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.

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