My journey from dead-end Cluelessness to the pursuit of happiness…
In 2009 Venkatesh Rao offered up The Gervais Principle, or the Office According to “The Office,” which I’ve come to regard as a must-read for everyone who works for a living. If I were still teaching business and comm-related grad school classes it would be on the syllabus.
No, seriously – I used to assign things like Machiavelli and Dilbert. The difference is that The Prince and Dogbert’s Top-Secret Management Handbook afford useful insights into surviving the workplace, while Rao’s musings turned out to be essential for surviving life in a world where we have to work to get by.
The gist is this. Organizations comprise three kinds of people:
The Sociopath layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is what [William] Whyte called the “Organization Man,” but the archetype inhabiting the middle has evolved a good deal since Whyte wrote his book (in the Fifties). The Losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks. [Emphasis added.]
The clever reader may have detected a foreshadowing of irony: as we’ll see shortly, “Losers” aren’t exactly losers.
So maybe we can frame it this way. Sociopath = “leadership.” Clueless = Middle-management, Sociopath wannabes. Losers = people who seek meaning outside work. Their relationship to the company is transactional and implies no loyalty. Their jobs aren’t their lives – the job merely finances life. Life is family. Friends. Leisure. Hobbies. Civic activity. Artistic endeavors. Etc.
In the context of the US version of “The Office,” the HQ execs who periodically dropped in to torment the Scranton office crew were the Sociopaths. Michael was an archetypal Clueless (Dwight, in his desperate pursuit of power and prestige, was right behind him). The Losers, in this company-centric formulation, were folks who lacked Dunder Mifflin-related ambition – Kevin, Stanley, Angela, Kelly, etc.
The status trap
Several years ago I took some career assessment tests and among them was one that ranked you on your professional priorities. It considered things like pursuit of wealth, the attraction of a challenge, etc. Basically, there were 10-15 things that motivate people at work, and you were force-ranked on what mattered most.
For me, #2 turned out to be status. This bothered me. I didn’t see myself as a status hound, but the test results made me reflect. The ugly truth was I did get hung up on titles and my place in the company. It was important to get promoted, to have people reporting to me. The gods help us all if I found myself lower on the totem pole than (or worse, reporting to) someone younger than me.
These factors spoke to the respect I had, and that was everything. I grew up Southern working class and insecure on top of it, so status markers were tangible validation – the only tangible validation – of my worth in society. Even if I really saw myself as an artist, a scholar and a thinker, being an a executive director in a Fortune 500 making six figures with some direct reports, and even better, reporting directly to the C Suite, this meant I was winning by the incontrovertible rules of society. You might not care about poetry, but you had no choice to be impressed by the business card.
Status mattered in those other areas, too. PhD. Tenure. Publications. If a poem was rejected, it was a chip in the foundation of my worth as human being.
So I lived life according to corporate/consumerist social rules, or tried to (even in non-corporate/consumer spheres).
That hateful little test planted the seed of self-awareness, and while it incited a good bit of self-examination I never acted on it. I guess you could say I chose to live with the disease rather than seek a cure.
Not one of us: my life as a Clueless
Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing Losers into middle-management, groom under-performing Losers into Sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort Losers to fend for themselves.
My buddy Otherwise has been telling me for years I’m not one of them and they know it as well as I do. As Rao explains, the Sociopaths look for overachieving sorts like me and move us up so we can be more useful. But there’s a velvet rope. You’re being used, and you can only go so far no matter what you do. They stand and talk pleasantly with you over the rope, but they won’t pull it aside and invite you in.
I think I knew all this at some level – I had class barrier experience from growing up Southern. But my need for validation won out and so I spent a number of years being profoundly Clueless. Sort of.
The Clueless are the ones who lack the competence to circulate freely through the economy (unlike Sociopaths and Losers), and build up a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even when events make it abundantly clear that the firm is not loyal to them. To sustain themselves, they must be capable of fashioning elaborate delusions based on idealized notions of the firm – the perfectly pathological entities we mentioned. Unless squeezed out by forces they cannot resist, they hang on as long as possible, long after both Sociopaths and Losers have left (in Douglas Adams’ vicious history of our planet, humanity was founded by a spaceship full of the Clueless, sent here by scheming Sociopaths). When cast adrift in the open ocean, they are the ones most likely to be utterly destroyed.
I didn’t have the delusional loyalty problem (having watched how the new Reaganite corporation treated my father after a lifetime of service back in the ’80s), but I worked with lots of people who did. My personal weakness was a lack of sophistication regarding how to create better opportunities for myself. So a different shading of Clueless, but Clueless nonetheless.
Reality catches up
“When cast adrift in the open ocean, they are the ones most likely to be utterly destroyed…”
A couple years ago I got cast adrift. First, I wound up on the wrong side of a company political battle (it wasn’t about me, but I put myself in line of fire by backing the wrong horse – never mind that said horse was right) and wound up getting forced out. Not long after I stumbled into a severely toxic “opportunity” that went even worse.
Which kicked off 20+ months of “self-employment.”
I won’t lie. It was sheer fucking terror. Every morning I’d wake in a panic and it could take ten minutes just to calm myself down. I had several medical issues, no insurance, mounting debts and the few freelance gigs I landed came nowhere close to keeping my head above water. I was sure I would wind up dead.
The upside is that even after working on the freelance stuff and hunting for jobs (applications with literally hundreds of companies, some phone interviews and a handful of in-person interviews which produced little more than a set of outraged posts on age discrimination, counter-productive interviewing rituals, ghosting and applicant screening systems). I had time to reflect on life, work and … well, me.
Despite a career which has seen me hold manager, senior manager, director and VP titles, I found myself applying for positions which were well “beneath” me (because I was lucky to even get a rejection letter for jobs at “my level”). And here, of course, was the CATCH-22 – it seemed that for every gig out there I was either not qualified or over-qualified.
When I did manage to land an interview for one of those lower-down-the-ladder jobs I always – always – wound up hearing a diplomatically turned question that translated into something like “wow, what a resumé. Why would a guy like you want a pissant little job like this?” I experimented with a variety of approaches to this. It was certainly a fair question, but it was also loaded as hell. The presumption lies against you. There are very few right answers and a lot of wrong ones, and following the advice of a zillion HR experts probably only made it worse. But that’s what you have to do when you’re playing the Clueless game.
After 20 hard months of failure I finally faced up to some things about myself vis-a-vis Rao’s pyramid. I finally broke down and admitted that I was tired of chasing things that don’t make me happy just because other people say I should.
And that became my answer.
The new job
A few weeks ago I finally got the offer. Not for a Veep job. Not for a director job. Or senior manager or manager or any of the other things for which I’m technically well qualified. Nope – my new position is copywriter – which is what I was doing in 1985.
And it feels so very nice.
The Losers like to feel good about their lives. They are the happiness seekers, rather than will-to-power players, and enter and exit reactively, in response to the meta-Darwinian trends in the economy. But they have no more loyalty to the firm than the Sociopaths. They do have a loyalty to individual people, and a commitment to finding fulfillment through work when they can, and coasting when they cannot. [emphasis added]
There’s less in the way of the pointless, manufactured stress that accompanies greater responsibility. (Pressure is how the Clueless reassure themselves they matter. It’s pressure driven by ritual, not reality.) My hours are reasonable. I’m not getting rich but I can certainly live on what I make. And I’m good at writing.
There’s some funny stuff about the situation, too, if you knew the old Sam. I’m probably the oldest guy in the group, for instance, and my boss is 30 years younger than me. Literally, she was born right about the time I was finishing my MA. But she’s sharp as hell and I really, really like her.
The bottom line is that I don’t love corporations. I don’t love working as much as I do living. I like money, of course, but not what you have to do to get more of it.
Instead, I love my wonderful girlfriend and my home life. I love playing with Trouble, the world’s greatest dog. I love my photography and digital art. My writing? Well, some writers do it because they love it and others because they can’t make themselves stop, and I’m in that camp. But there is meaning in it. And nothing I could ever do in the corporate world would ever have that sort of meaning for me.
Sure, it could all go to hell. It’s been less than a month and sometimes situations are good early on and a few months later you want to murder people. No guarantees – not now, not ever.
But it feels different. It’s like a tremendous weight is off me. I can breathe. And I know for certain that if this job doesn’t work out I won’t go back to the kind of Clueless life I was pursuing before.
It took a while, but I now understand I’m a Loser. And I couldn’t be happier about it.