My favourite bit of "meta-advice" – advice on how to deal with the advice that rains down on us from friends, books, columns like this – comes from the novelist Rick Moody. He happened to be talking about writing routines, a topic with which I'm dangerously obsessed, but his wisdom applies to any work, and to relationships and life in general. "The insight I offer you is this," he told the Writeliving blog. "There's no one process, and as soon as I imagine some approach to generating work is foolproof, it becomes suddenly worthless to me, and I have to start over." If, like me, you're always fiddling with your work systems, reorganising your stuff, testing new tricks for cultivating habits… take comfort. One tactic works for a while, then the self-sabotaging part of your brain gets wise to what you're doing, and the cycle begins again. The problem isn't that you've failed to find the One True Secret of productivity, happiness or love. The problem is believing you ever might.
The tactic goes by many names, but my favourite is the Theory Of The Hairy Arm. An American business consultant, Lawrence San, tells the following story about a colleague he calls Joe, who worked as a graphic designer in the days before computers. One of Joe's clients was forever ruining projects by insisting on stupid changes. Then something odd started happening: each time the client was presented with a newly photographed layout, he'd encounter the image of Joe's own arm at one edge of the frame, partly obscuring the ad. "The guy would look at it," Joe recalled, "and he'd say, 'What the hell is that hairy arm doing in there?'" Joe would apologise for the slip-up. And then, "as he was stalking self-righteously away", Joe said, "I'd call after him: 'When I remove the arm, can we go into production?' And he'd call over his shoulder, 'Yes, but get that arm out of there first!' Then I'd hear him muttering, 'These people! You've got to watch them like a hawk.'"
Impostor syndrome – the feeling that you're a fraud, and any day now you'll be exposed – is presumably even more common than surveys suggest: after all, it's not the kind of thing to which people like to admit. Indeed, it can be hard to tell when you've got it: those others might have a syndrome, your reasoning goes, but I'm genuinely out of my depth. It's a classic case of "comparing your insides with other people's outsides": you have access only to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude it's more justified than anyone else's. This is a strange kind of self-doubt, when you think about it, since it's premised on the idea that you're highly talented at something, namely deception. Still, it's no fun, and if new research is anything to go by, it might be harder to cure than anyone thought.
Nobody likes being too busy – that's why it's called "too busy" – but the human mind has all sorts of frustrating eccentricities that conspire to keep us that way, no matter what remedies we try. To begin with, there's Hofstadter's law, bemoaned in a previous column: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's law." Plan on completing a project in three days, and it'll take six; but reschedule to allow for five, and it'll take eight. There's Parkinson's law: work expands to fill the time available. Then there's the fact that being too busy is self-reinforcing: as the recent book Scarcity explains, lacking slack – whether of time or money – depletes cognitive bandwidth, prompting poor decisions, which dig us ever deeper. And let's not get started on the dubious psychological payoffs we derive from all this activity, which act as an incentive to stay overwhelmed. "Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness," as the essayist Tim Kreider puts it. "Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day."
There's a jaded view of humanity according to which we're all manipulating each other, all the time: a planet of confidence tricksters, differing mainly in how good we are at it. After all, we can't know the inside of anyone else's mind. So when deciding whom to trust, date, buy things from or vote for, we're forced to rely on "proxies" – outward indicators of expertise or trustworthiness. But there's a loophole: to triumph at this game, you don't need to be well-qualified or trustable. You just need to master the gestures, the expressions, the lingo. You might not be doing this consciously. You might even really be all you claim to be. But until they release a mind-reading app for Google Glass, how could anyone tell?
I interviewed Malcolm Gladwell for the Guardian on the occasion of the publication of his new book, David & Goliath:
Malcolm Gladwell is in his natural habitat – a cafe in New York's West Village, down the street from his apartment – engaged in a very Gladwellian task: defending Lance Armstrong. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, who despite all appearances just turned 50, has a tendency to hoist both arms aloft like a preacher when a topic inflames him. And the topic of doping in sports does. Why, he wants to know, is it OK to be born with an abnormality that gives you surplus red blood cells, like the Finnish Olympic skiing star Eero Mäntyranta, but not OK to reinfuse your own blood prior to competing, as Armstrong apparently did? Why are baseball players allowed performance-enhancing eye surgery, but not performance-enhancing drugs? "Imagine," Gladwell says, "if all the schools in England had a rule that you can't do homework, because homework is a way in which less able kids can close the gap that Nature said ought to exist. Basically, Armstrong did his homework and lied about it! Underneath the covers, with his flashlight on, he did his calculus! And I'm supposed to get upset about that?"
You can read the whole thing here.
It's often been observed that the future didn't turn out as predicted. By now, thanks to technology's advance, we were supposed to be working 15-hour weeks, spending the rest of our time on great literature, conversation, and leisurely jetpack trips to the dome-covered shopping mall, to check out the latest range of 1950s horn-rimmed spectacles. Instead, we're busier than ever. But it's worse than that, according to David Graeber, the anthropology professor credited with helping to launch the Occupy movement: much of that busyness is completely pointless. Entire professions, he argued in a recent essay in Strike! magazine, consist of "bullshit jobs" that the world just doesn't need. If nurses and rubbish collectors disappeared overnight, we'd be in trouble; but "it's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish". What explains this proliferation of pointlessness? Graeber concludes, true to his anarchist beliefs, that it's all about social control. A population kept busy with bullshit has no time to start a revolution.
Much hilarity greeted the revelation, back in May, that al-Qaida requires its operatives to submit expense reports. Our fear of terrorists leads us to imagine them as superhuman; it's a relief to learn that even they can't escape bureaucratic hassles. And those expense reports are no exception, judging by Jacob Shapiro's new book The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organisations. (Shapiro's a political scientist; despite the subtitle, this isn't a how-to guide.) There's a long tradition of trying to draw lessons in business from criminals: see, for example, Mob Rules: What The Mafia Can Teach The Legitimate Businessman, by former Gambino mobster Louis Ferrante, or a recent Businessweek article entitled Breaking Bad's Management Lessons. Shapiro avoids that trap: terror groups, in his analysis, are so annoying you'd never want to work for one, even if you had no scruples about terrorism. To me and you, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may be the personification of evil. But to the militants he once scolded for buying a new fax machine when the old one still worked, he's the micromanager from hell.
'Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled above the rim," writes one biographer of Søren Kierkegaard. "Next came the incredibly strong black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid." The Danish philosopher was overdoing it: perhaps it's no coincidence that his books include Fear And Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death. But coffee addicts, myself included, relish anecdotes such as this because they reinforce our belief that coffee and creativity are linked. It's not merely that caffeine is the "acceptable addiction", as it's sometimes called; it's something actively to boast about: "Oh, you don't want to meet me before my morning coffee," we say, with something close to pride. Try replacing "coffee" in that sentence with "heroin". The effect isn't quite the same.
It's the season of "beach reads" and Best Summer Books lists – and thus, also, the season for the re-emergence of the perennial question of when, if ever, it's OK to give up on a book halfway through. "This is surely a strange advice," scoffed Dr Johnson in response to the notion that you should finish every book you start. "You may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life." A good analogy, since many people treat abandoning a novel like a milder version of abandoning a lover or friend.