4 ways to send & receive far fewer emails (review of Cal Newport’s A World Without Email)

A world without email seems like an impossible, beautiful dream.

But a world with far fewer emails?

That’s doable and Cal Newport knows the way. The Georgetown University computer science professor has spent five years studying how email affects us at work.

To no one’s surprise, it’s not a pretty picture. Research shows email makes us less productive and more miserable. On average, we’re checking our inboxes every six minutes. It’s tough to get important work done when we’re constantly distracted and interrupted. Email is not a job but sending and receiving messages are eating up whatever time we have left between Zoom meetings.  

“We know email is a better way to deliver messages that the technologies it superseded: it’s universal, it’s fast, it’s essentially free,” says Newport, author of A World Without Email. “At the same time, however, we’re fed up with our inboxes, which seem to be as much a source of stress and overwork as they are a productivity boon. These dual reactions – admiration and detestation – are confusing and leave many knowledge workers in a state of frustrated resignation.”

Here are four ways to tame our inboxes and free up time to actually do our jobs.

Limit emails to five sentences or less. Stick to short questions, answers and updates. If you want a conversation, pick up the phone, go on Zoom or walk down the hall. “Always keeping emails short is a simple rule but the effect can be profound,” says Newport. “Once you no longer think of email as a general purpose tool for talking about anything at any time its stranglehold on your attention will diminish.”

Create shared email accounts for departments and projects rather than individual accounts for people. “By eliminating this connection between email and people, you will, with one grand gesture, destabilize everyone’s expectations about how communication should unfold, making it much easier for you to rebuild these expectations from scratch with a protocol that makes more sense.”

To eliminate all those “just checking in to see where we’re at” emails, hold 15-minute scrums with your team. Meet daily or every other day and have everyone answer three questions. What did I get done since our last meeting? Have I run into any obstacles? What will I do before our next scrum?

“These short meetings can significantly reduce ad hoc email or instant message interaction throughout the day, as everyone synchronizes during the regular gathering,” says Newport. “It is surprising how much overwhelming, attention-fracturing back-and-forth interaction can be compressed into a frequent schedule of very short check-ins.”

And finally, borrow from emergency rooms and introduce a tracking board. Put the board up on a wall or get an online version. Write tasks on cards, including who’s responsible for getting the job done. Then stack the cards under three columns: to do, doing and done. Hold regular meetings to review and update your tracking board. Digital task boards will let you store messages directly on the cards, eliminating the need for email.

“If you’re one of the many millions exhausted by your inbox, hopeful that there must be a better way to do good work in a culture currently obsessed by constant connectivity, then it’s time to open your eyes.” Newport shows us a world where we can curb constant digital distractions and regain the cognitive bandwidth to do important work by putting some thought into how we communicate with each other. “I’ve come to believe it’s not only possible, but actually inevitable and my goal with this book is to provide a blueprint for the coming revolution.”

Sign me up.

This review first ran in the April 10 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as the communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Serve up community in your post-pandemic lunch room (review of The Lonely Century)

Putting communal tables in your lunchroom may be your best post-pandemic recruitment and retention strategy.

To fill those tables, encourage everyone to break for lunch. Discourage us introverts from always eating “al desko.”  Introduce dig-in potlucks and occasionally splurge on ordering in a meal. Keep smartphones out of the lunchroom so we look up, look around and strike up conversations with our coworkers. And make cleaning the lunchroom a shared responsibility. If you’re the leader, volunteer for the first week of cleaning duty. 

“Eating together is one of the easiest ways of building a greater sense of community and team spirit in the workplace,” says Noreena Hertz, academic, thought leader and author of The Lonely Century. “So as companies seek to rebuild a sense of community and help their staff to reconnect after months of forced distancing, reinstituting a formal lunch break – ideally at a set time – and encouraging workers to eat together should form part of their strategy.”

This is especially important if you’re looking to hire and hold on to 20-somethings. Hertz says this demographic, despite all their friends and followers on social media, is among the loneliest in society and the group most craving connection and community. More than half of Gen Zs in the workforce report feeling emotionally distant from their colleagues.

The rest of us aren’t faring much better. Forty per cent of office workers worldwide say they feel lonely. In the US, nearly one in five people don’t have a single friend at work,

According to Hertz, there was a loneliness epidemic long before the pandemic hit. And there’s a good chance our social recession will continue when the pandemic’s behind us thanks to advances in technology.

Hertz isn’t optimistic the booming loneliness economy will save us. That economy includes everything from RentAFriend and increasingly lifelike social robots to mukbang – the practice of watching someone eat on-screen while you eat alone at home.

We’re also commercializing community, even though it’s something you make rather than buy or have done for you. Yet community’s increasingly packaged and sold like a product. “If you can’t pay enough, you are not invited in. There is a real danger that community becomes something increasingly accessible only to the privileged. That loneliness becomes a disease that only the wealthy have a chance to cure.”

Hertz recommends we reinvest in public spaces that bring everyone together while also rolling back taxes and offering incentives to pro-community enterprises, like neighbourhood bookstores and cafes that are getting pummeled by online retailers

We also need to reconnect capitalism with care and compassion, says Hertz. A self-obsessed and self-seeking form of hustle harder bootstrap capitalism has “normalized indifference, made a virtue out of selfishness and diminished the importance of compassion and care. Forty years of neoliberal capitalism has, at best, marginalized values such as solidarity, community, togetherness and kindness.”

So now’s a good time to add kindness to your organization’s list of core values. And during your communal lunches, take a few minutes to recognize and reward colleagues for their small, but hugely important, acts of community-building and loneliness-busting kindness.

In a post-pandemic world with rampant loneliness and isolation, it’ll be the friendly, kind and caring organizations that have a definite competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining good people.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

How to avoid a climate disaster (review)

My mom put gas in her car for the first time since November and she doesn’t drive a hybrid.

The pandemic’s parked cars and planes the world over. Many of us have spent the past year working from home and we’ve gone nowhere beyond the grocery store. Yet it’s estimated that greenhouse gas emissions have only dropped by around five per cent during our global lockdown.

Here’s our collective problem. To save our kids and grandkids from a climate catastrophe, experts say we need a permanent 100 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And we need to get to zero while keeping the economy firing on all cylinders and pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. 

“What’s remarkable to me is not how much emissions went down because of the pandemic but how little,” writes Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates in his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. “This small decline in emissions is proof that we cannot get to zero emissions simply or even mostly by flying and driving less.

“Just as we needed new tests, treatments and vaccines for the novel coronavirus, we need new tools for fighting climate change: zero-carbon ways to produce electricity, make things, grow food, keep our buildings cool and warm and move people and goods around the world.”

We’re currently pumping around 46 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Nearly a third of those emissions come from making things like steel, concrete and plastic. Generating electricity accounts for 27 per cent. Growing crops and raising livestock represent 19 per cent. Getting around by planes, trucks, ships and cars add 16 per cent. And the remaining 7 per cent comes from heating and cooling homes and buildings.

“If a genie offered me one wish, a simple breakthrough in just one activity that drives climate change, I’d pick making electricity,” says Gates. In the absence of a genie, we’ll need a combination of affordable, zero-carbon renewable energy sources to replace the coal, oil and natural gas that currently generates most of our electricity.

Finding alternatives to the 15 billion litres of gas we consume each and every day and eliminating 46 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will be wickedly hard to pull off.

“We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar,” says Gates. “To do it, we need lots of breakthroughs in science and engineering. We need to build a consensus that doesn’t exist and create public policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise. We need the energy system to stop doing all the things we don’t like and keep doing all the things we do like – in other words, to change completely and also stay the same.”

Yet Gates remains optimistic that we’ll find our way to zero. He says we can avoid disaster by fully deploying the technologies we already have and creating breakthrough innovations that’ll take us the rest of the way. He’s confident enough citizens, scientists, engineers, business leaders and politicians will rise to the challenge and put up a sustained full-court press.

Gates acknowledges that “the world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do or who think technology can fix any problem”.  Yet Gates has put forward a practical and accessible plan that he’s personally backing with a sizeable chunck of his $130 billion net worth.    

“We should spend the next decade focusing on the technologies, policies and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050. It’s hard to think of a better response to a miserable 2020 then spending the next 10 years dedicating ourselves to this ambitious goal.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Rediscovering our sense of humour at work (review of Humor, Seriously)

I used to have a sense of humour.

In university, I drew a daily cartoon strip for the student paper about a sorority sister and fraternity brother. Profs taped the strip to their office doors. A candidate for student council president promised to ban the strip if elected. He lost.

Early in my career, I put out fake newsletters. These were the early days of PowerPoint presentations, the high water mark for management consultants and the peak of re-engineering the corporation. The zingers wrote themselves. The head of HR thought the union had put out the first newsletter. Lucky for me, he had a sense of humour.

But somewhere along the way, I lost mine and fell off the humour cliff. I can go days without cracking a smile. Weeks without a laugh. I’m not that much fun to be around.

“The collective loss of our sense of humor is a serious problem afflicting people and organizations globally,” say professor Jennifer Aaker and executive coach Naomi Bagdonas, authors of Humor, Seriously. “We’re all going over the humor cliff together, tumbling down into the abyss of solemnity below.”

Aaker and Bagdonas, who teach a humour course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, know the way back up humour mountain. It’s a climb that’ll restore some much needed levity to balance out the gravity of our situations at work and home.  

“We don’t need more ‘professionalism’ in our workplaces,” say Aaker and Bagdonas. “Instead, we need more of ourselves, and more human connection – especially as in-person meetings are replaced by video chats and more relationships are sustained entirely by email. Often, all it takes is a hint of levity to shift a moment, or a relationship, from transactional and robotic to relational and authentic.”

Humour serves up a cocktail of hormones that can make us happier, more trusting and productive, less stressed and even euphoric.

Aaker and Bagdonas have identified four humor styles. While we all have a default mode, our humour styles vary based on our moods, situation and audience.

There are stand-ups who come alive in front of crowds, earnest and honest sweethearts who never tease, magnets with their unwavering good cheer and the edgy, sarcastic snipers with their dry sense of humour and deadpan delivery (take a free quiz to figure out your humour style).

As with everything else, leaders set the tone when it comes to humour at work. It’s less about being funny and more about letting your team know you actually have a sense of humour. Be quick to smile, laugh at other people’s jokes, lean into self-deprecating humour and continually look for ways to break the tension and lighten the mood.

Solemnity can seem like the safer bet. No one gets cancelled for being humourless. Yet you can be funny and stay employed by following two cardinal rules. Never punch down by making fun of someone who’s lower on the org chart. For example, a president who makes fun of an intern is a bully and a jerk.

And never make someone’s identity a prop, plot point or punchline.  “Derogatory humor doesn’t just push boundaries or highlight divisions. It can perpetuate prejudice and impact behavior by those with prejudiced views. It further divides.”

Aaker and Bagdonas close their book with a compelling argument for more levity and humor. No one on their death bed says “if only I had laughed less and taken myself more seriously.”

Sharing a laugh is a tiny expression of love, say Aaker and Bagdonas. “Where there is love, humor is not far behind.  A life of purpose and meaning is a life filled with laughter and levity.”

It’s time we get out of the abyss of solemnity and start scaling humour mountain with Aaker and Bagdonas as our sherpas.

This review first ran in the Feb. 26 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.     

Stop sharing and cut to the chase (review of Joel Schwartzberg’s Get to the Point!)

Sharing is caring unless you’re sharing a few thoughts.

And then it’s exhausting for us and a wasted opportunity for you.

Buried in your thoughts may well be an idea that’ll make our world a better place.  But we’re not waiting around to hear about your big idea if you can’t cut to the chase.

“Effective communication hinges on one job and one job only: moving your point from your head to your audiences,” says Joel Schwartzberg, author of Get to the Point: Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter.

“That’s the ball game. If you deliver your point, you succeed. If you don’t deliver your point, you fail – even if you’re otherwise hilarious, friendly, attractive, relatable, admirable, knowledgeable and likable.”

If you struggle to get your ideas into other people’s heads, you likely suffer from a fatal yet fixable flaw. “It’s a flaw that contributes directly to nervousness, rambling and, ultimately, epic failure, and most speakers have no idea that this flaw is ruining their presentations,” says Schwartzberg.  “They don’t have a point. They have what they think is a point, but it’s actually something much less. Without a point, everything you say is pointless.”

Schwartzberg says we lose audiences when we confuse a point with a theme, topic, title, catchphrase or half-baked idea. “None of these are actual points. A point is a contention you can propose, argue, defend, illustrate and prove. A point makes clear its value and its purpose. And to maximize its impact, a point should be sold, not just shared or described.”

To help find your point and sharpen your message, Schwartzberg has a three-step test.

Start by tacking “I believe that” to the front end of your point. Do you have a complete sentence that makes sense?

The “so what” test saves you from peddling weak and self-evident truisms that’ll bore your audience. “You can tell if your point is too shallow or a truism by asking two questions,” says Schwartzberg. “Is there a reasonable counterpoint? Can I spend more than a minute defending this point?”

And the “why” test purges your point of meaningless and lazy words, or what Schwartzberg calls badjectives. “These are generic adjectives that only add dead weight to your point. When we say something is ‘great’ or ‘very good’, there’s little indication of scale, reason or specific meaning. Yet speeches and written reports – and more than a few tweets – are often loaded with badjectives.”  So instead of saying something’s important, tell us why it matters and why we should care.

Now more than ever, we need to be kind to our colleagues by cutting to the chase in our presentations, conversations, meetings, emails and voicemails. All of us are running on fumes 11 months into the pandemic. And none of us have the patience or mental bandwidth to hop on a slow train taking the scenic route to nowhere. So if you truly care, please don’t share. Just get to the point and stick the landing.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. This review first ran in the Feb. 13 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

What’s luck got to do with it? Pretty much everything (review of Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit)

Three things have yet to happen as I hit the 28-year mark in my career.

I’ve never been laid off, fired or had a daily commute beyond 20 minutes.

What’s been the secret to my success?

Dumb luck and good fortune.

I’ve been blessed with patient bosses who’ve believed in second and third chances. I’ve worked with kind colleagues who’ve had my back and shown me the ropes. And when it’s been time to move on, a local employer always posted a job that somehow matched my skills and experience.

Around the same time I started on this 28-year run of good luck, Michael Sandel noticed a trend among the students he taught at Harvard.

“Beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present, more and more of my students seem drawn to the conviction that their success is their own doing, a product of their effort, something they have earned,” says Sandel, author of The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good. “Among the students I teach, this meritocratic faith has intensified.”

That faith is a problem because it leads to both hubris and humiliation.  The winners in a meritocracy fool themselves into believing they deserve the good life. They’ve earned their pay, perks, performance bonuses, golden handshakes and the right to fly off and lay on a beach during a pandemic.

“Meritocratic hubris reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way,” says Sandel. “It is the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too.”

So we don’t lose sleep over growing income inequality and widening gaps between winners and losers. We’re not outraged when we hear that Canada’s 100 highest-paid CEOs made 202 times what the average worker earned in 2019. If anything, we’re a little envious and hopeful that, with the same drive and determination, we too will get a fair shot at grabbing the brass ring.

“The notion that your fate is in your hands, that ‘you can make it if you try,’ is a double-edged sword, inspiring in one way but invidious in another. It congratulates the winners but denigrates the losers, even in their own eyes. For those who can’t find work or make ends meet, it is hard to escape the demoralizing thought that their failure is their own doing, that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed.”

The end result is an abandonment of the common good. The smug winners in a meritocracy are indifferent to those who are struggling. The demoralized losers are grow resentful of elites and throw their support behind populist leaders.

So what’s our solution? Sandel says we need to start appreciating the dignity of essential frontline workers in places like hospitals, long-term care homes and grocery stores. If these workers left their posts to join senior executives on the beach, we’d all be in serious trouble. Yet in a meritocracy, there’s rampant credentialism. We’re told that the only way to realize our full and true potential is by earning a degree or diploma. This diminishes both the value of work that doesn’t require a credential and worth of the people doing these jobs.

We also need to rediscover a much-needed sense of humility. It’s time we remember how to count our blessings.

“A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility. Such humility is the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond a tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.  

“Why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due,” says Sandel.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Ditch the presentation & have a conversation (review of Eric Bergman’s One Bucket at a Time)

There’s only one good reason to bring us together for a meeting on Zoom or in a room.

Walking us through PowerPoint decks isn’t it.

“The only reason for bringing people together, whether in person or remotely, is to listen to someone share something of value,” says Eric Bergman, presentation skills coach and author of One Bucket at a Time.

“The secret to success is simple,” says Bergman. “Bring meaningful content. Deliver that content in a memorable way. If you do, you significantly increase your chances of informing, educating, influencing or persuading anyone.”

PowerPoint makes it hard to share something of value in a memorable way for two reasons.

We can’t listen to you and read your slides at the same time. Ask us to both and we’ll do neither.  During virtual meetings, we’ll mute our mics, turn off our cameras, minimize our Zoom screens and beg off because of conveniently unstable internet connections. When we finally return to meeting rooms, we’ll revert to our pre-pandemic habit of staring at our phones or off into space.

PowerPoint also makes it easy to bury audiences in ideas and information. But we can’t absorb more than one idea at a time. Run us through 60 bullet-ridden and chart-stuffed slides in 45 minutes and you’ll overload our short-term working memory. Nothing will transfer over and stick in our long-term memory. You’ll tell us everything but we’ll remember nothing.

So if you have something worth sharing, try saying it without PowerPoint. It’ll be a leap of faith but trust that we’ll love you for it, remember what you say and act on what you tell us.

“Without slides, there can be a presentation,” says Bergman. “Without a presenter, there is no presentation. Successful presenters understand this. They know that capitalizing on how people listen is the key to their success – to having their ideas understood, absorbed, remembered and acted upon.”

Successful companies also get it.  At LinkedIn, a document formatted in PowerPoint’s landscape mode goes out at least 24 hours before a meeting. There’s no discussion until everyone’s read the document. “Slides are never presented to the group. Instead the focus in on discussion, a process that distinctly separates the written word from the spoken.”

Amazon’s eliminated slideware presentations altogether.  Meetings start with everyone reading a six-page memos written with complete sentences and paragraphs rather than bullet points. “The six-page memo provides a deep context of what’s going to be discussed. When everyone is ready, discussion begins. Questions are asked and answered. A decision is made.” Ditching PowerPoint doesn’t seem to be holding Amazon back.

Converting presentations into structured conversations requires you to welcome questions from start to finish. Never force audiences to sit in silence until you’ve finished talking.

“The simplest way to breathe life into modern presentations is to create an equal, engaging partnership with the audience by encouraging and answering their questions,” says Bergman. “Give them a chance to probe your ideas. The simple exercise of them asking questions helps cement those ideas into part of who they are. When that happens, they’ll be applying those ideas long after you and they have left the room.”

Answering questions clearly and concisely is a skill that can be learned. “Whenever an answer extends for more than 10 words, you’re making assumptions about what’s important to whoever asked the question. If all answers extend beyond 20 seconds, don’t be surprised if they simply quit asking.”

Many of us are closing in on our first anniversary of working from home. One way to combat Zoom fatigue is to have a little less information and a little more conversation in 2021. Bergman can help make that happen.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Your male colleague says something sexist? It’s your two-second litmus test moment (review of Good Guys)

I failed the test but I’ll be ready for the next one.

I was in a meeting with a manager who kept mentioning “his girls”. He wasn’t talking about his preteen daughters. He was referring to his colleagues around the boardroom table.  

I shot the women a sympathetic look but didn’t call out the manager. I was still new on the job and stunned by this unexpected throwback to the 1950s. I admit that was a pretty thin excuse for staying silent.

Men saying sexist and stupid things serve up what David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson call litmus test moments. These are the moments when the women we work with decide whether we’re an ally or a bystander. And we have no more than two seconds to pick a side.

So what should we say?

The authors of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace recommend a single word.

“Just say ‘ouch!’. The beauty of the ouch intervention is that it buys you a few extra seconds to formulate a coherent way to communicate what landed the wrong way with you.

“So, after you tell everyone in the meeting or within earshot in the workplace that something just happened that wasn’t okay, you’ve now got time to formulate your follow-up elaboration.”

You can elaborate by saying the comment or quip wasn’t cool, it was way out of line and not something we say or do around here.

You can ask your colleague if he really just said what you thought you heard. Did he actually mean it? Did he think he was being funny, clever, ironic or endearing?

“Going against your gender tribe’s long-standing bro code to promote an equitable and inclusive workplace is where the cost of allyship quickly gets real,” acknowledge Smith and Johnson.

They believe public confrontation’s warranted if your male colleague is a malignant and serial misogynist, is young enough to know better, has been unapologetic about past misbehavior or has said something so egregious or offensive that it demands an immediate rebuke.

For a clueless colleague who doesn’t check these boxes, follow up your “ouch” with a private conversation. 

The women we work with don’t need to be rescued. They’re not looking for a savior. They just want us to be better allies.

“Allies emphasize humility and gender partnership – men and women working together in complementary roles – to create and support inclusive workplaces.”

It’s not enough to be an ally in private. Men need to speak up and advocate for gender equality, especially when women aren’t in the room.

“Speaking out isn’t easy,” admit Smith and Johnson. “But becoming a partner and ally to women is a crucial element of helping them reach equity in the workplace. If you think you’re doing enough, you’re probably not. Push further.”

The authors offer 60 practical strategies for interpersonal, public and systemic allyship.

We’ve all had the privilege of working and living with wicked smart and strong women.  As colleagues, husbands and dads, we need to be more than just good guys. Gender inequality is not a women’s issue. It’s a leadership issue and it’s a fight we need to loudly join as all-in allies.

This review first ran in the Dec. 26 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.  

Millennials were burning out long before COVID hit (review of Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even)

Good on bosses who end Zoom calls by reminding us not to sacrifice our health and wellbeing during the pandemic.

But our millennial colleagues could use more than reminders. They’ve been wrestling with burnout long before COVID-19 knocked the world off its axis.

And while our leaders’ intentions are good, what ails millennials can’t be fixed by shortening hour-long Zoom calls to 50 minutes, keeping Fridays free of meetings, going for midday walks and not hitting send on emails written in the dead of night after their kids have finally gone to bed.

“The fallout from the next few years won’t change millennials’ relationship to burnout or the precarity that fuels it,” says Anne Helen Petersen, former senior culture writer for Buzzfeed News and author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. “If anything, it will become even more ingrained in our generational identify.”

This is the generation that graduated in and around the Great Recession buried in record amounts of student debt. Good jobs disappeared as fast as housing costs soared. They took unpaid internships for the experience and strung together contract, temp and freelance gigs that paid barely living wages. If they landed full-time jobs with benefits and pensions, they were terrified of losing their golden ticket at any moment. To make themselves indispensable, they adopted an unsustainable ethic of overwork.

Yet no matter how many hours they logged and how little they slept, the traditional milestones of adulthood – marriage, home ownership and kids – were priced beyond their reach. These markers were delayed or dropped. And just as millennials reached their peak earning years, the pandemic hit.

Overwork plus chronic anxiety mixed with student debts, childcare bills and mortgages that no honest woman or man can pay add up to burnout.

Petersen calls burnout a contemporary condition and not a temporary affliction for millennials. She defines burnout as “the sensation of dull exhaustion that, even with sleep and vacation, never really leaves. It’s the knowledge that you’re just barely keeping your head above water, and even the slightest shift – a sickness, a busted car, a broker water heater – could sink you and your family. It’s the flattening of your life into one never-ending to-do list, and the feeling that you’ve optimized yourself into a work robot that happens to have bodily functions, which you do your very best to ignore. It’s the feeling that your mind has turned to ash.”

Burnout is a condition that can’t be cured with life hacks, side hustles, productivity apps, positive thoughts or gentle reminders.

“This isn’t a personal problem. It’s a societal one.  We gravitate toward those personal cures because they seem tenable, and promise that our lives can be recentered and regrounded, with just a bit more discipline, a new app, a better email organization strategy or a new approach to meal planning. But these are merely Band-Aids on an open wound. No amount of hustle or sleeplessness can permanently bend a broken system to your benefit.”

Petersen doesn’t offer quick fixes. She wrote her book to show what’s broken rather than to tell millennials how to save themselves from burning out. There’s value in letting millennials know burnout isn’t a personal moral failure and they’re not alone in their juggling and struggling with work and family commitments. It’s equally important to let us Gen Xers and Baby Boomers know just how close our 30-something colleagues are to collapse and how ready they are for sweeping, substantive changes.  The pandemic’s put the spotlight on a problem that we’ve ignored or downplayed for too long.

“Millennials have been denigrated and mischaracterized, blamed for struggling in situations that set us up to fail,” says Petersen.

“But if we have the endurance and aptitude and wherewithal to work ourselves this deeply into the ground, we also have the strength to fight. We have little savings and less stability. Our anger is barely contained. We’re a pile of ashes smoldering, a bad memory of our best selves. Underestimate us at your peril. We have so little left to lose.”

Jay Robb is a Gen Xer who serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

The epic rise & spectacular fall of WeWork & Adam Neumann (review)

Today’s overworked, underpaid and unappreciated employee is tomorrow’s confidential source for a reporter.

And disgruntled workers will happily talk as it all goes wrong for leaders lacking in hubris.

In writing about the rise and fall of shared office renter WeWork, journalist Reeves Wiedeman did more than 200 interviews over 18 months with employees at all levels and from every department. Senior executives, landlords, investors, bankers, lawyers and advisors also chimed in.

What they told Wiedeman for his book Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork makes the company’s botched $47 billion initial public offering and the sacking of co-founder Adam Neumann seem inevitable. This was a company and leader who weren’t exactly diligent at managing their nickels.

Take WeWork’s annual summer camps, which Vanity Fair once described as “a lavish bacchanalia” and “a sort of corporate retreat-meets-Coachella for the Silicon Valley set.”

In 2018, WeWork flew 6,000 employees to Eridge Park south of London. Deepak Chopra delivered a keynote. Lorde and Bastille performed concerts. Employees camped out in tents and slept on air mattresses.

Neumann, his wife and kids flew in on WeWork’s brand-new $60 million Gulfstream jet. To furnish and stock their campsite compound, Neumann sent his event team a shopping list that ran to three-and-a-half pages which Wiedeman reprinted in his book. Along with a “tent house suite via Raj Style” and an RV, Neumann ordered three air conditioning units, two fridges, a king-size bed, four twin-size beds, a coffee table plus a 24/7 security guard, two drivers and two bartenders. The bar included two bottles of Highland Park 30-year-old single-malt Scotch retailing at $1,000 each plus all the ingredients for making Bellinis, mimosas and white wine sangria.

In between sets by new age gurus and pop stars, Neumann and his wife took to the stage and talked about going beyond renting coworking spaces to finding homes for every orphan. “If we do the work right, we could wake up one day and say ‘we want to solve the problem of children without parents in this world’ – and do it, within two years,” Neumann said. “And from there we can go to world hunger. There’s so many topics that we can take one by one, and we will be able to tackle anything that we set our minds to.”

Not everyone was sold on Neumann’s plans to save the world. “For many longtime employees, the close of Summer Camp 2018 felt like the end of an era,” says Wiedeman. “The event had grown so large that it lost much of its charm, and many employees wished the company would just give them a week off to rest and spend the money it poured into Summer Camp on giving them all a $2,000 bonus instead.”

At its peak, WeWork had almost 10,000 employees. By the end of 2018, half the workforce had been with the company less than 6 months. “Many employees began to see WeWork less as a company than a cult. Adam’s preaching attracted a constant influx of fresh devotees who kept the machine running.”

But the machine stalled out when private investors quit throwing billion-dollar lifelines at WeWork. With a growing mountain of debt, Neumann had no choice but to take his company public. Wiedeman says prospective investors were shocked by what they discovered in WeWork’s filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

On his way out the door, Neumann negotiated a billion dollar severance package. That deal fell through when SoftBank, a Japanese conglomerate and WeWork’s largest investor, abandoned its $3 billion buyout of existing shareholders. Neumann has since sued Softbank, accusing it of breaching a contract.

Like John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, Wiedeman’s equally excellent book begs the question how smart people make stupid bets on false prophets. Along with a COVID-19 vaccine, we need an inoculation against the reality distortion fields thrown up by charismatic, cult-like founders with messiah complexes.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.