No sooner had I put down the issue of I3 (It Is Innovation) I recently snagged from the Consumer Electronics Show, which featured Alexis Ohanian (one of Reddit’s co-founders), than I heard that Aaron Swartz (former co-owner of Reddit) had committed suicide.
And after months of being inundated with CES-related press releases detailing the legendary advances made in 2012 alone in the technology arena, this sad news recalled a truth I’ve held dear for some time:
It is hard being smart in a stupid world.
And it’s painfully obvious how really, really, supremely, insanely stupid that world is when you think about how few people actually have the smarts to be able to develop technology. Some people can’t even figure out how to turn on their TVs.
Granted, plenty of stupid people kill themselves too, so it’s not like the phenomenon is exclusive to the brilliant. And certainly, a history of mental illness and fear of criminal conviction played their roles in this aforementioned case.
Nor is genius limited strictly to one area of study. For some reason, Swartz’s suicide made me think of the suicide of David Foster Wallace, whom most of my fellow creative writing colleagues know for his literary virtuosity (although here are some more unusual facts about him).
This subsequently reminded me of the time I saw him and Peter Rock read their work at the University of Arizona. This was back in 2002. I made the trek from L.A. back to Tucson to my alma mater specifically for it, and I was not disappointed, although Wallace actually did not finish the essay he was reading (which I thought was unusual at the time, but might’ve actually been a really great sales tactic).
Anyway, the thing I remember most distinctly about this event was a completely moronic question that came from the audience after the authors were finished. Actually, I don’t remember the question; I just remember it being that stupid — and yes, there are stupid questions, no matter what your politically correct teacher told you. If you’ve ever been to even one reading of literary fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, you will know the question type of which I speak. It’s usually along the lines of the following:
Whatever that question was, I remember how Wallace reacted, though his actual verbal response escapes me. He glanced over at Rock as if to ocularly communicate, “Fellow writer of significance, is this pathetic mortal serious?” then gave a response that was completely snarky but equally over the asker’s head, so that by the end, the dolt was actually thanking Wallace for his response.
I’m not sure if that gratitude was edifying or horrifying for Wallace; my guess is it was a little of both. As one of the people who picked up on the undertones, I found myself internally applauding him (because it seemed like some shiz I would want to pull, as I hate stupid), but I also know if I’d done something like that, I’d feel like a jerk — mostly because that behavior actually defines people as jerks — so I found myself slightly repulsed by him as well.
Torn by conflicting sentiments about this act, I had to contemplate what was at the heart of my emotional dilemma, and at the end of the day, it is this: Stupidity should be something we hold others (and ourselves) accountable for, but there may simply be no good way to do so.
Which, again, is why it’s hard being smart in a stupid world. And when you’re that smart — like, Wallace smart, Swartz smart, Turing smart, Plath smart, Van Gogh smart, Gilman smart, Tchaikovsky smart, Sexton smart, Woolf smart — stupidity multiplies exponentially in the face of your aptitude.
Now, I am certainly not under the delusion that I’m on this level, but even within the level at which I reside, I find a majority of people really hard to deal with. And I look around at my intelligent friends — most of whom are still single — and I feel like I understand why, especially if they’re women. You simply can’t hold a relationship down if you’re talking quantum physics and your partner’s talking basic arithmetic.
Well, unless you’re John McAfee, but that dude’s just clinical with a capital C.
Actually, many people in the list above struggled with mental illness, addiction, or something of that sort. Perhaps a function of the thing that makes you that bloody brilliant is that it will also make you psychotic — just the other side of the same coin you hold, I guess.
Or maybe it’s just plain hard to be human. But that’s a far less amusing blog title.
Ah, the office — the workplace of modernity.
Whoever invented it should’ve been shot.
That’s not to say people outside an office don’t equally hate their jobs. Let’s be fair.
But seriously, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, unless you’re cleaning up bodily secretions, it’s rarely the actual job any of us hate. No, my friends, as Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.” Especially when you don’t get to choose them yourself. But even sometimes when you do.
I’d venture to guess that 99.9 percent of problems in the workplace boil down to people. Not challenged at your job? Someone created that job description and is keeping you in that position, right? That’s a people problem. Conversely, do you have too much to do? A person made that decision as well. Can’t move up in the company? That’s another people problem. Company losing money? Either the leadership can’t manage money properly, or it can’t resonate with customers. Not getting paid enough? Who’s writing your paycheck?
Simply put, there is no shortage of poorly run companies or people who run them that way.
While mobility will likely continue to raise the number of remote workers — and potentially, people’s sanity along with it — the overwhelming majority of today’s jobs force people perhaps created for the sole purpose of loathing each other together in cramped, stinking spaces to fulfill that despicable destiny.
Are you one of them?
I was. I’m not ashamed to say it. On two occasions, I found myself acutely aware that if I possessed the mad skills of setting people on fire through telekinesis a la Carrie, I would use them.
I’m not an evil person. I’m not even a rebel. Heck, I still feel guilty for hitting my sister when I was five. (Sorry, K.)
But this is what a terrible workplace will have any reasonably sane person fantasizing about in his or her spare time. (And yes, I am reasonably sane; I’ve had workplaces that I loved, so it isn’t some personal mental issue or beef I eventually end up having at every job I hold, although perhaps my tolerance for BS is lower than the average person’s.)
Here are the signs that you’re in a work environment that’s unhealthy for you (admitting you have a problem is the first step, as they say):
1. You feel mentally ill. “Has the world gone mad? How can anyone work in a place like this? What’s wrong with these people? Why isn’t everyone else freaking out the way I am? Are they? They can’t be, or else they wouldn’t still be here. Why are they still here? Is it me? Is there something wrong with me that I can’t stand to be here, and they can?” Or perhaps you simply just can’t stop thinking about work – ever.
I remember what it was like, brooding every day at work, dreading the next piece of turd that would hit the fan, knowing it was coming, knowing there was no amount of guessing that could predict what would actually come or when, brooding anyway. I remember the chaos, the lying, the harassment, the degradation, the downright illegal activities, even the false accusations. I remember driving home, not remembering how I even got there, that’s how consumed with brooding I became. In my apartment, I would sit, and my eyes would pass over words on pages, but I wasn’t reading. I’d turn on the TV and stare at the screen, but I wasn’t really watching. I wasn’t present at all, actually; I was still brooding about one insane thing or another that happened at work. I’d go to bed still thinking about it; I’d have nightmares — all about work, of course, which, lucky me, I’d remember upon waking. Then I’d fear those nightmares would come true for the entire duration of the drive to the office.
2. You feel physically ill. As if you’ve been possessed by a demonic spirit, the thought of being at work sends chunks of recently consumed food items back up your gullet for an encore. It really doesn’t get clearer than this, folks. Suze Orman said so, and she knows her shiz. Even if you can mentally deny how profoundly your workplace is affecting you, your body will always tell the truth.
When things got really bad at some of my former workplaces, I’d wake up every morning — even Sunday mornings — knowing I’d have to return to hell soon, and I’d immediately feel my stomach acid start a-churnin’. I popped Pepto pills just to get through the infinite, infinitely painful days. Thinking of what I put my body through to endure things I never should’ve had to makes me almost as sick as some of my former workplaces did. It also reminds me of a little story this old friend of mine who, upon breaking up with his most recent ex, confided in me: Toward the end of the relationship, he had to start taking antidepressants just to be able to be around her. That’s scary stuff. If you’re taking meds of any kind just to go to work, something is very, very wrong.
3. You feel spiritually ill. You don’t have to be religious to experience this — though if you are, I probably don’t have to explain any further. Plots of vengeance and homicide flood your otherwise Golden-Ruled brain. You think of negative things that make you feel like your worst, basest self instead of the kind, good-natured spirit you actually are. You had dreams once. What were they again?
Like I was telling a colleague of mine who finds himself in a really bad work environment right now, there’s something about a terrible job that just strips you down to your bare bones. It can rob you of everything good in your life and even in your self. Drained of energy and will, how could I even think of cooking dinner, let alone strive to achieve my personal goals, after so many days in hell? I started looking at others differently, negatively — even if they weren’t my coworkers. I started looking at myself differently. “Good people don’t have dark thoughts like mine, right? Smart people would’ve been able to get a new job already, right? Anyone worth a crap could just snap themselves out of it and go on their merry way, right?”
When your spirit gets crushed to this degree, you’re at your most vulnerable, your most pliable, your most assimilatable. This is how the people you work with who’ve been in hell for so long — aka “the lifers” — still find it in themselves to show up there every day. They’ve been brainwashed. They’ve settled. Their souls are dead. Very likely, they now perpetrate the very behavior that crushed their dreams, because dream-crushing is all that brings them any sort of joy now. (The other ones are probably much like you — looking for an escape route.)
However, when your spirit gets crushed to this degree, you’re also at your most willing to make an absolutely necessary change in your life. A very smart man once told me, “Until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing, people stay the same.” Your darkest hour is actually the one in which you’re most willing to fight for your soul.
So how do you do that?
1. Look for a new job. Start yesterday. I know the market’s tough. I know the odds might seem like they’re against you. But eventually, something will pan out. It always does. In the meantime, the very act will empower you.
You may have to consider opportunities or wages that you might not have be willing to before, but don’t worry. Even this next job you land doesn’t have to be your final destination. You just need sanctuary from hell right now. Just be sure you don’t land yourself in a hellier hell. (Good news is, you know what to look for now to avoid this.)
2. Do anything else that empowers you. Go to the gym. Take a class. Volunteer at a local charity. Read this book. Make a playlist (mine included “Walk On” by U2, “Control” by Poe, “This Is the Day” by The The, “Float On” by Modest Mouse, ‘The Remedy” by Jason Mraz, “Move Along” by The All-American Rejects, and even “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor). Whatever. But do something that reminds you of the amazing person you truly are and have always been.
3. Distract yourself. Anytime you are not at work — and even sometimes when you are — do whatever you need to do to take your mind off brooding about work. My mind’s pretty active, so I required overstimulation (heh-heh). Talking on the phone while shopping, because if I was quiet, I started thinking, and the first thing I thought about was hell. Cleaning with familiar music blasting that I would force myself to sing to, because singing made me think of the words instead of hell. But you may be the meditative type — in which case, go sit cross-legged somewhere or grab a yoga mat.
No matter what, no matter how long it seems like it’s been or how long it seems like it might be before you’re finally free, keep the faith. This too shall pass. And when it does — maybe not right away, but a month, year, or even decade later — I hope that, like me, you’ll smile, grateful that your tour in Hades is over, thankful for all you really did learn from the experience.