...After a few preliminary questions, he said that the first thing he wanted me to do was to draw up a spreadsheet documenting my creative process.
At first, I was confused. “You mean my writing process? Like, introduction, thesis, body, conclusion?” I asked.
“No, no, you’re thinking too small,” he said. “I want you to formalize your actual creative process in a spreadsheet.” The idea, he said, was to create a step-by-step blueprint that anyone (read: my eventual replacement) could use to produce an idea, any idea. He gave me an example. “Let’s say that the first step is getting a ‘notion,’ probably from some media source. Next, you have to hone that ‘notion’ into a ‘concept.’ Once you have a ‘concept,’ you have to laterally build it up or something. Get the idea?”
I was speechless. Creativity for Dummies, in the form of an Excel spreadsheet.
...You just want to come in and do your job? Too bad. Before you can get down to business—and that is the reason for work, isn’t it?—you have to wade through nonsense, miles of it and hip-deep. Pep rallies, team-building exercises, politics, line-toeing, tribute-paying, office cliques and nepotism and hoop-jumping. And it’s all the bullshit that’s really important. If you don’t buy into all that, it doesn’t matter how well you do your job.
...At my present job, we have after-hours jamborees every Monday, and the weekly announcements end with a passive-aggressive disclaimer along these lines: “Participation is not required, but attendance will be taken.” Week after week, some grinning consultant prods us into reluctant, insincere camaraderie as the stony-faced VPs look on. Role-playing, song-and-dance routines, comedy improv—they do it at Harvard Business School, so it must work!
At one such outing, we had to write our own lyrics to the tune of a popular OutKast song—lyrics praising our company. When one group dared to write a song about how they were still at work at 8 o’clock at night, singing nonsense, when they should be at home living their lives—their performance brought down the house—the faces of upper management clouded over.
...The reason cited for all this after-hours nonsense, all this camaraderie at the point of a gun, was to “team-build.” To bind us together, to create an insular culture. You don’t start a job anymore; you join a cult. They’re not your co-workers—they’re your “family.” But why engender such intimacy between employees? To what end? Ostensibly, it’s to create a “warmer, kinder workplace.” But quite the opposite is true. Any intimacy that’s forced is, by definition, false. What they really want to do is engage more of you and get you hooked in, so that you care about the job and the company the way you care about a friend or a pet.
Of course, for all their talk of “family” and “obligation,” it’s a one-way street. Cross them, fail to pay tribute at a critical juncture, and it’s the pink slip, no hesitation.
...And so when the employment agency called and said that my test results had been lost and would I mind taking it again, I did so with relish. This time, I picked all the wrong answers. My girlfriend sat with me at my computer, and we laughed as I deliberately spiked the test. If I were angry at a co-worker, would I rationally and calmly discuss my grievance, or would I bottle it up and brood? If I pass someone in a hallway, do I make eye contact and greet him or ignore him? Anything that might paint me as antisocial, lazy, unstable, indifferent, or rebellious, I picked.
The woman from the employment agency called the next day: Could I start Monday? I was shocked. She was furious when I told her I’d decided to keep working at a movie theater for $6.10 an hour rather than plunge back into the office-space nightmare. Did I know how much those tests cost to administer? she asked me. Whatever they’re charging you, I told her, it’s too much.
...Cool Hand Luke aside, people in general don’t like a rebel. Like all collaborators, they’re much more comfortable shrugging and saying, “We have no choice. Resistance is futile.” But maintaining this delusion requires universal collaboration. If even one man rebels, the rest are exposed as cowards. The world of the office, the world of lockstep conformity, is a balloon, and the rebel is a pin.
...The need for security is universal. They’re just trying to hold on to something. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve tried to play the game, too. It’s nice to have that deposit show up in your bank account on the 1st and the 15th of every month. It’s nice, if you get sick, to be able to flash that insurance card and waltz past the writhing, uninsured masses. It’s nice to fit in somewhere, to have lines in which to color, to exchange banter every morning with a fresh-faced 25-year-old woman at the coffee machine. And there is nothing romantic about poverty and struggle. But I have my limits.
...The high-rollers, the bean-counters, the capitalists, and the white-collar tyrants: The office is the last arena in which a certain type of people can discharge their thirst for domination, their will to power. In bygone eras, these types might have gone off to war and removed themselves from the gene pool, or off to whatever frontier to impose civilization on the inconvenient mess of nature. But now it’s business, and that’s all. They created and perpetuated this world of afternoon-meeting ambushes and arbitrary power struggles, of mergers and acquisitions and hostile takeovers. Few things are more relentless, more dogged, than an ego in crisis. Workingman, beware.
In the end, it’s a question of how you accommodate to the horror that is office life. The communists and leftists can’t save you. You’re stuck with this system, its grinding gears inescapable.
If, like me, you go to work each morning and sit in front of a desk, you belong in the professional lineage of Sisyphus, the mythical figure damned to roll a massive boulder up a mountain, only to do it all over again when the rock rolls back down. After all, do you really make any substantial difference from your cubicle? Even if you carry a lot of weight in your office, does it matter, in the big picture, if you move 10 percent more units this quarter than the last? For anyone living a conscious life, office culture inevitably brings the onset of a mild sort of existential despair. Call it the blahs if you’d like: What am I doing? Am I just flushing 40 hours a week down the toilet? And unless you’re a heart surgeon or something, the answer is generally a resounding “yes.”
But you need that paycheck. You need those benefits. Your only hope, then, is to live in the moment, keep at it as an animal might, with consciousness tethered securely to the present. Don’t think about pushing that rock back up the mountain, about the brown-nosing yes-men eclipsing you, about the dehumanizing nonsense that presses in on every side, the petty tyrants in upper management using you as a salve for their shabby, wounded egos. Shut all that out. Just keep at it, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, moving cell by cell across that endless spreadsheet.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Why Corporate Culture Bites. Hard.
The Drone Ranger by Franklin Schneider, from the Washington City Paper. Great deconstruction of the basic white collar American job. Excerpts:
Posted by Rob Pugh at 8/30/2005 04:33:00 AM