We all know about those archetypal laws. Parkinson’s – work expands to fill the time available for its completion. The Peter Principle – people get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. They’re useful laws. They answer basic questions. Like: Why all the crap? Why is everything done so badly?

Well, I think I may have discovered another one of these universal laws, which answers the question: Why are so many people who you would think ought to be happy instead so miserable? I give you: Micklethwait’s Law of Negotiated Misery.

It starts with the observation that more and more people are “self-managed” these days. Even people working inside giant business or governmental bureaucracies are being encouraged to think of themselves as free trading entrepreneurs, providing services in exchange for payment, in cash or in kind. Horizontal networking, self-starter, internal markets, intrapreneuring, etc. etc. blah blah blah.

Okay. You’re a self-manager, and maybe even self-employed.

There are four kinds of work you think about maybe doing.

  1. There's work you love and are good at.
  2. There's work you hate and are good at.
  3. There's work you love and are bad at.
  4. There's work you hate and are bad at.

The world pretty soon decides that you must stop doing (3) and (4) and of course, you are delighted to stop doing (4). If you insist on doing (3) you are going to have to do it as a hobby.

Which leaves (1) and (2), the stuff you are good at, and either (1) love or (2) hate.

How much do you get paid to do (1), work you love and are good at? If you are a good negotiator, then plenty, because you are good at it, and demand lots of money.

But what if you are a bad negotiator? You jump at the job and accept bad money.

How much do you get paid to do (2)? Chances are you get paid good money. Why? Because you will only consent to do work you hate if you are paid good money. So, with no great effort, you hold out for good money (even if all you thought you were doing was Just Saying No), and, because you are good at the work, you get paid good money. Eventually, someone makes you an offer you can’t refuse, and you take it.

So, if you are a bad negotiator, unable to repress your natural desire to do what you love and to avoid what you hate, you get paid bad money to do work you love, and good money to do work you hate.

Bad negotiators can have semi-good lives if they can afford to oscillate between work they love and work they hate. For a while, they do that. But, by the end of that period the only way they know to make good money is to do work they hate.

Then factor in the following circumstance. They switch to a life in which they then have to make continuously good money. Wife, kids, mortgage. Maybe an addiction to an expensive type-(3) hobby. Or maybe the life they lead just happens to get much more expensive. Clang. The gates of the prison slam shut. From then on they must do work they hate, continuously.

Result: An inexorable tendency for the “self-managed” classes to negotiate themselves into lives of permanent misery.

Is this a truth about the world? I think it is. Am I the first person to have noticed it? Surely not. Certainly not in so many words. But maybe I am the first person to have nailed this extremely widespread experience down into a simple law with a simple name.

(If so, hurrah! I love it. And how much was I paid? Bugger all.)