(While I am trying to work on a few more serious posts on neurosciences conference, law of value and natural sciences, here is smg I wrote long time ago, while I was thinking of mundane problems of organising time, deadlines, pressure put by the academia…)

According to all job descriptions from different sectors I read recently, the ideal candidate to fit the job perfectly should have an ‘ability to work under pressure and strict deadlines’. Correct me if I am wrong, but this should be rather a recent phenomenon: The tailor and carpenter needed to ‘take his time’ in order to create the perfect costume and chair rather than meeting the deadline put by the customer. The most appreciated feature of a secretary or any administrative worker was integrity and attention to details in a company rather than coping with pressure and anxiety, which would probably not add to a healthy and viable working environment and thus to the very benefit of the company itself. I will not deny how time at work was used as a labour discipline as E. P. Thompson showed to us, in the history of capitalism but I do not think that internalization of temporal coercion was considered to be such an important ability at all. Control over one’s work was always partly lost to the supervisor, but the anxiety and stress-related diseases show that you even no longer need any supervisor to control you, since the perfect controller of your own body became yourself: You feel that you are incompetent or a failure if you can not meet the deadlines, i.e. if you do not possess this ‘ability to work under pressure’, so you push yourself even more.  

Some extent of anxiety is good, say psychologists, but only if motivates us do better and exploit fully our potentials. Sometimes, when we are so much into what we are doing, we tend to forget working hours; we definitely put pressure on ourselves. Everybody knows that when an event is organized, for instance, until the last minute there are things to do in a hectic way until the actual happening of the event becomes a source of satisfaction and a reward. But here lies the secret: Pressure works well when it is temporary, not permanent; when it brings adrenaline rather than stress; when it is transformed into joy by human agency rather than exerted by some strict supervision. My flatmate looks so tired when he comes back from his job around 6 pm but is so energetic when he comes at 12 pm in the evening after his band practice.

My flatmate may not like his job but what happens to those lucky ones who do the jobs they like? Work conditions can transform the best jobs into nightmare: My sister who is a talented architect in her mid twenties, with an excellent CV, a master degree and good work experience can not find a job nowadays simply because in all her interviews she says that she refuses to work until late every day. She openly says to the recruitment panels that not only her health collapses due to intensity of work, which she does not want, but she also finds this counter-productive in terms of creativity and imagination. My sister simply refuses one of the golden rules of global capitalism, flexibility and the price she pays is unemployment. Apparently not all young architects are willing to rebel as my sister does since there is almost a ‘reserve army’ of architects and engineers ready to take any jobs.

But why did this ability to work under pressure become even more important than any other ability in personnel recruitments? The lowest grade administrative reception job would ask it, waitress jobs would ask it, big companies such as Norman Foster and partners ask it. And of course this is not their fault. Take Foster, for example. He taught us to love the high-tech architecture because our taxes were spent on the construction and then fixing of Millennium Bridge (because apparently it was not high-tech enough) rather than some social housing. I loved his idea of citizens watching over the City council in Berlin parliament and City Hall in London – after all nothing could be more honestly designed to remind us that we can participate to democracy only formally and symbolically, by ‘watching’, rather than invading the public places and pushing the doors. Brilliant thought. And the reason why bosses such as Foster humbly expect the ability to work under pressure from their workers is simply because they are themselves under the pressure of their customers. In the context of the competitive global architecture, they need to make a difference and he is himself subject to market pressures. In today’s capitalism even architectural companies have shareholders who are less interested in the aesthetics of City Hall than their profit margins.

Even in a completely different sector in which I had the (mis) fortune to work, the academic world, ability to work under pressure is praised so much. One should “publish or perish”, do teaching for income but not take care too much of students, attend lots of conferences (but not read speculative realism if doing a PhD in economics), scan readings but not reflecting long time on them, make project proposals attractive to funding bodies in correct deadlines but not to make collective projects with low “returns”. Let us see, I thought good scientific work required deep thinking and reflection – under that type of pressure even Karl Marx could hardly plan the next volume of Capital.

And it is not only academic work which requires deep thinking. A builder who was working at the big office building in King’s Cross where I was temping as a secretary and to whom I enjoyed talking occasionally once told me: “People think that we pause a lot and we are lazy. They do not understand that when we pause and are involved in deep thinking it is because building job requires calculating carefully the metres and looking at the material. We do also work while standing like this.” It is true. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Richard Sennett showed us the simple reality, even the low skill jobs require some skills and even the most manual labour requires mental work. And good work needs time and concentration. Have you ever told your gardener to come to your garden and finish in half an hour all the care your flowers do need?

Yet, the even worst problem is that bosses who want us to work under pressure and quickly want also the job to get done well. Now, you have two options: Either you burn out at some point as I did once upon a time, or you are upgraded to be a boss and ask your own workers to work under pressure. Unfortunately the reason why I can t see so many Norman Fosters around is not because there are not even more talented architects and hopefully with some new ideas except for some “fancy-high-tech-glass-foster will sell anyway”, but rather because the very structure of the architecture market does not allow new brave market entries on the part of the young people.

Despite this rather pessimistic picture, I have some optimistic visions or illusions about the future: I think that one of the future of socialism lies, as some people warn for some time, in the power of administrative workers, secretaries, accountants, architects and engineers as much as workers and socially excluded. Can you think of what will happen if all those people stop working and the deadlines they are supposed to meet are not met? The customers will be angry, the payments will not be made on time, interest rates will get crazy and something I can only imagine and not forecast will happen to capitalism when it loses its ‘ability to impose the ability to work under pressure’. You may think that it is easy for capitalists to fire those people but let me remind you: While all the psychiatric diseases increase with alienation and work-related stress in modern life, it will be more and more difficult for bosses, to lose their workers who are, by then, used to work under pressure. This so-called ‘ability’ to work under pressure one day will be a scarcity.

But if you do not want to wait until this time to come, I have some immediate solution which you can even experience in your life span. You can join Space Hijackers, a group of anarchist and crazy architects. The criteria to join is not to work under pressure; on he contrary, you need to get rid of all pressures and create trouble to whose who make us work under pressure. Space Hijackers have an excellent ability to create diverse direct actions against the domination of space by corporate logic and culture. They organize parties in Circle Line tube to alter the memory of passengers, challenge parliamentarians in cricket matches they organize in Parliament Square, distribute tea and cucumber sandwiches in front of Starbucks they do hate, and invade the Arms Fair in London. Those are only a few among other actions they make in London. At least they teach us to look differently and critically at ourselves, whatever the City of London professionals or Foster’s architects or academic lecturers we are, who all walk to our work with our miserable take-away sandwich, take-away coffee and our ability to work under pressure.

I am writing those things because up to some time ago, I have had excellent skills to work under pressure until I collapsed, both physically and mentally. But, as I promised to myself, the next time I will only sleep 4 hours per day will be either a revolutionary period, a coexistence of hard work and collective joy devoted to a cause (well Che Guevera was sleeping four hours before the Cuban revolution) or, more modestly and realistically, when I am too excited to finish a piece or when I want to be awake enough to enjoy a late evening with nice wine, friendship and the stars in the sky. I recommend the same. Losing my ability to work under pressure was more difficult than acquiring it, but, if you believe me, once you lose it, even though you might not get the most prestigious jobs anymore, the reward would still remain priceless: an ability to make your life and the life of those we love worth living. Perhaps the architect would remember that one of the meanings to work with space was to make people happy, the engineer would enjoy pausing in front of the building whose careful and subtle geometrical calculations were his work of art and the lecturer would leave the classroom with shining eyes after a good performance with his/her students and still find the motivation to write the first sentences of an article in a nice café.

March 2008