What is the difference between reading a comic book during a suburban commute to the office and reading a business software manual on the same train? The comic book makes going to work more tolerable; the manual makes it more rewarding, i.e., career enhancing. That’s the difference in payoffs.

But there are other differences, including professionally revealing differences in personality and power priorities.

During one of my commutes while working in Japan, I speculated on such a suggestive difference between two Tokyo subway passengers I observed sitting opposite each other: Both adult males, the first was reading a comic book—a “manga”—with themes and challenges your kid would enjoy, if not yet 12 years old. The second, a more professional-looking sort in a suit, was reading a very technical business software manual.

It seemed to me that both were manifesting power cravings, but in totally opposite ways—ways that I suspected had clear implications for whatever jobs they had or wanted.

The comic guy, as I interpreted the scene, wanted power through identification (with the super-heroes, villains or whatever depicted in the 4-inch-thick comic book he was “reading”, by, in some sense, assimilating and incorporating their identities). To the extent that the second passenger, also a “sarariman” (salary man, i.e., male office worker; contrasted with “OL”—“office lady”), wanted power, he was pursuing it through assimilation of information related to real-world skills, not of a fictional persona.

Vicarious vs. Laborious Power Pursuits

The comic guy’s pursuit of power was vicarious—no effort was required apart from identifying with the super-hero; Manual Man’s pursuit was laborious—wading through the detailed instructions and information to master the software, rather than some fantasy galaxy.

This distinction, between vicariously and laboriously acquired power can be useful in assessing job candidates. Knowing that an applicant has “hobbies” and “interests” that involve fantasy-based and simulated exercise of power, with vicarious power payoffs, e.g., as a cyber-boxer or video-game warrior, can guide and inform the vetting process in important dimensions of assessment: candidate diligence, focus, practical experience and skill set, motivation, real-world savvy and engagement, to name but a few.

But caution is required in interpreting the significance of such vicarious power passions.

Having them doesn’t prove that the applicant doesn’t also have a substantial commitment to laborious power pursuits. Indeed, it is quite common for very disciplined, focused, hard-working employees to use video games and fantasy-power movies and magazines as spice or free-time RR, or even as half of a very productive hybrid of vicarious-laborious power pursuit.

The Case of Computer Gamer, Mark Zuckerberg

For example, The New York Times had this report about Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, hardly a slacker or escapist : “A friend and former co-worker who plays online with Mr. Zuckerberg said that lately he had taken to the PC game ‘Imperium Romanum’, another game of power and control. The game’s description says: ‘Take on the role of a governor of a Roman province and lead your citizens to growth, security, and prosperity.’” (Hmmm…. any fantasies of a presidential run down the road?). This is a perfect, if not the best, example of the vicarious-laborious power strategy applied with and in the midst of staggering career success.

Indeed, it has been noted that another online game Zuckerberg played as a boy may have contributed to his uncanny business acumen, organizational capacities and unique vision: “Civilization”. The same New York Times article, quoting another Zuckerberg friend reported this: “A favorite video game of his as a boy was ‘Civilization’, the object of which is to ‘build an empire to stand the test of time,’ a friend of Mr. Zuckerberg’s told The New York Times. The person added that ‘Civilization’ was the ‘training wheels for starting Facebook.’”

The Segue from Playing “Predator” to Guiding Predator Drones

An equally, if not more, deadly serious vicarious-laborious power paradigm is the video game-remote-weapons nexus. Skills developed playing combat and strategic video games, such as “Predator”, have apparent broad transferability to remote operations of military and police drones, missile guidance and other computer technician-controlled, remotely-operated technologies, such as those that guide Predator drones.

Given the utility of such skills, a case could be made for hiring pure vicarious-power seekers who are highly skilled at power games and simulations, and then immerse them in intense laborious-power based training programs that will give them real-world power that will more than match their fantasies (taking great care to remind them of the need to adhere to real-world ethics and morality, assuming the organization cares about such things).

In fact, in many instances an obsession with vicarious power can be considered a prerequisite for the job. For example, clearly, the best person to hire to redesign the hugely popular video game “Grand Theft Auto” is someone whose addiction to it has made him or her totally familiar with not only the game features, but also its appeal and any of its limitations or desirable improvements.

Balanced Power Pursuits and (Un)Balanced Minds

In industries and careers that do not essentially depend on power fantasies and simulations, e.g., accounting, a vicarious-power fixation (to the virtual exclusion of the more laborious power routes, such as upgrading through advanced account courses) may be a credential red flag and performance concern.

I recall two Chinese elite-university students I repeatedly encountered in the Internet café I had to use in Qingdao while my personal computer was kaput: Business majors at one of China’s best universities, these two spent (according to my observations and those of the staff) 14 hours a day (and night!) for days at a time playing “Mortal Kombat” or some variant of it—during the academic term, not during a break.

Starting my work day very early, I was always stunned to see them (and others) slumped over computer keyboards or sprawled over café furniture in a game-induced stupor or coma at 6 AM.

Recently a 23-year-old Taiwanese Net-game addict was belatedly discovered to have died after a 40-hour one-man digital marathon. In his pursuit of vicarious power he apparently exhausted whatever real power and life energy he had.

The Sydney Morning Herald report stated that the 23-year-old logged on at the cafe in New Taipei city on Tuesday night  and was found dead the following night, by a waitress, but “still sitting rigidly on a chair with his hands stretched out.”

Such extreme behavior notwithstanding, a balanced and hybrid vicarious-laborious power-pursuit passion can, in some cases be, at worst, harmless, and at best—as as the example of Mark Zuckerberg illustrates, very constructive.

To the extent that the mix of vicarious and laborious power strategies represents—in both the mind of the employee and in reality—a decent attempt to achieve work-life balance, it is no more objectionable than watching a movie on Netflix after a hard day at the office or playing a game of chess….

….with a multi-billion dollar NASDAQ company as the king.

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