Fifteen years ago, when the modern gig economy was just starting to take off, there was a certain homogeneity to the rosy-eyed takes on the future of work being bandied about. The idea of using the internet to do things in a whole new way was new. Everybody loved the ideas in the air relatively equally and uncritically—Kevin Kelly's "1,000 True Fans," Chris Anderson's "Long Tail," Tim Ferriss' "4-Hour Work Week." It was all good. We were all going to create the brave new world together.
Now that we have more experience, opinions and tastes have started to diverge. Distinct schools of thought about how to gig have emerged and diverged. This is a great thing. Dissent is the voice of progress. I think four main schools are emerging shown in the 2x2. I’m fairly opinionated on various detailed matters like hourly vs. project billing, but here I’m talking about high-level gestalt ideas that people use to organize all their thinking. Ideas that define their style of gig working.
I think I personally belong to an emerging pragmatic-romantic school of gig work, where our sensibilities are mainly defined by having a true experimental mindset. In the experimentalist school, we try things and stick with them if they work, abandon them if they don’t. We try to get our shit together, but we don’t try to overfit complicated life philosophies to rough-and-ready working theories of what works for us. We don’t read divine meanings into our own fates. It’s obviously the best school, but let’s talk some trash about the other schools. Four emerging schools of thought about how to gig.
BAD AS IN DEFAULTS
Often, it’s easier to define yourself in terms of what you reject. With divergence and the rise of different schools of thought, this is inevitable. What you accept tends to be complex, plus you’re too close to it to see it clearly. What you reject, on the other hand, is sharply defined and clear. It struck me that I’ve never actually listed out all the ideas that I think are—to varying degrees—bad. Not perhaps bad for everybody, but also not just bad for me as a matter of personality fit and personal tastes. The opinions I’m listing here are less than universal, but more than personal. They are school-of-thought level beliefs that I think are shared by a lot of people. I think these are ideas that are bad by default, good by exception.
THE LIST Here’s a list of ten bad ideas. Again, I emphasize—not universally bad, just bad by default, good by exception. If you’re one of the exceptions for whom it could work, by all means, go for it. These are not necessarily the top ten worst ideas. Those tend to get weeded out since they work for nobody. These are more like ten representative bad ideas that illustrate overall bad patterns. They work just often enough that schools of thought can coalesce around them. I think they cluster roughly according to the 2x2, but the classifications are not clean. In no particular order...
- Financial independence, retire early (FIRE): An article I found via Paul Millerd led me to doing a little Twitter rant on FIRE. In brief, I think it’s a bad idea for most people to plan life around hating work and aggressively solving for retirement. It is better to process your feelings about work until you find a way to enjoy and pursue it roughly as long as most people around you, which means to age 65 in most parts of the world today. Because work is actually one of the pleasures of life when done right. FIRE strikes me as a version of what Bruce Sterling calls acting dead. School: gig optimizers.
- Gig worker unions: I’ve been open about this. Unions are an obsolete mode of political action that is both ineffective and entirely captured by a class of untrustworthy leaders. Solidarity as an uncritical socialist value has acquired all the baggage on the left that patriotism has on the right. There are emerging alternative novel mechanisms worth exploring that don’t require you to subsume your individuality within a 1920s class identity. School: gig supremacists.
- 4-hour workweek: All credit to Ferriss for starting a big part of the gig-economy conversation around how hard you should work, but the specifics of the 4HWW model turn me off. Work should be enjoyable, impactful, and serve a purpose for others beyond just making a living. When it meets those conditions, most people want to work more than four hours a week. Solving for minimal work around passive income streams is another way to act dead. If working 100-hour weeks is masochistic, solving for four makes you vulnerable to becoming a grifter. School: gig optimizers.
- Systems and processes consulting: Many indies build careers around personally branded process models. The Vogonology Pipeline Matrix Method™ or whatever, complete with polished collateral and highly choreographed workshop offerings. 90% of the time, this is vanity bullshit. Quick-and-dirty commodity mental models à la Weick (What Theory is Not, Theorizing Is) are vastly more valuable and honest. Test of whether Your Thing™ is vanity or real: if you stopped doing it yourself and opensourced it, would others run with it? Or would it be instantly forgotten? The whole advantage of being an indie is that you’re not a part of some bureaucratic machine. If you can’t bring the bespoke quirkiness without the vacuous props, you’re giving the rest of us a bad name. School: gig optimizers.
- Studio structures: If an indie tries to operate in studio mode, trying to package what they do in the form of a Serious Art and Design Institution™ engaging in the Self-Important Critical Practice of XYZ™ while incubating a Portfolio of Pretentious Projects™...no. It never ends well. It is barely a good idea for proper partnerships of four or five people taking on genuine entrepreneurial-artistic risks together. But when a single indie acts like they’re a studio, it’s almost invariably bad news. Stop posturing and just do shit and let the shit speak for itself. The studio packaging adds nothing but your visibly aestheticized insecurities. Build what infrastructure you need. Don’t fetishize it, or sell it as a theatrical end in itself. School: gig supremacists.
- Certifications: This one especially needs the reminder that I’m talking good defaults. While some consulting-specific certifications are worthwhile and represent unusual or rare skills, say specialized training dealing with nuclear disasters, and others might be required to operate in particular industries, like PMP or Lean Six Sigma which I think are bullshit but worth getting for access to certain kinds of gigs, most soft certifications are useless bullshit. Like certified life coach? Come on. Either go get an actual psychiatry or clinical psychology degree, or own your advice-giving shtick without attaching sketchy quasi-credentials. In the worst cases, shady certifications are signs of exploitative grifts. School: cusp between gig optimizers and experimentalists.
- Performative lifestyles: It’s great that you live on a farm in Podunk to achieve Work-Life Balance Close to Nature™ or enjoy a Location-Independent Lifestyle™...good for you. But outside of other gig workers you might be swapping tips with (or more likely, showing off to), nobody else cares unless it compromises what you do for them, in which case it is a liability. Keep that shit in the backend. Lead with what you do for others. What you do primarily for yourself, with no benefit and perhaps even active harm to others, shouldn’t be part of your brand. That just creates narcissistic and self-indulgent optics around the whole gig economy. It’s a bad look for all of us. School: gig supremacists.
- Resentment as a service: There is a kind of indie posture that involves continuously muttering and whining about the evils of corporations, middle managers, and the paycheck world in general. It is, of course, deeply hypocritical if at the same time you’re deriving much of your income from that world. Often this becomes part of the brand: “You are part of the corrupt mainstream world. I, pure soul, bring to you the cleansing holy water of the indie economy!” Give it a rest. You made a lifestyle choice that worked for you. Don’t presume to sit in judgment of choices made by others. School: gig supremacists.
- Missionary overcompensation: Many indies have trouble processing the fundamentally mercenary nature of what we do. They can have an undercurrent of guilt about what feels like taking the easy, privileged way out because you can, while others in paycheck jobs do more important things. This shows up in the form of mission statements, values statements, etc., on websites. This is a bad idea for most people because it tends to foul up more pragmatic marketing. It also keeps your introspection terminally confused. School: gig supremacists.
- Contrarian smugness: Contrarian smugness is the posture that results from the idea that you’ve swallowed some sort of work-related red pill and abandoned a false consciousness that others are still laboring under. Something like, “Lean Six Sigma is a lie, you should do the OODA Chi-Square Quality instead!” It’s usually just a beef elevated to an assumption that you’re claiming the moral high ground. It combines resentment and missionary overcompensation into a kind of contrarian preachiness. School: gig supremacists, but with some spillover into gonzo where the preachiness turns into messianic delusions.
That’s it for my list of bad ideas. Bad by default, good by exception. What are yours? Do you know which school you lean towards? Do you fit into one of my 2x2 of four schools, or does the scheme not apply to you? How would you define your school?