Exploiting Self-Improvement
May 15, 2019  --  5 minutes
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I know that myself and the people I talk to aren’t a totally representative sample of 20-somethings in the 2010s, or even close, but at least in a certain kind of millenial (myself and some people I talk to included) I’ve noticed a trend that makes me kind of sad.

Thanks to LinkedIn, GlassDoor, and the subsequently global outreach that a job posting today will have, the nature of getting a “good” job has become highly, highly competitive. I see it a lot in tech, since that’s where I’m currently working, and the high-paying job market means competition is fierce. But, from talking with my consultant sister, it seems the fight to get a consulting job at KPMG, DeLoitte, and so on is just as exhausting, so I know it’s not a theme isolated to just one field – it’s a stress that many of my professional peers are feeling, across the spectrum.

Thus, for the sake of “standing out” to a recruiter or hiring manager, it’s becoming more important (and more common) for people my age to take measures to differentiate themselves. Fancy personal websites, inspiring career updates on LinkedIn, and a litany of “side projects” in the tech world are all examples of personal products that can be fun to make, sometimes, but so often are instead forced.

This in itself seems a little concerning – shouldn’t work be for work, and time at home be for spending time doing things you enjoy with the people you enjoy? Going on hikes, playing a new video game, holding a Super Bowl Sunday party, reading a book with some coffee or wine – I have to guess that at least one of these things sounds like a nice time to the person who’s hunched over their computer at midnight trying to get the DNS for their website working because they want a cute email address (I know since a few years ago that preson was me). But, I can at least see where this is coming from, if the desire to excel in a career is what’s at the top of the totem pole for a person.

However, the part of this that’s truly worrying to me is that this behavior, this “I must be doing something productive to show a potential employer that I’m special” type of thought process, seems to have permeated our entire lives in some cases. The feeling, at least how I’ve felt it, is that the world is so competitive, so unyielding, that any moment we spend on leisure is a moment that the person who’ll eventually get our dream job is practicing C++ (or studying to do better than us on the LSAT, or perfecting their website portfolio of art pieces – you get the idea). In order to not lose ground, then, we must always be in a state of self-improvement.

It can become such a quietly enrapturing way of living that even the little time a person might give themselves for leisure frequently won’t really be spent on leisure. In my opinion, Duolingo is the archetypical example of this. It’s an extremely alluring idea to the person with a self-improvement compulsion: learn a whole language, for free, just by investing a few minutes on the app every day? If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and this is no exception (see the NYT article here that served as some of the inspiration for this post). But, the concept of being productive even in your down-time causes Duolingo to recieve an outsized share of peoples’ attention, that otherwise wouldn’t be held by an app that mostly boils down to answering simple matching questions and whispering into a phone’s mic.

For Duolingo’s part, they have noticed this trend and capitalized on it. With such a large team working on it (almost 500 employees), it’s reasonable to think they’d have noticed by now how hard it is to become conversational in a new language using the app, and taken measures to close that gap in learning. For example, they could introduce more involved listening and/or writing components to the later levels, or have short interludes between the relenetless onslaught of vocabularly multiple-choice questions to explain a grammar nuance that can’t be conveyed otherwise. Standard high-school and college classes have used techniques like these, to great effect, for decades.

But, since Duolingo is a company funded via private investment, the goal of “teaching a new language as well as possible” can never come above the goal of “make money”. And, with that north star in mind, they’ve “gamified” the platform exceptionally well, with level-ups, gems, and unlockables – all mechanisms built to keep the “self-improvement”-compulsed crowd locked in, despite the ineffectiveness of the actual method. Just to me personally, it bears an unfortunate resemblance to companies that take advantage of those addicted to alcohol, nicotine, or shopping – like the QVC network.

Duolingo falls into a larger category, sometimes called “infotainment”, which also can include (from my experience) TED talks, informational YouTube videos, and productivity-focused articles and books. Members of this category, seem to be doing quite well for themseleves by exploiting this unhealthy sense of pressure that so many young people feel. The actual gains from this type of time-passing will, of course, be shallow and short-lived – easy come, easy go. But the disappointment that can come from feeling like you’re spinning your wheels, trying your damndest and getting nowhere, is real and lasting. I feel that, comparatively, there’s limitless emotional value to be found in doing things that “matter” a bit less.

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