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Chmess: How to Spot a Bullshit Job

Your work feels pointless, the problems you solve seem imaginary, and your job is slowly killing your soul. Yet, most of your co-workers appear to be thriving and your boss is convinced you’re doing just wonderfully. If that sounds familiar, you might be trapped in a game of chess. You know chmess. Sort of. It’s very similar to chess. The only difference is that the king can move two, not one, squares in all directions. A small shift that changes the dynamic of the activity enough to make it a game in its own right. Unfortunately, while chess enjoys great popularity, chmess is an irrelevant and useless game. Just like your job seems to be.

Daniel Dennett’s Chmess

Chmess is an invention of philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. In his 2006 essay, Higher-Order Truths About Chmess, the professor put a certain type of academic philosopher in the crosshairs. In his view, they were wasting their time by devoting their careers to investigating chmess-like phenomena. Using the analogy of chmess, Dennett explains how a meaningless philosophical discipline comes into existence:

There are just as many a priori truths of chmess as there are of chess (an infinity), and they are just as hard to discover. And that means that if people actually did get involved in investigating the truths of chmess, they would make mistakes, which would need to be corrected, and this opens up a whole new field of a priori investigation, the higher-order truths of chmess, such as the following:

1. Jones’ (1989) proof that p is a truth of chmess is flawed: he overlooks the following possibility…

2. Smith’s (2002) claim that Jones’ (1989) proof is flawed presupposes the truth of Brown’s lemma (1975), which has recently been challenged by Garfinkle (2002)…

The problem with pursuing such a discipline, according to Dennett, is that they’re “artifactual puzzles of no abiding significance”. That is, they lack any applicability in the real world. In a sense, it’s the mother of all ivory towers. Philosophers, however, could get away with it because their research rarely relies on empirical data and corresponding analysis that would expose their hypotheses as empty.

Where Chmess Goes Wrong

Even if chmess-players only create the illusion of having expertise applicable to reality, it may not be entirely useless. It’s accepted work, after all. Players engage in critical thinking and problem-solving, write about it and get paid the same way they would when playing chess or pursuing a discipline Dennett deems worthwhile. If there’s a market for it, more power to them.

So why bother? Dennett’s main concern seems to be unsuspecting undergraduates being lured into a career of philosophical nothingness. He blames this on self-absorbed philosophy professors who feel obliged to keep up the charade. Students might not intend to devote their professional careers to the study of quasi-science fiction. But they may end up feeling cheated if their expertise will never be in demand. In the end, the only options they will have left are to change careers or to carry on the flame of make-believe.

The bad news is that chmess isn’t limited to philosophy or academia for that matter.

David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs

In 2013, anthropologist David Graeber observed a similar type of work he chose to name Bullshit Jobs in an eponymous essay. His article struck a nerve. Five years and a wealth of reports from readers later, he made his contribution to the science of bullshit in book form. Graeber published his findings in Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. But it’s important to note that Graeber isn’t talking about jobs regarded as tough or unpleasant; such as miner or nurse. Instead, he defines bullshit jobs as:

a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

According to the author, over 50% of jobs in our economy are of the bullshit kind. So, there’s a good chance everyone had, has or will have a bullshit job at some point in their lives. They fall into five categories:

  1. Flunkies such as receptionists make their superiors feel special.
  2. Goons such as PR consultants are hired as counterparts to other goons.
  3. Duct tapers such as proofreaders specialise in makeshift solutions that make up for a superior’s incompetence.
  4. Box tickers such as in-house magazine journalists create the illusion that something of value has been produced.
  5. Taskmasters such as middle managers are experts in creating work nobody asked for.

I’m sure one or two categories look familiar to you. Personally, I have considerable experience as a duct-taping goon. Chmess players are probably closest to being taskmasters. Overall, the feedback Graeber received from readers indicated: Bullshit jobs tend to be prestigious roles that make their incumbents feel miserable.

Many end up putting most of their energy into creating the illusion that they’re adding something of value to society. Apparently, some of Graeber’s respondees even went as far as to say the world would be a better place if their entire profession didn’t exist. Ouch.

The Purpose of Bullshit Jobs

Graeber hypothesises that the purpose of these professions is to make sure there’s enough work for everyone in a capitalist society. Artificial inflation of the supply side of the job market so to speak. Unsurprisingly, he’s a proponent of a universal basic income model that would allow people to escape their misery and do the things they actually love. I guess things like writing critical thinking blogs.

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Indeed, the labour market can seem a bit like a job laundering scheme. Create a new role. Get enough people trained and working in said role. And low and behold it becomes a legitimate profession. Coming up with new métiers de merde is just as easy as inventing chmess. All you need to do is change enough about a well-known game or profession to render it seemingly useless.

Nobody will be able to guess which ones aren’t real. You could compete as a professional athlete speeding down an Olympic bobsleigh track in a Chinese wok instead of a sleigh. Or start next week as a case officer whose sole job is to pair rail travellers with sweaty IT guys whenever they make an online seat reservation.

It seems to me that the rise of bullshit jobs is a result of professionalisation and the specialisation of roles in our economy. Driven by growth and, ironically, the desire for efficiency, the system has created specialists who are so far removed from a company’s bottom line that their value-add cannot be easily measured. Rather than artificially, this mess grew organically. Similar to the stuff you accumulate in your household over the years. It all had some purpose when you bought it, but now that you look at it again…

Anyhow — I digress. There seems to be a genuine need to avoid playing such meaningless games – current or future.

How to Stop Chmess-ing Around

So what do you do if it seems like you‘re trapped in a game of chess? Everyone around you appears as if they’ve succumbed to groupthink when it comes to the raison d‘être of your work.

As a starter, it may be a good strategy to assume that you‘re wrong about the uselessness of your work. It’s the easiest explanation after all. And changing yourself is easier than changing others, let alone a whole profession. If that’s really not an option, though, Dennett has come up with a chmess test that can easily be applied to any kind of bullshit job – a litmus test if you will:

One good test to make sure you’re not just exploring the higher-order truths of chmess is to see if people aside from philosophers actually play the game. Can anybody outside of academic philosophy be made to care whether you’re right about whether Jones’ counterexample works against Smith’s principle? Another such test is to try to teach the stuff to uninitiated undergraduates. If they don’t ‘‘get it,’’ you really should consider the hypothesis that you’re following a self-supporting community of experts into an artifactual trap.

Elephant in the Room

Similarly, can anybody outside your line of work be made to care about the difficulties of finding a cover photo for the next issue of your in-house journalistic masterpiece? Can someone external find value in your suggestion to heat up your woksled to increase speed? If mentioning your job turns out to be a conversation stopper at parties, you get another useful data point.

As for Dennett’s second suggestion: If you can’t get a hold of an undergraduate in your field, a switched-on future talent and potential co-worker will do just fine. Don’t sugarcoat or undersell your job. Teach them what you do, how you do it and to what effect. ‘What’s the point?’ is a reaction you wouldn’t expect from explaining your job as a paramedic.

If we concur, the reality check can’t come from an insider. The innocence of the uninitiated is best-suited to dispel the illusion.

Closing Thoughts

Of course, this is all a bit hyperbolic. Our jobs may instinctively strike us as meaningless when in reality they’re just a bad fit for our preferences and abilities. We may have fallen into an intuitive trap that led us to the easy conclusion instead of the right one. After all, it’s more convenient to expect a whole profession to change or disappear than adapt ourselves in a bid to escape competition through authenticity.

But if our job is well and truly killing our souls and doesn’t pass the chmess test, maybe it’s time for a change. We’ve done the hard part by realising it. Changing a small detail was all it took to turn chess into a game nobody cared about. Imagine what we could do with our bullshit job if we changed another small detail in the right direction.

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