One of my main sources of blog posts is following analogies: seeing where they’ll lead me, stretching them far past their breaking point in hopes that they’ll give me a different perspective on something that I’m thinking about.

And today’s area in which to analogize is forms of social organization, or relationships more broadly. The social group that’s by far the most important to me is, of course, my family. In terms of time, though: I spend a huge amount of time with my coworkers, probably more time than I spend with my daughter. And it would be very easy to spend as much time with them as I do waking time with my wife.

So: did I spend as much time getting to know my coworkers as I did my wife? Not hardly: a few hours of interviews, and while they were interesting and informative hours, it’s nothing like the months/years of courtship that Liesl and I went through. Which is, perhaps, disproportionately short compared to the amount of time that my coworkers and I were going to spend in each other’s company?

Of course, Liesl and I ended up wanting to make a life together; and more than two decades later, we’re still going strong. I do not, in contrast, have any expectation of wanting to work in the same company for the rest of my life: I don’t consider myself a job-hopper, and a year and a half at Playdom/Disney was shorter than I’d like future job stints to last, but six years at Kealia/Sun was perhaps a bit on the long side? Not that I wouldn’t be happy for future jobs to be places where I want to spend six years, but I’m not particularly expecting that.

Which raises question number one: why not? Should I set my sights longer-term than that? Job hopping is definitely ingrained into Silicon Valley startup culture, we’re always supposed to be looking for the next big thing and to have our eyes set on getting rich from stock options instead of building something that matters to us long-term; and that’s a part of Silicon Valley that I’m not at all comfortable with. Wouldn’t it be better to try to find a company that I wanted to be part of indefinitely?

Well, maybe. Or even probably: I’d prefer for all aspects of my life to be as satisfying as possible, and I don’t see any reason offhand to think that work that’s as satisfying as possible wouldn’t be more likely to be at one company long term instead of a string of companies shorter term.

Still, while that’s a potential goal, and certainly not something for me to actively avoid looking for, it’s not something that I would worry too much about. For one thing, I already have one marriage in my life: that’s incredibly rewarding as is, and I feel no need for a metaphorical second marriage in my job. Also, one of the things I find fulfilling in jobs is an opportunity to learn something new; it’s certainly possible to repeatedly do that within a single company (I’ve done it many times before), but I always learn something new whenever I change companies.

But, on a more pragmatic level: it’s hard. On a basic level: the process of finding somebody to marry generally involves a lot of short-term exploration and a fair amount of medium-term exploration before diving into a long-term marriage. Job hunting is different, though: you’re lucky if you’ve spent as much as a day in the company of your coworkers before you basically commit to spending at least a year or two at that company unless something goes seriously wrong. Returning to the marriage analogy, that would be like agreeing to move in with somebody that you’ve only gone on a couple of dates with: not smart, and not likely to lead to something long-lasting. But also not something that you can avoid: if you’re in the dating market, it’s a lot easier to go for long stretches without dating anybody at all, let alone long-term, if you don’t find anybody that clicks, whereas going without a job long-term has much more concrete negative repercussions.

Still, based on that analogy, the traditional process of finding a job sounds like a ludicrously bad idea. And maybe it is! Maybe not, though: I find the ideas of arranged marriages extremely distasteful, but many cultures have made them work. And, for that matter, the other relationship that is as important to me as my marriage is my relationship with my daughter; both of us went into that sight unseen, but it’s worked out rather well. So these sorts of long-term commitments can work even without prior knowledge of the other person, if they matter enough to you. (Though I imagine having hundreds of millions of years of evolution of biological programming doesn’t hurt…)


The other big difference between marriages and jobs (or at least between my marriage and my job, I certainly don’t want to speak for everybody!) is that I’m only married to one person but I’m working with a bunch of people. So maybe a better relationship analogy for a job would be a group marriage, or a commune, or something. Neither of which I have experience with, but I suspect that there’s something there. The bigger the group of people you spend time with, the more likely it is that you won’t be temperamentally completely aligned with everybody there, and the more likely it is that, at any given moment, you’ll be annoyed about some aspect of your interaction with somebody that you normally get along well with.

And, most of the time, you don’t want that to be a deal-breaker. So you spend time talking stuff out; but you also accept that not all social links are high-intensity all the time, giving you breathing room when you need it and in general reducing the overall friction level so you don’t need that breathing room as often.

(Of course, sometimes in group living situations, one personal interaction really does turn out to be a deal-breaker. Which happens in jobs, too…)


So: when I think about analogies, jobs are more similar group living situations better than they are to marriages, I think. But even there, the match isn’t particularly good: jobs are much more likely to be hierarchical than group living situations.

Actually, as I type that of sentences, I realize it’s flawed for a couple of reasons. For one thing, while I would say that I find hierarchical group living situations distasteful enough to reject them out of hand, the truth is that there are a lot of them out there, and in fact I’m participating in one right now: Miranda is not a peer to Liesl and myself in this living situation. And, for another thing, I wish jobs weren’t as hierarchical! So I guess it’s an analogy that I would like to hold, and that I hope points in a direction of a useful question (living situations seem to be able to get along well without hierarchy, why do we accept the need for it unquestioningly in work situations?), but that I don’t want to stretch too far.

I wonder if religious institutions could provide another useful analogy here; unfortunately, I’m hampered by never having spent time in any. So: who knows! Broadening out to still larger groups: let’s raise the question of hierarchy explicitly, and ask what forms of political organization we would like in our workplaces?

These days, of course, democracy is the dominant form of political organization, and we generally look askance on political entities that aren’t democratic in some sense or another. So, in that light, it seems odd that democracy is so rare in workplaces.

Or at least: it is in the workplaces where I spend time. Maybe if I spent time in unionized workplaces, I’d see a lot more democracy in action, though I’m not sure what the scope of that democracy is even within those workplaces.

And, taking a broader historical view, democracy is very much not the norm in political systems these days. If I were to take a teleological point of view of the evolution of political systems, I might say: just as we’ve evolved from autocracy to democracy in the political sphere, so too will we evolve that way in workspaces. But teleology is lousy science, and adding it to naive analogization doesn’t help matters! Still, at the least it does point out that, just because autocracy is widespread in one context at one point of time, it doesn’t mean that autocracy will remain widespread in that context in later points of time. So we should be open to the possibility of changes in this form of social organization as well.


One reason why I believe in democracy as a political organization and in a lack of hierarchy in marriages is that, in both cases, important resources are shared. What’s mine is Liesl’s and what’s hers is mine (and, importantly, the same isn’t true for Miranda, her name is not on our mortgage or our checking account); and the air, many public works, and many natural resources are shared by all. In a job, though, that’s not the case: some people own the resources, other people just work there.

As I type that, I realize: in general, though, all the people who work there are basically on the same foot in that regard. Even in Silicon Valley with its stock culture, there isn’t a strong link between the amount of stock you own and the amount of political power you have. (Not that the two aren’t correlated, but the correlation is probably best explained for older companies by correlating both with total compensation.) But at the very least, it raises the question: economics is a lens with which to view some aspects of social organization, can we apply it to jobs?

And, for all the dominancy of free market ideology these days, the free market has precious little play within a company. I can’t choose where to invest my time based on the reward/benefit tradeoffs: I’m supposed to work on what I’m told to work on, and the main backstop I have against choices that I find distasteful in that regard is to leave the entire company. (Though in larger companies, internal transfers are possible at times, but even there the market is more of a centrally planned economy rather than a free market.)

This is an extremely blunt instrument with which to make choices. The situation isn’t that simple—workers make micro-choices all the time about where to put their energies, what to give more of themselves to and what to ignore and whom to help—but even that smaller level of choices is anti-free market, with its lack of transparency in decisions and with forces blunting the adoption of decisions that have bigger payoffs. Or other goodies that the free market gives you—think of how market segmentation could apply to workspaces to let people flow towards groups that are organized in ways that they find congenial or that are working on projects that they find interesting!


I dunno. A job isn’t a marriage (though leaving one can sometimes feel like a divorce), it’s not a state, it’s not an economy. But I don’t think there’s anything sacrosanct about the way workplaces are most commonly organized currently, either. Change is possible, change is probably inevitable, the only question is to what and over what timescale.

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