Enacting Equilibrium With Your Extremely Efficient Employer
I want to be happier at work, but more importantly, you want to be happier at work. Contained herein is one framework which might help both of us get there.
I’ve not done extensive research, nor bounced this idea off anyone else, nor even thought about it that much. It’s merely an idea that’s recently been skulking somewhere behind my eyes. My detractors might even label it as “cope”.
We’re all optimisers
I’m not going to try and pretend that I understand game theory on a deeper level than vaguely knowing what a Nash equilibrium is, but I do find the concepts of agents in the game-theoretic sense to be pretty useful1. At first glance, one might think that only individual humans are agents, so it’s little more than a synonym, but in fact groups behave as agents too. Agents have some kind of goal (or, if you are also partial to the nomenclature of reinforcement learning, reward function), and deploy some kind of strategy in order to try to achieve that goal. Over time, they will refine that strategy, and so improve their chances at getting what they want - in other words, they are optimisers.
You are one such optimiser. Corporate employers are another.
You have a goal; to be happy2. Your employer also has a goal; to generate capital (they might claim that’s not their goal, but in most cases I don’t believe them). You probably have several subgoals that you view as instrumental to your overarching goal of happiness - in the context of work, these are probably things like feeling competent, respected and valued, earning a salary that supports your lifestyle, having a healthy work:life balance etc. Your employer has something similar - upskill/retain staff, increase brand awareness/market share, make more/better/new products/services/whatever.
Corporations have totally different goals to you. This is because you are a human, and your goals are all feelings-y. Corporations are necessarily inhuman, and so their goals are all about invincible madhouses, granite cocks and monstrous bombs3. Which is to say, their goals are about money; cash; cheddar; green; crisp, cold dollar bills. And not feelings-y at all.
The bigger, older and more successful the corporation it is, the better an optimiser it is. This makes sense; it’s outcompeted its peers, and demonstrated its evolutionary fitness. It has had time to refine and redeploy its strategy until it’s honed. Human emotions no longer come into the picture - those were discarded as part of a suboptimal strategy many iterations ago. Sometimes, humans barely come into the picture anymore either. The corporation has a mind of its own. It lives, breathes and optimises entirely separately from its constituent fleshy, fallible human components. It is extremely efficient.
You are not (yet) at the same level of efficiency. Your strategy needs refining. Because your employer is almost certainly a better optimiser than you, it’s easy to feel like they’re out to get you, but I think this framing is unhelpful and will ultimately only make you unhappy. To borrow from Zvi, how can you Get Compact rather than Get Got? Instrumentality!
Equilibrium and alignment
Here is where my main hypothesis comes in; there is a way for some of your subgoals and some of your employer’s subgoals to overlap, despite the fact your primary goals are very different. This overlap means you can work collaboratively to achieve your main aims, which will make you more satisfied as an employee.
Let’s take an example. Your employer wants employees that offer the best value for money, so they can make the greatest profit. You want to learn as much as possible, so you can feel challenged or build career capital. These goals can be achieved harmoniously; your employer hires you, and pays you less than they would pay someone with greater experience (and therefore theoretically greater productivity), and then they train you, so your output increases to the level they want.
But then, their optimal strategy can take advantage of your suboptimal strategy! In this situation, once the market value of your labour has increased, you can sell that labour for more than they’re currently paying you. Many people are horribly stricken by inertia here, and others feel a painfully unreciprocated sense of loyalty.
As a gentle reminder; your employer is a faceless, soulless4 optimiser. If displaying loyalty to you isn’t the most optimal strategy for capital production, you best believe they aren’t going to do it.
That is not to say that I think you should never be loyal to your employer - it depends what your respective subgoals are. If part of their strategy is to favour promoting-from-within over hiring, or to generally trust insiders over outsiders, and yours is to affect the longterm trajectory of projects or to form lasting bonds with your coworkers, then by all means, feel loyal and stay for it. But in this situation, you need to be extremely confident that your employer’s goals are what you think they are.
Moreover, I would assert that you want to be very explicit about the tradeoffs you are making with an employer, and work to accurately identify objectives for both parties. Scrutinise each; many people substitute the goals they think they should have for themselves for the ones they actually do have, and similarly many people anthropomorphise their corporate employer and erroneously ascribe human, feelings-y goals to them. When you are evaluating a prospective new employer (e.g. during the interview process), consider what their primary and secondary goals might be, and then ask yourself how well they overlap with your own.
Of course, you don’t have to work for a capital-optimising corporation forever. There are employers out there with other goals (and different incentives required to sustain them), and I suspect working at a mission-driven company is where self-actualisation might actually happen. It is one of my highest career priorities right now.
It’s possible to work for a large corporate machine, to approximately reciprocate its level of emotional investment, and to still get what you want. The key is to be explicit about the tradeoffs you’re making, and pay close attention to both your own goals, and the goals of said machine. It’s important to remember that the corporation will be employing a highly-optimised strategy, and so any flaws in your own will cause you to haemorrhage expected value. As you optimise your own strategy, you will get better at achieving your goals. Watch out for inertia, naïveté, and loyalty to something inhuman and inhumane. Most of all, good luck.
My primary goal isn’t actually to be happy
If your model is that your primary goal is to reproduce and/or ensure the health of your offspring, then I will begrudgingly concede that you’re probably right. If you are claiming that your goal is something other than this or happiness (or some other near-synonym for happiness, eg maximising fulfilment) then I’m afraid I would respectfully disagree, and would invite you to consider if there is in fact some kind of underlying motivation to whatever you believe your goal to be. We are, after all, thralls to our biology.
But my employer is small, and it actually isn’t as soulless as you describe
That’s great! Providing you are sure that you’re right and aren’t just kidding yourself, then I’m happy for you - although this doesn’t really fit my model. Either your employer has a different primary goal other than to make capital, or they’re being suboptimal about it. In the case of the latter, you can expect that with time and/or growth, that will change.
This framing is extremely mercenary and ergo bad
It’s important to remember that your fellow employees are human, it’s just your collective employer that isn’t. Failure to keep this in mind will lead to bad outcomes, and will probably lead you away from being the kind of person you want to be.
With that being said, you can still set very strong boundaries between yourself and your work without being a bad person to be around. You don’t have to be emotionally invested in something in order to get what you want out of it (although in some cases it helps). You can collaborate effectively with your coworkers while keeping them at arm’s length - it might even be beneficial to do so in many situations.
Personally, I don’t view being calculated about my relationship with my employer to be an inherently bad thing. They have goals, and I have goals, and we are trying to work together to achieve them. Anything else is largely a distraction.
Not everything in my life needs to be optimised
I completely agree! But life is definitely better when some things are optimised, and given you spend such a considerable portion of your life working, I would suggest that this is one of those things. If you aren’t even trying to optimise, then you are leaving yourself extremely vulnerable to exploitation by agents who are not only willing to optimise, but also extremely competent at it.
Credit to this blog post on financial autonomy in marriage from Bethany Soule and Daniel Reeves for introducing me to the idea that applying game theory to unintuitive areas of my life could lead to fun and profit. ↩︎
In case you disagree, see possible objection: my primary goal isn’t actually to be happy above. ↩︎