The Salary as a Silent Killer

Research from Bernard Nijstad (University of Amsterdam) divided 12 people into two groups. Six worked together to brainstorm on a topic while the other six worked individually. He found that people who worked alone almost always came up with more good ideas – even though all 12 initially agreed that a group experience would be more productive. In Wrong, David H. Freedman quotes Nijstad: “When you’re alone, it’s painfully clear when you’re not producing, but in a group you can just sit there and not notice you’re not contributing.”

Let’s extend this finding to the modern work life. When you earn a salary from a boring job, you can exist without noticing that you’re not doing anything meaningful with your life. Existing without a salary makes inaction, incompetence and a lack of meaning much more obvious. A boring job with a good salary that someone does not enjoy is a form of chronic stress. Worse, over time the stress disguises itself as a fact of life, as if it’s somehow unavoidable.

Let’s generalize. Small chronic pain (boring job, marriage, arthritis) is much much worse than acute pain (e.g., getting fired/laid off, divorced, broken arm). Humans seem to recover from those in the latter category much faster and are better off in the long run. More, experience in the latter category makes you automatically not-boring. I recently interacted with a friend who had been laid off. She was very disappointed, but I reminded her that this was good news in disguise. “New York is filled with boring people who have nothing exciting to talk about” I said. “I think part of me dies whenever I hear someone say that they work “in finance” or “in publishing.” If I meet someone at a bar who said “I just got laid off” I would immediately engage them – even better if they said “I just got fired.”

A dose of isolation, failure or loss is necessary every so often–the longer one goes without encountering a bout of extreme but acute harm the more vulnerable he is. You are only as strong as the worst adversity you’ve encountered and overcome.

From NN Taleb:

Anything deemed bad for you is, well, good when infrequent and in small quantities.

From the idea of the “S-family” dose response with a convex section it flows *necessarily* that anything deemed harmful that you are exposed to 1) in small enough quantities, 2) in a non-recurring, not chronic exposure, and, 3) in an acute, short lived way (“one off”), *no matter how toxic* it is deemed to be in long term consumption, will eventually either leave you better off or at least no worse off than before. This means that sugar, smoking, pollution, medication, the New York Times, etc. have to leave you not worse off under the condition that your exposure is episodic, not chronic. (Beware the “small”: some things like heroin or an MBA class can leave you permanently altered after a single exposure at doses that do appear small but are not).

Implication: The modern mantra “everything in moderation” did not enter our lexicon by chance. It is a response to abundance. In our species relatively short history, Hobbes audit of human nature was correct most of the time—disease and violence were common. However, with ample resources, “surviving” the day-to-day trenches of life is about making it through the workday—not avoiding physical danger. With more time on our hands abundance is our new enemy, hence our turn to moderation.

Moderation is less wise than we think, however. Consider how we eat. A hallmark of the modern diet is three meals a day. It is generally a good idea to consume food three times a day, but an emerging science of nutrition suggests that intermittent fasting—skipping a meal once a week for instance—is beneficial for the body.

Likewise, jogging is one of the most overrated activities around. It burns calories and improves the cardio system, yes, but short sprints (or ‘interval training’) are much more effective in terms of becoming stronger. Weight lifting is the same. Reps with a manageable amount of weight are nearly useless (again, in terms of building strength). When we push our muscles to their limits, the body overcompensates, which in turn gives us the strength to lift 5 more pounds the next time around.

In sum, moderation prevents us from experiencing worst-case-scenarios, which often leads to Lucreatian underestimation (i.e., believing that the tallest mountain you’ve ever seen in person is the tallest mountain in the world). Imagine how parsimonious one would be if his salary was randomly distributed throughout the year.

The mind benefits from the highs and the lows (i.e., non-fatal extremes). The middle is deceptively dangerous.


“All things in moderation” is not only a modern mantra. Publius Terentius (c. 190-195 BC) wrote “Moderation in all things (not anything in excess).” Source

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