Diva culture

There are work cultures in which the cult of early does not apply. These are cultures in which people claim that the main thing is what you actually do, and praise attaches to being “really good at what you do” rather than to presenteeism.

Have these work cultures stripped away the bullshit to encourage real, objectively measured productivity, or do they just have their own flavour of bullshit? I’m sure you can guess my answer.

The template for these cultures is the entertainment industry, where your morning lie-in is justified because you’re bringing crowds a little piece of magic in the evenings. It’s a culture of working late, playing late and sleeping late, and that’s just rock ‘n’ roll, man.

Fine, but the coercion to fit a pattern is just as powerful as it is in the corporate world. You’re expected to party after the gig, to stay up until the early hours whether you want to or not. “Phoning it in” – that is, doing your work adequately but in an uninspired way – is considered bad, so you need to think of ways to remain constantly inspired, enthused, full of magic, full of yourself. No wonder so many people in the industry take drugs. And if you’re a bona fide star, you’re expected to make outlandish demands for your rider. People are disappointed if you don’t ask for puppies and kittens, or a thousand brown M&Ms.

It’s not a culture of doing the work and giving the audience what they want. It’s a culture of creating a myth and working as hard as you can to maintain that myth, at the cost of your own mental health as well as inconvenience to others. You have to be very strong to resist it.

Geek culture is partly modelled on this. We talk about “rock star programmers” for a reason. You don’t have to be an early bird – hooray! – but you are expected to get in late, work late and thoroughly muddle the boundaries between work and play by working in your free time and mucking about on Reddit (or whatever) during work time.

I’m currently working in this kind of environment (though not as a programmer). I’m usually the first to arrive, despite having one of the longest commutes. That’s fine by me because there are no smug early birds to say “Good of you to finally grace us with your presence” or the like. The only downside is occasionally having to wait outside for someone to let me into the building.

But it is a work culture like any other, and there are expectations. You don’t have to wear a suit – hooray! – but you are expected to dress and behave in a certain way. When I’ve gone into these environments before in my “err on the side of smart” clothes, people take the mickey and ask why I’m wearing what I’m wearing.

One of the people I currently work with is a young man who has seriously bought into the “rock star programmer” myth, perhaps without even realising it. He turns up at some point after 10am and then immediately goes for coffee, because geek culture is so much about coffee. He has special programming music to listen to when he’s “in the zone”. He dances at his desk and sings along. (A deaf person would assume he was singing very loudly, but actually no sound comes out of his mouth.) He always stays late and every now and then he pulls an all-nighter. This is part of being a rock star programmer, but also part of the cult of sleeplessness. “I stayed up all night because I am a diva creator; I am more than a corporate drone. I stayed up all night because this is how rock star programmers roll.

Then everybody in the office talks about him admiringly, telling each other about the all-nighter he pulled, reinforcing the diva-culture myth that staying up all night to do something is more praiseworthy and heroic than just getting it done in the daytime.

I think I may have to repeat myself. Again.

There is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. Whether you are “good” or “bad”, hard-working or lazy, is not about your circadian rhythms. It is about who you are and what you do.

Pulling an all-nighter may mess up your sleep patterns so you feel more tired than you would if you’d done the same work in the day time. It may therefore incur a higher mental “cost” per hour of work. This does not in itself make the work more valuable. The work is more valuable if the work is more valuable.

In other words: geek work culture is just another work culture with its own rules to follow and its own myths about what our choice of working hours means.

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One Comment on “Diva culture”

  1. […] about Mariah Carey. And, as I’ve written before, maintaining a “diva” narrative means you kind of have to ask for a load of weird stuff, even if maybe you don’t want or need […]

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