Islam: Day 28 and Week 4 Recap – Cynical Asshole Syndrome

I’ve decided that humility is the hardest  trait to acquire, more so than the other qualities I’ve tried to acquire. With Stoicism, you can learn pretty quickly to let small things roll off your back. In Catholicism, there are many clear paths to developing compassion for others (I’ve been volunteering at a charity). In Judaism, there are many ways to become a part of the community.

But humility requires you to subdue your ego, it requires you to acknowledge you don’t have all the answers and to treat others accordingly.

I have a very hard time doing it.

And I am arrogant in a particular way. I know I don’t have all the answers, but I constantly have the urge to tell people theydon’t have the answers either, that what they believe is dumb, that they should wake up and see the truth around them.

Yes, I have cynical asshole syndrome.

Cynical Asshole Syndrome is a condition that makes the majority of things in everyday life seem shit and meaningless.

I learned about this very important diagnosis from South Park.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at work.

I love the idea of submitting to God or a greater power, however, I just can’t “submit” at work.

When I read the article, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, I was overjoyed that someone so accurately described what I’ve been feeling about my work for a very long time. I hate the author’s politics, but he was spot on about what it feels like to have BS job.

Salon magazine interviewed the author and asked him an interesting question:

Salon: The concept of bullshit jobs seems very convincing and even obvious to me–I used to work as a temp, I saw this stuff first-hand–but others might pull market populism on you and say, who are you to declare someone’s else’s job to be bullshit, Mr. Graeber? You must think you’re better than the rest of us or something.

David Graeber: Well, I keep emphasizing: I’m not here to tell anybody who thinks their job is valuable that they’re deluded. I’m just saying if people secretly believe their job doesn’t need to exist, they’re probably right. The arrogant ones are the ones who think they know better, who believe that there are workers out there so stupid they don’t understand the true meaning of what they do every day, don’t realize it really isn’t necessary, or think that workers who believe they’re in bullshit jobs have such an exaggerated sense of self-importance that they think they should be doing something else and therefore dismiss the importance of their own work as not good enough. I hear a lot of that. Those people are the arrogant ones.

So according to Graeber, I’m not arrogant because I think my job is BS. It would be arrogant of me to tell others there jobs are BS (though if they have the same job as I do, it’s natural to make that leap). I’d also be arrogant if I thought people who thought their job was BS are stupid or unappreciative.

In many ways, religion makes it really difficult to not have disdain for the worldly. They talk about transcending worldly pleasure and re-uniting with God and all the joys of the afterlife that will be available to the faithful.

It just makes you want to jump on top of your desk, yell “I quit! I’m going to focus on God now,” and then become a monk of some sort.

Consider this short Sufi poem:

“The world exists only as an appearance. From beginning to end it is a playful game.”

Of course my job seems like BS. Spreadsheets and PowerPoints are not the path to transcendence. It’s all an illusion.

But then you get Rumi who wrote:

“To the wise, every situation is an opportunity to break free.”

So maybe Microsoft Office products can help me re-unite with God?

To summarize my problem:

  1. I have a hard time finding meaning in my day-to-day work
  2. It drives me nuts that my co-workers believe their work is meaningful
  3. Because they don’t see the “truth” about their work, I look down on them for being blind to the truth, for not being as cynical as I
  4. This arrogance festers inside me and prevents me from being humble
  5. Lack of humility = less spiritual benefits = less happiness

I don’t have a good solution for my problem. It might just be a matter of changing jobs, or I might have to do more to actively cultivate my humility.

I understand now why pretty much all cultures, philosophies, and religion have some tradition of warning against hubris and arrogance. It is toxic to the soul, and can make your day-to-day life a real pain.

  • Serge Gorodish

    I find myself more and more wondering why you stick with your job. I like to think I’m much less arrogant than I used to be. I try to make it a principle that every one I meet has something to teach me–even a 99% loser may have 1% of something that I could profit by learning.

    The “meaningfulness” of a job is not an absolute characteristic–different things are meaningful to different people. For myself, the category of “bullshit jobs” would include, for example, virtually all professional athletes, in the sense that I would not miss them (or even notice much) if they all disappeared. But I recognize that many people feel otherwise and manage to peacefully co-exist with them. Although I confess I consider it philosophically bizarre to invest one’s sense of self-worth in something external to the self, such as the performance of a sports team (which describes some, but not all sports fans).

    On the other hand, some people might consider advertising to be a “bullshit industry” but I find it philosophically meaningful in the sense that advertisers encourage us to find something special in everyday, ordinary objects.

    Spreadsheets as a road to enlightenment: this goes back at least as far as Ben Franklin’s self-improvement plan:

    I find myself making more and more use of spreadsheets.

    • OTL

      I have a textbook example of a “bullshit job”

      The first thing is to accept that. There is such a thing. A farmer or a nurse helps society more than I do. That’s not to say that it’s a clear division or even an economically accurate one… but some jobs are bs.

      I don’t look down on my colleagues for not coming to the same true (yeah that’s right, I went there) conclusion. Many of them are smarter than me. I was just lucky to be exposed to circumstances that lead me to find the truth (as lame as that sounds). If I know how to ride a bike but my 10 year old cousin doesn’t I’m not arrogant for showing them how. I was just lucky to already know. It would even be kind of wrong to hoard that knowledge to myself.

      I suspect on one level Dale and my co-workers know their jobs are pointless but, for whatever reason, they don’t want to admit it. I wouldn’t recommend changing jobs because as long as we live in a capitalism state what matters is profit not people. There is no “good” job on the horizon. To go back to my earlier examples if I was a farmer I’d probably feel bad about having to use underhand tactics to stay in business and if I was a nurse I’d feel bad that I had to fill in paperwork all day.

      • Kimia

        If we go on to think that our jobs are pointless, then can’t we find a way to say that about anything we do? And I am just curios to see what makes you think that just because you are a farmer or a nurse, that means you help society more than someone who has a “bs” job. I think that sure, we are made to think that medicine and food take priority in this world, but there have also been many examples when these very things have hurt society and cannot keep up with increasing demands. I don’t think any job is bs. It is in the eye of the beholder. It is all about your attitude towards your job, and maybe instead of wishing for another more “meaningful” job, there are ways to find the good and insightful aspects of each

    • I guess the question then is where to find meaning, since it’s not absolute (though some actions have higher probabilities of providing meaning e.g. volunteering) and probably shouldn’t lie in something external, like you mentioned.

      I’m curious how you’ve become less arrogant, since you hinted you used to be. Any practices you could share?

      As far as staying in my job, I’m investigating other options, but I’d like to learn the appreciate it while I have it, which is turning out to be quite difficult.

      • OTL

        In my opinion, meaning is found in helping others. Not just charity (which is often more about the giver than actually helping, but still very admirable) but actually helping others in making a difference.

        If you want to be less arrogant about seeing through things, imagine that the experiences that made you think what you do is like winning the lottery. You were “lucky” to be exposed to those things. Or, if you prefer, lucky to be born with the intelligence to see through things. If a lottery winner went on tv and said they deserved to win, you’d think them a little crazy. And definitely arrogant. It’s like that. I bet there’s tons of stuff that your co-workers know more about than you do. They were “lucky” in that regard. For example I don’t know much about plumbers but the people I work with do and their knowledge stopped me getting scammed. They could have looked down on me for being naive and overly trusting but they didn’t.

      • Serge Gorodish

        I don’t suppose I made a deliberate effort to become less arrogant, since I didn’t realize that I was so. But over the years certain things happened. One thing was that my mother taught me the importance of gracefully acknowledging a mistake. She did this by never admitting to a mistake under any circumstances, thus demonstrating how frustrating this is to others. So as a matter of principle I try to keep in mind at all times, “yeah, I could be wrong,” or at least “things might look different from a different point of view.” And to keep in mind, “how do I know this?” Is it second-hand reports, something I inferred, or something I saw with my own eyes? Are there other possible interpretations of the data?

        Second factor, if I can come at it in a roundabout way: I think Jason Bourne is cool. Actually this idea goes back to before I knew who Jason Bourne is, but one of the cool things about him is that he can blend into any environment. This requires understanding the mind-set of people in different places. In my own life I have spent several years frequently dealing with people from a certain foreign country, and didn’t manage it very well at first, but gradually got better at being able to see things from their point of view (which doesn’t mean I stopped seeing them from my own point of view).

        But here was the insight which opened up everyday life for me: the same attitude and skills that help me to interact effectively with people from a foreign country can be used to understand people closer to home, but with a different perspective–which frankly includes just about everyone. So every day offers opportunities to play Jason Bourne.

        So if I make a visit to, say, redneck country (to deliberately pick on a stereotype), instead of looking around at everything with a sneer (which I would have done in my younger days), I try to connect with the people on their own terms, as if I were in a foreign country. It may be a challenge, but I take pride in rising to it. (Maybe that’s the operative paradox–take pride in your ability to connect with others.) This attitude is more pleasant both for me and others.

        • I like your approach about trying to “blend in” as if you were traveling to a foreign country. Mentally, you envision yourself as an adventurer, which is more useful than “bored employee.”

          Thanks for sharing.

  • em

    Dale, part of gaining humility is just getting older, a function of time. Because you find as you get older that the more you learn, the more you learn how much you don’t know! And on appreciating bs jobs/work, I would recommend you read some stuff from Mike Rowe, the guy who hosted a TV show on Dirty Jobs. Here is a link where he gave someone some career advice which might also give you some food for thought:

    • I read the Mike Rowe letter. Welding actually seems more appealing at the monet 😉

      I’m also pretty aware of what I don’t know, even at my current job. I just find myself with little desire to learn those things.

  • Kevin

    #2 made me laugh – I picture your co-workers high-fiving each other after a nice spreadsheet is completed or PowerPoint created. How do you know they find meaning in the work? Hopefully they don’t read this blog…