Beyond Bureaucracy

Spend any amount of time discussing politics on social media, and you'll soon discover that every conversation eventually becomes a race to the bottom of an endless pit of citations. Information is easy to come by these days. Cite-able sources are often just a click away. If you are able to produce an official government document that clearly states a policy, then who is anyone to disagree with what that policy is?

These are the inclinations of a bureaucrat. It might be well worth investigating whether our all having become a bunch of bureaucrats is due to some aspect of social media, the ever-expanding role that government plays in our daily lives, or the fact that the professional services economy in which so many Americans work primarily rewards bureaucrats.

Before I move on to my real point today, let's consider each possibility separately.

1. Social media turns us into bureaucrats. While I think this is a difficult position to argue for effectively, there is a kernel of truth here. X disagrees with Y. Y demands evidence for X's position. X produces some evidence. Y produces some counter-evidence. Now that the ball is rolling, the only way for X and Y to settle their dispute is to come to an agreement about which one has the more perfect evidence. This is no longer a material argument. X and Y aren't discussing the original issue anymore. Instead, they've migrated over to a meta-argument; Whose paper trail ends first?

2. The ever-expanding role of government in our lives turns us into bureaucrats. At first blush, this seems like a sort of unhinged, right-wing spook story. On closer inspection, though, the idea has teeth. We rely on the government for so many different things, and each thing requires its own unique set of policies and documentation. If we don't produce adequate documentation, then the policy says we must go home and try again. If we produce the right documentation, then our lives can go forward as planned. People who excel in producing the correct documentation are keen to offer advice to the rest of us for effectively navigating the labyrinthine policies of government. Sometimes it's not even good enough to comply with the policies. Sometimes it's a question of producing a new kind of documentation that changes the policy-definition of the problem. We experience this when we mail a letter, when we interact with the school systems, when we pay our taxes, when we pay our water bills, when we file insurance claims or fill a prescription. The more we interact with society on a bureaucratic level, the more incentive we ourselves have to become bureaucrats.

3. The professional services economy primarily rewards bureaucrats. Think of all the managers in your office. Are these people the best workers in the building, or are they the ones with the greatest familiarity with the company's policies and procedures. Be honest. Assuming you'd like your career to advance into the managerial level and beyond, what will be your strategy? Will you come up with an innovative job technique, or will you come up with some new bureaucratic policy that provides a paper trail that can be assumed synonymous with efficiency gains? Think about your own little corner of the professional universe. Would you get promoted if you invented a new product? Or, would you get promoted if you built a new ticketing system that enabled managers to more accurately track employee progress?

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We've all been there. We receive a bill in the mail -- perhaps it's a telephone bill, or a utility bill -- and we notice a small error. We call customer service to have the matter corrected. Before we know it, we've sunk two hours into making a simple correction to our bill.

The underlying issue here isn't that the problem on our bill can't be fixed. Instead, the underlying issue is that we have to find the person who is bureaucratically assigned to the button that fixes this problem. Once we have that person on the other end of the line, we have to tell that person the right sequence of words. Only then will he or she be able to justify his/her pressing of the button. Only then will our billing issue be corrected. It's frustrating, but it's the way life works, at least in this bureaucratic world of ours.

Here's a piece of practical advice that has worked for me in highly bureaucratic situations. When I run into a bureaucratic dead-end, and the person on the other end of the line insists that there's absolutely nothing more that they can do, I ask them this question: "If you were me, what would you do?" This phrase is like a magic key. It does a number of things. First, it helps crack the bureaucratic veneer a little bit; the person on the other end of the line starts to think of me as a fellow human, not just a policy obstacle or a form to fill out. Second, it changes the nature of the conversation; before, we were talking about what that person had to do because I had called, but now we're talking about all the things I might be willing to do after considering the person's professional advice. Third, it typically uncovers a bureaucratic path forward. Maybe he can't push the button I need pushed, but maybe people in my situation can have a different button pushed by a different person, elsewhere in the system.

Try it. It really works.

Sometimes, when I'm losing patience on the phone, I console myself by thinking about the fact that I'm the one who gets to push the button in some aspect of someone else's life. In some other telephone call in a parallel universe (or on another day of the week), it's the other person who's calling me, and I'm the one tasked to evaluate the credibility of his or her claim to my pushing of the button.

If you want to take a more productive attitude toward bureaucracy in today's world, then apply the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The bureaucrat who can fix the error on your water bill can assure your destruction today. Tomorrow, you can assure his destruction when he calls your office to get his own button pushed. Knowing this, none of us should have an incentive to give the other person too hard of a time since, after all, we'll need the other person to push our button tomorrow. We can be kind. We can be gracious. We can look for any credible reason to push the button and look for any excuse not to; after all, we'd want the same thing for ourselves when it's time to get our own button pushed. Focus on the people, not the policy. The policy was designed to involve your professional discretion. The policy was designed to create a justifiable paper trail. You don't need a policy justification to push the button, you just need a paper trail. It's the decent thing to do.

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I know a guy who moved from Country X to Country Y. No, I'm not going to go into detail here. This is a real human being I'm talking about. I'm not going to disrupt his chi. When he received Country Y citizenship, way back when, he was expected to revoke his citizenship from his other country. I don't know exactly what he did, but he ended up with that Country Y citizenship.

Years later, he had a child. At some point, the man's home country created a temporary policy stating that the foreign-born children of any citizen could apply to gain citizenship. The man filed the application on behalf of his child. He ran into a little trouble when, somewhere within the application process, someone pointed out that he revoked his citizenship.

Now, look, we could all probably dig up some PDFs that validate this point of view. We could all dig up case law showing exactly where things stand. I'm here to tell you that none of this documentation means a darn thing.

Here's why: This man that I know called someone on the telephone and said that his native country could not deny him his birthright citizenship. The person he called agreed with him. Papers were filed, procedures were followed. Some months later, the man's child had dual citizenship.

How did this happen? I mean, in light of all those PDFs and case law citations and everything, how did this happen? The cynic would argue that it was a degradation or corruption of political institutions. But the truth is that the less bureaucratic your mind is, the more open you are to the many possible interpretations of a policy.

The key isn't what the policy states. The key is what the paper trail documents. If you can create a paper trail that says, for example, that a man was born in Country X, moved to Country Y, had a child, and then applied for the child's Country X citizenship, then there is nothing for the bureaucracy to question, because those are the facts, and that's what the paper trail says. If you instead choose to create a paper trail that says a man moved to Country Y and renounced his citizenship and now a foreign national is applying to have his child granted Country X citizenship, then of course that's nonsense.

But the difference isn't in the policy. The difference is in the paperwork.

In the real world, we don't live in policy documents. We live in the flesh. We touch each other, our voices quiver when we're angry, we drink wine, we shed tears, we eat pizza. We're human beings! We're in control of the paper we push around. He who can most accurately cite policy can win an internet argument, but the real winner is the one whose paper trail leads to a happy and comfortable life.

The next time you hear someone say that policy dictates that naturalized citizens of Country Y must renounce their citizenship, remember my friend from Country X. The next time you hear that policy must enforce the law equally, remember this little blog post here. The next time somebody in customer service tells you that you owe an extra $500 and, I'm sorry sir, it can't be helped because the policy dictates that such and such be so and so, remember the time that some pretty girl cried about it and they fixed it for her.

I'm not arguing for anarchy, but we're being dehumanized by bureaucracy. The re-humanization must begin somewhere.


Living Outside The Frame: How Context Poisons Everything

Alexandra Schwartz wrote an interesting article for The New Yorker. It's called "Improving Ourselves to Death," and it's all about the problems in the modern self-help movement. It is thought-provoking, well worth reading, and it identifies many of the worst problems with the self-help movement as it exists today: its inherent narcissism, its cock-eyed optimism, its obsession with better and more. The article doesn't stop there, it also criticizes the reaction against the self-help movement for its own shortcomings: Just because you're good enough as-is doesn't mean you can stop giving a flying so-and-so about your relationship to other people.

As any such article should, Schwartz's article ends without resolving the conflicts. It's a think piece, as in, doesn't-it-make-you. We're invited to assess for ourselves to what extent self improvement is a rat race and to what extent self acceptance is lazy and narcissistic in its own way. Both criticisms hit home, but if we're going to peer into that particular void it would be nice if something peered back into us in return. Schwartz's article doesn't give us that. Instead, it gives us a frame, a new way of seeing the self-help movement.

It's an interesting frame, sturdy and ornate. But we should see what's on the other side.

*        *        *

The main problem with Schwartz's article is something she herself can't escape. Of course she can't escape it, it's the main offer she's making us, it's the whole value proposition of her article. The frame. And that's precisely why her article, as good as it is, can't offer solutions. Maybe we can find those solutions, then, if we shine a light on the primary issue.

Consider the following excerpt, which might be considered the article's shark-jumping point (emphases mine):
After a while, Storr says, this rational response to economic pressures became instinctive habit: “Neoliberalism beams at us from many corners of our culture and we absorb it back into ourselves like radiation.” Like reality television before it, social media frames human relationships as a constant competition for popularity and approval. Donald Trump, with his greed-is-good hucksterism and his obsessive talk of “winners” and “losers,” is in the White House. (“Selfie” was published in England last year; Storr is adding a chapter about the President for the American edition.) Meanwhile, parents continue to feed their children the loving, well-intentioned lie that there are “no limits” and they can “be anything,” which leaves the kids blaming themselves, rather than the market’s brutality, when they inevitably come up short.
The phrases I've highlighted in bold above are loaded. They say so much more than what they say because they're absolutely loaded with context. They're mini-models. They're memes, shared beliefs held widely by many people that are designed to cast life in a certain light. Is anyone out there truly neutral to the word "neoliberalism" in this day and age? No, it conjures up not just one thought, but a whole set of thoughts, a whole pattern of thinking. It's a frame, if you will.

Use of the word "neoliberalism" is not so much a stand-alone point as it is an attempt to inject a particular kind of political context into a topic that wouldn't otherwise be overtly political. Asking you to think about the shortcomings of the self-help movement is one thing. Asking you to think about how the self-help movement plays into the scourge of neoliberalism is something else entirely.

In fact, all of the phrases I highlighted in bold -- and many others used throughout the article -- inject context. When Schwartz writes these things or quotes others who say these things, she's not elaborating or elucidating, she's pointing us to a correct framing of the whole issue. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions, so long as they arrive at those conclusions through the context of a discussion about "neoliberalism," or "social media," or "reality television," or etc., etc.

Like The Last Psychiatrist used to say: The media doesn't tell you what to want, it tells you how to want.

The way out of this trap is to eradicate the context. Let's give it a try:
  • It's possible to reject the major tenets of the self-help movement without thinking anything at all about "neoliberalism" or the current state of the political economy.
  • It's possible to embrace principles of self-improvement without embracing anything provided to you by the self-help movement.
  • It's possible to pursue career success for your own reasons, without viewing it as an act of "constant competition."
  • It's possible to believe that the sky is the limit without setting yourself -- or your children -- up for failure.
  • It's possible to avoid rampant consumerism while still favoring a free market economy.
Really, I mean it. All of these things are possible. If you can't imagine how you might accomplish one of these things, it's only because you're hung up on the context I am asking you to purge.

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I know someone who doesn't like to watch exercise videos because she thinks the motivational bromides shouted at the viewer by the trainer are accusations of inadequacy. When they say, "Push harder," she hears, "You're not pushing hard enough!" When they say, "Doing it this way will burn more calories," she hears, "You're fat and need to burn more calories!"

Someone else I know told me that when people say, "You should find a romantic partner to share your life with," she thought it was an accusation that her life without a romantic partner wasn't good enough.

From the standpoint of internal motivation, I don't know why people do this sort of thing. They can take any positive, encouraging, or well-meaning suggestion and turn it upside-down, twisting it into a horrible black hole of criticism. I do, however, think I know why people do this from more of a mechanical point of view. They do this by injecting context into statements that are being made without context. They have a frame, and they intend to use it.

I use exercise videos, and I've never had a weight problem. I use them because they're fun. For me, there is no context of inadequacy through which to filter the encouraging bromides of the trainer. When he says, "Push through this set," or "I want you to give me a few more reps," I don't think he's telling me that I'm not good enough as-is. I don't inject that context into my exercise videos. When people suggest that I live my life differently, I don't always take their advice to heart, but I never think they're maligning my choices. I think they're promoting their own choices, and I am okay with that.

Motivationally, the added context serves no purpose for me. It doesn't help me achieve my goals and it doesn't give me greater insight into the statements I hear from other people. Thus, the added context is useless. I like to enter into situations neutrally and then consider the many possibilities that might come out of what's happening. I'll get a lot more out of an exercise video if I think it might genuinely help me than I will if I think it's just a bunch of spandex-clad salesmen who are calling me fat so that they can make money off me.

Maybe I'm wrong about the exercise video people, but even if so, how would the alternative viewpoint help me in my life? I reject the process of adding extraneous context to the exercise because I don't want to taint a potentially valuable tool with a mental model that presupposes criticism.

Note to all the charlatans out there: Even if you're only making fun of me, if I can benefit by being made fun of, I will endeavor to do so. That's how pragmatic people live their lives. I highly recommend it.

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The basic self-help grift works like this: First they frame your life in a novel way, and then they use that frame to solve problems you didn't even know you had.

I could write a self-help book based on the premise that human behavior is not all together different from chimpanzee behavior. I could offer many research studies of chimpanzee behavior and use loose comparisons to human studies, drawing parallels, coming up with a just-so story about how the missing piece in your life is this thing that chimpanzees are really good at, but which civilization has managed to discourage in homo sapiens. I could then sell you on a path forward: be more chimp-like. It sounds ridiculous, but it would sell. Going Bonzo: How to Unleash Your Inner Chimp and Start Taking Life by the Banana.

Or I could write what would essentially be the same book, but instead of comparing us to chimps, I could compare us to a lost tribe in the Pacific islands. Or I could compare us to a successful corporation somewhere. Or I could compare us to Holocaust survivors. Or Nobel laureates. Or some five percent of the population who hold some trait that I could seek to promote. All of these comparisons have been made in self-help books before, and will be made again, not because the ideas have merit but because that's how the grift works. First I frame your life in a novel way, and then I use that frame to solve problems you didn't even know you had.

(See? There's another trick: I used repetition to reinforce my point.)

The trick isn't selling you on my solution, the trick is selling you on my frame. The trick is providing you with the desired context through which to see your life. After that, your ultimate conclusion will be consistent with me (and my book sales), regardless of what that conclusion is. You don't actually have to adopt a "growth mindset" in order to believe you need one.

*        *        *

Now back to Schwartz. I think part of her understands what I'm saying, but unfortunately the only part of her that understands it is the part that is skeptical of self-help books. The part of her that is skeptical of various political and economic beliefs, or beliefs about the modern human condition as told through the language of "neoliberalism" or "hucksterism" or "consumerism," or "the market's brutality," or etc., etc., has not yet learned to live outside the frame.

This isn't necessarily her fault, and it's not my intention here to criticize her or change her mind. My goal here is to use her article to highlight how inevitable this trap is. We really have to fight to escape the sucking sound of an all-consuming context.

Don't believe me? Them just try to celebrate Christmas without a Christmas tree. "But putting up a Christmas tree is just what you do during Christmas!" Doesn't have to be. Try ordering a burger with no fries, just the burger. "But it's just not as satisfying without the fries!" It could be, if you wanted it to be. Try voting for a third party candidate. "But that just helps the party I hate win!" Uh, no, sorry.

Or, here's one: Try playing with your child without inserting the context of the parent-child dynamic. Just give it a try. Go to the playground and take your child's lead. See what happens. I dare you.

Try making love to your spouse like it's the first time. Forget the context provided by years of being together and live one night together without it. Wouldn't it be great to feel those butterflies again? You could, if you wanted to.

You could live outside the frame. I urge you to try.


Words Count

Although it’s easy to carry this sentiment too far, I believe that the way we use words has a big impact on how we think about what we’re saying.

A simple example of this, inspired by a cold winter day such as this one, would be what you say when you go outside. You might say, “It’s cold outside.” You might say instead, “It’s freezing outside.” Another thing you might say is, “It sure does feel like winter out here.” Now, I’m not going to try to predict what difference each one of these things makes when you say them. I only claim that each sentence, although similar in their essential meaning, will cause you to think differently about the weather. You think different things when you choose to use the word “freezing” instead of “cold.” You think something else when you say neither word and simply acknowledge that it feels like winter.

For me, “freezing” is more painful than “cold,” and if I simply said that it felt like winter, I’d be downplaying the cold I’m feeling and emphasizing that the physical sensation of cold is entirely to be expected because it’s winter. But that’s just me.

If we accept the above, then it stands to reason that the words you say to others will also inspire different thoughts in them. So, for example, I never use the phrase “make you feel better” with my daughter. I don’t want to make her feel anything. In fact, I can’t make her feel anything. Her feelings are all her own. Instead, I say “help you feel better.” That’s something I can do. I can help. I usually start helping by asking what she wants and letting her guide me through the process of recovery.

This was a deliberate parenting choice on my part, but when I started doing that, I soon realized that it didn’t make sense to say “make you feel better” to anyone. I stopped saying it to my wife, my friends, my family members. I started saying “help” instead. I have no idea whether they noticed, but what I noticed in myself is that I started to empathize a little better. Instead of offering people gestures that I assumed were kind, I started offering them anything they might need, letting them choose what might help them, and giving them that. I felt better about that, and I hope they did, too.

I was given some important advice a few months back: Stop saying, “I feel like...” You know, “I feel like people don’t pay attention when they drive.” Or maybe, “I feel like you don’t really like the hamburger you’re eating.” Or perhaps, “I feel like we’ve always done it this way.”

No, no, no. These are not feelings. These are thoughts. Feelings, I was advised, consist of just one word. I feel happy, or sad, or confused, or slighted, or angry, or jealous, or lonely, or misunderstood, or elated, or accomplished, or etc. See? Those are feelings. Just one word. If you need more than one word to say what you’re saying, then you’re probably not talking about a feeling anymore. You’re talking about a thought.

To be sure, thoughts are important. But they are distinct from feelings. We have circumstances that trigger thoughts, which trigger feelings, and then come actions inspired by all three. But circumstances, thoughts, feelings, and actions (or behaviors) are all separate things.

And finally, the words we choose to denote our feelings, the words we use to describe our thoughts, can all have a big impact on our actions/behaviors. We can’t always change our circumstances, but we can often change our thoughts and our feelings simply by describing them differently.

This technique - altering your thinking by changing the words you use - can be honed with practice and used to improve your life. But it takes time and it takes consistent practice. It’s worth it, though.