"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."
—Henry David Thoreau, naturalist
If I told you this story, you wouldn’t believe me, so I’ll let AJ tell it. It will set the stage for even more incredible things to come, all of which you will do yourself.
My Outsourced Life
A true account by AJ Jacobs, editor-at-large at Esquire magazine (ellipses represent passage of time between entries)
It began a month ago. I was midway through The World Is Flat, the bestseller by Tom Friedman. I like Friedman, despite his puzzling decision to wear a mustache. His book is all about how outsourcing to India and China is not just for tech support and carmakers but is poised to transform every industry in America, from law to banking to accounting.
I don’t have a corporation; I don’t even have an up-to-date business card. I’m a writer and editor working from home, usually in my boxer shorts or, if I’m feeling formal, my penguin-themed pajama bottoms.
Then again, I think, why should Fortune 500 firms have all the fun? Why can’t I join in on the biggest business trend of the new century? Why can’t I outsource my low-end tasks? Why can’t I outsource my life?
The next day I e-mail Brickwork, one of the companies Friedman mentions in his book. Brickwork—based in Bangalore, India—offers “remote executive assistants,” mostly to financial firms and health-care companies that want data processed. I explain that I’d like to hire someone to help with Esquire-related tasks—doing research, formatting memos, like that. The company’s CEO, Vivek Kulkarni, responds, “It would be a great pleasure to be talking to a person of your stature.” Already I’m liking this. I’ve never had stature before. In America, I barely command respect from a Bennigan’s maître d’, so it’s nice to know that in India I have stature. A couple of days later, I get an e-mail from my new “remote executive assistant.”
My name is Honey K. Balani. I would be assisting you in your editorial and personal job…. I would try to adapt myself as per your requirements that would lead to desired satisfaction.
Desired satisfaction. This is great. Back when I worked at an office, I had assistants, but there was never any talk of desired satisfaction. In fact, if anyone ever used the phrase “desired satisfaction,” we’d all end up in a solemn meeting with HR.
I go out to dinner with my friend Misha, who grew up in India, founded a software firm, and subsequently became nauseatingly rich. I tell him about Operation Outsource. “You should call Your Man in India,” he says. Misha explains that this is a company for Indian businessmen who have moved overseas but who still have parents back in New Delhi or Mumbai. YMII is their overseas concierge service—it buys movie tickets and cell phones and other sundries for abandoned moms.
Perfect. This could kick my outsourcing up to a new level. I can have a nice, clean division of labor: Honey will take care of my business affairs, and YMII can attend to my personal life—pay my bills, make vacation reservations, buy stuff online. Happily, YMII likes the idea, and just like that the support team at Jacobs Inc. has doubled.
Honey has completed her first project for me: research on the person Esquire has chosen as the Sexiest Woman Alive. I’ve been assigned to write a profile of this woman, and I really don’t want to have to slog through all the heavy-breathing fan websites about her. When I open Honey’s file, I have this reaction: America is f*cked. There are charts. There are section headers. There is a well-organized breakdown of her pets, measurements, and favorite foods (e.g., swordfish). If all Bangalorians are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army.
In fact, in the next few days, I outsource a whole mess of online errands to Asha (from the personal service YMII): paying my bills, getting stuff from drugstore.com, finding my son a Tickle Me Elmo. (Actually, the store was out of Tickle Me Elmos, so Asha bought a Chicken Dance Elmo—good decision.) I had her call Cingular to ask about my cell-phone plan. I’m just guessing, but I bet her call was routed from Bangalore to New Jersey and then back to a Cingular employee in Bangalore, which makes me happy for some reason.
It’s the fourth morning of my new, farmed-out life, and when I flip on my computer, my e-mail inbox is already filled with updates from my overseas aides. It’s a strange feeling having people work for you while you sleep. Strange, but great. I’m not wasting time while I drool on my pillow; things are getting done.
Honey is my protector. Consider this: For some reason, the Colorado Tourism Board e-mails me all the time. (Most recently, they informed me about a festival in Colorado Springs featuring the world’s most famous harlequin.) I request that Honey gently ask them to stop with the press releases. Here’s what she sent:
Jacobs often receives mails from Colorado news, too often. They are definitely interesting topics. However, these topics are not suitable for “Esquire.” Further, we do understand that you have taken a lot of initiatives working on these articles and sending it to us. We understand. Unfortunately, these articles and mails are too time consuming to be read. Currently, these mails are not serving right purpose for both of us. Thus, we request to stop sending these mails. We do not mean to demean your research work by this. We hope you understand too.
Honey K B
That is the best rejection notice in journalism history. It’s exceedingly polite, but there’s a little undercurrent of indignation. Honey seems almost outraged that Colorado would waste the valuable time of Jacobs.
I decide to test the next logical relationship: my marriage. These arguments with my wife are killing me—partly because Julie is a much better debater than I am. Maybe Asha can do better:
My wife got annoyed at me because I forgot to get cash at the automatic bank machine… I wonder if you could tell her that I love her, but gently remind her that she too forgets things—she has lost her wallet twice in the last month. And she forgot to buy nail clippers for Jasper.
I can’t tell you what a thrill I got from sending that note. It’s pretty hard to get much more passive-aggressive than bickering with your wife via an e-mail from a subcontinent halfway around the world.
The next morning, Asha CC’d me on the e-mail she sent to Julie.
Do understand your anger that I forgot to pick up the cash at the automatic machine. I have been forgetful and I am sorry about that. But I guess that doesn’t change the fact that I love you so much….
P. S. This is Asha mailing on behalf of Mr. Jacobs.
As if that weren’t enough, she also sent Julie an e-card. I click on it: two teddy bears embracing, with the words, “Anytime you need a hug, I’ve got one for you…. I’m sorry.”
Damn! My outsourcers are too friggin’ nice! They kept the apology part but took out my little jabs. They are trying to save me from myself. They are superegoing my id. I feel castrated.
Julie, on the other hand, seems quite pleased: “That’s nice, sweetie. I forgive you.”
Despite three weeks with my support team, I’m still stressed. Perhaps it’s the fault of Chicken Dance Elmo, whom my son loves to the point of dry humping, but who is driving me slowly insane. Whatever the reason, I figure it’s time to conquer another frontier: outsourcing my inner life.
First, I try to delegate my therapy. My plan is to give Asha a list of my neuroses and a childhood anecdote or two, have her talk to my shrink for 50 minutes, then relay the advice. Smart, right? My shrink refused. Ethics or something. Fine. Instead, I have Asha send me a meticulously researched memo on stress relief. It had a nice Indian flavor to it, with a couple of yogic postures and some visualization.
This was okay, but it didn’t seem quite enough. I decided I needed to outsource my worry. For the last few weeks I’ve been tearing my hair out because a business deal is taking far too long to close. I asked Honey if she would be interested in tearing her hair out in my stead. Just for a few minutes a day. She thought it was a wonderful idea. “I will worry about this every day,” she wrote. “Do not worry.”
The outsourcing of my neuroses was one of the most successful experiments of the month. Every time I started to ruminate, I’d remind myself that Honey was already on the case, and I’d relax. No joke—this alone was worth it.
At a Glance: Where You Will Be
"The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet."
—William Gibson, author of Neuromancer; coined term “cyberspace” in 1984
Here is a sneak preview of full automation.
I woke up this morning, and given that it’s Monday, I checked my e-mail for one hour after an exquisite Buenos Aires breakfast. Sowmya from India had found a long-lost high school classmate of mine, and Anakool from YMII had put together Excel research reports for retiree happiness and the average annual hours worked in different fields. Interviews for this week had been set by a third Indian virtual assistant, who had also found contact information for the best Kendo schools in Japan and the top salsa teachers in Cuba. In the next e-mail folder, I was pleased to see that my fulfillment account manager in Tennessee, Beth, had resolved nearly two dozen problems in the last week—keeping our largest clients in China and South Africa smiling—and had also coordinated California sales tax filing with my accountants in Michigan. The taxes had been paid via my credit card on file, and a quick glance at my bank accounts confirmed that Shane and the rest of the team at my credit card processor were depositing more cash than last month. All was right in the world of automation.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and I closed my laptop with a smile. For an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast with coffee and orange juice, I paid $4 U.S. The Indian outsourcers cost between $4–10 U.S. per hour. My domestic outsourcers are paid on performance or when product ships. This creates a curious business phenomenon: Negative cash flow is impossible.
Fun things happen when you earn dollars, live on pesos, and compensate in rupees, but that’s just the beginning.
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This is just the tip of the iceberg. Want to learn how employees outsource their lives and work without the boss losing/knowing it? How to build an army of overseas MBAs for $5 per hour and do whatever you want? How to avoid all the pitfalls while reaping all the rewards? Chapter 8 “Outsourcing Life” contains more than 20 pages of detailed how-to on all this and more. Get the book now!