Serious Introductory Bullshit
ot long ago, a friend of mine who occupies a very high position in a mind-b ogglingly enormous con-
glomerate called his boss, a veritable titan of industry, to inform him of a developing situation.
“Bob,” said my friend, whose name is also Bob,“I’m going to acquire that $15 billion operation in China I was telling you about when we flew together last Thursday.”
There was a profound silence on the other end of the phone. My friend Bob held his breath.This was an important strategic priority for him, a very big bite of a potentially disastrous apple. When he had broached the subject on the corporate jet heading down to Dallas, the chairman had seemed preoccupied, unfocused, had looked out the window the whole time, and then reverted to cursory golf chat. Now presented with the reality of this awesome financial and operational step, what would big Bob, the steward of the entire enterprise, known for his sharp mind, caustic wit, hot temper, cold heart, and unpredictable emotional infrastructure, do to little Bob?
“Bob,” said the chairman thoughtfully after a time,“have you ever been to Paris?”
My friend’s mind whirled. What could this possibly be about? Was there a hidden agenda here that was going to pop up and bite him in the butt? “Sure, Bob,” he said carefully. And waited.
“When you’re there,” said the chairman,“what hotel do you stay at? I used to invariably go to the Crillon, but I’m getting tired of that. I think the scene may be more interesting elsewhere. I don’t want to cross the river, so keep me on the Right Bank, but what would you suggest?”
“Well,” said my friend,“I like the Ritz a lot.”
“Thanks,” said the chairman warmly, and, after a short disquisition on the wonders of the south of France in spring, rang off.
Bob did the acquisition without further consultation, except for a presentation to his board, of course, which also seemed distracted while he was laying out the plan, and then, after approving it, had lunch.
Is this a story of corporate malfeasance? Of responsibility shirked and the shareholders’ interests once again trampled in the hot dust of executive laziness, inattentiveness, and stupidity? No, it isn’t, because my friend Bob knows what he is doing and will make everybody a lot of money in China. So it’s not about that.What it is, however, is a stunning and pungent demonstration of bullshit in action.
Bob’s chairman has a bullshit job. He knows it. He revels in it. And in this tale, we see him at the top of his bullshit game, performing his stunningly bullshit function with ease and distinction.The board, which should come as no surprise, is a bullshit institution and conforms to all expectations in that regard, including the part about lunch. Throughout, the bullshit artists are able to operate in a pleasant, no-stress, friendly environment provided by guys like my friend Bob, those willing to assume the actual mantle of hard work and all the unpleasantness that comes with it.
Opportunities in the lush brown field of bullshit employment are virtually limitless. My publisher told me to limit this exercise to 100 jobs for some kind of bullshit marketing consideration, but I can tell you that I could have doubled that number easily, and that’s focusing only on the domestic front and California.The global possibilities are equally limitless, especially in France, where fully 46 percent of all people are engaged in some kind of bullshit occupation, and Japan, where they hire people to help you get on and off escalators.
What do all these people have in common? They all have bullshit jobs. And guess what? They’re having fun, making a living, and enjoying their lives, perhaps more than you are right now as you wolf down that tuna sandwich before you push your nose back on that grindstone.
Ah, bullshit jobs! God must have loved them, since he made so many of them. Actually, Abraham Lincoln said that about something completely different—the common man, I think, which is why they put his head on the penny. Anyhow, the people lucky and skillful enough to have secured bullshit employment are everywhere, in virtually every field from ayurvedic healing to yoga franchising—I couldn’t come up with a z. The folks who work in these coveted bullshit positions enjoy the best lives imaginable— they are paid well, they work very little, and their professions are highly respected because nobody really knows what they do.
What, for instance, are the actual functions performed by a McKinsey consultant? Other than sitting around making people nervous? None. That’s what he does. And by next Tuesday, he’ll probably be your b oss’s boss! You think I’m kidding? Read the paper. About half a mile from me is another division of my corporation. Not long ago, they named one of their McKinsey consultants to the No. 2 position at the headquarters operation. The encouraging wrinkle here is that instead of the usual story of the consultant snuffing out a real, live, nonbullshit working executive, the McKinsey guy is superseding another McKinsey guy! Who says there are no happy endings in business?
What does an aromatherapist actually do? Sniff things?
Yes! For big, fragrant bucks, that’s what!
When the executive vice president of new media gives you his card, what is he offering? Who knows? Vaporware! For six figures plus a bonus equal to 100 percent of his base salary, in reward for the quality and size of the digital bullshit he’s capable of marketing.
What is a shrink actually doing when he or she is nodding at a suffering depressive? Nodding, we know that much. Beyond that? Essentially unknown. I know PhDs who make upward of $300 an hour for that. On the other hand, my shrink is worth every penny. Is that because what he practices is not bullshit? Or that his bullshit is simply better than any other, at least for me? Who knows?
This book begins with certain assumptions:
Q A fair amount of bullshit in anybody’s job is, a priori, a good thing, however you define bullshit, which is an interesting subject in itself that we will pursue in a moment.
W The ability to bullshit is what separates happy beasts from miserable mankind.
E There are costs for obtaining and maintaining a job that is fundamentally bullshit, but all good things come at a price.
R All jobs, no matter how apparently full of content, can be rendered into a high- octane, lucrative, completely insubstantial charade over time.
T There are some people who have a negative take on bullshit jobs. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably not one of them.
To begin, we must ask some critical questions that, although they are about bullshit, are not of it, because bullshit is in itself a serious subject and worthy of discourse that is not completely full of it.
I’m not sure what the other questions are, but I know what the first one ought to be.
A Critical Question
hat is bullshit?
Is it, as suggested by Harry G. Frankfurt, the author of a rather censorious but best-s elling bullshit book on the subject, the product of moral morons who are content to live in the gray zone where there is no truth and no untruth, that the bullshitter cares less about the truth than the liar? This seems rather severe to me, even if true, or not true. In fact, I don’t care if i t’s true or not, come to think of it.
Is it silly stuff, like you see in all the Web sites dedicated
to bullshit on the Internet? Now we’re a little closer but still not quite there. Some bullshit is silly, true, but just because something is idiotic doesn’t make it bullshit. Some very smart things are completely full of it. Have you read any string theory?
Is it, as Penn & Teller demonstrate in their truculent and amusing cable program, all the hypocritical garbage that clogs our social system? The faith healers, astrologers, dowsers, marketers? Yes, but to define a thing by its most egregious and worst examples is unfair, I think. There is bad bullshit, just as there is bad art of all kinds. But there is also good art. And that, my friends, is perhaps the most precious commodity that humanity can produce!
Ultimately what we are looking for here is a defi nition of bullshit that is not bullshit.This turns out to be diffi cult, so I’m not even going to attempt it. Why bust my hump when I can be true to the spirit of this exercise and not turn a bullshit assignment into something rigorous?
Just a few salient thoughts, though, might be in order, because even though a job may be a bullshit job, that doesn’t mean it i sn’t a job at all, with bullshit duties that must be performed with energy, if not seriousness. So: A Few Salient Thoughts
• Bullshit is not what is true, but what we wish might be true.That is, bullshit is hope.
• Bullshit is what you say when you have nothing to say. It is the effort to fill the void between knowledge and ignorance. And it takes the kind of finesse, practice, and talent that characterizes the pursuit of other creative human activities, which is why we call its practitioners artists.
• Bullshit is what passes for the truth until the real thing comes along. For instance, when a man is losing his hair, he will very often spend time fl uffing up what he has left in the mirror. He bullshits himself into thinking he looks better until he can see his scalp gleaming in the unkind glare of the bathroom light.When that happens, he may very well shave his head completely and then bullshit himself into believing he looks better that way than he did with hair. In this we also see that the fi rst consumer of an individual’s bullshit is, and must be, him- or herself.
• The truth hurts, but bullshit is kind. Lies are corrosive, but bullshit is a warm puppy.
• Bullshit is not a hobby; it’s a way of life. It is a strategy, a game, a jolly thumb in the eye of anything that is not bullshit. Bullshit is fun.
• The job that embodies all these characteristics will be (1) easy, (2) prestigious, (3) pay well, and (4) offer a path to even bigger bullshit jobs.
All of this sounds pretty attractive, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s not for everybody. There are quite a few who look down their nose at bullshit and the artists who tender it.
These are generally serious, tedious people who don’t realize that they, too, are bullshitting somebody about something. If you’re one of them, go away right now. Better yet, buy this book for a friend who knows what to do with it.
The problem, however, for even the most ambitious bullshit artist, is how to differentiate “real” jobs from bullshit ones.
As a public service, then, I’ll take a cursory stab at how one might view this issue, and put it into a table that you can read easily, since we’ve had a lot of uninterrupted text and you must be getting kind of tired by now.
Now, I could make an attempt to elucidate all the things that unite the stuff in column two and distinguish that matter from the items in column one, but I think it would be a waste of time. That said, there are certain things we could chew the fat about for a minute on the subject. All the items on the left side of our table exercise a certain muscle in the human soul.The items on the right have to spend a lot of time marketing, pitching, explaining themselves.
Finally, I suppose, it comes down to this: the stuff on the left is fragile, precious, and easily broken. God, for instance. How hard we have to work to reach Him! Just as we feel we’re getting close, He or She slips from us, either because He is busy elsewhere or because we are. Or Anderson Cooper? For a few moments now, he has embodied something new, honest, and unpredictable in the sodden state of journalism. But for how long? How long will it take for him to descend into self- parody?
The stuff on the right? I t’s durable. Predictable. Easy to access and replicate. It will never go away. It will always be with us. And in this book, we will learn how each of us can construct a successful, happy, fulfilling life built on a pile of it.
A Short Course in Bullshitting
rtists are people who use techniques that they have mastered to work intuitively, to reach down into their own soul and into the souls of others to find a mutual truth they can sell for money, unless they’reVan Gogh, who didn’t live to see his work ever purchased by anybody. That is a complete tragedy that I hope to help you avoid.
Let’s start with some critical choices.
Step One: Choose your medium. Some work in oils. Some work in words. Some really terrific bullshit artists work in video, especially those who produce totally boring loops that you see in museums dedicated to the moving image.Your medium may be memos or lunch conversation or e-mails or phone calls or text messages—there are as many ways of conveying bullshit as there are new media making outrageous claims for themselves in The Wall Street Journal. But a conscious choice of the way you transmit your art is all- important.The way you work in paper will not be the same as the way you work in vodka.
Step Two: Choose your technique. You may mix a little truth, a touch of prevarication, a whit of humor, a tablespoon of ire. Great bullshit is as varied and multihued as the gorgeous tapestry of human experience. Many great business executives’ bullshit takes the form of rage. Parents often choose to work in a subtle mixture of guilt and love, and garage mechanics, always seeking to put off for tomorrow what they might do today, wield a potent blend of promises, excuses, and hope.This is art! Feel it with your gut!
Step Three: Choose your time.Yes, as Ecclesiastes said, to everything there is a season. First, there is a time for pure, unvarnished truth. I don’t know why the truth always has to be unvarnished, but that seems to be the case. I’ve had many nice pieces of furniture that were varnished, and they were far more beautiful and useful than the cruddy unvarnished ones, but I guess t hat’s beside the point.The truth is preferable to a lie. On the other hand, lies, too, have their place. People who c an’t use mendacity in the service of their agendas are at a significant disadvantage. At the same time, there are many occasions when lies are not only unnecessary, they are, in fact, inadvisable. So—between bald truth and naked lies, lies the land in which bullshit is highly necessary, functional, and appreciated.The ability to offer it with skill, tact, and impunity can be understood as the triumph of maturity and civilization over the forces of barbarism, darkness, and impotence. So choose your time, choose it well, and have no fear or compunction.You are, in a sense, doing the work of all artists—shaping reality to the needs of society and, of course, yourself.
Step Four: Stick to the knitting. Artists suffer from a bad professional hazard: they tend toward flights of fancy. Keep in mind, you are in this thing day in, day out, year after year, and the key to longevity in any business is getting the mandatory duties of your bullshit job done. Bullshitting is not the same as excuse making.You need to do the job, whatever it is. And in every job, there is a portion that is not bullshit.
This is an important concept for you, so I’m going to say it again. In every job, there is a portion that is not bullshit. In the work of a funeral director, for example, there is the part where you have to pump embalming fl uid into the corpse, prepare it for viewing by people who used to love the deceased, and minister to those who are seriously unhappy. All of that is most certainly devoid of bullshit. The part where you convince the family to spend $7,500 on a solid oak casket ringed in gold fi ligree? Now, that’s when your art kicks in.
Before you come a long line of illustrious bullshit artists of the past and present who guide all who have read this far.They include figures from the mythological (and even biblical) to the all- too-real titans who have shaped our world and continue to do so.
Greedy guy, made tons of money in old Rome by investing in real estate at a very low price, then “waiting for a fire,” and afterward rebuilding and selling condos for big bucks. When fire didn’t arrive on schedule, was famous for starting them. When he died, the Parthians poured molten gold into his mouth and then decapitated him. What a waste of gold!
Created an entire new religion, persecuting the old one, simply because he didn’t like divorce laws under existing theological infrastructure. Hey, nobody likes divorce laws (particularly in New York State), but we don’t go around killing all the divorce lawyers, now, do we? I mean, could we?
Her “let them eat cake” will live as one of the great bullshit jokes of the eighteenth century. Of course, she got pretty badly punished for it.
Calculating ß: The Bullshit