hilariously, clumsily, grossly visible

I think a lot of us grew up with the general understanding that feminist were bra-burners and man-haters. My mom didn’t believe this, and I don’t think I ever truly believed this so much as others joked and otherwise told me it was the case. At some point in high school, I saw the bumper sticker that said “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people” (this car was certainly not in my hometown in Northern Idaho, so who knows where it came from). I didn’t call myself a feminist because the kids in my school called feminists lesbians; I didn’t see any problem with being a lesbian but wow was I terrified of being different in any way.

That’s all prelude to the idea that hackneyed, lazy understandings of ideas are propagated by people who are scared of what they mean, and even more scared of threats to their own position of power. I think about this a lot with the word patriarchy, which, if you use it to describe a given culture or society, you automatically 1) hate men or 2) want to kill all men or 3) can’t find a man to have sex with you. (Obviously this is not the case in a lot of progressive, feminist conversations or spaces. But the spaces (family homes, workplaces, internet spaces) most of us occupy, even those of us who are feminists, are not always that way).

It’s difficult to explain that patriarchy means rule and control by men, power held by men, and the generalized idea that men are more valuable and important — and that that can be true even if some women have some power. All sorts of people, and not exclusively men, can be involved in its preservation; the vast majority of the time, they’re not aware they’re doing so. Institutions help sustain patriarchy, but so do individuals and traditions and clothing norms and religious beliefs and health insurance benefit plans and air conditioning standards.

Patriarchy is the fact that many (most!) women in the United States couldn’t open a bank account until the 1960 but it’s also the lack of allocated rooms for women to pump at work when they return from giving birth. It’s women as men’s legal property and the accepted wisdom that women are “just naturally better” at multi-tasking. It’s “wives submit” and all the dudes in the replies to my tweets trying to educate me on, well, everything, but especially in areas where I’ve spent years becoming an expert.

That’s the harder thing for most people to understand: that it’s the super fucking obvious stuff that no one would argue about and the more insidious practices whose status within the patriarchal framework is elided as just the way things are.

Those who benefit from patriarchy work to protect each other — often without really understanding or acknowledging why — and then attempt to deny that their gender, and the power that clings to it, has anything to do with it. And if you try to call it what it is — patriarchy! — they counter that you’re seeing conspiracy where it’s just business, it’s just tradition, it’s just following protocol, it’s just friendship.

Again: this is hard to describe! It sounds like a conspiracy theory! Which isn’t that off, really: people who don’t benefit from patriarchy often experience it as a feeling that nearly everything in your life is collaborating to make sure you stay in your current place, and people look at you weird when you try to connect the dots. (It’s worth noting that white supremacy and hetero/cisnormativity and neocolonialism all work the same, often in intersection with patriarchy, and if people get pissed off when you say that they’re part of the patriarchy, you know exactly how pissed off they’ll be when you also try to tell them they’re being a white supremacist hetero/cisnormative neocolonialist. Just because they don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not true.)

But this week! If I were in the classroom, I’d move my curriculum around to teach ideology and patriarchy this week, because its intersections are so hilariously, clumsily, grossly visible. You might have noticed them, too; for me, it was every time I felt flames coming from the side of my head.

The First: Faux outrage over Elizabeth Warren’s differing explanations of getting let go from her job as a teacher after she became pregnant in the 1960s. I get it. No one wants people, especially political leaders, fudging the details of their past. The Daily Caller’s framing of the discrepancy, as well as subsequent reporting on it (almost entirely by men!) implied that because there was no documentation of Warren’s dismissal, or because she emphasized a different component of it during an interview in 2007, that her current account was a lie.

If you’re a woman who’s been pregnant, or just someone who’s had a lot of women who’ve been pregnant talk to you honestly, you know just how prevalent pregnancy discrimination remains. It’s not as simple as YOU PREGNANT, YOU FIRED, in part because that is (still only relatively recently!) against the law. But there’s a long history of visible pregnancy as obscene, and that idea clings to pregnant women still: just because they’re also “beautiful” and “amazing” and “strong” doesn’t mean that they’re also not considered incapable, and fragile, and inferior. It’s why so many capable, brilliant women I know have hidden their pregnancies for months with Spanx. It’s why lawyers — who know the law! — do the same: it’s so, so difficult to prove pregnancy discrimination. It’s never YOU PREGNANT, YOU FIRED. It’s “we’ve decided to go in another direction” and its countless variations.

The anger that I saw erupt over this story earlier this week had far, far less to do with Warren and everything to do with the denial and/or ignorance of just how common this experience is — and how equally common it is for women to come up with different narratives to explain it, either to themselves or in public forums, because what other choice do we have? You want to shout it from the rooftops, but you also have to decide, every day, how much rage you accommodate and still go about your day. That’s life under patriarchy.

The Second: More faux outrage over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spending $300 on a cut and color in Washington DC. “Self-declared socialist AOC splurges on high-dollar hairdo,” the Washington Times headline declared. Apart from the profound misunderstanding of socialism (which isn’t about being cheap; it’s about creating a sustainable economy that benefits everyone…which means paying hairdressers a living wage) this story demonstrates just how narrow the tightrope is for a woman in public. Be powerful, but don’t actually try and leverage that power, but also: be hot, but don’t spend money or time doing it. Blend in to the patriarchal status quo, but erase all signs of effort (including $$$) that makes that possible.

My friend and fellow writer Amanda Fortini put it this way: “Men have no idea how much money it costs to be a woman.” What goes unsaid here: a woman who’s not subject to endless, distracting critiques about their body and appearance. Of course AOC could get the same (tax-payer subsidized) $20 haircut at the capital as Mitch McConnell. She could forgo all styling. She could stop buying and wearing coats (a critique from last year). She could stop shaving her armpits and legs, stop wearing lipstick, stop buying skincare products. And she could then be savaged every time she appeared on national television. Women don’t have win-win scenarios. We just do our best with those that are lose-lose.

The Third: The first-hand account of how NBC killed Ronan Farrow and Rich McHugh’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein. The report is worth reading in full, but the summary is that male executives at NBC protecting Weinstein — out of personal relationships, sorta, but also because those executives knew that NBC had a Matt Lauer problem. Institutions protect men in power; those men act shitty for many reasons, including the fact that they know they will be insulated from the results. And they don’t have to have a contract, or have it in writing, to instinctually know (which is to say: know because hundreds of years of precedent tell them so) that this will be the case.

It’s just something that (white) men in this country understand: they will be protected. And they will be protected because the people who get to decide who does and does not get protected are, wait for it, also (white) men. Your side of the story will be believed. Your interests and financial livelihood will be preserved. The (eventual) take-down of Weinstein happened in spite of coordinated attempts, like the one on the part of NBC, to ensure it wouldn’t. #MeToo was a temporary disruption, as evidenced by the the backlash against it and the “cancellation” of people like Lauer, or Louie CK, or Charlie Rose. Power recognizes its vulnerabilities and prepares its future defenses against them. There’s the familiar tactics (What was she wearing? What was she drinking?) and the newer ones (Her story changed. She didn’t tell anyone at the time. Why didn’t she go to the police. She just wants attention) but they all serve the same function: delegitimizing any attempt to destabilize the patriarchal status quo.

What articles like McHugh’s do so effectively = make it clear that the people who talk about patriarchy and power are not conspiracy theorists. Ideologies are constantly erasing their own existence, in denying their ideologies at all. If a power structure is “just the way things are” then why should it change, or even be questioned?

The patriarchy is everywhere in America, it infuses every part of our daily lives. Same for white supremacy and hetero-cis-normativity and neo-colonialism. But to keep going, those who want to dismantle each of those ideologies have to pick and choose what we’ll refuse to shut up about. There’s a lot to yell about every week. But sometimes, like this week, pointing out the way these systems work is easier, and more teachable, than others.

The thing I try and tell myself every week: Just because people don’t want to hear it doesn’t mean it’s not true. And just because this work is relentless doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

Things I Read and Loved/Found Compelling This Week:

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an expectation of gratitude

A friend recently told me that her work had instituted a no-email after 8 pm or on weekends policy, and it had served as a catalyst for a profound shift in everyday anxiety and churn at her workplace. When the policy was announced, most people were dubious that it would be kept — there would be exceptions, and then those exceptions would erode the policy to make it pretty much meaningless. But thus far — six months in — everyone, including managers, has kept to it. When the expectation of email vigilance disappears, it prompts a different relationship with your phone during off times: the compulsion to open your email (gradually) vanishes when the “rewards” (new emails) do.

Of course, people make all sorts of arguments for why they need their phone with them at all times. Children, I get. Other justifications, they’re mostly flimsy. (I often find myself taking my phone with me on a run because WHAT IF THERE’S SOMETHING PRETTY TO TAKE A PICTURE OF, which, well.) My friend still has a complicated relationship with her phone (it takes months, if not years, to rewire these habits; it blows). But she also says the absence of emails, and the low-level stress that accompanied them, has opened up time for true and actual leisure: it’s much easier to go to the movies, or go on a long walk, or spend the afternoon truly absorbed in a book when that thing really is the only thing you’re doing in that moment. (Note: she does not have kids. I know that it’s much, much, more difficult to create that sort of mental space when you have kids.)

It reminds me of a phrase my hippy ex-boyfriend had written on a piece of notebook paper and taped to his wall next to his bed: what you are doing in your mind is what you are doing. Sometimes hippy shit is just right.

Talking to my friend made me to wonder: what seemingly small practices has your manager or boss (or you, yourself) put in place that have made work less shitty, less of a life-sucking slog, or just more enjoyable? I asked my various social network feeds, and the responses included the simple (a seltzer machine, a water cooler, healthy snacks) to the profound (allowing people to work four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days; Summer Fridays). But the common denominator was even more straightforward than a seltzer machine, and involved being treated as a human being, complete with concerns and responsibilities and a life outside of work.

Under this umbrella: unlimited sick time; no compulsion to explain why you were taking sick time or PTO; the ability to take kids into work (so long as you were wholly responsible for them) on snow days; expansive ability to work-from-home (from one day a week to whenever desired); mandatory time off for managers and non-managers alike; abolition of arbitrary dress codes; taking laptops and work phones away when someone’s on actual vacation; an in-building gym that employees are encouraged to use during the workday. As my pal Jaimie Green put it, “everything I can think of involved being respectful of my time.”

The vast majority of the answers involved people who were working office-type jobs, which feels significant: there’s still little attention, amongst companies or managers, to how to improve the everyday experience of work for people in the service industry, or cobbling together multiple jobs/gigs. One woman who works as a nanny did report that a huge shift in her working life was the result of a single purchase on the part of her employer: an extra carseat for her car, so that she could be mobile with the kids instead of tied to the house and the immediate area. As a former nanny, I agree: it’s life changing. As was the fact that my employers gave me PTO and sick days and a health care allowance, which is far from standard amongst employers — and had everything to do with the fact that I was placed through a nanny service, which, I suppose, is its own sort of employee advocacy service. All of those things, including the carseat, transformed what could have been a miserable, exploitative job into a good job.

“Good jobs” — e.g., jobs where managers and the company as a whole are invested in employees as humans, not robots — don’t have to be limited to offices or the professional class. Historically, it’s taken the power of a union to “encourage” employers to do so — and there are thousands of workplaces today (like GM, where workers are now in their third week of a strike) where that’s still the case. But the employer can also decide that treating workers like humans isn’t just ethical, but a profitable business practice — an idea explored at length by Zeynep Tom in The Good Jobs Strategy.

Tom looks at Trader Joe’s, Zara, and a popular Spanish supermarket chain, but the case study I found most compelling was QuickTrip: a convenience store chain with outposts across much of the US. QuickTrip has minimal turnover (and, compared to the rest of the convenience store industry, minuscule turnover). They have a quasi-cult-following. They have excellent growth and profit margins. The reason, Tom argues, is because employees are given steady schedules (including the ability to schedule around childcare/school pick-up/drop-off), the opportunity to rise through the ranks to positions of power, excellent pay, bonuses for consistency, and health care. Put simply: they’re not treated as disposable, or like robots, but like workers deserving of fair and ethical treatment, even if they don’t have a college degree or sit in a cubicle. As a result, they’re better, more reliable, more trustworthy workers. That shouldn’t be radical, but it is.

Looking over the responses to my initial question, I was impressed by what many workplaces had put in place — but I was also disheartened by how many people responded in awe, or dismay. Their workplace would never. One woman simply responded, “I’m an adjunct, so….” That’s all she needed to say: her position within the workforce rendered her beyond the scope of any attention to ameliorating workplace conditions. Another adjunct did say that their department chair sat down with each of them at the beginning of the semester, and ended up advocating for a small research/travel stipend for each of them — such a small thing, but so rare as seem monumental.

That’s how low our standards have fallen. Once you’ve internalized a standard of work, no matter how shitty, as just the way things are, it’s natural to express gratitude when it’s ameliorated in however small a way: It was a game changer when I started a job where my boss didn’t ask for a doctor’s note every time I had an appointment. It was huge when I could be ten minutes late and then work an extra ten minutes at the end of the day. It made a huge difference when they actually allocated a room for nursing.

I’m sure all of these things really were game changers. But they should have been standard all along. When they’re added, we internalize that we shouldn’t ask for more: instead, we should be grateful.

That expectation of gratitude — and its flipside, the label of ungrateful when we ask for more — is at the crux of our current conversations about labor, but it imbues so many other millennial experiences. You should be grateful you have phones, grateful you have a job, grateful you’re driving Uber instead of in the coal mine, grateful you got to go to college, grateful you’re not at war, grateful you don’t live in North Korea, the list goes on. But here’s the thing: you can have an underlying sense of gratitude while also asking for things to be different, for your work to be less dehumanizing and all-consuming and in service to a never-ending drive for profit and growth, with only the barest minimum returning to you.

There is a categorical difference between not wanting to work (the bogeyman of “laziness”) and wanting work to be, well, better. That’s not selfishness. That’s self-preservation. It’s achievable by letting go of shame, internal and external, for asking for better, but also, even more importantly, through solidarity with other workers — and not just ones whose jobs or workplaces are similar to your own. So think about what your employer (which can include yourself!) has or has not done to make work better. And then think about what else is possible.

Collected AHP News:

  • My Audible Original on burnout — which includes interviews with people across the United States, talking about specific forms of burnout (being a black woman in media, being a pastor in the 21st century, being from Ohio, and more) was released on Friday. If you have an Audible account, you can listen for free; if you don’t, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial and then listen for free. And if like Pastor John Thornton and his anti-burnout church, you can subscribe to his excellent newsletter here.

  • My essay on the Nashville Bachelorettes was included in this year’s Best Travel Writing! A huge honor for an essay that started out with my fascination with the women tagging themselves at Reese Witherspoon’s clothing store. Chances are high that it’s a place of Best Writing Series prominence at your local book store.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe, and find the online, shareable version of this post here. Follow me on Twitter here, on Instagram here. Please excuse typos and weird, unwieldly sentences; doing this without strict attention to detail is what makes it possible to do it every week for free. If you have feedback or comments or ideas for a future just-trust-me, just reply to this email, or find me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com

how a book gets scheduled

This is Myrtie, a three-legged heeler mix I met in the backyard of an Austin bar while in town for the Texas Tribune Festival. She likes pets VERY MUCH. I’m traveling a lot this month and next, reporting a bunch of stories that I’ll then spend the following weeks/months writing about. I’ll also get revisions of the first draft of the burnout book back, which means holing up evenings and weekends to get them done in time to get the book “into production,” the long process between when the final draft of a book gets submitted and when it actually makes its way into the world.

Those of you in the books world — as editors or writers or publicists or whatever — know all about this, but I find that most people (including myself, up until my first book) are pretty mystified by the process: how do some books (namely: political ones) make their way onto shelves within months, whereas others (fiction, less pressing nonfiction) take years.

I’m not an editor and I don’t work in a publishing house, and I don’t pretend to know all of the particular ins-and-outs of the business (there are much better newsletters for that, especially if you’re interested in selling your own book; I recommend Kate McKean’s). But I’ve been through this enough (the burnout book will be my third book) and am friends with enough authors (fiction and non) that a few things have become clear, from the writing side:

1) There are really only a handful of times when it’s “good” to release a book, and those times are Leading-Directly-To-Summer, Summer-Through-Mid-August, Leading-Up-To-Christmas. Sure, a really good book could theoretically do well whenever, but it’s going to do best when it’s positioned to sell during a time when people are into buying books, asking for recommendations for books, and talking about books in general, aka, summer and the December Holiday Season. (I always remember a small anecdote from Emma Straub’s Instagram, about the serendipity of The Vacationers breaking through: a real combination of the contents, of course, but also the title, the cover, and the placement in airports all over)

2) There are only so many books that a publishing house will push during each of those seasons. There’s only so much publicity staff, and each of those publicists can only handle promoting so many books.

3) As a result, books that the publisher wants to “throw its weight behind” — either because they invested a lot of money in the advance, or because they just think it has the potential to go big/bigger/biggest, can get pushed to a place on the calendar that’s not as crowded.

4) And then there’s the mitigating factor of events that suck all the media oxygen out of the room — especially, at least in the United States, mid-term or presidential elections. Political books can come out in the lead-up to an election, but all other books need to get the fuck out of the way. There’s an argument that some people would crave counterprogramming, which is true, but the larger problem is the question of publicity: just because readers might want new books doesn’t mean that there’s enough space/desire to read articles/interviews/profiles that spread the word about those new books.

This created a problem for the timing of my book, whose natural home probably would’ve fallen right around…..November 2020. The options were: a relative rush, to get it out before, or a more leisurely approach, to get it out January 2021, in correspondence with New Year’s Resolutions (and exactly two years after the date of the original essay’s publication). I fought hard for earlier, earlier, earlier: like everyone else involved, I want the book to be the best it can possibly be, but I’m also keenly aware of how internet time works. Just this week, the New York Times published an article about how burnt out millennials and Gen-Zers are pushing for different workplace conditions, Bloomberg produced a video about how burnout is bad for business, and trend forecaster Cassandra issued a sprawling report focused on. . . burnout.

The issue is salient now; it feels vital and unignorable now, and the quicker I can try and further that conversation, the better. Of course, I still want to be accurate — and, like many writers today, will be paying out of pocket for my own fact checker — and compelling, but I also don’t want an accurate and compelling book that’s past its expiration date.

It’s not that I think that the issues behind burnout will have disappeared by then — hahahahhahahahahha ARE YOU KIDDING ME. It’s that the energy around the election is, especially for millennials, the same energy: pissed off, dissatisfied, increasingly sure that things don’t have to be this way, and we need drastic, holistic change to make them otherwise. Every (domestic) political conversation I hear my friends and peers having — about health care, about child care, about the fatigue of the news cycle, about labor rights and overwork and student debt — is also a burnout conversation. And every burnout conversation is also a political one, mostly because the only way we can truly address the micro and personal afflictions of burnout is by changing policy and positions on the macro scale.

Which is why I’m so pleased that, barring some disaster, the book will be coming out in September 2020 — with a pre-order link coming soon. I burnt out writing the book this summer and I’m going to burn out again during the editing process but this larger conversation feels more and more urgent — and I can’t wait to continue having it with all of you, repeating and demanding that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and access the web version of the newsletter) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any typos or weird sentences; inattention to fine detail is what allows me to put this out every week for free. And if you have any comments or questions, just respond to this email, or find me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com.

what great inconvenience

I get asked a lot about “tips for alleviating burnout,” and if you’ve been reading this newsletter for awhile, you know I have a few: put your phone on airplane mode before you go into the bedroom; don’t listen to podcasts on walks; dedicate time to hang out with your own mind. But the biggest one is something I first heard from fellow burnout scholar Jonathan Malesic: think deeply and consistently about how your own actions, and standards, and practices create burnout in others.

That can be as simple as not being the one who emails at 9 pm on a Saturday (just because it feels fine to you, and maybe not even like a personal burnout behavior, doesn’t mean it’s not creating expectations of always-on-ness in others). How you act — as a manager, as a co-worker, as a partner, as a parent — has ripple effects that extend far past the immediate relationship.

That’s easy to understand on an intimate, inter-personal level — but harder, I think, when we start thinking about the deeper causes of burnout (economic precarity and exploitation) and our place within the larger world of contemporary capitalism. In other words: how our own spending habits create burnout in others.

I thought of this earlier this week, as the California legislature passed AB 5, a “controversial” bill that forces gig economy companies to classify their employees as….wait for it….employees. (If you’re not familiar with the long gig economy employee saga, the narrative, in short = companies like Uber, Handy, DoorDash, etc. got off the ground by classifying their employees as “independent contractors,” thus immunizing themselves from labor laws and/or calls for ethical employee treatment.) But under AB 5, all those “contractors” become employees subject to California labor protections/benefits, which means: unemployment insurance, paid parental leave, overtime and mandatory rest breaks, workers comp, at least a $12 minimum wage, health care and/or health care subsidies, and, most important of all, the right to unionize.

Uber et. al. are furious, and Uber has indicated it will litigate the ruling, arguing that its drivers aren’t, uh, central to its business model (of driving cars!!!). It’s unleashed a bevy of counter-PR, suggesting that the law would FOREVER CHANGE the rideshare industry and CREATE GREAT INCONVENIENCE to users. (The reasoning = Uber will be forced to decrease the number of employees if it actually has to treat them like employees, which will decrease the number of people driving in your area).

These are scare tactics designed to appeal to your totally self-centered inner-optimizer, inviting you to frame the ethical treatment of employees as a massive personal inconvenience. There’s a similar argument at work in the yoga world, as the hedge fund that owns YogaWorks is attempting to quash attempts by its teachers to unionize. (Yoga teachers are asking for the ability to negotiate for higher pay, salary transparency, predictable scheduling, and benefits). The hedge fund’s (spoken) reasons for union busting are the same as most companies: it’s not right for our company. What that really means is that if you treat employees as employees, then you either have to decrease your profit share (which means the hedge fund pays out less to its investors) or you have to raise prices (which means the customer might go elsewhere, and the overall customer base will decrease, and profits will again fall).

Hedge funds and private equity are the driving force behind so many of today’s shitty jobs, which I generally think of as jobs that 1) provide little stability, economic or otherwise; 2) make your work experience hell through inconsistent scheduling, surveillance, and algorithmically controlled work environments; 3) refuse to provide or provide truly shitty forms of benefits (paid leave, health insurance, retirement, etc) that make modern life tenable; 4) often require you to get another shitty job on the side, just to make things work. Because hedge funds and private equity care don’t actually care about a company and its mission — let alone its employees — they cut everything, especially employee pay and benefits, to the lowest common denominator.

Hedge funds and private equity often take pretty solid jobs and render them shitty. But start-ups, with their dependency on the independent contractor model, are shitty job generators. They launched their services, grew them exponentially, and insinuated them into everyday life — and were celebrated for their “disruption” for the unoptimized, analog way of doing things. For those who could afford them, they’ve made life quicker, easier, more seamless. But they’ve done it by creating a whole layer of shitty jobs, excused away as “side gigs” without acknowledging that those side gigs are necessary because of how many other layers of shitty jobs there are.

Which returns us to the question of creating burnout in others, and how it relates to the actual economy. Are you willing to embrace that truly slight inconvenience — and maybe pay a few dollars more — so that a person’s job is significantly less shitty? Think about in practice: are you willing to wait five more minutes for an Uber so that, when you get in, you know that your drive has health insurance and is making a living wage? Are you willing to pay $4 more for your yoga class (YOUR YOGA CLASS!) so that your teacher, who you likely venerate, can have some semblance of the stability/peace you yourself are attempting to find BY GOING TO YOGA??? Are you willing to have slightly less so that others can have significantly more? Or, as I like to think about it, do you actually care about other people?

Back in 2015, the New York Times published a massive investigation into the nail salon industry, appropriately titled “The Price of Nice Nails.” One of the conversations immediately prompted by the piece was simple: can I still get my nails done? Of course, the answer seemed to be — but, well, mindfully, with attention to the type of place you go to, the types of protections offered employees (specifically from noxious chemicals), and the way you tip the person doing your nails. My personal decision was to start tipping around 80%: if the pedicure cost $25, which they often did, I’d tip an additional $20. Yes, this makes the pedicure $45. But is that actually an exorbitant amount of money for service offered — especially if half of it goes directly to the underpaid technician?

Just because something’s cheap and efficient doesn’t mean that it should be that way — or that your ability to access it doesn’t have significant human cost. In an interview about her new book, Fashionopolis, Dana Thomas points to the example of the “secretary special”: an “off-the-peg ready-to-wear collection for the middle market” from the height of The Depression. That suit cost $19.99. Today, a similar suit/outfit/dress costs the same amount at Zara or H&M.

“Is anything else we buy today the same price as it was at the height of the Depression?” Thomas asks. “Of course not. Is anything we’re buying today the same price it was in 1928 before the crash? Of course it’s not. Eggs were, let’s say, 20 cents and now they’re $3. A pound of ground beef was less than 30 cents. Everything’s gone up 100 times but we’re still paying the same price for ready-to-wear, off-the-peg “secretary specials.” That for me was clarifying, no matter what the book was going to be about. How did we get to that point where we’re still paying the same price as we were during the Depression?”

The cost of that $19.99 dress, as Thomas outlines in her book, is truly horrendous working conditions for other women — and massive ecological impact. But we’re removed from the conditions that produce it, the living conditions that result from it, and the realities of the waste it produces. All we see is a deal.

All we see with an Uber is convenience. All we see with a cheap yoga class is the ability to spend money on other things. None of this is discount what rideshare has made better, or mainstream yoga affords in terms of access. But there’s a disconnect between things that we value and our willingness to pay what they actually cost — what those conveniences, that “affordability,” does to the actual humans who provide them. (As for the argument that we shouldn’t enact any policy that will eliminate jobs, that’s a shitty argument that just protects and perpetuates the paradigm of shitty jobs. The glorious thing about raising standards, especially in large industries or in states as massive as California, is that it often has the effect of raising standards across the board).

Someone on Twitter suggested affixing services with the equivalent of the newly-mandated restaurant calorie count: this is the lived employment reality of the person serving you, this is what this particular service does to the environment. That feels blunt but appropriate, given how effective capitalism is at cloaking the means, conditions, and realities of production. If that’s not going to happen, we can still be vigilant about it in our own lives: tipping is a good stop-gap, but choosing to buy / patronize companies that work to treat themselves and the natural world ethically, even if it might cost more, is even better. Same for voting and advocating for politicians and policies that do the same.

That doesn’t mean that only rich people can act this way. It means that each of us can make mindful decisions given the options available to us. Adding stability to someone else’s life has ripple effects — and those ripples will accumulate, however gradually, and return, in some way, to you.

If you’re actually serious about treating burnout — yours, your partners, your future children’s — you have to be serious about treating it for people you might not even know. If you want to actually make life better, more livable, less of a slog for yourself, that involves making it better for a whole lot of other people as well. For that, you don’t need a self-help book with an asterisk in the title to blunt the profanity. You don’t need a better organizational app. You just need to legitimately and actionably care about other people.

Things I Published On the Internet This Week:

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and find a linkable/shareable version) here. You can follow me on Twitter here and on Instagram here. Please excuse any typos/weird sentences; the relative inattention to detail is what allows me to put this out every week for free. Feedback? Idea for next week’s “just trust me”? Just respond to this email.

who cheats and why

I’m back from two weeks on a beach in the middle of the ocean where I did nothing but read (favs here) and sleep for twelve hours a night. I find it easy to relax on vacation but am often frustrated that I get vacationed out: by the end, I’m like, let’s make some lists! But I’m trying to think of that as a sign that the vacation “took”: I got the rest, and now I’m genuinely excited to go back. Fiji’s fucking great, but I love my house and my bed and my dogs, too.

Vacation’s about respite from your life, but also about contrast with that life — at first, that contrast is euphoric (so much sleep, such close ocean!) and gradually it becomes about appreciation (consistency, routine, broccoli, water from the tap). I was thrilled to come home, but I also couldn’t imagine going straight from the place of intellectual exhaustion I was in when I turned in the first draft of the book to full-time work at BuzzFeed. But I did just that, three years ago, with the last book! Bad idea! This strategy is far superior, even if was just going into the woods for two weeks instead of across the international date line.

Every time I’ve gone away over the last three years, coming back to the news felt like jumping into a freezing body of water filled with stinging jellyfish. There’s the added stress of continually finding new articles (some of which are linked below) that demand inclusion/reference/consideration in the burnout book. (See also: this piece on how education debt is transforming the middle class). And then there’s all the new ideas/phenomena that transform when placed within my newly developed framework of burnout.

Take, for example, this excellent piece from the NYT on the continued expansion of “essay farms” which allow people from around the world to “bid” to get paid for writing essays for American college students. The interviews with the people writing these essays (in this case, mostly Kenyan) is what makes this piece exceptional — and highlights a very 21st century phenomenon, in which educated English speakers, unable to find work in their own countries, are paid relatively small amounts of money so that Americans (and some Chinese) can receive the credentials that will allow them to find full-time work. For example:

Roynorris Ndiritu, 28, who asked that only part of his name be used because he feared retribution from others in the industry in Kenya, graduated with a degree in civil engineering and still calls that his “passion.” But after years of applying unsuccessfully for jobs, he said, he began writing for others full time. He has earned enough to buy a car and a piece of land, he said, but it has left him jaded about the promises he heard when he was young about the opportunities that would come from studying hard in college.


Now Ms. Mbugua finds herself at a crossroads, unsure of what to do next. She graduated from her university in 2018 and has sent her résumé to dozens of employers. Lately she has been selling kitchen utensils.

Ms. Mbugua said she never felt right about the writing she did in the names of American students and others.

“I’ve always had somehow a guilty conscience,” she said.

“People say the education system in the U.S., U.K. and other countries is on a top notch,” she said. “I wouldn’t say those students are better than us,” she said, later adding, “We have studied. We have done the assignments.”

The piece is an incisive (and accurate!) take on the American educational system and its place in the global hierarchy. It’s explicit about how America’s general reluctance to crack down on these services has allowed them to flourish (in a way they no longer do in the UK or Australia) — and thorough in its exploration of how the supply of essays is generated. But it leaves the demand for those essays largely unexplored, a hazy vision of the unmotivated, unprepared, overprivileged college student willing to pay $30 a page for an essay three hours before it’s due.

Just to be clear, this isn’t a critique — no piece can do everything, I mean that. And significant regulation of these sites would temporarily solve a problem, as it seems to (at least temporarily) have done in Australia. But if the American demand remains, it’ll just find a different outlet. And that demand is far less rooted in entitlement than in fear. Which isn’t to say that this isn’t cheating: it is. But “catching” students with software like TurnItIn isn’t actually a deterrent when students are acting out of abject anxiety.

When I was in the classroom, the students who plagiarized were never the worst students in the class. To be sure, there were a handful of students who are exactly the douchey, rich, entitled asshole you’re picturing as the customers of these services. But most teachers will tell you that the students plagiarizing weren’t the laziest, or the most entitled. They were often the solid B students, desperate, truly desperate, for As. They’d do extra credit, they never skipped class. For some assignments, they were in my office, asking questions, talking over drafts, incredibly anxious about thesis statements, at a loss about how to craft the rest of the essay. And then something would happen with an assignment — not even necessarily a big one! — where they’d get super overwhelmed, panic, and copy something from the internet.

These students don’t cheat because they’re lazy; they cheat because they’re incredibly anxious, terrified of failure, and haven’t been taught to come up with original arguments (or trust themselves when they do). They’re the students who got into a desired college through sheer determination. They’re not dumb or stupid or anything close to it. But they’ve become convinced that any sort of failure (on an assignment, in a class) is tantamount to total life failure, and accumulate anxiety about each assignment accordingly.

If you’ve never experienced anxiety, then it’s difficult to explain how counterintuitively it works: instead of helping you plan out the steps to succeed at a given task, it makes the task seem so insurmountable that you avoid it entirely, which creates more anxiety, which makes it seem even more insurmountable. Hence: googling “pay for essay” three hours before the assignment is due.

Many of these students are natural people pleasers: it’s part of how they got as far as they did. Which is why the idea of emailing or coming in to talk to their teacher about their failure to start the essay ahead of time is anathema. And a lot of teachers — myself included, in my early days of teaching — tell students things like “no extensions, no question” or “I’ll only entertain extensions if requested a day in advance.” And simply not turning something in, or turning it in late for a docked grade — also anathema for the striving, anxious student. So they do some ethical self-bargaining, and spend the money intended for food and “expenses” on an essay.

(Another version of this phenomenon, and one that the piece addresses briefly = international students, frustrated or insecure in their English, desperate to perform at the level they did back home, terrified of bad grades sent to their parents, unable or reticent to articulate their concern to their professors, especially if they had a very different paradigm of education back home).

There are ways for teachers to help combat these tendencies — protracting the essay writing process, requiring students to turn in outlines ahead of time — but they’re often limited to small classes or classes explicitly focused on writing. And for already overworked teachers, they’re also incredibly time-consuming. The problem isn’t that professors aren’t attentive enough; it’s that the entire American educational system primes high school (and then college) students to conflate A’s with actual thinking, and the ability to exclusively get those A’s with personal value.

Whether the student is fifteen and terrified about what their sophomore grades will suggest on their transcript, or nineteen and desperate to maintain their GPA for their scholarship or for grad school, that attitude only grows more and more destructive. The result — a degree without the ability to think — only further evacuates that degree of actual value.

In the NYT piece, several of the Kenyan essay writers described general dismay that they’d put so much time and money and energy into getting college degrees — a promised ticket to prosperity! — only to find themselves forced to cheat for other students. They were disillusioned, and rightly so, with the value of a college degree. We’re getting there in America, too: a college degree may still up your wages for the rest of your life, but it doesn’t guarantee middle class stability, or intellectual edification. More and more, American education simply reproduces the de facto millennial condition: heavily indebted, almost comically insecure, and paralyzed by anxiety.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. I’m on Instagram here and Twitter here. Please excuse any typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what gives me the psychological space to get this thing out for free every week. And if you have any suggestions for future “just trust mes” or thoughts on this week’s newsletter, just reply to this email.

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