Some time ago I was looking through job boards in order to check what kind of knowledge was in demand in the industry. If you stay at one place for a long time, it’s easy to have outdated ideas about the world since you are used to approaching things in one specific way; the way your company does things. If you have ever tried to propose improvements to a widely used operating procedure and you were met with a “but we have always done it this way,” you know exactly what I am talking about.
Judging from the job boards alone, it looked like the companies are much more open to full time remote work from anywhere in the world compared to a couple of years ago. Large software companies are international anyway, and if technological improvements allow us to not be present in a specific place at a specific time, it would be silly to not enjoy in benefits of progress.
I was surprised to notice, however, that a lot of these remote companies insist on frequent in-person get-togethers 1. The idea behind meeting in person and spending a lot of time together is to get people to let their guards down. Usually this happens due to people slipping bits of personal information within the conversation and with time that turns them into a relatable person instead of a stranger.
Becoming familiar with your coworkers, however, should not be reserved only for in person get-togethers. Old school management likes to babble about this great invention called an office as the only way to have the information spread, but the information can go around in a remote fashion just as well. If people have coffee and gossip in the office for hours, why can’t they have coffee and gossip online? It’s the same set of people, it’s the same coffee and the same kind of gossip, but somehow remote calls only happen when they are strictly related to work.
Some will argue that by working remotely, one could schedule their own hours and since you don’t know when they are going to work, it’s better to keep the interaction at minimum just to avoid disturbing them. If the team is highly dispersed, the time difference might also be such that your hangover is their party time, therefore meetings and other synchronization points are best to be avoided.
But there are plenty of teams that work together in similar time zones and they still don’t use that to their advantage. The only reason I could imagine to explain this phenomenon is the ol' protestant work ethic: one shouldn’t intentionally “waste” company’s time and when it comes to making a decision between increasing the personal satisfaction of your workers or the company profits, you know what is going to be decided. Spending the same amount of time chatting at the corporate water-cooler, however, is usually encouraged as it is seen as a necessary part of work.
To avoid the issue of employing a bunch of strangers, the international companies like to organize yearly events which employees are supposed to attend. I’ve seen enough of them to form an opinion about that, but to put it bluntly let’s just say they are not very effective. If you meet someone for the first time and you don’t work with them on a daily basis, you are just not going to develop any meaningful connection especially not if this bonding activity is some kind of a ridiculous corporate treasure hunt. They will forget your name, by the time you move on to a new activity. Programmers, in general, are also not little bundles of joy who enjoy socializing and meeting new people. If they were, I doubt they would pick a job that consists of silently staring into a monitor all day long and cursing.
I am sure there are some employees out there who enjoy these kinds of corporate get-togethers, because I met plenty of people who were obsessed with traveling to foreign countries, discovering new cultures and people. I am not one of them since traveling has always been a giant hassle for me.
What? Ah, nonsense! How can traveling be a hassle, when it’s a favorite pastime activity of so many people? To answer this question, let us first list the kind of problems that traveling to another country or continent might bring:
Check if your passport is still valid. Oh, no it’s expired or almost expired, now let’s find out how to order a new one. The last time I made it was more than a decade ago, and I am sure the process has degraded in the meantime. I need a new picture for the document? Oh that reminded me that it’s been a while since I had my last haircut, so I will have to deal with that first if I don’t want to look like a hobo for the next decade while my passport is valid.
Find out about any local country laws: should I cover my ankles? Am I supposed to get vaccinated for some local disease that I am not even aware of? Where do I find this info? I found a travel blog from 2013 stating I should do X, but is that still valid? Can I find a government page that is more up to date? I found a page that has no date and a bunch of links are no longer working. What do I do now, call the clerk? Find their office and demand an explanation? Should I call an embassy instead?
What kind of papers am I supposed to sign, to have my healthcare insurance cover accidents in the foreign country? I don’t know why signing extra papers is necessary, as I don’t have to pay anything extra due to everything already being covered with my health insurance, but that’s the way it is. The bureaucracy of the 21st century never ceases to amaze me.
Figure out if the country or city that I am going to is safe to travel to. Can I use public transport and walk around the town in the evening, or do I risk being robbed in the best case and stabbed in a dark alley in the worst? Depending on how safe the country that you currently live in, you may or may not even think about this kind of a problem.
Is the country using their own currency? How much money should I take with me? Should I change it right now or should I change the money there due to better exchange rates? Should I go strictly with cash, or do I trust in the power of credit cards and expect that everything will work just fine; will they accept my credit card everywhere I go? If someone steals my wallet, how am I going to navigate in a city with no money, close friends or knowledge of the city layout? Obviously you can ask a random person on the street (if they can understand you), or prepare in advance and study the map or test your GPS before you go somewhere, but it’s definitely not as convenient as walking around in your hometown.
How am I going to get there? Do I go with a car, bus, train or a plane? When should I reserve the tickets? How much is it going to cost me? How do I get to the place of the onboarding? Taxi? Bus? Someone will drive me there? What do I do, if I miss my transport due to whatever issues that may happen on the road? What should I do if my luggage gets lost on the way?
Where am I supposed to sleep? Probably in some hotel that’s not too expensive and is near the place where I need to be. It should probably also be close to some kind of public transport so I can go around if needed. What kind of public transport is there? Can I purchase a weekly tourist ticket that covers any kind of transport or am I supposed to buy it separately depending on the transport?
What am I going to eat there? I probably don’t want to be bound to a hotel’s schedule, because that restricts my freedom. Will I live off sandwiches from the nearest store? Will I go to a restaurant? Which one and how much does that cost? Can I even afford eating at a restaurant?
What kind of languages do they speak in the country I am traveling to? For example, if you are going to Italy you better learn the basics of their language for you will have a hard time finding someone speaking English or any other language really. While the situation is getting better, due to younger generations being more open to learning foreign languages, a few decades will pass before you will be able to stop a random person on the street and ask them for directions 2.
What’s the weather like during this time of the year? Hot, cold, rainy or all of the above? Do I need an umbrella or a straw-hat to avoid the sun? Should I pack an extra jacket just in case? What about those pants I haven’t put on in the past decade and which hardly fit me? I guess they’ll still be fine as the 5th pair in case something unexpected happens.
And finally what am I going to do there? If you are traveling for work related reasons, you will probably spend most of the day working. In the evening coworkers might invite you for a few drinks or show you around the town so you won’t have much free time to worry about existential problems. If you are traveling for your own entertainment, however, you will have to find activities on your own in order to pass the day.
You may grab a travel guide, which will advise you to check out the old part of town. If watching old buildings, town halls, monuments of unknown local heroes and observing old churches is your thing then you can certainly do that. Altogether I find sightseeing old, new or any other parts of town as exciting as watching the paint dry.
Besides, do you know all the corners of the town you currently live in? Every time I ask a bragging traveler, the answer is always negative. If you don’t know your immediate surroundings that well, why don’t you explore that first? You may find out it’s equally interesting as visiting a foreign city.
What about crashing a local dive bar? While it’s definitely more entertaining than checking out the trees of a foreign cemetery, you could already do that at home as you will find a similar type of people sitting there. Each bar acquires its own set of “furniture” that is always there sharing their wisdom regardless of time, day or audience. Past a certain age, however, listening to the drunk know-it-alls and getting wasted loses its allure.
You can go to a museum or an art gallery and learn more about whatever the museum or an art gallery is about. Although that could be a fun afternoon, there are just not that many interesting museums out there, therefore you are still left with most of your vacation days to spend.
“What about meeting new people and making friends?” Do you know how to be a friend? When was the last time you talked with your old friends? It’s been a while hasn’t it? “But they moved to a different city…” As if that mattered in a constantly connected world in which you can watch a live stream of random nonsense from all over the world at any time you want.
“But there is a local flea market and a gigantic bookstore that you have to check out.” Sure, but I have enough dusty old things at home and no pressing need to acquire another one for the shelves are full and I have more books than I have time to read. Have you read all of your books? The unbroken spine of The Art of Computer Programming on your shelf says otherwise.
“Oh, but the local cuisine! You have no idea how great the food was when I visited, spins wheel, Nicaragua.” Well, our taste is accustomed to the food of the country that we live in, which means that 9 times out of 10 I won’t like something that tastes drastically different. For example, the majority of Europeans think that the sweet American bread tastes disgusting. It could be baked by the world’s best baker and we still wouldn’t like it, since our every-day bread is not sweet.
There’s a story about a well traveled man who, when asked by the host to provide an opinion about the food he was served, answered that he hated it. “But how can you hate something that you haven’t even tried?” asked the host. “If the food is bad I will hate it because I hate bad food, and if the food is good I will hate it because I am leaving the town tonight and I will never taste it again.” The same goes for tasting foreign cuisine; even if it’s good, you are still leaving.
“I am just going some place far and wide in order to find my purpose.” The keys that you have lost in your backyard won’t appear on the top of the highest mountain, so why are you searching for them there? When the source of your troubles comes from within, you have to change yourself, not the environment since the problems you are trying to leave behind will eagerly await upon your return anyway.
“But, you can’t innovate if you don’t know what people around the world are doing.” If we lived in the Victorian age, during which the information traveled with the speed and distance of a horse, then this would be a sensible argument. With the advent of the internet, however, there is more information available than we can process it. According to one Nature article, scientists are spending a substantial portion of their day just going through the cruft that was published yesterday and apparently yearn for “curators of content” 3. If anything, we live in the age of information overload and by Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of it is useless crap. On the other hand, there were people who left a mark on this world without going very far. Immanuel Kant, for instance, never left his hometown and yet kids still learn about him in schools 4.
From the following analysis, I think it’s safe to say that traveling is merely a short term distraction and a great invention for people who are bored of their monotonous life. From my experience at least, the ones who are likely to be bored in their spare time are usually the ones that don’t have any hobbies or other obligations.
If we now imagine an average day of an actively employed person, it may go like this: they might go to work, spend an hour or more stuck in traffic, do some errands at home and try to relax in the evening. If they are older they might parent kids, watch TV or read the news and be concerned about the world’s politics; if younger, they might scroll social media, watch movies or play computer games. What’s common to both generations, however, is that the vast majority will spend their free time pursuing non-creative activities.
Part of this problem comes from their demanding jobs. As Bertrand Russel already mentioned in his famous essay In Praise of Idleness, if people worked less they would have more energy to be creative. This would in turn keep their brain entertained and as such there wouldn’t be any need to break the monotony of life, since life wouldn’t be monotonous at all; it would all be one exciting adventure.
Nevertheless, once actively employed people find themselves with a large chunk of free time, say a week long vacation or early retirement, they end up having no ideas how to spend it. Their day to day life used to be consumed by either job or family, but without cultivating non-work related skills they find themselves bored. Travel is one way to prevent boredom, because it fills their day with “exciting” new adventures. Woes to their friends and family members who will, in the first minute of silence upon visiting, be presented with photographs and albums of memories full of people and places they don’t know or have any interest in learning more about.
Sometimes people wonder how I can sit and write dumb little programs in my free time when I am already doing that for work. People who don’t like their jobs have an especially hard time grasping the concept that your work could be enjoyable. The answer to their pondering, however, is quite simple: “There are lots of interesting problems out there to crack and play with.” One day, I was sitting in the summer feeling the sweat dripping down my back and I wondered why am I much less eager to do anything in comparison to the winter time. It’s because of the heat, isn’t it?
Probably, but is that true across the world? Are countries with harsher winters more innovative than countries with mild winters, because people are forced to stay inside? One way to check for this would be to compare the number of Nobel Prize laureates per each country. Of course, it’s not just the climate that affects the productivity of people: the bigger the population size the more likely it is to raise an exceptional scientist due to a chance alone, rich countries will probably lobby and end up acquiring promising researchers from poorer countries and so on. But one lead is better than none and exploring this idea might uncover something interesting.
The hardest part of any data analysis project is to get the relevant data. While I wasn’t able to find the necessary climate data, I found a great data set about the Nobel Prize laureates and their publications. There are lots of questions you could ask yourself when being presented with such data. How old are the laureates? Where are they coming from? Which continent produced the most laureates? Are they frequently moving to another country for work? From which country they emigrated the most? What’s the reason for that? Are richer universities more successful in obtaining Nobel laureates? Is it getting harder to discover new things in science? How do we determine that the discovery of new things is getting harder? Are they living longer than the rest of the population? Why would that be? Who was the laureate that uttered the famous zinger: “If I have seen further than others, it is because I didn’t have my face glued to the freaking phone all the time?”
All sorts of wonderful questions to which I had no answer. You can try searching the web for them, but I wasn’t able to find anything remotely as comprehensive, thus I had to roll up my sleeves and made the Nobel Prize in numbers visualization. It took me almost a month of evenings to gather the necessary data, clean it, fix the obvious mistakes and compile it into something presentable. None of that would be possible if I had planes to catch or hotels to find.
But why wasting time on this thing? Who is going to read it? A few is enough for me, so is one, and so is none. It satisfied my curiosity and there is pleasure in finding things out which beats vacationing in foreign places, lying on beaches or observing the interiors of musty old churches.
If you want to achieve anything great in your field of interest, you need the time to think deeply about the subject. Although there are many historical figures who could be referred to in support of this argument, my favorite example would be Isaac Newton. During the plague years of 1665-1667 he was forced to stay at home, go nowhere and do nothing. In mere two years of “leisure” he laid down the foundations of calculus, extended earlier insights into an essay “Of Colours,” examined the elements of circular motion and laid down a foundation for the law of universal gravitation 5. Had he frittered away his time by leisure traveling, he would have discovered plenty of findings, but found no real discovery.
If the company seems interesting, but the traveling requirement sounds unappealing, you can apply for a job just fine, because exceptions are always made for those who are good at their job. I used to work with the guy who I only met in person after being with a company for 3 years. This miracle happened only because his boss nagged him so much and after that I didn’t see him again in the office for another year or so. While we were allowed to work from home, that was a bit extreme even for serial “work from homers.” ↩︎
I am not a native English speaker who would promote it just to avoid having to learn another language, but if we want to communicate with one another then we will simply have to speak a common language. In the 21st century that language happens to be English. ↩︎
Whether the work of a philosopher is as hard and important as the work of, say, cancer researcher is up to you to decide. ↩︎