The Key to Succeeding in a Bureaucracy: Dealing with Boredom

Whatever you want to do in life, if you want to make money from it, you will need to jump through some hoops. That’s adult life. That’s how it’s different from a movie. There is no way to cut out the boring parts: the parts where we’re in line, on hold with customer service, or waiting for a form to come in the mail. Taxes! Let’s not forget about taxes. Life is filled with these little hurdles that don’t define a life outright, but if you allow yourself to trip over enough, discouraging you from continuing, then ultimately, it will. 

If you want anything, say… to write a best selling book. What you are really saying is, “I want to start a business.” And with all businesses, there is bureaucracy involved. 

One doesn’t write a book or start a blog and earn instant fame and wealth. It takes work, it takes time — and strict adherence to the rules of money. 

And what is money but a game with many players. 

You need to access platforms, request different assets, and perform administrative tasks. You’ll feel like you are going in circles, wasting time doing things that aren’t “important.” After all, if you’re a professional writer, you should be writing, not messing with some sales page or negotiating with contractors. 

This always reminded me of the game Zelda, where you need to accomplish minor tasks, talk to characters you have no desire to talk to, buy material you don’t really want, smash open a few pots here and there so that you can reach your real goal, which is to save the princess or something. When you have a professional pursuit, you will find these mini-tasks at every stage. 

It’s tricky, because these hoops and hurdles make you want to stop and say, “I don’t need to do this for work, I can just do this for fun.” But that’s just an impatient part of you talking. Writing is fun. Creating your art is fun. Jumping through hoops and dealing with beaurcratic bull shit is not. But great things happen when you are able to support yourself and reach more people. 

A lot can be done alone in your office as a writer, but as soon as you need to reach a wider audience — and you want to make money from them — you’ll need to interact with people and be a part of society, the same way plumbers, bakers, and teachers are. Unfortunately, society operates like an old clunky machine, it’s slow, it malfunctions, it jams and freezes. It’s frustrating. But that’s the way it is, and a little surprising that it even works at all. Even if you repair one part, there are so many others on the verge of breaking. Attempting to fix this machine will only distract you from your purpose, and so we must learn to live with it. 

There is this great passage from David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King that has helped me a lot whenever I was stuck behind a hurdle, too drained and impatient to jump over. It goes like this: 

“I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

“But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.

“The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.  

“The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.

“It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

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