Linus Tech Tips and “The Meritocracy Trap”

In some cases, it can be good to have a mental breakdown. It highlights clearly to yourself that the methods of living your life were unsustainable and that a collection of minor changes, or perhaps one major change, needed to happen in order to set the break and have it heal correctly.

Still, it hurts to watch.

Especially when it is in a very public way. Especially when it concerns someone who has only revealed a certain side of his or her life.

I love Linus and his tech tips. His inflections, his kind and nerdy face, his lean body type. But much more than simply his looks, he is able to convey value in tech like no one else. It is the tone of his voice as he is able to emphasize key insights and problems with tech helps to flatten overly joyous expectations, and to elicit surprise whenever something finally good comes around.

But watching his breakdown video about his considerations for retirement is hard to watch.

If you don’t want to, I can sum it up here: he has spent years doing great work to build a company and a following, and as he has approached 10 million subscribers, he has been through several watershed moments in a short amount of time that has altered the way he has thought about his company. He apparently had a heated reaction to a coworker pushing the “gotta get new subscribers” card hard. He balked at the consumerist waste of the tech industry, discussing his own personality as a run-it-until-it-dies kind of person. He has children, and his wife has continued to be patient for him, wondering when he is going to lay off the work and spend more time raising them, and each time he has created stop-gaps. “I’ll take a break when my first child is born,” he said. “I’ll relax more when we reach 10 million subscribers,” he said. Yet still here he is, pushing harder than ever. He also had a harrowing moment where he was able to provide a donation and a personal video for a child with leukemia under the Make a Wish Foundation, and he saw his own children in this boy’s outline. Finally, the ridiculousness of the tech industry, which finds faults in the smallest of updates or products, when to Linus there are much bigger problems in the world to get upset about, caused him to rethink the merits of what he has built.

That’s a lot to take in.

The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds ...

As I have been reading The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits, I could see the two cases come together. Linus is clearly suffering from a combination of burnout and demoralization, both of which are encountered by the elite. Amazon managers crying at their desks, elite high school students in Palo Alto committing suicide and suffering from acute depression and anxiety, and the constant measuring of time provided by lawyers and business executives. From cradle to grave, we have a new overworked class, and ironically it is not the poor. It is the rich.

Linus has spent years building a brand that is reliable, rigorous, entertaining, and engaging. But rather than sitting back and enjoying the fruits of his labor, he’s having to push harder and harder to stay on the top now that he has finally made it. It is his labor, not his wealth, that brings in the reputation, that keeps him where he is at. It is called Linus tech tips after all. The powerful thesis that Markovits brings to the reader is that no one is safe in the ideas of meritocracy. The poor are washed out and do not have the social mobility to scale up the ivory tower, while the elite must painfully abandon their passions and instead garner enough tunnel vision to make it through their lives providing value with their “superordinate” work that they can replicate and pass on to their families.

This trap circulates itself in education. Just look at the amount of money spent and how wide it is based on property taxes and local funding. Finland has few to none private schools and fund equally across the country, leading to a desire to increase educational quality in all categories. For the United States, we seem to enjoy having better schools than others for meritocracy reasons, but the truth is that our schools reinforce a static system. On the other hand, students in richer districts have sacrificed their childhoods to productivity, working 3 to 5 hours each night on homework as elementary and middle school students.

Seeing Linus have his meltdown is concerning but also not surprising in light of my reading on the subject. When Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Ray Dalio, some of the wealthiest people to come out of this economic system, talk about post-capitalism, you know something is up. Many higher level businessman and lawyers state that they would turn down promotions if it required more time from them. Something has got to give, and it’s clear that there is nothing left for elites to give in time spent working.

I sincerely hope that Linus finds his way back to authenticity, though even he himself laments at the end of the video that he will likely continue to do what he does. How can he not? What put him at where he is happens to be based on an inertia he likely cannot stop. And now it is not just his family relying on him. He has employees relying on him.

In the time of coronavirus, these exaggerations of pain on all classes will likely continue. Restaurant closures, filing for unemployment, falling life expectancy rates not just due to illness, but derision and depression and drug addiction. We’re living on borrowed time now. When will the American elite forego their self-imposed prisons and come back to the rest of us and share in a future that does not leave us so demoralized? When will enough be enough?

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