The Reasonable Dictators


The first urge I ever felt to be a manager was at my first newspaper job in South Carolina. My desk was in the center of the newsroom and faced the glass-fronted offices of three people: the managing editor, the business editor and the special projects editor.

When I wasn’t reporting on a trailer fire or some piece of small-town political skullduggery, I’d look up from my keyboard and watch them. These three white guys decided everything – what was on the front page, who got to to write about the murder trials, who had to write about the centenarians’ birthdays (sorry Reece!) and who sorted the newsroom mail (sorry again Reece!).

Holy crap I wanted one of their jobs. Not because I wanted to boss people around, but because I’d get to make decisions that involved thinking, ideas, reason and the wisdom I’d accumulated about the region (I had none of the time). And those decisions would make the newspaper and community better.

It took 12 years for me to claw my way into one of those positions. After about six months in my perch I realized that my job was all about enacting the ideas (good and bad) of the layer of managers above me. And before I got any more bright ideas about further advancement, I saw there were two more layers of managers above my managers.

I think that’s when I developed a problem with authority.

die_ermordung_des_ulisses_banoit_de_sainte-moreI left corporate America in 2011 for a variety of reasons, but the No. 1 reason was to get a couple new bosses: failure and starvation.

After more than five years of working under failure and starvation, I can honestly say they are the most predictable and fair-minded superiors I’ve ever had. If I don’t work efficiently, I fail. If I don’t work hard, I starve. It really is that simple.

I can blame the economy when I fail, but that usually means I’m spending too much money or am making things that people really don’t need. So I need to adjust. You can say it’s more complicated than that, but it’s not. It’s how people lived for thousands of years before capitalist economies took hold. And these rules still apply today, just like breathing air is still good and breathing water will still kill you.

To my wife and friends it looks like I’m both always working and never working. On Monday morning I’m lingering over the newspaper and planning a nice meal for my family. On Christmas Day I’m furiously editing chapters for a forthcoming book. At 4 a.m. I’m answering frantic emails from Europe. At 10 a.m. I sleep for a while to clear my head.

Starvation and failure are totally fine with my behavior. There is no annual review session where I “meet” or “exceed” corporate expectations. There is only the bank account and the pantry. And whether or not they are full or empty is my decision alone.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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38 Responses to The Reasonable Dictators

  1. Mark Dennehy says:

    …what happens when you get sick?

    • tombuhl says:

      Owner/operators don’t get sick. They may need a box of kleenex near their workstation now and then. Or take a bit of a nap. But, no, we never get sick. Of course, some health issues may get ignored until they become flaming issues. But that is covered in the next chapter (still to be written).

    • Simple. A temporary illness? I worth through it and get better. Terminal illness? Sell the company.

      I guarantee you I am already way ahead of that curve compared to when I worked for the man. Sickness? It will happen. Bring it.

      • Mark Dennehy says:

        I’d rather not bring it, I like your books 🙂
        But medical bankrupcy is a thing in your country (which, on this side of the pond, is a mind-twisting “what the hell?” thing that we just cannot understand). And because none of us get to choose when we or our loved ones develop a serious illness or suffer a serious injury, it seems like a flaw in the logic here. Maybe you’ve now reached the point of financial security where this is something you can manage; but someone who’s just starting out? Who doesn’t have the savings in the bank yet? And who one day finds that that nagging cough was actually something terminal-if-not-treated and winds up alive on the far side but with a hospital bill that exceeds their net worth by a considerable margin?

  2. tpobrienjr says:

    Here’s the best part, Christopher: A corporation is a person for legal purposes only – it has no brain, no heart, no soul, and no backbone. When you are your own boss, you provide the brain, heart, soul, and spine. Your happiness (an your famly’s) is mostly up to you. I tip my (virtual) hat to you, noble sir.

  3. stevevoigt says:

    Nice post. And nice picture, Jeez. I guess it’s It’s important to have raker teeth when you’re sawing someone’s balls off.

  4. That picture reminds me of my wedding night.

  5. Jacque Wells says:

    Thank you. I loved the article and the rather simple idea behind it. And it applies in the newsroom and the stockroom equally just with more political (management) complications.
    Again: Thanks.

  6. wb8nbs says:

    WHY did you post that picture??

  7. richmondp says:

    It’s been well over fifty years since I read Orwell’s Animal Farm, but do I remember correctly that the horse’s response, to every setback on the farm, was to admonish himself to “work harder?” If only he worked harder, all would be well…

    The lesson I took from Animal Farm is that there are times when the system in which one works is just as critical to one’s success as is one’s individual effort and initiative and that there are times when “working harder” is not as useful a response to economic hardship as is changing the system. Your milage may vary, of course… 🙂

  8. Anthony Wilson says:

    Not sure why the bosses being “white guys” is relevant to your story or Lost Art Press.

    Identity politics and aesthetic anarchism?

  9. bgilstrap says:

    Yep, and Amen.

  10. bedrock608 says:

    That was realitivly succinct! Work hard and work smart, or starve!

  11. rwyoung says:

    When you work for yourself, you are guaranteed to work for the biggest as***le on the planet. But at least your time is your own. And maybe labor relation negotiations are quicker.

    • hgordon4 says:

      So true! When I started my firm I said that if I always had to work for an a$$–le it was at least going to be me! Chris is right on point about reality being the true boss when you work for yourself.

  12. Wow, powerful post.
    Do you think the glow of “I’m doing something for me that I enjoy” outweighs the pressure and disappointment of the previous way you worked? Or do you feel that you just swapped who’s working the saw?

    • I’m doing the same thing – making furniture and writing about it – that I was doing at my old job. I work just as many hours (a lot) as I did at my old job. I live in the same house. Have the same tools etc.

      So in one sense, little has changed.

      What has changed is that today I spend zero hours managing up and managing down the chain of command – keeping my bosses happy with reports and preventing a mutiny from below when I have to carry out orders I don’t agree with.

      Instead my days are spent making content and little else.

      So to answer your question, it is both the same and completely different.

      • Thanks for the reply.
        So do you feel you’re in a better place?
        To some, doing what you’re doing now seems like an aspiration, but we all forget the reality of the ‘costs’ of living. I think most realise that every road will have its challenges, but when you look back, do you have more of a sense of ‘I did that’ now, than in your previous incarnation?

        • I am much happier working for myself. I make more money. I have control and ownership of my work. And I get to publish work from people who inspire me.

          The only difficulty I encountered in making the change was mustering the courage to step off the ledge. My wife and I cut our expenses to the bone in preparation to host starvation for a while.

          As with most of my friends who have gone through this change, we found that we were overdue for it. I should have done it several years earlier. So it was an easy transition psychologically and financially.

          Looking back, I am proud of being part of the team that built PW up to what it is today (take a look at it before September 1999 and you’ll know what I mean). It was the best job I ever had, and I have nothing but admiration for the people who keep it going today. That’s why I still gladly work with them.

          As to what I’ve done since 2011, the jury is still out in my mind. I’m happy with a lot of the projects we’ve done, but I am still reaching.

          • Once again, thanks for taking the time to reply.

            It’s interesting to read your last paragraph about not yet knowing about what you’ve done since 2011, that’s five years. Perhaps the decisions you’ve made has given you the most important things – choice and time. With less ‘overseeing management’, who would rarely give you that amount of time, you’re getting time to fulfil ‘your need’, and sometimes you can’t bank that.

            The best of luck with your new projects.

  13. momist says:

    “Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society…It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.” From Arthur Young; 1771.

  14. josef1henri says:

    Good article, Christopher. I quit corporate America in 2010 for various reasons. One was that it was no longer fun to be an engineer, and I had lost my sense of humor which is very important to me. I said at the time I was going to work for the meanest guy I knew…. me. And, yes, starvation and poverty are always hovering and nagging. But I got my sense of humor back after a couple of years. One day I was walking back to the house from my blacksmith shop and I realized I was smiling, then I started laughing. I’m having fun again. It’s worth the effort.

  15. jayedcoins says:

    “If I don’t work efficiently, I fail. If I don’t work hard, I starve. It really is that simple.

    I can blame the economy when I fail, but that usually means I’m spending too much money or am making things that people really don’t need. So I need to adjust. You can say it’s more complicated than that, but it’s not.”

    You might be forgetting something, or humbly avoiding it… you are immensely talented at working wood and writing. Undoubtedly, hard work is a huge component of that… those of us that are LAP fans can even seen from afar how hard you work (or the rest of the teams across LAP and Crucible, for that matter). Of course you worked hard to build the skills to have the talents you have today.

    I’m a big believer in the importance of working towards your goals and the idea that there is usually a path to where we want to go. But I’m not a believer in the Robinson Crusoe theory of economics… most everyone, no matter their work ethic and talents, needs a *little* luck and some helpful environmental supports. A helpful environmental support might just be having an economy around the work you love to do that is healthy enough to sustain your idea of what doing that work properly looks like. In other words, at some point you might find you’re “making things people don’t need,” but what does that mean if the “people” have gone fickle and decided they don’t need great books about classic handwork, or actual pieces of wonderful handwork?

    To be sure, it is a positive feedback loop. This is clear from your work (both Chris and the entire LAP team) — the economy around education, information, content, and simply building for hand tool woodworking would very clearly not be anywhere near as robust as it is today if it weren’t for people like Chris, John, Megan, and Raney. You don’t have to read very far back to see this… just looking at magazine articles from ten years ago versus today, and seeing the contributions you folks have made shows this. But at the same time, you can’t make a market out of complete thin air — there had to be some initial demand and thirst that your skills could fill, and, for lack of a clearer way of putting it, since there was and since you tapped into it, you’ve made it cool! It’s a positive feedback loop, and it’s a great one.

    Chris, thanks for the post. It is inspiring and of course those of us here are grateful for your work and success. I hope my comments are considered true compliments to you and the teams at LAP and Crucible, and while no two people see 100% eye to eye on these sorts of “philosophical issues” (ugh, I hate that phrase for some reason), I widely agree and appreciate with yours, and especially love the way you will share your experiences in how you’ve come to these conclusions in a very accessible, honest, and fair way.

    Looking forward to continued happiness and fulfillment for you, yours, and the rest of the folks that make LAP possible.

  16. Daniel says:

    Aww… I thought you were going to announce that Crucible was going to make that bandsaw.

  17. “It’s how people lived for thousands of years before capitalist economies took hold.”

    Sort of. But during those thousands of years, it was often feasible to hunt, gather, and farm your own food, locally.

  18. Just curious as to what “frantic emails from Europe” you get? Are these related to research projects?

  19. amosswogger says:

    Posts like these are why I read your blog. Your obeservations on middle managment are spot on. But please, can you leave skin color out of it? Judge someone by their character and actions instead of their skin color.

    • holtdoa says:

      In this case skin color could well have been relevant. Not too long ago, that is exactly the structure you would see in a larger corporation, all the decisions spread out through the hierarchy, and no one really large and in charge. Every black man I’ve ever worked for has been large, in charge, and in no mood to hear my excuses… Nothing to do with race, everything to do with having to carve out your own niche.

  20. I’m an anarchist as well, so am sympathetic to the way you wrote this post. But I would point out that corporations are just machines for making money, and like any other technology they have their benefits and disadvantages. Of course a well run corporation will tend to dramatically out compete smaller shops due to things such as specialization advantage and economies of scale. Smaller firms as you mention have an advantage in agility, and most important passion. I think the current environment is a fairly mature and stable balance between the two; large firms get unwieldy and loose their advantage, small ones spring up (“start up”) to replace them, and in-between in the chinks we have artisanal and bespoke shops to handle the interesting things.

    • While I agree that corporations have some societal advantages (it’s difficult for individuals to manufacture cars), my sympathies and energies will always tip to the individual.

      My opinion – and that’s all it is – is that the needle has swung too far toward favoring large institutions at every level of government, spirituality and commerce.

      The point of the post was to encourage people to think: Do I need to work for a big company? Do I like it?

      All best,


  21. Renegade Philosophy Non-Profit says:

    I like the personification of failure and starvation haha.

    -Cheers from Miami.

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