Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Interlude Part 1

Cigarette case

Interlude: The Brandywine Incident

Part 1

John Mellanger stepped out of the driver’s seat of the Crown Vic and onto the dusty street. He looked back at the vehicle so graciously granted him by the Municipality of Ducksburg. It was unmarked, but it wouldn’t have looked much more like a cop car if it had flashing lights and an angry man in a wife-beater screaming obscenities from the back seat. He wondered if he was just the same as the car. If, without a uniform, he managed to look like a cop. He wondered if this was the kind of town where that mattered, these days. It had been a while.

“Detective Inspector Mellanger?” said a voice from behind him. He turned around and saw a uniformed officer trotting towards him, a tablet computer in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other. “Detective Inspector? Is that you?”

“Detective Inspector?” he asked as the woman reached him. “You were expecting Scotland Yard?”

“Oh, sorry about that,” she said. “Force of habit, don’t you know. Your predecessor, DI Matthews, I mean detective Matthews, that’s what she liked to be called. Bit of an Anglophile, I suppose. Crazy for Sherlock Holmes. A bit strange, that, since the inspector wasn’t the smart one, was he? But to each their own. I’m Chi. Chi-wei Taan. We spoke on the phone?”

She transferred the bag in her left hand to her right and reached out to shake his hand.

“Officer Taan,” he said as he gripped her palm.

“Oh, you can call me Chi,” she said. “We don’t much stand on formality here. Not like the big city, I suppose, though you’d know that better than I would. You’ll be wanting to see the crime scene, then?”

“That’s right,” said John. The crime scene was clearly visible from where they were, and he’d driven through the police barricade to park, but he didn’t see much reason to point that out.

Chi nodded. “This way.” She turned around and walked briskly towards the mass of people and mangled machinery.

John took the only cigarette out of the case in his jacket pocket and put it in his mouth. He didn’t light it. Chi wasn’t what he expected from speaking to her on the phone. She looked like she was from Taiwan, but sounded like she was from Minnesota. Both of those could be true, but it was unusual. Minnesotans and Taiwanese didn’t move to Ducksburg. People in Ducksburg came from Ducksberg.

Chi turned around and looked at him with an expression like she’d just remembered she needed to water the cactus.

“Would you like a javanut?” she said.

“A what?”

“A javanut,” she said, as she tucked her tablet under her left armpit and reached into the paper bag. She pulled out an unusual looking donut. “Coffee and a donut all in one package. My husband bakes them. Bernard, that’s my husband. He owns the Pie Walk, that’s the bakery down on Locust Street. You should stop in some time. No charge for police officers. Except for functions, of course. Like the upcoming ball. Are you going to the ball? We have to charge for those, otherwise we’d be out of business.”

“The Pie Walk?” John asked as he took the donut. It was still warm. “Not the Cake Walk?”

“Oh no, he prefers pies to cakes. Of course he does bake cakes. You can’t run a bakery without baking cakes, for birthdays and weddings and such. Of course Bernard always recommends speciality pies for those occasions, but I tell him, ‘Bernard,’ I tell him, ‘people do like their traditions. Not much you can do about that.’ Go ahead and eat that while it’s warm, now.”

John wasn’t hungry, but if eating a donut would get this woman to stop filling the air with words, it was donut worth eating. He slipped the unlit cigarette back into the case and bit into the pastry. The texture was dry, but it was filled to the edges with a thick cream that tasted like warm espresso ice cream. John had never had a sweet tooth, but it tasted magnificent.

“Good, isn’t it? The boys go crazy for them. Bit of a cliche, I suppose, cops and donuts. But who doesn’t love donuts?”

He couldn’t answer without violating the air of badass stoicism necessary for a police detective, so he grunted in approval. Chi grinned in satisfaction, then turned and resumed her walk. John followed, finishing the javanut in a few more bites.

“And here we are,” said Chi a minute later. “Here is the accident, and these are the boys.”

Three men surrounded the remains of two cars that lay sprawled across the left lane of the road and into the shoulder. Chi had described the accident to him over the phone, but seeing it in person was dramatic. The two vehicles had slammed into each other head on, apparently at speed, and fused into a single monstrosity of automotive wreckage.

He remembered hearing an urban legend about two cars that collided like this and compressed a pedestrian into the world’s least appetizing pancake. No one noticed there was a body until a few days later, when it started to stink. He’d have to make sure the guys at the yard checked for signs of a victim. In any normal situation the odds against it would be staggering. As far as he knew it had never really happened; it was just a legend. But that kind of thing didn’t matter. Not here, not now. This was Ducksburg, and even though he didn’t know what it was, there was a reason John was here.

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Together, In Fuzzy Blue



There’s certain kinds of poems I write but would never post, because they feel too silly, or too schmaltzy. These are written in moments of unmitigated emotion, and in those moments I just have to use the occasional cliché, or express a feeling in a familiar and comfortable way. Ironic distance need not apply. It feels very exposed, and even though I’ve told plenty of people I’ve barely met about my most embarrassing moments and, uh, private proclivities, there are some things I don’t like to share. Despite what my friends might think, I do have something that vaguely passes for dignity, even if the rules of such don’t make any sense. But seeing my kitties like this drops all of my defenses. So here we are.

Together, In Fuzzy Blue

I lose myself in you,
here, in our place,
on the fuzzy blue blanket
next to the laundry basket
and the empty popcorn bowl

I forget where my tongue ends
and your fur begins,
which one of us is purring,
which one of us last bit the other
on the neck
a little too hard
defending the vital patch of ground
near the wooden swivel chair

Later, I’ll remember
that we’re felines
and we have our dignity
and that I’d whap you in the face
for the last scrap of tuna

But right now
I know none of that,
there is only the blue fuzz
and the purring
and you
with me

Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Chapter 1 Part 6

Color Swirl Button #1

Chapter 1: The Phone Interview

Part 6

No one blinked. I don’t normally notice whether or not people blink, but it turns out when a room full of people sit there not blinking at you, it’s eerily obvious. At first I thought everyone was a statue. Frozen. But as I stared back I saw signs of life. Martin tapped his ear-pen against his desk. Sandra ground her over-large teeth. Andrew’s chest heaved like it always did when he breathed, but right here, right now, he sounded like a gasping beluga amidst the sea of silence.

“What’s going on?” I said loudly. I didn’t know if I was speaking to my coworkers or the woman on the phone. “Why is everyone staring at me?”

No one responded. They just breathed, and tapped, and stared. The longer I looked at them the less I could see them. No, that’s not quite it. I could see them just fine, but the image in front of me start to make less sense. It filled up with some kind of pixelated haze that I could only almost see. A photoshop filter effect over reality. When I tried to actually observe it, or when I shook my head to clear my vision, it vanished.

“You are operating outside of the convergence point,” said the voice in my ear, “and you don’t know how to operate subtly. They are attempting to extra-cognitively parse it, but they can’t. It’s a common reaction. It’s how you’ve reacted in the past, when you’ve observed the phenomenon.”

“When I’ve…”

“Yes. Do you see anything strange?”

“Do I see anything strange? Are you fucking kidding?”

“No. Please answer the question.”

“Do I see anything strange? Do I fucking see anything…” I was about to curse her out again. I was about to go off on a really fantastic rant about what an idiotic question that was and what a fool she was for asking it, complete with colorful language, literary references, and aspersions on her character that she’d be crying about to her grandchildren.

Then I saw it. Right in my field of vision, impossible to see, impossible to miss. A woman I knew I had never seen at Lucky Travel before, because up to this point I still had a thin grasp on reality. My mouth dropped open, but words refused to come out.

She stood behind Jeff, my boss, who was frozen in the act of tearing the wrapper off a snicker’s bar with his teeth. I call her a “her”, but she didn’t look like a person. More like a spiraling mass of colors that swirled around a single point in space like a hurricane made of paint samples. But there was no doubt it was a woman because–there’s no delicate way to put this–she had an absolutely fantastic pair of breasts. Impossibly fantastic, like the images in a swimsuit magazine that take a team of graphic designers and a few hours with editing software to perfect. I couldn’t tell where they was positioned on her form, or how I could even identify them among the chromatic cacophony, but there they were, in all of their splendor.

“What do you see?”

“A…woman. No, a whirlpool. Like…a tie-dyed whirlpool made of light.”

“What is she doing?”

“She’s looking at me.” I had no idea how I could tell that, either, because she didn’t have eyes. But she had a gaze, and it hooked into me like two fishing lines. All I could do was wriggle.

“Don’t respond,” said the woman on the phone.


“Don’t respond. Don’t give any indication that you can see her.”

“You tell me that now?”

“Don’t move, Dendrite. And stop talking. You are in a tremendous amount of danger. Do you see anything else? Like an Egyptian mummy, only wrapped in the US Constitution? Or a section of carpet ripped up from the floor and bolted to the ceiling? Don’t answer out loud.”

I had no idea how to even think about responding to that. But no sooner did she ask the question than I saw something else. Again it was right there, and I could barely believe I hadn’t seen it before. Another being, strange like the she-color but completely different. It was human-shaped, only carved out of darkness, like the darkness was a piece of stone. I could see the chisel marks.

It walked towards the colors with a slow, confident stride. In its left hand it held a cigarette, and it took a long drag. The insane thought flashed through my mind that it wasn’t supposed to smoke in the building and that someone was going to bitch it out. It walked up to the color. It was right behind her. It started to reach out.

Danger poured out from the statue-thing like sweat, and all of a sudden I wanted to shout. I wanted to scream to the color-woman and tell her that there was something behind her and she needed to run away as fast as she could. But my throat was full of cinnamon. The dark-stone thing’s hand stretched towards her. It’s obsidian face stretched into a grin. It uncurled a single finger, black as Turkish coffee spiked with coal dust. The finger hovered towards her. Seeking. Hungry. I tried to wave my hand. To scream. Anything to warn her.

“Don’t!” yelled the voice in my ear. The sound of 80 different Nickelback songs with the volume blasted to 11 exploded in my head, and I clasped my hands over my ears.

The black statue’s hand descended, and tapped the swirl of colors right where her shoulder should be.

“Alright, that should do it,” said a pleasant voice in my ear. “Thanks for all your help!”

“Zuh?” I stared at a customer’s info on my computer screen.

“I said thanks for your help,” said the customer. She sounded like she meant it.

“Oh,” I stammered. “Um…you’re welcome.”

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I think I might have just had a little stroke there, for a minute. I’ll be alright.”

She laughed. Apparently I had charmed this woman. Wait, no that didn’t sound right. I was standing up, starting at a swirl of colors that needed a bra and a stone statue with a nicotine addiction. Wasn’t I?

“You’re funny,” said the woman on the phone.

“Thanks,” I said.

I was sitting down at my desk. The babble of my coworkers doing anything but their jobs filled the air around me. I stood up and took a look. N one was staring at me, and there were absolutely no swirling masses of pureed Skittles. I had spent the last few minutes on the phone with a woman, helping her with a vacation package. I could even sort of remember doing it, now that I was here. It made so much more sense.

All of the other stuff felt so real. Embarrassingly real. But that was just some brain thing. Dreams feel that real sometimes, too. I’d go home and kill the part of the brain responsible with euphoria-inducing compounds and get on with my life. Confusion and relief mixed inside of me, like I was the Boston shaker for one of those weird cocktails that they serve at the after party of a science fiction convention.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” the woman asked again.

“Definitely. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No. I’m perfect.”

“Well then I’d like to thank you for choosing Lucky Travel, and I hope you have a fantastic trip. And sorry again for getting weird there for a second.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Have a good rest of your evening, Dendrite.”

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Do You Have a Calling? Should You Actually Want One?


Another 37, Day 31

It’s hard to swing a sack full of existential dilemmas without hitting a book about finding your Calling in life. Or a website. Or someone who approaches you in the mall and asks if you have found a life coach. It is not hard to understand why this is such a pervasive and lucrative industry. Most of us have a vague feeling that our lives are not what we want them to be, and that we could do better and achieve sublime happiness if we just knew how.

It’s possible that this sense of unfulfillment is worse in our era of abundance and individualism than it has ever been, but it’s been with humanity at least as long as we’ve been writing things down. A wide variety of solutions have been proposed over the millennia. In ancient India, the solution was to meditate enough so that you achieve enlightenment and won’t have to worry about it the next time around. In ancient Rome, it was to man up and deal with it—or, if it got bad enough, to fall on your sword. In medieval Europe, it was to be a good and obedient enough person to be rewarded in the afterlife where they don’t have these kinds of problems. If these sound like oversimplifications, it’s because:

  1. They are, and
  2. This problem is so deep, so complicated, and so pervasive that any solution will always been an oversimplification.

In the modern Western world, some of us still follow these solutions. But more and more our culture is pervaded by the sense that the way to get out of what the Buddha called dukkha—a word often translated as “suffering” but which literally means something closer to “the fact that life just kind of sucks no matter what you do”–is to find your Calling. Your Purpose. That perfect job or art or volunteer work that you are Supposed To Do, and that will therefore lead to USC—Ultimate Satisfaction and Contentment.

But does this really work? Is it possible to find your Calling? What’s more, would you even want to? The very concept of the Calling is problematic. Not because it isn’t a beautiful idea. On the purpose if it finding your purpose in life sounds fantastic. But when explored more deeply it is a difficult and flawed idea, with some unsettling implications. How can it not be? It’s a blend of two worldviews, both of which are very popular in our society, which really don’t work together. I call these two views the Great CEO in the Sky and the Existential Entrepreneur.

The Great CEO in the Sky is evolved from Christianity, but it is a very modern version of it. The idea is that God has a Purpose for you. A job for you to do during your time in this world. God is kind of like your boss. Only He’s everyone’s boss, the CEO and founder of the entire company. But He is a very hands on kind of CEO. He takes a personal interest in every single employee, and since he build the whole organization and knows everything about everything that goes on within in, He has designed the perfect job for you and you alone, and structured the organization such that you and everyone else are exactly where you need to be, and all of our positions intermingle into a perfect synchronous whole.

It might sound like this doesn’t leave much room for free will, but the Great CEO doesn’t require that you do your job. He’s not going to fire you, or anything, and you’ll continue to get your paycheck in the form of the continued ability to breathe. But you won’t be happy. The only way to achieve true happiness is to figure out what God wants you to do. It’s not always obvious—our CEO moves in mysterious board rooms. But He leaves hints. Sometimes he puts obstacles in your way, because why else have a flawed material existence at all if there aren’t going to be challenges? But it’s okay. The job He’s got for you is perfectly designed for your exact character and life, and He’s always closing doors and opening windows, so you’ll never get stuck for very long.

The Existential Entrepreneur view is evolved from the existentialist philosophy of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. In this view there either isn’t a god at all, or else He’s out there but he doesn’t get involved. He set the whole thing up and gave us brains and muscles, but now He lets us do what we want because he is a staunch believer in Adam Smith and the free market economy. In this viewpoint there is no intrinsic meaning to life. You don’t have any prescribed Purpose. You just have skills and capabilities and a world to explore and make your way in. Like Minecraft. Only you are compelled to play all of the time, whether or not you are having a good time. Like Minecraft.

This might sound like a depressing worldview, but they way they get around that is much the same way that Libertarians get around the idea that a cut-throat free market driven by self interest is depressing. Without the Divine Federal Government setting regulations and zoning restrictions and telling you what to do, you can do whatever you want. You are left to find your own path, and what’s more, to choose your own path. No one designed you to be a baker or a fighter pilot or the world’s hairiest UFC fighter. If any of those appeal to you, go for it. The purpose of your life is whatever you want to be. If nothing you do matters, then all that matters is what you do. The fact that this is a quote from Angel doesn’t make it any less compelling.

Both of these worldviews have their good points and their bad points. In Great CEO, you have the comfort of having a flawless and completely fulfilling plan all laid out for you. But at the same time you never really had a choice. Sure you could not follow the plan, but that’s going to be a crappy boss, and it risks angering the boss. What the hell kind of choice is that? In Existential Entrepreneur, you have choices and you get to decide your own destiny. But deep down, you have to accept that nothing really matters. Sure it’s great for people for whom it works out. But what if you suffer from depression? What if your house burns down? There is no one looking out for you, and no guarantee that things aren’t just going to keep getting worse. Plus, you kind of have to accept the fact that some people do and always will just have it better than others.

The idea of the Calling tries to solve all of these problems by squish the dough of both of these worldviews together and baking it into a single cookie that has the advantages of each of them and the disadvantages of neither. The Calling worldview sometimes features a God, but sometimes it replaces it with “the universe.” In this view, you have a purpose, but there is nothing deterministic about it. It’s not part of a Grand Design in some kind of divine business plan kind of way. It’s more that there is something that you are perfect for. Something that, once you find it, will bring you ultimate fulfillment. This is true for everyone, just by virtue of being human. Unlike in the other two worldviews, there is no explanation as to why this should be the case. It just is, because…wouldn’t it be nice? Doesn’t it make sense?

The answer is no. To go back to the free market metaphor, this would be like saying that it’s inevitable that there is some kind of perfect business for everyone in which they are guaranteed to succeed. That everyone has inside of them an ideal product or service or marketing technique, and all you need to do is find it and it’ll explode onto the scene and make you a billionaire. And indeed, plenty of Calling books are geared towards would-be entrepreneurs, and make exactly this argument with fancier words.

But it doesn’t work that way. There is no reason to think that it’s inevitable that you’ll find perfect fulfillment just by doing the right thing. But the unrealism of this approach is only the beginning. It can also be dangerous. Much like the idea that everyone has a Soul Mate, and that once we set eyes on this perfect the world will erupt into a chorus of bright stars and symphony music and we will be happy for the rest of our lives. The Calling theory suggests that once you find your Thing, you are all set. You get that fantastic job in your dream profession, and you’ll be satisfied and full of joy for all of your days. But what if you and your Soul Mate start fighting? Or what if your dream job starts to pale after a few years and you get fed up with the more tedious aspects? The only option in this worldview is to say, “Oh, well, I guess he wasn’t really my Soul Mate. I guess I wasn’t really supposed to be the manager of a Twinkie Factory. I guess I’ll ditch this path and start over. Next time, it’s gonna be great!”

Life doesn’t work that way. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s great, and there probably really are jobs or arts or people who will make you happy. Go for them! They are worth pursuing! But once you decide they are The One, once you decide you have found your One And Only Purpose In Life for All Time, you’ve set yourself up for disappointment. What’s worse, you’ve locked yourself in. You might stay in a relationship or a job for far too long, because once you make something part of your identity it is very, very difficult to tell when it’s time to move on. If the idea of finding your Calling motivations you to do great things, then by all means continue to read those books. Models can be useful, even when they aren’t true. But just recognize that a model is all it is, and that you shouldn’t cling to it too tightly.

Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Chapter 1 Part 5


Chapter 1: The Phone Interview

Part 5

“What did you do to me?” I said. My mouth filled up with the kind of quick drying cement sadistic cartoon mice use on their would-be feline tormentors.

“Do you know why sometimes,” her voice bounced around the inside of my skull, “when you watch a movie for the fourth time, you get nervous that the events won’t turn out the way you remember?”

“Stop it.”

“Have you ever noticed how angry people get when presented with the idea that some of their memories might be fabrications? It’s because they know the truth. Everyone knows the truth. Somewhere inside, where the light of conscious awareness never shines, we all know something terrifying about the universe.”

“I don’t have to listen to this.”

“We know this terrifying truth, and we grasp intuitively that the worst thing we could do to ourselves, to our sanity, would be to understand it.”

“Stop it.” My words were concrete. Unyielding. When I spoke, it was with the kind of calm that can only come when your mind has solidified into a single unit with no moving parts. No care other than to make this terrible thing in front of you stop. I heard it when my father died, and my sister wouldn’t accept it. “Whatever kind of dime-store David Blane bullshit you are pulling, just stop it right now. I don’t have to listen to this excrement you are spewing at me. I’m going to hang up the phone now, and fuck you very much for your time. I hope you get run over by a bus full of children and your mangled corpse is sued for the ensuing emotional distress.”

I was ranting like a maniac, now, but I didn’t care. What passed for the rational side of my mind had gotten on a rocket ship in the slim hope of being the first anthropomorphic manifestation to man the International Space Station.

“Listen, Dendrite.”

“That’s not my name!” I didn’t notice when I stood up, but I was standing now. My hands squeezed the edges of my desk like I could make it bleed furniture polish. “That is not my fucking name! Stop calling me that you psychotic bitch!”

“No,” she said. Her voice was tranquility itself. “I mean, listen.”

“I’m not going to fucking…”

That’s when I noticed. I was shouting at this woman. I’d just sworn loudly at a customer in the middle of the production floor. Hell, I wished her an ironic death. So why wasn’t anyone saying anything. Why, in fact, was there no noise around me at all?

A few feet in front of my desk, two bright yellow moons shone through the window. But there were people here. Sometimes the customers complained about how loud it was, as if in the background we were always celebrating the world’s crappiest Mardi Gras. There were always people here. Talking on the phone, gabbing at the water cooler which never had any water in it about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, discussing whether Nutella would be a classier alternative to chocolate body syrup at the upcoming bachelor party. The sounds of work and life and dissatisfaction always filled the hallways of Lucky Travel. Except there didn’t. All around me there was nothing. Nothing but silence.

“You’re doing something to my brain,” I said.

“I’m not the one doing it.”

“You’re sending out a pulse through the phone at the resonant frequency of my neurons and it’s fucking with my cognition,” I grasped. “I saw it on CNN.”

“Modern phones don’t use pulse technology, Dendrite.”

“Then you put steroided-out LSD in my fucking Hot Pocket! I know this is something you are fucking doing!”

“This is your perception,” she said. “I just gave it the smallest of punctures. I did not even do that. I held out the needle. You walked into it.”

“No.” I shook my head. “No, no. No that’s not what’s…no.”

“You have to take the next step. Look around you.”

“I don’t want to. I don’t have to do that. You can’t make me.”

“I cannot make you,” she said. “The choices in front of you are all yours.”

“You can’t make me,” I said again. “I’m going to close my eyes and this is all going to go away.”

“I have as much time as is needed, Dendrite. You are the only one who can stop this.”

I took a deep breath. It wasn’t just the silence. Everything was different. The air smelled different. Like ozone, and chemical burns, and a hint of what I was weirdly confident was loganberry. I didn’t move. I had no idea what it felt like to be hypnotized, but I didn’t feel hypnotized. It should be hazy. Indistinct. But this felt incredibly clear. My brain had been scrubbed with a wire brunch and every nerve was raw, exposed, and firing for the first time. Even the scent seemed more…real, like all the air I had ever smelled had been choked with Lysol. If this woman was messing with me, she was the goddamn Garry Kasparov of mind games.

“How?” I asked. “How do I stop it?”

“The only way out is through. Now take a look.

I turned my head very, very slowly. The office was there, just like it always was. All of my coworkers were there, too. The same ones who had been there before this phone call dragged me into the insane end of the pool and held my head under the water. There was Martin, his headset only half on because when he got frustrated he liked to shove his pen in his ear. And there was D’angelina, her fingers curled in only the blond locks of her hair, never the brown ones. They were all there, right where they were. Only every single one of them stood as still as a Medusa victim, and stared straight at me.

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It’s Not My Fault! Seriously!

Milk Factory Boss

There have been a lot of surveys of career and job satisfaction done over the years by both social scientists and marketing companies. It’s an easy thing to fund, because it lets executives quantitatively examine the productivity of their underlings as if they are the mechanical parts of a vending machine while at the same time pretending to care about them.

The data is messy and variable—that’s how SS rolls—but there are some surprising and useful trends. One of the big ones is that when asked “what do you want more of,” the almighty dollar usually comes in at number 2. A huge blow to its ego, I’m sure, but at least it can afford therapy. The number one slot on what people want more of in at work is recognition. Validation. Reward for their efforts and their successes, not in the form of a company Mercedes, but in the form of the boss saying, “Damn, Susan, you rocked the Peterson v Anderson brief! I’d hate to be Anderson’s family right about now!”

(Side note: a disproportionate number of people interviewed in these studies is named Susan. The social sciences have a serious Susan problem.)

As humans we crave validation the way pandas crave artisinal bamboo. Being told we’re a Good Boy worked in our previous incarnation when we were all dogs, and it still works on us today. Most people can remember a job, or a project or phase within a job if they’re less lucky, that was more satisfying than usual simply because they felt we got the recognition they deserved.

To some extent, managers and supervisors understand this. It’s obvious, right? Most positions have some kind of performance metrics that are rewarded or punished accordingly. Hell, a lot of industries base their entire employment model on this principle. So why is it that so many people, even within the fields that give out the most bonuses and commissions, are so unsatisfied with their jobs?

There are a lot of reasons, including the fact that the carrot and stick model is demonstrably a terrible way to motivate people to effectively perform complex tasks. But there’s another one that doesn’t get as much attention, and causes many of these schemes to produce exactly the opposite effect they are intended to.

It is this: a great many structures designed to measure and recognize performance have a hilariously low correlation to actual performance. A lot of people out there, from vacuum salesmen to CEOs, are getting rewarded for accomplishments that they didn’t really achieve, or punished for failures that are only sort of their fault.

In his excellent book Misbehaving, behavioral economist Richard Thaler describes a consulting gig he did at a high powered company. In the room was the CEO and 22 top executives. He proposed the following hypothetical to the execs: Let’s say you have a potential project you could undertake, and it has a 50% chance of success and a 50% chance of failure. If it succeeds, the company makes 2 million dollars. If it fails, the company loses one million dollars. In economics terms this project has an “expected value” of 1 million dollars. That is, the average amount you are likely to gain if you undertake this project is a million dollars. On any given go you could win or lose, but if you did it enough time one million dollars would be the average. He asked the execs if they would undertake this project. Only three of them said that yes, they would. The others said it would be too risky.

Thaler then turned to the CEO and asked him if he would sign off on 22 projects like this. That is to say, 22 projects run by his executives that would collectively early the company, on average, 11 million dollars.
“Of course,” said the CEO. “That’s a no brainer.”

“But you won’t get 22 of these projects,” said Thaler. “You’ll only get 3.” Because indeed only three of the execs said they would take the project on. Thaler turned to one of the people who said they wouldn’t undertake the project and asked why.

“If it makes money, I get a pat on the back, and maybe a bonus worth three months salary,” said the executive. “If it fails I might very well get fired. I like my job. I’m not willing to risk it for three months salary.”

It’s pretty clear that the fault here does not lie with the executives for being unwilling to take the risk. It lies with the CEO, who wants the risk in aggregate but is doing a terrible making his employees want to take it. But it raises another, more fundamental question. Let’s say all 22 projects go through, and some people get bonuses and some people get canned. You might think that’s good strategy. After all, it separates the wheat from the chaff, right? The good executives who made the project work get to stay on, and the bad ones are shown the door.

Maybe not. In the real world, it’s often very, very difficult to tell how much of these kinds of achievements are down to individual skill and merit and how much they are down to chance. We usually assume that people who succeed are good at what they do and people who fail are bad at it. We are a lot less likely to assume this about ourselves.

The hesitancy of these executives in taking the projects suggests that they feel this in their bones. No matter how smart or talented they are, no matter how hard working, they won’t necessarily be able to pull off a win on the project. Someone who had a completely merit-based worldview would assume that they would be in the 50 percent who made the 2 million. Maybe three of them had that kind of confidence. The others know that sometimes, the souffle is going to collapse no matter how carefully you folded in the egg whites.

On a much smaller scale, the morale at my current job is generally fairly low. There are a lot of reasons for this, but more and more I think the low-correlation effect is a big one. We have stats that track a wide variety of metrics. There are about 12 that matter, and each of them is broken down into another dozen or so sub-metrics. Our stats determine how much money we make, our prospects for promotion, and how well we are regarded by our supervisors. Having low stats is depressing.

When our stats as a site are low there are a lot of messages from management about how we need to get this done, how big a deal it is, how badly we are collectively doing. None of it is particularly harsh or punitive, but it is always there, buzzing in the background. Management tries their best to counter the effect of these messages by buying us pizza and giving out prizes and having funny hat day. But none of that addresses the fundamental problem: many of these stats are out of our hands.

Not completely, of course. And before I’m accused of making excuses for my own performance I should say that right now my stats are very good. I had a slump for a while, but even when I did they were still pretty good for the site. So this isn’t about me. At the same time, I’ve been in a situation where individual metrics spiked in the wrong direction purely because of luck. I got a lot of the wrong sorts of calls within a few days of each other, and my stats plummeted.

When I ask my supervisors about this, they always tell me the same thing. “Just do your best on those calls. You won’t get in trouble for a bad result as long as you handled it well and did everything right.” And on an case-by-case level it’s true. If they listen to a call where I give a customer a large credit and they find that I did everything I could to bring it down and save the company money, they’ll tell me I did a good job. That even though it was a large credit, it was still a good call. Hell, I’ve even gotten compliments on calls like that from management for how well I handled them. Compliments, and a nosedive to my stats.

The lesson is clear: even if you do everything right, the only meaningful measurement of your performance can tank due to bad luck. Sure, it’s not totally out of our hands. The people with the consistently worst stats are usually the worst performers, and there are agents whose stats are consistently higher than average. But everyone on every level is fully aware of how much certain of these elements are out of our hands.

In industries across the spectrum this kind of thing is very, very common, and it is extremely dangerous. If morale matters—and study after study shows how much it affects productivity, even if you don’t think businesses have any responsibility to the psychological well being of their employees—then the incentive structure needs a good, hard look, and probably a serious talking to.