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Micklethwait’s Law of Negotiated Misery

We all know about those archetypal laws. Parkinson‘s – work expands to fill the time available for its completion. The Peter Principle – people get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. They’re useful laws. They answer basic questions. Like: Why all the crap? Why is everything done so badly?

Well, I think I may have discovered another one of these universal laws, which answers the question: Why are so many people who you would think ought to be happy instead so miserable? I give you: Micklethwait’s Law of Negotiated Misery.

It starts with the observation that more and more people are “self-managed” these days. Even people working inside giant business or governmental bureaucracies are being encouraged to think of themselves as free trading entrepreneurs, providing services in exchange for payment, in cash or in kind. Horizontal networking, self-starter, internal markets, intrapreneuring, etc. etc. blah blah blah.

Okay. You’re a self-manager, and maybe even self-employed.

There are four kinds of work you think about maybe doing.

  1. There’s work you love and are good at.
  2. There’s work you hate and are good at.
  3. There’s work you love and are bad at.
  4. There’s work you hate and are bad at.

The world pretty soon decides that you must stop doing (3) and (4) and of course, you are delighted to stop doing (4). If you insist on doing (3) you are going to have to do it as a hobby.

Which leaves (1) and (2), the stuff you are good at, and either (1) love or (2) hate.

How much do you get paid to do (1), work you love and are good at? If you are a good negotiator, then plenty, because you are good at it, and demand lots of money.

But what if you are a bad negotiator? You jump at the job and accept bad money.

How much do you get paid to do (2)? Chances are you get paid good money. Why? Because you will only consent to do work you hate if you are paid good money. So, with no great effort, you hold out for good money (even if all you thought you were doing was Just Saying No), and, because you are good at the work, you get paid good money. Eventually, someone makes you an offer you can’t refuse, and you take it.

So, if you are a bad negotiator, unable to repress your natural desire to do what you love and to avoid what you hate, you get paid bad money to do work you love, and good money to do work you hate.

Bad negotiators can have semi-good lives if they can afford to oscillate between work they love and work they hate. For a while, they do that. But, by the end of that period the only way they know to make good money is to do work they hate.

Then factor in the following circumstance. They switch to a life in which they then have to make continuously good money. Wife, kids, mortgage. Maybe an addiction to an expensive type-(3) hobby. Or maybe the life they lead just happens to get much more expensive. Clang. The gates of the prison slam shut. From then on they must do work they hate, continuously.

Result: An inexorable tendency for the “self-managed” classes to negotiate themselves into lives of permanent misery.

Is this a truth about the world? I think it is. Am I the first person to have noticed it? Surely not. Certainly not in so many words. But maybe I am the first person to have nailed this extremely widespread experience down into a simple law with a simple name.

(If so, hurrah! I love it. And how much was I paid? Bugger all.)

Comments and links please.

15 comments to Micklethwait’s Law of Negotiated Misery

  • Patrick

    Probably true. There’s a further element to it which you might call ‘Promoted to Nowhere’.

    I work for one the world’s largest companies at the middle management level. At each promotion there’s only about half the number of people as at the level you just left – right up to a single CEO at the top. Being young and resonably well regarded I probably have 2 or 3 maybe 4 promotions left in me- to spread across 25 years before I retire. Beyond that you’re into the wunderkind or obsessive company man territory at the top. In any event lots of very good people are pissed off because there is nowhere for them to go and they have achieved their earning potential. Many leave to try and be bigger fish in smaller ponds. Many glide sideways into retirement. Some can negotiate good early retirement deals some are grumpy old men. Is this familiar to others?

  • Well Said !!

    Now all that remains is for someone to start teaching a course about how to remedy the situation in which one finds oneself. [For which they will recieve money, of course.]

  • I like this negotiated misery law. And it does sound an original insight to me – at least when expressed this crisply.

  • Byron

    Brian, I suspect you could make your theory the basis of a new career in leadership/business seminars and lecturing. You can make a lot of money these days by telling people what they want to hear. Who knows, you might even be the next Stephen Covey, Ken Blanchard, or Fischer & Ury.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Thanks for all your kind words, everyone so far, and subsequently if there are any more. The trouble is, I have no idea as yet about what to do about the melancholy facts I describe.

    But the fact that I have read lots of the stuff Byron refers to suggests that I may indeed have a future as a business bullshitter.

    My problem is that I would quite enjoy doing this, and would therefore accept crap money.

  • Interesting idea, but your assumptions are flawed:

    (1) Things that you love/hate to do — in truth this is not binary.

    (2) You’re assuming that a person knows what they like to do. Often a person accepts a new job that they thought they would hate, but wind up loving it. Or they accept a job that sounds greta, but they wind up hating it.

    (3) Bad negotiators may make a bad initial decision, but they can correct it. They take the first thing that they are offered, but because they hate the job, they keep looking. Eventually they are offered something else. Perhaps they learn from previous experience not to take the first job offered (again), perhaps not. In either case, even bqad negotiators wind up at better jobs just by trial and error.

  • Bolie Williams IV

    I resemble this law. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what I would really enjoy doing. I have a wife, kid, mortgage, etc… and can’t exactly quit earning money to go find myself. So I keep working…

    My wife wants me to find a job I like (as do I), but I can’t figure out a way out. So I need to figure out how to squeeze the most money out of what I am doing… at least that would support hobbies I do like.

    Bolie IV

  • Anonymous

    If someone is willing to accpet “crap money” for a job which they love to do, then in follows that the quantified value of the pleasure afforded by the job is equal to the amount of pay they would receive in a job they hate, given that they were indifferent between the two jobs.

    Since money is simply an abstraction of value, and the total value is the same for both jobs, they’re effectively being paid the same for both jobs.

    The “solution” to this “problem” is merely to educate people to apply basic microeconomic theory to the way they run their lives. If people attempted to quantify all of their values, tangible or otherwise, the’d easily be able to choose which option offers them the most value in any given circumstance.

  • Tom

    I remember a sign I saw at the USC film school:

    “I love my job so much, I would do it for free.
    Unfortunately, they know that.”

  • Brian,

    That was a perceptive post, leading to the conclusion that you would definitely make an excellent business bullshitter.

    All you need to cure the money problem is an agent- I’m starting the bidding at 15% (plus options, obviously).

  • roy

    I remember seeing a psychological study a number of years ago. Two sets of students were given a boring job; one very well paid and the other a mere pitance.

    Students were then (secretly) filmed as they recruited their “replacements.” The well paid group pointed out how really boring the job was, but pointed out how good the money was. The other group spoke (and acted) very enthusiastically about the good the job was doing and glossed quickly over the pay.

    The conclusion seemed to be that so long as one couldn’t rationalize having such a shitty job by getting good pay, one tended to change one’s attitude toward the job and gloss over the downsides (it makes sense; who wants to acknowledge – even, or especially, to one’s self – that one is working in a poor job situation without even getting much money out of it).

  • Great post – it’s funny because it’s true.

  • jc

    Briaqn, I hate you. I shoulda thunk of it first.

  • Antoine Clarke


  • Tom Grey

    “Law of Negotiated Misery” is possible — since it seems as true as Peter’s or Parkinson’s.
    But, sorry Brian,
    Micklethwait will NEVER be the name of any “Law”.

    Mickle, maybe: Mickle’s Law …

    Solutions: “Do what you love, the money will follow” (but you have to keep looking for it and ASKING for it!). For the singles.
    For the married … tougher, change is tougher … get the resume and look???