The overnight test

January 11, 2019 (1359 words) :: On Linds Reddings' 2012 blog post 'A Short Lesson in Perspective', which reflects on his 30 years in the advertising industry and concludes that it wasn't worth it.
Tags: advertising, career-advice, personal, working-in-tech

This post is day 11 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

A few years ago, I came across a blog post titled A Short Lesson in Perspective. It was a first-person retrospective by Linds Redding, who had worked in the advertising industry for 30 years and subsequently developed cancer (he passed away a few months after writing the post). The titular “overnight test” refers to a common practice in the place where Linds worked, where the fruits of a heated brainstorming session are left to chill overnight so they can be re-evaluated the next day:

It’s remarkable how something that seems either arse-breakingly funny, or cosmically profound in the white heat of it’s inception, can mean absolutely nothing in the cold light of morning.

The central question of the post is: Was it all worth it? Probably the most obvious question to ask yourself when faced with the unyielding prospect of your imminent end. In the post, Linds recounts the ruthless work environment and all the sacrifices he and his colleagues made in the regular course of doing their job:

Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…

This was the con. Convincing myself that there was nowhere I’d rather be was just a coping mechanism. I can see that now. It was’nt really important. Or of any consequence at all really. How could it be. We were just shifting product. Our product, and the clients. Just meeting the quota. Feeding the beast as I called it on my more cynical days.

So was it worth it?

Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling. No ultimate prize. Just a lot of faded, yellowing newsprint, and old video cassettes in an obsolete format I can’t even play any more even if I was interested. Oh yes, and a lot of framed certificates and little gold statuettes. A shit-load of empty Prozac boxes, wine bottles, a lot of grey hair and a tumor of indeterminate dimensions.

It sounds like I’m feeling sorry for myself again. I’m not. It was fun for quite a lot of the time. I was pretty good at it. I met a lot of funny, talented and clever people, got to become an overnight expert in everything from shower-heads to sheep-dip, got to scratch my creative itch on a daily basis, and earned enough money to raise the family which I love, and even see them occasionally.

But what I didn’t do, with the benefit of perspective, is anything of any lasting importance. At least creatively speaking. Economically I probably helped shift some merchandise. Enhanced a few companies bottom lines. Helped make one or two wealthy men a bit wealthier than they already were.

As a life, it all seemed like such a good idea at the time.

But I’m not really sure it passes The Overnight Test.

When I read that post, I was maybe a year into my own startup. It was a time when I was starting to ask myself similar questions: Is this worth it? Would it be worth it? Because I wasn’t sure, anymore.

I had plunged into the startup when I was a world-weary 22, convinced I already knew everything worth knowing. I didn’t think too hard about the moral implications of what our startup would be doing, or why building demographic and psychographic profiles on people using social media data was a good use of my time. I didn’t really care about what we were building - I just wanted to work hard, and prove myself as an engineer.

Prove myself to what end? Who knows. I had soaked up a culture that glorified that sort of work as an end in itself, and I couldn’t even tell you why. I just had to work hard on something that could be valuable (according to what I had absorbed from all the rhetoric around innovation and tech startups). I needed to keep working in pursuit of this hazy, elusive goal of startup “success”, which I was never quite sure how to define, but I figured I’d know it when I saw it.

Even now, it hurts to think about how deeply I had bought into it. It was like a less physically brutal version of the spectacle in the Hunger Games where I was constantly fighting for my life, except I was all alone in the arena. And no one was forcing me to do it, either - the “ruling class” that had constructed this cutthroat death match was in my own head, the result of too much wide-eyed reading of investors’ self-aggrandising blog posts and Ayn Randian bullshit when I was young and impressionable. The drive was all internalised. There didn’t need to be anyone telling me to work harder upon threat of punishment, because I was telling it to myself. Work harder, or you’ll be a failure at 22.

And we pushed each other, too. We had constant co-founder disagreements over not working hard enough when one of us would take a vacation that the others deemed superfluous, or put in less than like 60 hours on a given week. We would take turns being disillusioned, so there was always someone ready to whip the others back into shape.

Until, one day, there wasn’t. Or maybe the motivational speeches were no longer motivating enough. I can’t really remember the exact sequence of events anymore. But there must have been a watershed line at one point - I must have gone to bed one night after a long day of building out a feature that some potential client had vaguely mentioned wanting, only to realise, the next morning, that it’s all just advertising.

Just fucking advertising. What was I doing? Did I even believe in it? It was (maybe) improving efficiency (slightly) in a system that I didn’t even really care about. Or think was worthwhile. Did I actually think there were no real problems that needed to be solved? How had I allowed myself to buy into this system so uncritically?

I remember coming across this one quote somewhere on the Internet a long time ago about this guy who once looked at a solar eclipse without those special glasses, only to go blind; since then, he’s devoted himself to going to schools and warning kids about the dangers of looking at solar eclipses without those special glasses. It was framed as this darkly comic (possibly apocryphal) story, but it does kind of sum up what I’m doing now: writing numerous blog posts about the dangers of solar eclipses.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the mechanics of the system that you’re in, when the rewards are so appealing both materially and ideologically. It becomes a game, one that you’re so invested in winning that you forget it’s just a game - a game whose terms were not set for your benefit. The lucrative prizes for going along with the system become proof of its legitimacy, averting any need to question it.

From the blog post:

[…] I occasionally catch up with my old colleagues and work-mates. They fall over each other to enthusiastically show me the latest project they’re working on. Ask my opinion. Proudly show off their technical prowess (which is not inconsiderable.) I find myself glazing over but politely listen as they brag about who’s had the least sleep and the most takaway food. “I haven’t seen my wife since January, I can’t feel my legs any more and I think I have scurvy but another three weeks and we’ll be done. It’s got to be done by then\ The client’s going on holiday. What do I think?”

What do I think?

I think you’re all fucking mad. Deranged. So disengaged from reality it’s not even funny. It’s a fucking TV commercial. Nobody give a shit.

« See the full list of fragments