December 10, 2009 — 39 Comments

When I read this, I am stuck by the extraordinary lengths that someone will go to avoid ordinary work. I see a young man congratulating himself for exploiting other people’s labor. Economically efficient, sure. Laudatory? Hardly. Consider the irony in protecting the “value” of your time while you brag about how cheaply it can be replaced.

The same goes for most of you auto-responders, automators, travelers and remote workers. How much pride you take in skirting the effort of everyday life. How elaborate the systems you’ve designed to facilitate it. I’m impressed, recently, to see that this force was enough to propel two friends in a boat around the world. Literally.

I think the same when I read this. Now, I know Charlie and he is a great person (Jeff too). He does not, however, have a career. In no way is that a failure, but it is important to look at these things honestly. What he has done is manage to land a series of internships and freelance work that show incredible potential. He’s young (like myself), ambitious and promising. But then again, this is what we should expect from intelligent, affluent, white college graduates.

What is it, then, that motivates us to be so quick to the trigger? Quick to reflect and congratulate ourselves? To wave the all-clear to those behind us when we are only in waist-deep? I’m not sure. All I know is that when I look back and find myself guilty of it I feel ashamed and disappointed. I am discouraged further when I see it incentivized by attention and emulation.

Let’s be frank: life is defined by how much you do, how often you took the difficult road and were rewarded for it. It is not, and will never be, improved by how much you avoid and scheme and congratulate.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

39 responses to Self-Congratulation

  1. I’ve noticed the same thing. My theory is that a dose of narcissism that’s been injected into our culture drives a lot of this behavior. Whatever the cause, it also seems to manifest itself in Everyone’s-An-Expert Syndrome, where any idiot with a keyboard and a blog writes authoritatively about things he barely understands. Anyone else have any thoughts on what is causing all of this?

  2. “Let’s be frank: life is defined by how much you do, how often you took the difficult road and were rewarded for it. It is not, and will never be, improved by how much you avoid and scheme and congratulate.”

    Life is defined by survival and most people in the world are just trying to get enough food and water for tomorrow. I think the innovative and creativeness of these slackers can be mixed with the grind of hard work to reach the best rewards of achievement. Because of technology our society is creating massive amounts of new wealth and a lot of young innovative people are trying to get their hands on it. Almost everyone in first world countries are guilty of exploiting third world labour buying clothing, food, coffee or electronics that were made by extremely poor wage slaves in horrible working conditions.

    Accomplishing meaningful things in life can be very hard. We often make the false assumption that working hard alone will give us big rewards and make us happy and waste a lot of our lives chasing things like money and fame or careers we don’t want. On the flip side it is usually a lot of work to develop health, relationships and careers/work that matter to us.

    There are also a lot of mixed messages coming from things like “4 Hour work week” or people like Steve Pavlina that say we are suckers working our normal jobs even though these guys are workaholic entrepreneurs. We live in such privileged countries that we are used to everything being handed to us for the first 20 years of our lives and then we realize it is our responsibility to get what we want through hard work and it is difficult to change 20 years of lazy habits.

    However everyone is responsible for their own life and those that know the value of hard work when necessary and when to delegate another task to someone else will be the most successful.

    I’ve kinda been all over the board on this one but this post does raise a lot of interesting discussion points. So I’ll just end with two quotes this topic reminds me of.

    “A man who chops his own wood warms himself twice”

    “And I took the road less traveled and that made all the difference”

  3. a successful life life is defined by individual value scales. if an person is able to minimize the attention they pay to mundane tasks in effort to spend that saved time on more fullfilling endeavors (based on each individuals value scale), all the power to them. i’d prefer this to a corporate automaton that subjects himself to the daily grind in a futile attempt to show “real” work ethic.

  4. Exactly.

    “What is it, then, that motivates us to be so quick to the trigger? Quick to reflect and congratulate ourselves?”

    In my humble opinion, I think that it is because you jump at the first opportunity that appears. Rudius Media is one hell of an alluring first opportunity. Keep working.

  5. Two thoughts on what motivates self-congratulation:

    1) Accolades are cheap, and have become cheaper. Schools, pop culture reward more people for less achievement. Boosting people’s esteem for short-term efforts instead of rewarding tangible achievement (results), that generally come from sustained hard work. We imitate those who have rewarded and congratulated us for short-term achievement, cutting out the middle man.

    2) Arrogance, or more correctly, lack of humility. A trait sometimes more common in youth, though not limited to the young. Lack of humility about our accomplishments or knowledge lead us to spew our advice like the mountaintop sage, when we’ve barely broken base camp. Humility grants the ability to be right-sized about our achievements and knowledge relative to what more there is to do.

  6. If you are just trying to figure out what to do with your life it’s probably wise to seek out mentors. You had Tucker as a mentor so I don’t see why you are criticizing Charlie for having a few more.

  7. I agree with what Sean Estey said. People, generally speaking, are motivated by incentive – what’s in it for me.

    I would add that having a worthwhile fulfilled life is also about sharing. I don’t really give a damn about the “mom and dad paid for college” white kids. With a cushy life like that they have no excuse for failure. I do care about those who work for all they have, especially the $10 an hour guy/gal who manage with what they have. These are the people I can help, leaving a nice tip for the waitress/waiter for example.

  8. What? This is ridiculous.

    It’s not replacing your time cheaply, it’s freeing up your time to do more valuable things with it. If you aren’t, that’s a different story.

    Do you make your own clothes? Grow your own food? Make your own soap and other toiletries? Make your own paper and ink? Why not? Why are you taking the easy way out?

    I don’t work remotely to skirt the effort of every day life. I work remotely to avoid the interruptions that prevent me from doing my best, most effective work. I work remotely to spend more time with my family.

    You seem to want to define life using metrics that others set for you. That’s not my approach.

  9. I criticized Charlie for having too many mentors?

  10. And btw, Eric, the reason you’re able to work remotely and pay almost nothing to get others to cover it is because your time is worthless. When you can justify employees who make a decent living in an non-exploitative setting because you actually create and generate even greater value for a company I’ll be impressed.

  11. If doing A earns me $X/hr (and earns my company more), and time I spend away from doing A earns me zero or less than $X, why would I want to spend time not doing A? Why would my company want me doing anything but A?

    Exploitative? If I’m paying someone some minor fraction of $X to allow me to do more of A, and they consider that a good deal, is that exploitative? We’re not talking about slavery here. Simple supply and demand.

    If working as a virtual assistant allows someone elsewhere to (a) earn more than they would with their next best option, and (b) allows them to work remotely as well, is that suddenly evil? Or does it just make me lazy?

    Now money aside. If I get to see my kid grow up, why wouldn’t I specifically want to work remotely rather than go *someplace* to work? If being a virtual assistant allows someone to do the same, and makes them happy, why is that a bad thing?

    My *time* is not cheaply replaced. Certain of my *activities* are cheaply replaced. You might have a point in some cases, e.g. I don’t make my own shoes because it’s not worth the massive investment of time to learn how just to have an inferior product, but it’s not right that some 10-year-old is making $0.30/day to make my shoes.

    However, it’s not correct to say that every hour of my day has the same value, so cheaply replacing some of those hours indicates that they are all now lessened.

    Life isn’t (only) defined by how much you do. It’s also defined by what you do, and the quality of what you do. Don’t try to sell me on some crap that there is some sort of honor in working 20 hours a day on difficult but meaningless activities. Smarter, not harder.

  12. Tell what it is us that you do….

  13. “And btw, Eric, the reason you’re able to work remotely and pay almost nothing to get others to cover it is because your time is worthless. When you can justify employees who make a decent living in an non-exploitative setting because you actually create and generate even greater value for a company I’ll be impressed.” – Ryan

    Would you criticize Tim Ferris for using “virtual” assistants?

  14. I’d like to see Charlie respond to this – not react to it, but respond in a way that perhaps can take the conversation further. Hopefully this will result in you guys helping each other (and your readers), and not turn into a discussion over what constitutes a career proper.

  15. I guess congratulation by others is ok though?

    You’re concise, precise, and at the same time so often really profound.

    Really enjoying reading your blog 🙂

  16. For starters Tim is a successful adult who owns (owned) a company with multiple employees. There’s a important different between that and 20 years who pontificate about how they ruthlessly protect their time – meanwhile have entry level positions and play xbox all weekend. Second, when I call Tim he picks up the phone and when he calls me, I pick up mine – like normal people do.

  17. Life is not defined by quantifiable success or the accolades you recieve for taking the hard road. If you define your life this way, I feel sorry for you as you lead a vapid exisistence that leads down a path of self-destruction.

    Life is defined by the quest down the road you choose, be it the difficult or the easy way. Where you end up does not matter, it’s all about how you get there.

  18. I hope you realize that your metaphor, aside from generally being dumb, does not follow.

  19. I hope you realize you intoduced the “dumb” metaphor in the closing paragraph of your post.

    It means that you are successful if you are content with the fate that has been bestowed upon you. Beggars and CEOs alike can enjoy happiness and, in that, success.

    Of course the vain world around us will contend that affluence equals success, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Show me a rich man that is truely happy and I’ll show ten rich drunks that are running away from the monsters they have become.

  20. Chad, that’s pretty insightful and definitely matches some of my observations. Are there any sources you know of that discuss these things in more detail?

  21. Ryan,

    First of all, I want you to know I am not hating on you at all. Your blog is one of the few I like.

    I’m one of those twenty-somethings that has the means to have a “virtual”-“exploitative” assistant, but doesn’t.

    I’m just saying, what’s the difference, really? Is the original dude being exploitative by having the assistant?

  22. I took his point as this: even in accomplishing something, we shouldn’t stop looking at how we got there or where we are in a critical way. I don’t know if having one of these “aids” is in and of itself a real problem, but bragging to others about how easy your life is because of it is condescending and obnoxious, and just because it’s economically efficient doesn’t mean it’s right or that we should automatically heap praise on these so-called efforts.

  23. Out sourcing work because you have too much is what makes the world go around. Sure that doesn’t make it okay to be lazy. But better the rich lazy person pay someone who is will to work and earn money.

    As for self congratulation, no one likes a show off. But what is the motivation to do good work, if not to appreciate your own skill.

  24. The more I read this blog, the more I begin to think that there are quite a few people trying to be Ryan Holiday and failing miserably at it. Good post.

  25. I read the offending post and it was pretty tepid. Some guy got a VA and is thrilled about it. I’m not sure what is so offensive about it. If someone is happy to be employed as a VA, I’m not sure where the exploitation comes in. God knows, I would’ve been pretty happy with that job compared to some of the shit jobs I had in college. To be honest, I think the offense you take with that post says more about you than about him.

  26. Ryan, did you write those last two sentences in your post intending to convince your readers that your definition and philosophy of life is the only one worthwhile and that anything else is worthless, or were you just sharing your thoughts for whatever they were worth to us? I would hope for the latter, but some of your comments suggest the former. If you define your life by how hard you work regardless of all else, that’s cool if it works for you. I recognize the value of hard work too, but working hard is by no means the all-inclusive simple recipe for a worthwhile existence, and I can only hope that is not what you meant.

  27. Janus – be serious. What are the alternatives to what I discussed? That life is about how little you do? How much you can pawn off on others and avoid taking responsibility for? That the key is to find the maximum balance of status and credit that requires the least amount of effort?

    This isn’t an argument man.

  28. How a person defines, or should define, his life is inherently a subjective matter. Given that, I disagree: it can be argued until the end of time with no real conclusion, because there is no all-inclusive objective answer to that question. You’re a smart guy, but it does concern me that you seem to think that your answer to that question is the only one, period. Of course I’m not suggesting that life is about how well you can skate out of responsibilities; that would be the opposite extreme. Your argument seems to suggest that a person who grates his own cheese is somehow better than a person who lets the deli guy do it for him, and I would argue that it isn’t that simple.

    I recognize that you value hard work and responsibility because it allows us to learn more and grow as people. I agree with that. My concern is that you seem to be trying to turn that into a moral argument; like someone who delegates non-crucial tasks like scheduling appointments is somehow ethically a worse person than someone who does it all himself.

  29. Okay, after considering it, you’re probably right.

    Tim has proven he is successful, the 20-something probably has more time than he knows what to do with.

    Anyway, do you consider virtual assistants as exploiting people? Even when someone like Tim uses them?

  30. No, there is nothing particularly wrong with virtual assistants. I just think there is something sketchy about acting like hiring an Indian MBA at $4 an hour is the right thing to do.

    Sometimes it works given the circumstances – like you need help but not full-time 40 hr a week week help. Sometimes it looks like petty, indulgent white privilege wrapped in some bullshit Steve Pavlina speak.

  31. So I had some free time a couple days ago and went through the BC blog posts.

    Trunk is a malevolent transferrer of blame. I give her some credit for attempting to be honest about things in her recent posts, but her “honest” is a truly scary litany of “it’s not my fault, or when it is, it’s the Asperger’s or people needing to be patient with me”.

    Freaked me out enough. I’m done. All I can learn from that anti-example, I’ve learned.

  32. Cool, I agree with that.

    Since it’s on the subject, do you have an assistant still? What responsibilities did/do you delegate?

  33. I guess I’m confused. How can you make a post like that and then end it with a rigid definition of what life is?

    Don’t you think that offering such a definition qualifies as waving the all-clear to those behind you? Don’t you think that much of what you write is the same?

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, although you seem to. It’s called leading. If you feel those leaders are on a misguided quest, so what? Just concentrate on your quest, and if you’re right in your judgment you’ll be able to look back and either laugh at them or offer to help (or both).

  34. Are there any sources you know of that discuss these things in more detail?

    Posted by: Sean Estey at December 11, 2009 06:32 PM


    Nothing that immediately comes to mind–more observations over the last 15 years. Certainly humility is regular theme in the Meditations. Humility is not about bringing yourself down, necessarily. From the Stoic sense, I see it as an ability to correctly see one’s place in things, which helps lead to a more dispassionate ability to observe realize. See things as they are, not as we wish them to be. See yourself as you are, not as you wish or delude yourself to be.

    On another thought regarding the theme of Ryan’s critique and ending meme–why should we leave well enough alone. If we see BS, hubris, wrong thinking or acting, then why not call it what it is? Too many folks are just given a pass, because people are too complacent or too polite to speak out. Danger certainly lurks in calling things or people out to boost your own status or esteem–haven’t seen that in the writing here in general or in this post. We cannot get better if all those who see wrong thought/action stay silent and only concentrate on our own quest.

  35. thanks, for that wonderful post.

  36. Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something. – Robert Heinlein

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. 9 Tips for Effective Self-Directed Learning | UnCollege - March 30, 2013

    […] likely to achieve them. While feedback and accountability on what you’re doing is invaluable, congratulating yourself for things that you haven’t even accomplished is dangerous.  Be aware of when you’re doing […]

  2. 9 rad pro účinné sebevzdělávání | Mít vše - June 11, 2014

    […] jejich dosažení. Zatímco zpětná vazba a odpovědnost k tomu, co děláte, je neocenitelná. Gratulace sobě sama ve věcech, které ještě nejsou uskutečněné, je nebezpečná. Pokud tohle někdy děláte, […]