Dubious Lessons of a Well-Intended Education: On Fakework

Let’s be honest: education teaches us some truly dubious life lessons.

A friend of mine recently took a class in which the sole assignment for the whole semester was a single 6,000 word research paper on a topic of one’s choice. Despite giving her professor assurances to the contrary, she began the assignment the night before it was due. She wrote the entire paper in one sitting, editing as she went, and submitted without proofreading.

She said she deserved a bad grade, and would’ve accepted one with resolve. She’d been unengaged by the class and was planning to declare it as a pass/fail. And yet—when she received the graded paper back a few weeks later, it had received an A, and her professor was effusive in his praise. He wrote to her in an email something along the lines of: this is one of the best undergraduate papers I’ve ever read, and I can tell how much effort you’ve put into this. Keep up the hard work, and may your successes continue.

The lesson my friend learned was one of smart work, as opposed to hard work. Pretend to work hard, put in the minimal amount of effort necessary, confuse with big words, elegant sentences and a complex thesis, and the rewards will follow. Success depends as much on impression as on reality—the impression of hard work, the impression of intelligence.

The kind of ‘smart work’ I’m talking about is more than the “hack” mentality put forward by blogs like Lifehacker, and more than the productivity mantra of Silicon Valley. Where those look to help reduce the time it takes to carry out a given task (and that is, after all, the idea of technological progress), the smart work taught by our schools and universities changes what it means to complete a task. A task is complete so long as it gives the impression of it, no matter the thought, detail, care, conscience or morality behind it. Perhaps a better term is fakework.

“Yes, and?”, some will ask. “The activity is still complete. What’s it to others how it was completed? And besides, they’ll never know.”

Modern culture itself seems built on a similar kind of impressionism. It is probably a result of modern advertising, the ever-increasing fight by companies for our attention, the ever-decreasing time we feel we have. Politics is now the competition of the sound-bite. Advertising gives the impression of life transformation through the purchase of a product, when of course the underlying product can never live up to the impression that was sold.

We are taught the lesson in our schools and universities, because everyone—teachers and professors included—are subject to the same laws of impressionism. Teachers have similar constraints on their time as students, if not more, and it seems the trick, for many (though by no means all!), is to give the impression of having thoughtfully read and graded a paper without having truly done so. Because both students and teachers engage with it, it becomes one of the unspoken myths of one’s education. So long as you give the impression of hard work—and don’t call others out on theirs—all will be fine.

We take the lesson with us to the workplace, and it moves us onwards, forwards, upwards.

The problem is, we come to believe it. Fakework becomes not just an unspoken reality of our education systems, but a rule of modern life. If we could once switch fakework on and off depending on the activity, soon we forget it underlies our actions. And for some things in life, hard work is the only solution. It’s those times when the mere impression of it counts for absolutely nothing.

Like when your doctor tells you you’re at risk of a heart attack, and that you urgently need to get fit to improve your heart.

Like when you’re about to become a mother or a father and have just a few months to learn everything you need to know to keep your child safe and healthy and to give them the right start in life.

Like when you’re laid off at 55 and decide to write the novel you always wanted to write.

Like when your father has a stroke and you’re his sole care giver.

In these situations, and so many more where the only one watching is our own conscience and the only people affected are the ones we care most about, hard work is all there is.

Education is so all-encompassing, all-consuming, that we fail to see how the lessons we learn, no matter how broken were the incentives through which we learn them, are lessons we take with us through life. Our views, habits and approaches to life are formed when we aren’t watching; they’re formed when we’re looking the other way, trying to get an assignment done the night before it’s due. I suppose one should try always to keep a watchful eye turned in this direction, and to see every assignment and task as an opportunity to practice the habits and approaches we’ll need when life most tests us. We don’t want to be left floundering, wondering why fakework isn’t working exactly when we need it most.

The Danger of Becoming the Stories We Tell

The idea of the “personal narrative” is that we take selective events or periods from our lives and combine them with larger ideas and purpose in order to get somewhere else.

In order to get somewhere else. Perhaps it’s a job interview, or in conversation at a conference; maybe you’ve been asked to give a speech, or you’re applying to graduate school. The reality is that in living our lives daily we do not think about a “personal narrative” so clearly defined. If we meet someone in a casual social situation, we may describe ourselves, but it will not be in the same way as we would describe ourselves in an interview. The “getting somewhere” is what separates describing ourselves to someone and telling a personal narrative; the former is done simply for its own sake, the latter to get somewhere or something.

Not that a personal narrative need be untruthful, but in their selectivity and in their tailoring to the “somewhere” that we are trying to get, personal narratives are likely to anchor us to parts of ourselves that in daily life are not necessarily most important. We may emphasise certain skills or personality traits that, true, we do possess, but which our friends would not think to mention if describing us.

The difference in what we describe in a personal narrative as opposed to what we would tell a friend is the difference between what David Brooks calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. We describe the parts of ourselves that will help a company grow its bottom line, or which will impress a graduate school program—skills, past work experience, competitiveness. Yet those are not the things that make us who we are. To our friends and family, or to the people we go cycling with during the weekend, what matters is whether we are kind and caring, thoughtful and conscientious, able to switch off from work and enjoy life, interested in others’ lives.

The danger in telling a personal narrative is that we may come to believe it; that in repeating so often and so forcefully the kind of person we are, other parts of self may start to fall away. The narrative, to repeat, may not be untruthful, but a narrative is by necessity never the whole truth. “I am an a, b, c” kind of person, “and x, y, z events from my life show that”, and “that’s why I’m perfect to get this (job, graduate program, etc)”. You are a, b and c, but also much of the alphabet besides, including qualities and values that are far more important.

In our attempt to “get somewhere”, the personal narratives we tell focus on the external parts of our lives that when all is said and done matter very little. And if we aren’t careful—if we spend our time climbing, always looking for the next thing, always “applying”—we will come to embody the personal narratives we tell, lacking in humanity and virtue as they necessarily do.

Money Costs

Time may be money… though I’ve always resisted that loath­some platitude, the alchemy by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce…

— Mark Slouka, Quitting the Paint Factory

In economics we are taught that everything money could be spent on has an opportunity cost, which is the next best thing that you could have purchased with the same money.

Money, too, has an opportunity cost.

Most obviously its opportunity cost is what one could have done with the time one spent to earn that money (see—spent to earn… the analogy is inescapable). What Mark Slouka does in the quotation above is show us that sometimes, comparisons do an injustice. To say that time is money is to think that they are on the same ground, that it is a choice of either/or.

But money can buy everything in the world aside from time. The richest person in the world can do nothing to slow ageing, to stop days passing.

“Time is money”; we grow up with that innocuous statement without realising the harm it causes, how we debase the only thing we really have, and the only thing that money can never buy.

“I Could Have Done That”

The comment frivolously directed at so much modern art is that a child could have done it, or at the very least “I could have”.

But the point is, you didn’t. You did not have the idea to do it. And if you did have the idea, you did not have the work ethic.

The artist (whether a writer, painter, musician or any other kind) combined the idea with the work ethic and saw it through to reality. Simplicity and a lack of technique or skill required to produce an artwork merely makes the point stronger that they had a creativity and a work ethic that you did not.

And the more simple the art, the less that is superfluous, the more difficult it was to create.

That is the paradox that leads so many to think there is nothing unique in what was done. But what is hidden beneath the surface of some of the canon’s most beautifully simple works is an indescribable amount of thought and effort, and an immense struggle to show up day after day after day until art happened. The simplicity and elegance of much great art disguises what really went into it.