Jimmy strode toward his high school counselor’s office with a purpose, armed with high test scores and naïve optimism. Today was the day – the day he’d discover what his future would hold. Wealth, fame, accolades – it all hung on the career decisions he would make behind the doors of the humble office ahead. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and opened the door.
“Well, well,” said Mr. Snidely, the counselor. “Good morning, Jimmy! Are you ready for the first day of the rest of your life?”
“Absolutely, Mr. Snidely,” Jimmy said with a smile. “I can’t wait!”
“Good, good. Take a seat there, and we’ll get started.” Jimmy sat on the edge of a cheap plastic chair facing Snidely’s desk. He felt his pulse quicken with anticipation and the promise of a bright future.
“Now, then,” Snidely said, looking over several forms. “Let me just make some preliminary notes here…” He peered through his glasses and spoke under his breath as he checked several boxes. “Career Description: Prostitute.”
“Oh, nothing,” Snidely said, glancing up. He looked back at his form and continued muttering. “Term of Employment: Life.”
“Er, Mr. Snidely?”
“Just a moment, my boy, let’s not rush things. Time for discussion soon enough.”
Jimmy shifted his weight on the chair.
Snidely went back to muttering and box checking. “Let’s see here… Ahh, yes, Remuneration: Just Enough to Survive, but Never Enough to Quit.”
Jimmy cleared his throat. “What does that mean?”
“Hmm? Oh, it means pay.”
“Remuneration. It means what you get paid.”
“I know what remuneration means. Haven’t you seen my test scores?”
“Don’t get snippy with me, young man.”
“No, I mean, what does that ‘Just Enough to Survive’ bit mean?”
“That’s not important. Now please, stop interrupting and allow me to finish the form.” Snidely looked down again, then added in a near whisper, “Location: Not of Employee’s Choosing.”
“Hey, hold on a sec,” Jimmy was getting nervous.
“Almost finished,” Snidely said in a sing-song voice before adding quietly, “Potential for Advancement: Commensurate with Demonstrated Ability to Suck Up.”
“Mr. Snidely,” Jimmy began.
“All finished!” Snidely proclaimed, ignoring him. “Now that we’ve taken care of the generalities, let’s get down to specifics, shall we?”
“Umm… I’m not sure…”
“So how much would you like to earn per year, Jimmy?”
“Well, I… didn’t you already say the pay would be just enough to survive on?”
“Yes, of course, but the actual number changes depending on how much of yourself you’re willing to sell.”
“High test scores, my eye,” Snidely muttered. “Work with me here, Jimmy. You are going out into the world. The world does not intend to feed you, clothe you, house you and pay for your cigarette and lottery ticket habits. To cover those costs, you are going to be required to sell yourself – your time, energy, schedule, freedom, choices, creativity, etc., in return for the security of a steady paycheck.”
“But I don’t smoke.”
“You might as well start. Universal health care is included.”
“No, thanks. What were you saying about the term of employment? Did you say life?”
“But I don’t think I want to do just one thing for the rest of my life. What if I want to change jobs?”
“It doesn’t matter. Change employers all you like – you’ll still be selling yourself to the highest bidder, so the end result is the same. You might as well stay in the same job the whole time. Cuts down on confusion. Besides, cubicle relocation can be a stressful life event.”
“Never mind that for now. Let’s talk about the advancement thing. I’m no suck-up, Mr. Snidely.”
“Well, that settles that, doesn’t it? I like you Jimmy, straight and to the point.”
“What? No! I mean, I intend to work my way to the top based on merit!”
“Ha!” Snidely snorted. “That’s rich! Nobody succeeds that way any more! What are you, home-schooled?”
“Er, no, I…”
“Let me spell it out for you,” Snidely folded his hands and leaned over his desk. “To be perfectly honest, your high test scores all but eliminate you from any sort of advancement whatsoever – unless you demonstrate an unusual ability to suck up. That’s how people succeed these days, Jimmy. They suck up to the right people, who put them in position to check a bunch of boxes on their resume that give the appearance of experience and talent, without the bother of actually experiencing any talent at all.”
“What are you talking about?”
Snidely went on, “Then they work just long enough at each position to meet a random time requirement for the next position, and voila! Promotion!”
Jimmy furrowed his brow. “But what if they aren’t any good at the first job?”
“Details, mere details. Lack of ability is a perfect excuse for promotion, and sucking up expedites the process. That way, the suck-up moves up before they cause too much damage where they are.”
“But what about the damage they cause when they end up in charge?!?”
“Doesn’t matter. By the time they get that high, they’re actually spending more time playing golf than they are making decisions. Win-win!”
Jimmy sighed. “Okay, forget that one for now, too. What about the location? Why can’t I choose where I live?”
“You won’t want to, because no matter where you want to live, you’ll want to move someplace else to get a higher paycheck, so you can afford more stuff.” He lowered his voice again. “And a longer commute. And more stress. And a higher cost of living. And a shorter life expectancy.”
“Mr. Snidely, have you ever heard of Tourette Syndrome?”
“Quiet, smart guy, I’m explaining. Your location will be determined by your own desire to chase the mythical promotions you mentioned. You never know – Detroit might not be so bad.”
“Forget that,” Jimmy said. “What if I don’t want to be somebody’s employee? What if I want to make decisions for myself?”
“Oh, no problem! Just go into politics!”
Any of this sound vaguely familiar? Satirical exaggeration aside, this story illustrates a disturbing point about what many of us experience first-hand: We are conditioned from early in life to be someone else’s employee. We are told that if we work hard, we may get a good job with a retirement, health care, stock options, etc., all so that we can spend the better part of our lives in the security of waiting for the next paycheck.
So the story goes: Get a job so you can get a steady paycheck; then continue to work for somebody else until you die or are pushed into retirement with no savings and the best part of your life spent doing things you hate.
Or, you can modify it a bit: Get yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, so you can get a college degree, so you can get a job, so you can get a steady paycheck… you get the idea.
The practice of people willingly placing themselves in economic thrall to others isn’t new.
During the American colonial period, it was known as indentured servitude.
People would agree to work as laborers for landowners for a set period of years in exchange for passage from Europe to the New World.
The problem was that often their indenture was sold to other landowners and the original term ignored – which meant the person’s ‘employment’ was now indefinite.
But at least they had a steady job, right?
If you’re like me, you’re getting sick of living for someone else’s schedule, someone else’s idea of excellence, someone else’s idea of your worth (both financial and intellectual), and worrying about keeping a boss happy at the expense of your own happiness, health and sanity.
What’s the solution?
I suggest that we need to cast off the employee mindset completely.
Start thinking like you’re the boss. You’re the owner. You’re the one responsible for cutting the paychecks.
Start working toward doing something you love, building something on your own, creating something worthwhile – no matter if it makes money right now or not.
The more you think like the boss, the less likely you are to accept life as an employee.
And if that doesn’t work, you could always go into politics…
“Start thinking like you’re the boss.” or Create the job you want to have. Don’t wait for someone to hire you, do what someone (or ideally, more than a single someone) wants and get the word out that you are a rare commodity in that product or service and let them come to you.
Easier said than done, but still, it’s a mindset. The mindset of waiting or the mindset of doing.
A good read, MP!
You’re right – it is a mindset, and it is hard to change, but I think well worth the effort. Just gotta keep grinding away at it until it’s gone!
Dilbert’s pretty great on this.
Have you read Office Politics by Oliver James?
Pretty cynical, but fairly realistic, a good antidote to the fairytale meritocratic myth we get spun, or should that be propagandised?
I haven’t read Office Politics, but I have worked for a few pointy-haired bosses in my time. One of those was inspirational for this piece – Dilbert is a hilarious illustration of the frustration I think most people feel with the way ‘work’ is – sometimes it’s hard to control the ‘fist of death’! Thanks for stopping by!
I’m well on my way. So long to resume’s, schedules, and suck-ups. I never thought I could be this happy. It stung at first after 30 years in the business, but it is turning into pure heaven.
Good for you John! I’d tell you you’re my hero, but you already thought that, and I wouldn’t want your head to swell. After 30 years, I’d say you earned the right to enjoy what you do again. Good on ya.