A 2-volume collection of essays about independent consulting and life in the “gig economy” by Venkatesh Rao.
In Rao’s own words:
For those of you who have no idea what this is about, between 2019-21 I wrote a limited-run Substack newsletter on the indie consulting life and the gig economy. About 2/3 of the newsletter issues were non-fiction essays. These are compiled into the two volumes above. All the essays have been carefully edited, updated, grouped into hopefully useful sections, and sequenced. The material flows surprisingly smoothly, if I do say so myself. The images and diagrams have been up-res’d, updated, and in some cases, entirely redrawn for the books. As the subtitles suggest, Volume 1 establishes some foundational ideas, and Volume 2 builds on those foundations. Both volumes are at a roughly intermediate level of sophistication, and should be accessible to anyone with at least a year or two of work experience. If you’re in the gig economy, are considering diving into it, or have been unceremoniously tossed into it by layoffs and such, I suspect these volumes might be useful to you. They should also be valuable to recent graduates thinking about alternatives to traditional career paths, though I suspect the material will be harder to grok without at least a little work experience under your belt.
About these notes:
These aren’t really notes. They are sparse Kindle highlights but occasionally I highlight an entire essay for future reference since they didn’t necessarily have their own blog post.
What I think of Rao:
Rao is one of my favorite active non-fiction writers.
- I am a subscriber to his Ribbonfarm Substack.
- This interview he did is one of my favorite podcast episodes ever.
- This is his own reading list including his all-time reads.
- He’s a master of the turn of phrase. Few writers weave arcane pop culture metaphors into complex topics…and even fewer hard science PhD’s can write like this.
Highlights from The Art of Gig, Volume 1: Foundations
- Appreciative worldviews, which are at the heart of guru factors, emerging via accumulation of appreciative knowledge, a term due to urbanist John Friedman, who defines it in his book Planning in the Public Domain as follows: The social validation of knowledge through mastery of the world puts the stress on manipulative knowledge. But knowledge can also serve another purpose, which is the construction of satisfying images of the world. Such knowledge, which is pursued primarily for the worldview that it opens up, may be called appreciative knowledge. Contemplation and creation of symbolic forms continue to be pursued as ways of knowing about the world, but because they are not immediately useful, they are not validated socially and are treated as merely private concerns or entertainment. Friedman uses the term manipulative knowledge in opposition to appreciative, but he doesn’t mean manipulative in a Machiavellian sense. He simply means knowledge of how to actually do things to drive change in the world, accumulated by actually trying to do those things. [reminds me of the difference between telic and atelic activities]
- About 90% of your effectiveness as a sparring partner derives from the depth of your appreciative worldview, developed and expressed through critical reading, writing, podcasts, and talks. Only about 10% depends on your in-session sparring skills. In this, sparring skill is similar to negotiation skill. In negotiations, 90% of success depends on the preparation you do before you sit down at the negotiation table. Only about 10% depends on your negotiation skill.
- In live-fire situations, letting your mind wander to metacognitive concerns is often a sign of an even deeper weakness. It is a displacement activity triggered by fear or anxiety, rather than actual philosophical curiosity about meta-concerns. This sort of person does not turn into a good coach, because they typically exit the live game with too much insecurity to serve as effective foils to better players . There is, however, one activity which allows you to safely let a significant portion of your attention wander to the margins of instrumental activity. This is of course sparring.
- The good news is, if you’re a guru of something, it isn’t a box that contains and confines you. That’s a price you pay for the rewards of punditry. To be a guru of something is to look at the world through that thing rather than being put in a box defined by that thing. There are no restrictions on what you’re allowed to look at. The thing you’re a guru of is merely the appreciative perspective on the world people associate with you. In other words, if people want to learn about X, they go looking for a pundit of X. If they want to see some aspect of the world through X, they go looking for a guru of X.
Highlights from The Art of Gig, Volume 2: Superstructures
- What both have in common is that they accept as a given the central role of imitation in the producer-consumer divided lifestyle model. Work and life as competitions fueled by imitation, signaling, and envy. To win is to have others want to be like you, but without beating you. The great allure of the prosumer way is to break out of the straitjacket of a lifestyle unnaturally divided into production and consumption aspects, each driven by its own patterns of imitation and competitive signaling. This is why going free agent feels synonymous with getting out of the rat race, even if you actually work a lot harder. Done right, it can be a lot more fun and a lot less rat-racey, while actually being more impactful than being the Joneses. The first step is gaining radical control over your time. Everything else follows naturally. So what might a prosumer version of the today/ten-years line be? While imitation is still a big piece of the puzzle (witness the huge subculture of Tim Ferriss emulators living in Asia)