Lucy Kellaway: Caring about your work has become a weird status symbol
Anyone not caring about work is best advised to pretend to feel passionately about it
‘I blame Steve Jobs: thanks to him, caring is now compulsory. It is supposed to be good for us, as it bolsters our self-respect, and is supposed to be good for employers as it bolsters their bottom lines.’ Photograph: David Paul Morris/Getty Images
Long ago, when I was a trainee on Wall Street, I would get on to the subway every morning at 68th Street with a fellow Brit who worked at the same bank. As we piled into the packed train, often slightly hung over, I would ask him the same question.
“Neil, what don’t you give?”
To which he would always reply: “A s**t, Luce, a s**t.” Then we would both laugh.
Neil didn’t give a s**t and neither, at the time, did I. Yet his not giving one has not got in the way of his success. In due course, he left the bank and co-founded a company which he subsequently sold to Sir Martin Sorrell.
He became the first of my friends to get really rich, and the first to arrange his life exactly as it suited him. Now he chairs various grand organisations and invests in small businesses. As far as anyone can tell, he is very happy indeed.
Back then, we were young and silly, and were living in an age in which it felt cool to boast about not caring. Now the world has changed and not giving a s**t has become taboo. Caring about your work is deemed not only vital for success but has become a weird sort of status symbol. Anyone who does not care is best advised to keep quiet about it, and pretend like fury to feel the same passion as everyone else.
I blame Steve Jobs for this, with his two wrong-headed mottos: “Don’t settle” and “love what you do”. Thanks to him, caring is now compulsory. It is supposed to be good for us, as it bolsters our self-respect, and is supposed to be good for employers as it bolsters their bottom lines.
Last week James Altucher, entrepreneur, writer and hedge fund manager, did something outrageous. He posted online an extended version of my long-ago exchange with Neil, a 2,000-word blog post called What Happens When You Don’t Care. Mr Altucher turns out to be a late convert to not caring, starting five years ago at the age of 42. Since then he has discovered that all sorts of good things stem from it.
For a start you do not have to force other people to listen to you. Neither do you get upset when people attack you, nor when you discover that you can’t change the world – because it is big and you are small. Not caring, he says, means that when he loses all his money (as he does often) he does not mind: he knows he can make it again easily enough.
The only trouble with his blog (apart from its dim, whimsical conclusion, “When I grow up I want to be a little boy again”) is that Mr Altucher is such an oddball he does not speak for the rest of us who do not make and lose fortunes but collect a monthly pay cheque.
Yet even for wage slaves, the same applies – perhaps even more so. If I look around at my own colleagues, the ones who cope least well with the ravages of working life are the ones who care too much. They mind what people think. They care if they do not get invited to a meeting. They care when their articles are not promoted. They get too involved in everything.
This sort of caring is very unproductive. It makes us mad, and I really can’t see how it makes our employer any richer. The rule for all employees should be to stop caring about things outside our control. So when our bosses hand down another daft new management initiative, there is no point in doing anything other than looking on with a sort of detached amusement.
But what about the work itself? Surely we should care about that? Caring, after all, can motivate – though only up to a point.
The sort of babyish not-caring that Neil and I went in for all those decades ago made us rotten bankers. It was destructive and unprofessional, and generally not to be recommended.
But caring too much is equally problematic. As a writer, I find undue caring makes my words garbled and unspontaneous, and makes me so involved in the subject that I am inclined to write something stupid. A little detachment makes me a better journalist.
I work with a clever colleague who strikes me as a role model. He does an exceptionally fine job, yet reminds me a little of my friend Neil. He does not take anything too seriously, and deep down I suspect he really does not give a damn. When I put this to him just now, he blushed scarlet.
“I care deeply about not being able to maintain a better poker face,” he said.
Then I emailed Neil, just to make sure. What don’t you give, I asked him.
He replied that these days he did give a s**t – at least, he gave one about his family and friends. As for work, there were three things he still did not care about. Things that do not matter. Things that take a lot of time. And things that involve sucking up. As a guide to surviving the corporate world with one’s sanity intact, this is about as good as it gets. – Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2015
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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