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.

The Readymade Fallacy

Often when we are impressed by someone’s work we tell ourselves stories to explain their success. They had an education I didn’t have, so they were perfectly suited to do that; they were just naturally good at it; they had momentum behind them; they had money behind them; they knew the right people; they look better than I do, so people naturally like them; they’re extroverted, so they can express themselves that way on TV; they’re introverted, so they can hole up for months on end to write that book…

Many of these explanations commit the Readymade Fallacy. We see only the end product of success, and never the process and hard slog that went into it. Behind almost all success stories is hard work, day after day, refusing to make excuses for oneself, refusing to be distracted. Very often the starting point from which someone went on to become a success was from a more difficult place than we are presently in. But in our blindness to the hard work that went into something successful, we fall back on narratives to explain why they could do something that I couldn’t.

Narratives that put success down to something intrinsic in that person give us a way out of what is in reality just the necessity of hard work. If it was down to their education, or their good looks, or their being introverted, then there’s no point me starting a similar project, since I’m not cut out for it in the way they are. We need not begin that project we had planned, since we won’t succeed like they did because of their (insert any trait here).

Don’t mistake hard work for innate traits. In doing so, we merely give ourselves excuses for not doing what we really should do. What we actually need to do is to write, dance, sing, record, train, practice, study, work… hour after hour, day after day. There’s no innate character trait for that, since persistence is a learned mindset.

Connecting the Dots of Our Lives

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Steve Job’s Stanford commencement address is one of those talks I rediscover perhaps once a year, watch twice in a row, feel that my life has changed, and then forget about a few days later. As much as I want to hold onto all that wisdom and let it change me, life always seems to get in the way.

I wrote recently about the difficulties with wanting to go abroad to do something different, to discover new interests and passions. To go abroad for study, for instance, requires an application that forces you to outline how this experience “aligns with your academic and career goals”. To be honest—to say simply that it doesn’t align, and that’s precisely the point—is to put you in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario with other applicants.

But I think that’s applicable not just to going abroad, but to what we want to do with our lives. Perhaps part of the reason I forget again and again about Jobs’ speech after feeling so deeply moved is that the daily reality of thinking about my future forces me to connect the dots looking forward.

Yale’s Office of Career Services recently asked me to send them my latest resume in order to talk through how it will set me up for the type of work I want to do over summer and after graduation. Through even requesting a resume, the question asked of us is not what do you want to do, but what can you do. The entire conversation is framed from there, with possibilities built on who we were rather than what we want to be and what we could be. We are incentivised by college career offices and employers to connect the dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging. That is a fallacy, an ever so costly one, and we must recognise that change is the point of our education. To leave college on the same path as one began leaves me wondering again what our time here was for.

A resume is the ultimate dot-connecter, and it requires that those dots are perfectly linear. I’ve heard from other students who went to their college career services office, who sat down with an adviser and were instantly labelled. “I can see from your resume that you will go into public policy”, the adviser says confidently, going off two previous public sector summer jobs the individual had listed.

Those summer jobs themselves were chosen by happenstance and serendipity! At age 20, to be told what career options are open to you based on a cumulative four months’ work! You wanted to be home one summer, you knew someone who offered you an interesting job, so you took it. Chance, fortuity; taking opportunities as they are presented: this is the right thing to do, and it is not connecting the dots forward. But to then be told by someone, supposedly a professional who knows how to best set you up for a career, that your dots will align only with a limited range of others… Your life’s work decided by happenstance!

I exaggerate, but perhaps only slightly.

And we know the answer were we to say, no, that’s not what I want to do with my life, in fact I want to be an artist and work on climate change. “But what experience do you have?” Job applications list as a requirement “former relevant work experience”. Your adviser tells you, “You’re competing for this museum curation job with other applicants who have spent the past three summers in that type of work. Why would they take you over them?” Friends and family say about your public policy job offer, “it’s a fantastic opportunity and a prestigious career, you should be pleased.” Resignedly, you decide that perhaps the public policy job wouldn’t be so bad. And so you connect one more summer’s dot, and as that line becomes longer it becomes yet more difficult to begin a new set of dots entirely. Each dot acts as a magnet, drawing yet more similar dots to it, and the more there are the stronger the magnetic field becomes. Two dots connect on your resume and decide the next fifty for you.

I exaggerate, but perhaps not much.

In class with David Brooks this semester we spent a few sessions discussing how to choose and shape a career. We were discussing careers in the traditional narrative of “needing the stars to line up”, in the same way that Jobs talked about your dots connecting. Someone frustratedly said “It’s not about how well the stars line up, but how creatively you draw a constellation between them.” I hadn’t heard that before, and it hit home.

The same advice is embedded in Jobs’ talk. From India to calligraphy to Mac OS is no path that a career adviser could ever have seen, or which Jobs could have put on a resume. “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He did what he felt was right, and later, after working out what he wanted to do, realised how these past experiences could make him better at whatever work he wanted to devote himself to. Had Jobs met with a career adviser or needed to apply for a job through a resume, where would he have ended up? What creativity, passion and talent would have been wasted?

We need to be aware of how our personal narratives and the lives they lead to are shaped by the structures of resumes and career thinking. Without understanding this, well-meaning career advice may hold us back from drawing a constellation between the dots of our lives, forcing us instead to draw an all-too-straight line between them.