I've never visited Finland. Actually, I probably never should, since it's a place I love so much on paper – dazzling, snow-blanketed landscapes, best education in the world, first country to give full suffrage to women, home of the Moomins – that reality could only disappoint. Even the staunchest Finnophile, though, might be sceptical on encountering the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. First outlined in a 2004 graduation speech by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen, the theory claims, in short, that the secret to a creatively fulfilling career lies in understanding the operations of Helsinki's main bus station. It has circulated among photographers for years, but it deserves (pardon the pun) greater exposure. So I invite you to imagine the scene. It's a bus station like any big bus station – except, presumably, cleaner, and with environmentally-friendly buses driven by strikingly attractive blond(e)s.
An economist walks into a bar. This is a true story; it's 2002, the bar is the Lava Lounge in LA, and the economist is an academic named Glen Whitman. He gets chatting to a fellow patron and mentions his line of work. "So," asks the stranger, "what are the Two Things about economics?" "Huh?" Whitman replies, confused. "You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important." Whitman thinks, then replies: "One: incentives matter. Two: there's no such thing as a free lunch." Which is arguably a pretty good summation of the whole of economics.
Until recently, I owned a mobile phone so chunky and ridiculous that people had started to laugh at it – including, memorably, the staff at the shop where I'd originally bought it. (In their defence, I'd had it since 2007, which is the Mesolithic period in phone years.) But if there's one thing psychology has taught us, it's that buying shiny gadgets is a guaranteed path to fulfilment, so I'm now the proud owner of a Nexus 4, a sleek, blemish-free slab of glass, 9mm thick. Well, I say "proud owner". "Proud but with a background hum of anxiety" is more like it. Because it is, after all, a blemish-free slab of glass – which means I can never quite forget the risk of dropping or scratching it.
It's a truth universally acknowledged that everyone hates managers. Managers are the people destroying your soul with pointless meetings, overly complex procedures for claiming expenses, and stupid team-building awaydays. If you're a teacher, doctor or police officer, managers are why you're always bogged down in paperwork, rather than doing what you're best at. Most of us, write Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan in their new book The Org: The Underlying Logic Of The Office, "imagine a world without managers as a kind of paradise where workers are unshackled by pointless bureaucracy… a place where stuff actually gets done". Strangely, managers tend to agree. The goal of every lumbering conglomerate is to "become more like a startup" – which usually means buying some vivid furniture, and maybe a ping-pong table, provided Jim in Purchasing can get the expenditure authorised sometime in the next five years.