This is a comprehensive summary of the book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access.
You spend a decade performing tasks you secretly believe are worthless? You’re not alone. In this book, David Graeber argues that instead of reducing the working hours, so we can spend more time doing what we love, we have collectively chosen to have access to more shiny but insignificant things. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory includes a series of interviews of people who openly share how their jobs feel – and actually are – meaningless, which leads to worldwide dissatisfaction and purposelessness.
The Core Idea:
If the tasks you perform have no purpose for the world – and you know it – you’ll have a hard time rationalizing your daily actions. Sadly, the world is full of such occupations – i.e., filling countless spreadsheets to prove a point you already know. Eventually, people enter a paradoxical situation: they realize at some point that their job is pointless and that it does not add any real value to the world. Yet, they can’t retreat and pursue a meaningful goal because worthy jobs are underpaid.
- If the work you do doesn’t feel meaningful and it’s not contributing to the greater good you’ll feel worthless.
- The desire to make a change and to be the cause of something useful is encoded in our genes.
- Often the valuable work that’s not sexy, but actually helpful, is left unnoticed by the public.
5 Key Lessons from Bullshit Jobs:
- Lesson #1: If Removed Position is Unnoticed by Others Then It Surely Was Bullshit
- Lesson #2: There are Five Major Varieties of Bullshit Jobs
- Lesson #3: Working a Bullshit Job Can Trash Your Confidence and Lead to Misery
- Lesson #4: We Have Inherent Desire to Be The Cause of Something
- Lesson #5: Society Pays Nickels For Work That Is Actually Valuable To Others
Lesson #1: If Removed Position is Unnoticed by Others Then It Surely Was Bullshit
What is a bullshit job?
While in most of the cases when you’re doing something for long enough it definitely starts to feel like bullshit, the point the author is trying to make is a bit more large scale.
The definition of a bullshit job mentioned in the book is the following:
“A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” David Graeber
This conclusion is based on the endless letters David Graeber received after first publishing an article about BS jobs.
The author was asked to write something provocative which eventually turned into a sensation – and this book.
His essay published in the radical magazine Strike! in 2013 was based on a hunch. But after being bombarded by letters from readers his suspicion turned out to be quite real.
The lack of a clear ending. The absence of purpose and completeness instills a sense of degeneration in the person executing this task and a sense of wanting to “hang himself”. His job is so painfully pointless that he can’t justify his actions even when they are rewarded with money.
This is what qualifies as a bullshit job. Contrary to any logic of modern economics, the world is full of such occupations nowadays.
The easiest way to identify a BS job is by thinking about removing the position. If things still work after the person doing the work is gone, then the occupation is surely meaningless.
Lesson #2: There are Five Major Varieties of Bullshit Jobs
You’re not sure if the work you do categorizes as worthless?
Probably the sorting outlined by the author will help you.
The following types are the major varieties of bullshit jobs based on the research of David Graeber – mainly by sorting testimonies send from readers from all over the world.
Here they are in short:
- Flunkies: Jobs that exist to make someone else look important. Imagine a doorman. Surely people can press the bloody button in the elevator. But when someone else does it for you, you feel beyond cool. And if you think that this is not a common occupation, think about jobs like a receptionist or a secretary. In most of the cases, the person sitting behind the desk is there only to increase the importance of the other person (the boss) working next door.
- Goons: Not gangsters or martial artists. Here the occupation “goon” refers to work that has a negative impact on the world. Think about the army. Countries need armed forces because other countries have armies. Another example is PR specialists. Their main job is to convince other people that certain services are good – mainly by deceiving them.
- Duct tapers: Basically cleaning up after someone else – proofreading, fixing code, cleaning, doing tasks that can be automated but no one bothers to automate. Duct tapers fix things done by others because the person created the thing often doesn’t have time to do it perfectly. Or, when the person lacks skills but is considered an “asset” for the company – imagine long term employees or the boss.
- Box tickers: This work is exactly what the name suggests – clicking boxes and adding data to sheets. Again, a large part of the work can be either automated or completely removed. Imagine an office clerk whose sole job is to move paper from one pile to another. Box ticker jobs exist mainly because governments somehow still adore bureaucracy and paper applications.
- Taskmasters: This occupation is divided into two subcategories: 1) Primarily supervisors assigning work to others. This is bullshit because the work itself can mostly be distributed without the need of this person. 2) Taskmasters create meaningless tasks for others so they can later supervise the progress of meaningless tasks. So not only their work is worthless, but they create false work for even more people. Imagine a middle manager in a corporate firm.
“Still, the most obvious is the cheerleader Human Resources Department. At some point, banking realized that everyone hates them, and that their staff knows this, too, so they set about trying to make the staff feel better about it all. We have an intranet that HR was told to make into a kind of internal “community,” like Facebook. They set it up; nobody used it. So they then started to try and bully everyone into using it, which made us hate it even more. Then they tried to entice people in by having HR post a load of touchy-feely crap or people writing “internal blogs” that nobody cared about. Still nobody comes. Three years they’ve been at this, the internal intranet Facebook page is just full of HR people saying something cheesy about the company and then other HR people saying “Great post! I really agree with this.” How they can stand this, I have no idea. It’s a monument to the total lack of cohesiveness in banking.” David Graeber
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