Your Life Hack Is Just Having Staff

Your Life Hack Is Just Having Staff

Image via Wikimedia Commons

I’m going to pick on a story I saw in the Wall Street Journal, but only because it’s typical of a whole genre of advice offered by rich and powerful people, most of them white men. It’s a 2016 first-person essay by Brian Scudamore, the creator of 1-800-GOT-JUNK, called “Why This CEO Takes Every Friday Off.”

Scudamore explains that he “recharges” on Fridays, and spends Mondays “just thinking.” He offers this as career advice:

Whether you take a Think Day or a Free Day (or both) the future of knowledge work isn’t about people sitting in front of computers and meeting-room tables.

Glad that’s solved for everyone. Go ask your boss for three-day weekends and a Think Day.

I don’t want to dump too much on Scudamore here. He addresses his advice to “leaders,” so it’s less that he expects every employee to work four days a week, and more that he assumes executives have earned the privilege.

(Scudamore says he only started taking Fridays off after burning himself out working twelve days a week.)

A company representative tells me that staff have five weeks of vacation a year, and a “go dark” vacation policy.

But Scudamore doesn’t address such secondary concerns in his piece. He never mentions the staff who keep working as he takes off every Friday to “do what I love: skiing with my children, cooking, learning languages and biking.”

The piece doesn’t say “give your employees more free time,” it says “give yourself more free time.” No matter how much free time he hands his employees, that’s not what he’s trying to spread. He’s trying to spread the habit of execs taking their own day off.

Maybe Scudamore’s earned his Fridays. He worked his arse off for years, and now he can afford to let the business run itself 20 per cent of the time. And he sounds like a good boss! But he’s not telling people how to get to the top, just how to take it easy when you’re already up there. Only the most privileged people have the option of following his advice.

Scudamore, and the Wall Street Journal, won’t tell you how to convince your boss to let you take off Fridays. They will just tell your boss to take off, and your boss will rely on you to pick up the slack. Sorry, sucker!

Scudamore didn’t invent this kind of privileged advice. Business blogs and magazines have always breathlessly reported the vacation habits of the rich and powerful.

And they often fail to dig deeper on just how many people have to work harder so these executives can be “efficient” with their time.

Exploiting privilege is the entire basis of optimization guru Tim Ferriss’s ultra-capitalist book The 4-Hour Workweek, which explains how to make your money work for you. But “your money works for you” always means “some other poor schmuck works for you.”

It’s not globally, or even nationally, scalable: The 4-hour workweek wouldn’t work if everyone did it, because it’s not based on adding value, but on extracting it. Ferriss is basically pointing out a bug in the capitalist system.

But at least Ferriss is actually teaching people how to go from a less privileged position to a greater one, often by bypassing entrenched power structures.

Much of the “leadership” advice is just about extracting more value out of the privilege you already have. It scales even worse than Ferriss’s advice. And it reads as an insult to the rest of us.

We’re not innocent of this at Lifehacker. I currently run our How I Work column, which usually features people in charge of a team, or a whole company. The way we framed our questions prompted our subjects to attribute their productivity solely to themselves.

So I added a question: “Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?”

Unfortunately, a lot of hacks rely on some kind of privilege. Many only work if you have enough money, or enough time or freedom. But we work hard not to give advice that relies on white privilege, and to point out when a hack might cause trouble for a service employee. Because hacking shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.

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