea from BusinessPundit.com.

Even slightly less misleading pieces are still pretty misleading. Most of the jobs listed have a high rate of churn, so they are constantly hiring, but that doesn’t mean they have enough structural demand to meet the number of qualified applicants. Instead, they constantly burn through new ones but retain relatively few for long-term career tracks. It’s not impossible to thrive in this environment, but if you go the IT route (for instance) you should expect a succession of short-term contracts with relatively high base pay but little in the way of stability or benefits.

The title of this post refers to the fancy name for a dockworker job. Back in the early 20th century, it was strenuous, unskilled labor, packing goods by hand and loading them with a rope and pulley. Today, however, it’s performed with equipment. And equipment operators can do pretty well, even if kids today have no idea that this career path exists.

This is how kids actually think:

In fact doctor is the most popular profession for girls, at 16%, followed by teacher at 7%, scientist at 4.5% and chef/baker at 4%. Among boys, the most popular future job is pro athlete at 16%. Firefighter comes in second, at a little over 5%, followed by engineer at just below 5% and astronaut at 4%.

Overwhelmingly, what you see are civil service, public safety, doctorlawyerscientistengineer, and computers. In other words, things that are on TV or otherwise highly visible in books by Richard Scarry. Is it really possible that we’re letting millions of people get derailed because they are selecting occupations using a dartboard and books for toddlers?

In a sane, functional society, we probably wouldn’t have delegated career guidance to network TV and people who make under $1,000 a week. Since we have, as a highly-skilled professional with hiring experience, allow me to step in and use my expertise to link a reddit thread:

Guidance counselors: it’s one thing if your job can be made obsolete by a robot. What about when you’re outperformed by reddit?

Training for Failure

Unlike the neighbors, who had expensive wall-to-wall carpet and furniture sets from Seaman’s, we had wood floors and oriental rugs, and I grew up believing that we were superior because of it. Even when I got older and began to run into my financial problems, I never had a conscious desire for a lot of money. I was never interested in being rich. I just wanted to live in a place with oak floors.

We’ve been talking about media-driven life scripts for a while now here at the Rat-faced Man. The protagonist of today’s episode, Meghan Daum, is an interesting case because, on the one hand, she’s won all kinds of prizes—a Guggenheim, a PEN, even a 2016 NEA fellowship (good timing on that one, Meghan)—and on the other, she’s also survived long, lean years as a broke writer. It’s not the worst outcome possible, of which more in a moment, but it’s not the best either. I consider the arc to be catastrophic early flop followed by slow rebuilding. What’s amazing is how avoidable the former was and how much of a win in the second act it took to settle the debts from the first.

By now, the “caviar ambitions/Wonderbread resources” trap should be familiar, so no need to belabor it. Basically, Ms. Daum fell in love with the lifestyle depicted in Woody Allen movies and decided that she’d rather be Mia Farrow than the wife of a suburban orthodontist. In order to become a hip part of the arts scene, she took poverty jobs (which today would be unpaid internships—the events in this article took place over 15 years ago) and got to enjoy a romantic life of credit card debt and cockroaches until she finally got smart and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. Note that “[h]ousing is 84% cheaper in Lincoln.” Her $1,055 apartment in Manhattan would have cost $169 in Lincoln. Imagine what kind of apartment you could get for $169 in Lincoln, then move it 10 roach-infested stories into the air and you’re getting close. Her $59,000 earnings in Manhattan were equivalent to $21,000 in Lincoln, or to put it another way, if you were earning over $10.50 an hour in Lincoln, you were coming out ahead. Store managers in Lincoln were clowning on her almost as bad as NYC garbagemen were.

Ms. Daum was born in 1970 and is thus a mid-period Gen Xer. And:

[I]mportant national and cultural events [helped] delineat[e] the evolution of boomers’ group-hug approach to life, [but] Eddie Bauer shopping bags and Sprite tags provide the anthropologically significant evidence explaining Gen-Xer traits like “materialism” and” competitiveness.” Gee, how’d that happen?

In 1997, I guess it was excusable for a bunch of interns at Wired to make fun of Eddie Bauer and Sprite when talking about consumerism, but the really insidious consumerism is left untouched by this easy mockery. The really insidious consumerism, as we’ve had no choice but to learn in the post-crisis era, is predominantly about education and housing as part of a “lifestyle.” I guess somebody somewhere may perhaps have ruined his life by compulsively buying more Sprite than he could afford, maybe? What about the 40% of people who aren’t paying their student loans? A little perspective is warranted, surely? It’s sobering to think of how much Ms. Daum really paid for those threadbare Persian carpets and creaky oak floors.

But at that, she’s lucky to have escaped a worse fate:

I never thought I’d be living in my car at age 66. When I was younger, I never thought I’d spend my golden retirement years living out of my car. For most of my life I had a roof over my head, food on my table, and steady work as a journalist and writer. I grew up living a middle-class life. I was able to live and travel to many places close and far from my native state of New York. Most of my adult life has been in California and Nevada, but I also traveled around the world to Europe and India after graduating college…

CeliaSue Hecht’s writing work has been featured in more than 40 local and national newspapers and magazines, on her dog travel blog, in newsletters, and in five romantic travel guides. She has traveled around the world and has written and led seminars and workshops in the US and Europe. Her travels have included about 245 cities.

From the sounds of it, Ms. Hecht’s travels may soon include even more cities! Brunch courtesy of La Poubelle.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

The importance of that to me is that it was a demonstration of the Baby Boom generation, of their numbers, of their strength, of their clout, of their power, which is in straight quantity—numbers. There were 76 million Americans born between the years ’46 and ’64. They were trained by Dr. Spock to be demand-fed. They were the first consumer species, they were the first electronic species—the fact that you were an American and young meant that you deserved the world.

Sounds like it was pretty sweet while it lasted, doesn’t it? Boomers: take drugs for 5 years while living on the beach and boning hippie chicks; get 20 hr-week 6-figure gig when they get bored. U: cower and scurry for rat-faced man; lie to the government that you’re not working overtime so that you don’t become eligible for health insurance and thus too expensive to your boss; wonder if you’ll make rent (no.) Anyway, however good Leary’s advice might have been for the most effortlessly prosperous generation ever, it’s the reverse of good advice today. You should turn off and tune out but still drop out—of vidya.

We’ve heard for years that we’ve reached full employment. But we also know lots of young people are bumming around—15% are NEETs, in fact—and that must mean that the official employment numbers are trash. Only 87% of men in their prime working years are working, mostly due to “voluntary departures from the workforce.” That’s roughly the same level out of work as during the Great Depression.

Why would someone voluntarily depart from the workforce? Even in a juggalo-haunted hellscape, there must be some work. At least you could move! So what are they doing instead? The answer is basically playing vidya games. That’s literally what people do now instead of having jobs.

Odds are that you’re hooked on vidya. “So what,” comes the reply. “You’re just old and boring!” I probably am, but that defensiveness is telling. Vidya, especially modern vidya, is a problem. Everyone knows it. No one knows how to say it, but it is. It’s like drugs. People while away their lives on vidya.

Guys who were really into vidya in the 1980s were complete losers (sad!) Their loserdom has been documented exhaustively.  (To be fair, the King of Kong himself has ratfaced effectively in the restaurant industry.) But back then, vidya hadn’t morphed into the sweet, perfect bitch that it’s become today. It was still a toy. Kids didn’t play vidya to the exclusion of other activities. Going to an arcade cost money, the games were designed to kick you off quickly, and it was a social activity that got you out of the house. Today, even arcade gaming is dominated by obsessives :

But home gaming is a whole new level of obsession. In fact, home gaming is a corporate product engineered (with wild success) to induce addiction. Don’t believe me? Here’s how the first really big-time MMORPG earned the nickname “Evercrack“:

The rewards cycle in EverQuest begins with instant gratifications. When you start a new character, everything you need to do is close by – finding the guildmaster; finding mobs to kill. The first few mobs you attack die in several swings and you make level 2 in about 5 kills. By the time you make level 3 half an hour later, you are more aware of the underlying skill points, the accumulation of money, and gain a desire to get better equipment. Gradually, it takes longer and longer to get to the next level… The one-click reward disappears, and is gradually replaced by rewards that take more and more clicks to get. And suddenly, some of us find ourselves clicking away for hours in front of a forge or jewellery kit.

This process of guiding an individual to perform more and more elaborate and complex tasks is known as shaping in Operant Conditioning. It is usually explained in textbooks in conjunction with Skinner Boxes…

There are several schedules of reinforcement that can be used in Operant Conditioning. The most basic is a fixed interval schedule, and the rat in the Skinner Box is rewarded every 5 minutes regardless of whether it presses the lever. Unsurprisingly, this method is not particularly effective. Another kind of reinforcement schedule is the fixed ratio schedule, and the rat is rewarded every time it presses the lever 5 times. This schedule is more effective than the fixed interval schedule. The most effective method is a random ratio schedule, and the rat is rewarded after it presses the lever a random number of times. Because the rat cannot predict precisely when it will be rewarded even though it knows it has to press the lever to get food, the rat presses the lever more consistently than in the other schedules.

A random ratio schedule is also the one that EverQuest uses…  Another frequently encountered figure in introductory psychology textbooks is Maslow, known for his proposed hierarchy of needs. Maslow sees human needs in a pyramid scheme. At the bottom are basic hunger and thirst needs. Then follows security. At the top of the pyramid are aesthetic needs and personal achievements, which would only be possible on a strong foundation of sated hunger and security needs. Thus, even though personal achievements are more rewarding than filling an empty stomach, these achievements are only possible once you’ve filled your stomach. But EverQuest makes it possible for Joes and Janes to become heroes. EverQuest makes it so that you can slay Vox in a guild raid on an empty stomach. What happens when people can feel achievement through continuous mouse-clicking?

This question was asked in 2001. Well, most of a generation later, it turns out that there’s an answer. What happens is that an awful lot of people stop pursuing real achievements in favor of virtual pellet collection.

For low-skilled men in their 20s, employment rates have fallen by about 10 percentage points over the last 15 years—from 82 percent in 2000 to only 72 percent in 2015. This decline is staggering. You might think it’s matched by a rise in school attendance for this age group. That is not the case.

The following may be the most shocking number I give you today: in 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men aged 21–30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months. Think about that for a second. Every time I see it, that number blows my mind. In 2000, the fraction of young, lower-skilled men that didn’t work at all during the prior year was a little under 10 percent. Men in their 20s historically are a group with a strong attachment to the labor force. The decline in employment rates for low-skilled men in their 20s was larger than it was for all other sex, age, and skill groups during this same time period.

You may have a few questions in the back of your mind. If they are not working, where do these young, low-skilled men live? Our basements! According to recent data, 51 percent of lower-skilled men in their 20s live with a parent or close relative. That number was only 35 percent in 2000. In 2014, 70 percent of lower-skilled men in their 20s without a job lived with a parent or close relative.

If they are not working, how do these young men eat? We—the parents and relatives—feed them. When they are in our basements, they come up for food from time to time and raid our refrigerators. I have no information on whether or not they are showering.

Are these young, nonworking, lower-skilled men who are living in their parents’ basements married? You may be surprised to hear this: they are not. The age of marriage is increasing for this group. In summary, these younger, lower-skilled men are now less likely to work, less likely to marry, and more likely to live with parents or close relatives.

I like this guy’s style. If he gets tired of professoring, he can cum work for rat-faced man. But think about it: we develop a technology that is engineered to addict users. We make jobs extraordinarily shitty and unattractive. In a vacuum, considering the question dispassionately, we would conclude that users would prefer vidya to working a shitty job. So, when it actually happens, why are we blaming market forces, greedy capitalists and socialist regulation? Israel has more socialist regulation than anybody and they’re booming. Russia has greedier capitalists than anyone (it’s not 1967 anymore) and their unemployment rate is 5%. There’s no way around it—for a lot of guys it’s literally vidya.

If you’re vidya-addicted, and for young males that’s quite possibly the case, for God’s sake get off the stuff. There’s no future in it. Sell your account, give your stuff away, get busy with IRL activities. Lift, learn new skills, learn how to ratface. If you know how to calculate DPS but not NPV, toss the virtual skills for real ones.

Because at the end of the day, virtual skills are anti-knowledge. Someone who knows a lot about games not only is foregoing opportunities to learn about the real world, but actually learning things that may be false or dysfunctional in the real world. The “competent gamer” is a popular fantasy today, but I can think of exactly one prominent actually rich person who is also a leading gamer and I think his lightning is pretty hard to bottle. If you’re a big success, feel free to disregard, but if you’re not, consider learning from the rat-faced man: “If you can’t eat it, it’s not food.

 

 

Let’s Get Boomer Jobs

Hey guys, you ever notice that the Lord of the Milfs guy made $50k? That’s $22k in 1985 dollars, when your parents were coming up. Was it hard to make that kind of money back then? Let’s ask the NYT:

Mark Hilderbrand, who just finished his sophomore year at Boston University, is pleased with his new summer job fixing air-conditioners… The pay is $8.20 an hour.

That wage annualized to $16,400 in 1985 and to about $36,700 in 2016, adjusting for inflation, or the equivalent of $18.35/hr today for full-time work. But perhaps that was an outlier. Let’s see what unionized labor was getting:

Wages were cut in Austin from $10.69 to $8.25 per huor [sic] on October 8, 1984.

$10.69 in 1985 annualizes to about $47,900 in 2016. Pay cuts, however, reduced the wage to right around $37,000 a year, what our college sophomore was getting. And today?

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Today, the 90th percentile wage in that industry is less than the annualized post-pay cut average wage in 1985. To give you a sense of 90th percentile vs. 50th percentile in the economy generally, the 90th/50th for household income today is $160,000/$55,000; a meatpacker earning $36,000 today is as rare, relative to his industry, as a family earning $160,000 is to the country as a whole. Pre-pay cut boomer slaughterhouse dad was making 87% of today’s average household income all by himself, so if his wife was a part-time school secretary or something, they were ahead.

All this is to say that the Lord of the Milfs is doing about as well as the average meatpacker was in 1984—sure, his college, housing and healthcare expenses are a lot worse, but on the other hand, he probably has an iPhone and he makes a few percent more. On the other hand, the average meatpacker today is making less than twice minimum wage and less than a random-ass college student made in 1985. No wonder boomers could pay for college with their summer jobs. Those summer jobs paid great. Meanwhile, the guy who ratfaced his way into a slick corporate IT job—good job, by the way, buddy, you’re an inspiration!—finds himself freaking out over a kid. Why? Because he’s working class, even if he does wear a sweet Van Heusen cotton-poly number that he bought on sale at Sears instead of denim coveralls. He probably makes quite a bit less than his dad.

What caused all this? Well, one explanation is that American labor just isn’t efficient enough to justify higher wages. After all, you can’t get paid what you didn’t produce, unless you’re a rat-faced man. But that explanation is crap. (See p. 4, e.g.) American workers are highly productive and have consistently gained relative to other first-world nations. I’m not saying it was highly exploitable scab labor from the third world, but…

However, I’m not here to point fingers. The question isn’t how did we come to live in a deindustrialized, juggalo-haunted hellscape, the question is how can you afford to move away from it. And the answer, as always, is to capture your value.

I was just talking to a rat-faced girl with a very slick job and she told me in confidence (sorry babe) that one of her friends had picked up a new job as a health-care finance consultant making $250,000. (This was or would be a pay cut for me and both of them.) You see, her friend wanted to chillax a little without stepping totally off the career track. But at her new job, she was making enemies because—get this—she knew, thanks to her old job as an investment banker, how to do financial modeling stuff. Not fancy Excel tricks, just like ten bullet points summarizing financial data from reports, not even any analysis really. And this was infuriating to the fat, insecure, 2.5-hour lunch-taking TTTs she worked with. It made that squad of ex-hospital administrators and failed lobbyists look bad. Stuff that you’d expect to be taught in 10th grade “Computer Literacy for Daily Living” at some free-lunch high school, and these exec-level people couldn’t do it. Or they’d spend all day manually dumping data into tables and doing it worse than a data entry clerk making $10/hr would have. One ex-banker looking to chill was blowing the doors off of them without even trying.

Hard as it may be to believe, there are lots of dullards out there stacking cash. They have what I think of as “boomer jobs.” In boomer jobs, you’re basically paid for existing and because you haven’t given anyone an affirmative reason to fire you. The problem is getting one.

Well, you’ll note that friend-of-a-rat-faced-friend got one. How? By having great credentials and a sense of her own worth. Realistically, you need much better credentials than a boomer to get on this track, and you almost certainly need to be a lateral hire instead of starting at the bottom. (Outside of a few industries, boomers have eliminated mailroom promotion in favor of lateral hiring, which is why the headhunter industry can ask $30,000+ for one professional hire and get it.) You’ll also notice that skill is almost irrelevant. Our banker FOAF got the job solely on credentials; when they hired her, they had no idea what she could actually do (and maybe if they had, one of the fat TTTs would have tried to block the hire.)

So my rule of thumb is to look at the qualifications that a boomer had and take them up two notches. They have a directional state degree? You need state flagship with honors. They got hired from the mailroom? You need 3 years of consulting experience. (To be fair, low-level consulting jobs are pretty easy to get now.) But keep your eye and your twitching, bewhiskered nose on the prize. The goal of exiting to a boomer job is highly achievable to a temporarily embarrassed white-collar worker. But not a boomer job in labor. Those are gone, baby. Gone.

Hello There, Fellow Kids

At an age when his peers are raising children, Jeremy Schrage, 44, doesn’t even do his own dishes.

There’s another post in the pipeline, but this article was too good not to write a quick one on. It’s so tied in to ratfacedman themes, how was I supposed to resist?

The latest hot trend in prolonged adolescence is literally living like an upscale teenager into your forties. It costs a mere $3,000 a month, which, to be fair, isn’t bad for NYC rent. But you only get a room. The rest is common areas. (To be fair, with a lot of other NYC places, you also basically only get a room.) As far as temporary living situations go, that makes sense to me, and if I were a single guy expecting to be in the city for just a few months, it would probably be fine, assuming that something I was doing there was worth paying that kind of money to do.

But the average age of people living in this place is 30, and the whole point of living there is to work on your lifestyle—to free up money for travel and brunch and to let you pretend to be fresh out of college for a decade.

Reminder, these people aren’t 22. They’re probably a decade older than that. It’s just starting to get hard to hide—you’ve got some thickening thighs, a receding hairline, an undeniable case of incipient dadbod. Obviously the next step will be a cool hairdo and some slick square-toed leather shoes. (See first pic.) Better watch out, though. Make sure you’ve got a pocket in those sweet jeans for your heart meds, maybe get a Medic Alert tag for your hemp necklace, etc. And obviously living this way isn’t compatible with family life—not just in the sense that you can’t raise kids in a party pad, but more insidiously, it stops you thinking about family life and life transitions because it focuses you on lifestyle striving and doing things that look slick on Instagram.

I’m not particularly far gone yet, but every rat-faced man must face the prospect of growing older. Unless your retirement plan is to move to Holland and get euthanized, you may well need decades of income saved to fund your retirement. You need to be able to plan for the inevitable transitions in life. Health declines, energy levels decline, people become dependent on familiar places and routines. Stone-age tribal knuckleheads from the back of beyond know this, but we apparently don’t anymore. How feasible is it going to be for these Peter (or Petra) Pans to finally learn how to do their own dishes at 50 when they’re laid off and suffering from a spastic colon? $3,000 a month after tax is kind of a lot, are they otherwise thrifty savers?

It’s framed as pleasure-seeking, and I don’t deny that element exists, but I think this trend is fundamentally about fear and stress. Confronted by the challenges of growing up, some people are being enabled in their choice of refusing to think about it. Saving money and learning how to manage your life is scary and painful. But the party’s got to stop sometime.

So what should we learn from this? Two things: (1) don’t be these people, and (2) be sure to figure out a way to sell them stuff. Artisanal BLTs for $14 and sriracha-flavored beer have natural consumers. They shouldn’t be allowed to have money anyway, so you’re really just restoring the natural state of affairs if you take it. And maybe start thinking about how to brand a desert trailer park for broke retirees living off of social security as “hip,” “happening,” “cool,” because that way you can anticipate their upcoming real estate life choices for a tidy profit. You heard it here first!

Ecological Riches

We’ve been talking about the theme of salience—that people make their life plans based on the options that they think exist, with those options being significantly shaped by gossip-level trash media. A lot of people are more focused on creating a flattering personal myth than doing things that will help their lives, and as we’ve seen, that leaves them bitter failures. Very sad!

Let’s shift focus for a second and look at salience versus reality in the natural world. When we look at a landscape, we tend to see charismatic megafauna, not their enabling infrastructure. In fact, by just about any metric, lions and elephants are ecologically irrelevant. Springtails, plants, ants, fungi and bacteria are what actually run the world, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the world runs on them.

Focusing on the big, sexy animals can be really misleading. You wind up like a medieval aristocrat feuding with some rival house while you’re both being rendered irrelevant by merchants and gunpowder. You’re attuned to power dynamics based on how personally invested you are in particular actors, not in the totality of the circumstances bringing about a particular outcome. The Bourbons had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, or in other words, they were total dinosaurs who didn’t have any idea how anything worked and they couldn’t hold onto their kingdom even when it was handed back to them on a silver platter.

Still, there’s no denying that elephants are cooler than microscopic bugs that crawl around blindly eating garbage. And a lot of people wrongly believe that they somehow have to be elephants. The truth is that most people are boring, even great artists and thinkers (who often find routines and detachment helps their productivity) and most productive, highly-compensated jobs are completely unsexy. My advice is, of course, to be a rat, but if you can’t be a rat, be a bug. If you’re a gram-positive rod, a speck of sugar is lunch.

Usually there’s only a weak relationship between perceived occupation prestige and actual cash. (Maybe this relationship would become stronger if people had any clue what different jobs paid.) Note that in the first link, you can see that architects are “prestigious” while property managers and underwriters are “unprestigious.” Fine, but architecture pay is pure shit. (Check out the Italian guy making less than his cleaning lady.) It’s not even a rich kid job—those tend to be easy and chill, not working 70 hours a week for beans and being berated by your boss. Most people would say that architects are more prestigious than property developers, who are frequently see as loud, crass, and sleazy. But it’s hard to miss, once you pay attention, that it’s the developers who wind up worth billions. Admittedly, they may lack the social cachet of the starving artist, but I’m sure they have other consolations.

But here I am talking about elephants again, when I should be pointing out that there are many small-time property developers who’ve made a mint of money even as their children do nothing in particular, or worse, strive in the learned professions and wind up with little to show for it. There’s a lot going on deep in the dirt.

What would it specifically mean to “look beneath the surface” and discover low-salience but well-paid careers? Let’s consider that we are surrounded by technological objects and that every technology has a backstory and an artificial ecology. A light bulb? It implies an entire complex of knowledge of electricity, with its scientists, engineers, universities, textbooks, inventors, and business support, but that’s just scratching the surface. It implies the ability to precision-manufacture curved glass at negligible prices and pump the bulbs full of inert gas, a metallurgy industry that can supply cheap tungsten filaments manufactured to very precise spec, not to mention the industry for wrapping the bases and finishing the package. It’s staggering how much work there is in it—the Roman Empire couldn’t have dreamed of making one. Consider that the head of the most highly capitalized company in the world is a supply chain guy or that China’s leadership is planning for the long-term significance of Chinese manufacturing to be rooted in integrated supply chains, not low wages.  (Competing on low wages is not necessarily a game you want to win.)

I’m not saying “just do logistics, bro,” so much as I’m saying that we live in a world where complexity is far greater than salience can ever be. People who mindlessly follow highly perceptually-salient paths will probably make a lot of sucker bets. It’s better to think about all the inputs that go into making the things, places and experiences that constitute modern life, then figure out an ecological niche in there.

Next time: leveraging your existing skills for a value-added exit.