A cold but sunny London day, April 2009. We are eating our lunch on the steps of St. Pauls Cathedral; enjoying a few brief moments of fresh air watching the old No.9 Routemaster Double Decker Buses drive down Fleet Street before we have to return to our spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.
The conversation returns, as it often did in those days, to our corporate jobs. We are grappling with these questions: Why are our jobs so unfulfilling? How did we end up here? Are we crazy if we no longer want to work here? And, crucially: What can we do about it?
But the sensible voices in our heads are saying:
‘Don’t complain. This is what real-life is like.’
‘At least we’ve got jobs; many people would love these jobs.’
We used to spend a lot of time pondering these questions. It’s very easy to feel like you’re being ungrateful, immature or naïve. However, the more we analysed our situations, the more we realised that the path that had led us to the corporate world had been semi-automatic at best. Were we to resign, mad as it sounds, we felt it would be the first truly active decision we had ever taken.
We felt like we were being carried along by an invisible force. A force with its own agenda, values, and definitions of success. We call this force ‘The Travelator’.
The Travelator (N) DEFINITION:
The conventional path that most graduates and professionals find themselves on. A path that starts in school and university and can continue right until retirement. The Travelator implies a level of conformity and passivity. Stepping off The Travelator is hard. It’s hard enough to notice that you are even on it.
Ask yourself two questions, two questions that you have no doubt asked yourself on many occasions when your evening plan evaporates into thin air as you are yet again required to stay late to work on a seemingly important task:
Question 1: Why am I working for this organisation?
Question 2: Am I crazy if I don’t want to be here?
The problem is that the decision-making process that got you to where you are today often wasn’t entirely your own. Often the values of your work environment don’t reflect yours. Often it’s easier to inherit external definitions of success than cultivate your own.
We reasoned that it was more important to focus on what we did want to do rather than wallow in the negatives of what we didn’t. However, we also realised that you do need to understand what you don’t like in order to discover what could make you tick.
How can you avoid your enemy if you can’t even identify him?
Open your eyes. You are on a Travelator.
Walk it knowingly or get off.
Why does this world not work for so many of us?
We are our jobs.
Before we escaped, Rob found himself at an awkward British drinks party. A girl engaged him in conversation. Within seconds, inevitably, she asked him what he did. When he responded ‘I’m a management consultant’ she said ‘don’t take this the wrong way’ — as if there was a right way to take it — ‘but you look like one’.
Rob promptly went home, shaved his head and resolved to quit his job. It wasn’t that he minded looking like a management consultant; it was that he minded being a management consultant.
In the past, for most people, a job was just a means to an end — a tool to support your family and guarantee a certain level of income. A job was a necessary requirement to survive.
Today many of us have loftier ideals. We want our work to provide us with some form of meaning or fulfilment beyond the simple process of earning money in order to afford to exist. For many of us our career and our jobs are our highest form of self-expression.
Today most of us feel like our jobs are inextricably linked with who we feel we are as people. The polite question ‘what do you do?’ is far more than an enquiry into how you earn your living. It feels like being asked ‘who are you?’
So, if your job forms a large part of your identity and sense of self-worth, and you don’t enjoy it, then it’s little wonder that you also feel pretty miserable about yourself and your life when you try and answer that question.
“Inevitably, your career will define you, and then you’d be left to contend with whether you like yourself defined that way or not. That, I think, is what makes corporate jobs frustrating and scary. I don’t want to be defined by my blazer and high heels.”
– Denice (Escape the City Member), Philippines.
The emperor’s new clothes.
Hans Christian Anderson tells the story of how a fabulously rich, powerful and egotistical emperor is promised a new suit of clothes by two weavers. The clothes are meant to be invisible to those unfit for their positions — stupid or incompetent. When the Emperor parades in front of his subjects in his new clothes a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
When we worked in the corporate world we found that it was easy to be impressed by job titles and salaries without knowing whether any real value was being created. For the past decade hedge fund managers have been the celebrities of the finance world. They are seen as alchemists who make money when the markets go up or down. It’s all too easy to say ‘oh that’s impressive’ and keep quiet for fear of seeming stupid if you don’t know how they work.
We resolved that we weren’t prepared to work in jobs that were considered high-powered and successful if the reality was far from the truth. We decided that the actual daily reality of our jobs was far more important to us than what other people thought about them.
“The work was considered glamorous but was intellectually and emotionally unsatisfying, physically exhausting, and spiritually draining. That was my life. The long hours in my cubicle under fluorescent light left no time, and no emotional energy, for deep relationships. I was lonely and tired…”
– Andreas Kluth, ex-investment banker, author of ‘Hannibal and Me’
Politics and bullshit.
Why is it so hard to be yourself at work? People who work in big corporations often don’t speak like normal human beings. We caught the bug ourselves and ended up using ridiculous expressions like ‘let’s get our ducks in a row’ and talking about things like ‘capacity’, ‘learnings’ and ‘leverage’.
It seemed like no one at work was really being themselves. We desperately wanted to be able to be ourselves at work. Talking in anything louder than a whisper in the open plan cubicle farm on the 9thfloor used to attract strange looks from our fellow inmates as if to say: “What are those guys doing over there? They’re not TALKING are they?!”
We weren’t comfortable with the people that we became in our corporate offices. Sure it was still us, but we wanted to be able to bring our whole selves to work. And, despite being confident people, we found that those grey walls made it very hard to let ourselves be ourselves there. Not some ‘Stepford Wife’ version of our characters designed to fit into a preconceived idea of ‘how you should behave’.
It is often reported that the people who get ahead in the corporate world aren’t those who are best at their jobs, but those who are good at politics and ‘playing the game’. We know that that’s ‘just life’. You know that’s ‘just life’. However, it’s up to you whether you want to work in such an environment. Do you want to work in a world where appearances, perceptions and presentation carry more weight than output, execution and how nice a person you are?
“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.”
– Dave Barry.
Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose.
It was the 28th of April 2008 and Manchester United (one of Rob’s true loves) were playing Barcelona in the European Cup semi-finals that evening. The football fans amongst you will appreciate the pain of this story. The rest of you, just imagine that you were planning to spend your evening doing something really important to you!
Throughout the afternoon Rob had furiously worked on a particular presentation in order to leave the office at a reasonable hour and watch the game with his friends. As evening approached there was still no sign of the director who had asked for the piece of work. His manager suggested that they should wait for him to return from a meeting and review the work together before going home for the day.
So they waited, and waited, and waited. A couple of brief text messages arrived alerting them that the director was held up in his meeting. 7 pm turned to 9 pm and still they waited. Eventually, at 10 pm a phone call came through saying that they had better catch up in the morning.
The worst thing about the whole experience wasn’t that Rob missed the game, it was that it transpired that there was no pressing deadline for that piece of work and the client never saw the presentation in the end. For someone who likes working hard on something worth achieving this was incredibly frustrating.
A small loss in the scheme of things (there will be other semi-finals no doubt) but this story neatly encompasses how three really important ingredients for fulfilling work were missing from our corporate jobs:
We didn’t have control over our day-to-day.
We weren’t developing skills that we valued.
And so much of the work we sweated over just didn’t seem to matter.
Dan Pink writes some extremely interesting analysis on the psychology of work in his book ‘Drive — the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’. We consider it recommended reading for anyone interested in understanding the drivers behind job (dis)satisfaction. In the book he highlights three crucial ingredients for fulfilling work:
Autonomy — the desire to direct your own life.
Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters to you.
Purpose — the yearning to do what you do in the service of something larger than yourself.
Take a moment to reflect on whether your current job provides you with a significant amount of any of these ingredients. Is it any wonder you’re unfulfilled if it doesn’t allow you any of them?
No wonder you’re not feeling satisfied with your career if the only autonomy you have is during your evenings and weekends, the only thing you’re mastering is the art of looking busy or Microsoft Excel and the only purpose you have in your life is reaching the weekend.
Dave Meyer left his project manager job at Cisco to start an innovative water bottle company in northern California. He told us that he wanted to be in control of his own destiny: “I didn’t want to have a boss who was telling me to do something, who was told by his boss, who was told by his boss.”
Nina Elvin-Jensen escaped from being an investment property agent to set up littledelivery.com, a website selling children’s presents. She explained how unfulfilling she found the monotonous working routine: “I knew I was just a small cog in a large money-making machine.”
By contrast, Rob Cornish was a fund manager who enjoyed his job but hated the 9-to-5 regime (which he said was more like 7-to-7). In his own words: “Financial success is great but freedom of lifestyle and being able to plan your own day is really incredibly important too.”
Just like the examples above, we wanted to love our work and the freedom to do it on our own terms. We had none of these three ingredients in our corporate jobs. We decided to leave when we realised it would always be that way.