David Heinemeier Hansson

May 24, 2022

Bullshit jobs hide more easily in big companies

The late, great David Graeber struck a nerve with his 2013 essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. It diagnosed the "moral and spiritual damage" caused to our "collective soul" when masses of white-collar employees work pointless jobs. The thesis was confirmed by a startling poll a few years later that showed 37% of British workers thinking their jobs to be meaningless. Literally depressing.

You don't even have to buy into Graeber's economic analysis to recognize the wisdom of the psychological one. That our human search for meaning is sent seriously astray when we work a job that's pointless. And that the theater of productivity performed in pursuit of the pointless only offers a shallow distraction from the plot of existential anguish.

Even more poignant is the observation that the resentment produced within those pointless job holders needs an outlet. Graeber points out that the outward manifestation of that tends to be toward those who work undeniably purposeful jobs. But the inward manifestation is just as corrosive. The self-loathing, the guilt, and endless quest for atonement. Ask yourself whether those sentiments might connect to some of our present-day corporate and cultural struggles...

Either way, it's intolerable to be trapped in a bullshit job, and the victims are bound to seek refuge in any number of pathological activities that appear to offer a patina of meaning as relief. If that means inventing or exaggerating causes, enemies, and oppressions, so be it.

That isn't to say this only afflicts those stuck in bullshit jobs, just that it's exacerbated by it. When the job is filled with intrinsic meaning and purpose, there's less left on the psychological budget to spend on exaggerations or outright fantasies.

Which finally brings me to my addendum to Graeber's analysis. That these bullshit jobs that rot the hearts and minds of workers are far more likely to proliferate in big companies than in small ones. It's difficult to hold a bullshit job that contributes nothing of material value in a company of ten. In a company of ten thousand, it's often hard not to.

Graber's definition of a bullshit job is broad enough to encompass work that has "value" in the sense that it might be, say, billable to clients, yet still be existentially worthless. And surely there are some small shops that trade in this variety of bullshit. So it's not entirely clear cut. But it's certainly slanted.

The problem with big corporations is that they're beholden to a thousand seeds that cause bullshit jobs to blossom. Whether excessive risk management, communication or collaboration overhead, fiefdom building, pet projects kicked off on executive fancy, or the sheer lack of constraints in hiring.

For small companies, these risks just largely aren't there because the distance between everyone is so low that you can clearly tell who's adding value and who's not. And the risks with saying "thank you for your service but goodbye" are far lower.

I think this is at the crux of why startups and small companies in particular have such a unique attraction to many people. Even if it might mean lower pay than what the behemoths can offer. Even if we can't articulate exactly why we're drawn. Because the "moral and spiritual damage" that the risk of landing in a bullshit job can cause is perhaps the key risk of all employment decisions for white-collar workers today.

Don't let the bullshit job eat your soul. We call them golden handcuffs for a reason. Find the key, then consider trying something smaller.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.