Rust Out July 2023

With the likely exception of healthcare, the biggest problem with modern knowledge work is not burnout but rather rust out. Burnout is a chronic stress condition where work demands too much from you. Rust out is the opposite, it’s a chronic stress condition where work demands too little from you. Most people are not actually overworked in a knowledge work context, but rather understimulated. The work has become so automatic and easy that the challenge and struggle associated with satisfying early career experiences has long since left. People perform jobs they disdain because they are good at them and they are lucrative. But the suffering is real and originates from under stimulation and a lack of learning - rusting out.

People are remarkable at rising to the occasion. When we have an experience, it is automatically compared to prior experiences of the same nature in its magnitude of difficulty, novelty and other variables. The challenge of a lack of engagement and motivation has become universal in knowledge work. I think if people had a gun to their head and a stretch project in their strength area to work on, they would be able to work with ten times more intensity and multiples more effectiveness as a result. The problem is the relative lack of short term performance pressure in most cases paired with the relative lack of novelty and difficulty of the set of tasks. We emphasize EQ because simply performing the mental contortions needed to feign sustained interest in the work becomes the main work of knowledge work.

Anyone who has spent meaningful time in a large technology company recognizes the tragedy in how human capital is distributed in modern times. The smartest people in society are figuring out how to keep six figure earning engineers interested in optimizing clicks for long enough periods of time to have an effect on the business. The problem of optimizing the clicks is too easy, leading to rusted out engineers who probably dreamed of living a life like Nicola Tesla inventing the future in their lab but ended up doing something much easier and more likely to result in being able to carry their mortgage. But the problem of finding avenues of management science and leadership capacities to get those same people to focus on problems that actually matter is much more interesting, hence my interest in rust out and human capital.

I’ve tried at various times historically in my career when given a task to experiment with the extent to which the world is worse off in the absence of the task, or even on a smaller scale whether my employer is worse off. And it turns out that the vast majority of tasks performed have no durable value, where a small number of often easy tasks that take really small durations of time create the vast majority of the value. Given that is the case, we should be able to compress the timelines of those tasks materially. The problem with offices is that they are generators for BS forms of work. A day that contains two hours of work truly essential to the customer - can balloon into nine or more hours of hyper stimulating interactions. Those interactions have no value to the company or the customer, but they sustain the illusion of impact and efficacy. When people burn out, it is often born of realizing just how pointless the balance of tasks are.

Given the problem description of rust out, which is a chronic stress condition where too little is demanded of people, what can we do about this? It probably looks something like the Elon Musk school of management. Becoming more demanding, with a specific vision that requires sustained novel problem solving and overcoming frequent failure, may well be the path to satisfaction in our work. But you can’t adopt the Elon school wholesale, because going on angry tirades is not actually effective. The goal should be to calmly, but assertively, reorient people towards more intense and demanding work until it works. The effect is that they will be happier (after an adjustment period) and able to shake off the rust. And if you’re in the position of being the one doing the work, consider separately the emotional reaction out of the picture. To the extent one actually wants to have impact, a demanding environment is likely best.