The modern workplace is a curious beast. While the technologies we use to complete our jobs have changed significantly in the past couple of decades, some of the attitudes and beliefs surrounding work and workplaces seem to be stuck in the 19th century.
Some of these antiquities persist simply because of a lack of awareness. But others are perpetuated for more sinister reasons: because they support systems of wage slavery that keep employees in their place, and allow traditionally structured institutions that are no longer relevant to survive in an environment they refuse to adapt to.
1. Earning more is the result of working harder.
The first lie perpetuated by the average 9-5 job is that there’s a proportional relationship between the amount of work we do and the amount of value we create (and therefore our deserved remuneration). Typical jobs teaches us that in order to earn more, we need to work harder.
At face value, this appears to be quite innocuous. Hard work is a good thing… isn’t it? And there is some truth here: working vigorously and consistently on the right things is exactly how you should go about improving your lot in life. But the problem is in the details.
Embedded in the work harder, earn more ethos is an unspoken, unhealthy and inaccurate implication: suffering (working “hard”) is equivalent to value creation.
The problem here is not-so-much in that it forces people to work more than they need to, although that is unhealthy and damaging in itself. The real crime here is that this belief obscures what is truly important in earning more: creating tangible value in the world and having a bigger impact. This may involve working intensely over a long period of time, but the emphasis here is on value and impact, not suffering or arse-in-chair time.
2. You should defer responsibility.
In most modern workplaces, there’s little to no upside in taking calculated risks or putting your own skin in the game. Instead, you’re encouraged to always take the safe option and defer responsibility for hard decisions.
If you do happen to break the mold and make an unpopular or potentially risky decision, the best outcome you can hope for is a pat on the back and (if you’re lucky) a pay rise at your next performance review. On the hand, if you the weigh the risks, back the uncertain option and it backfires, you’re likely to receive the scorn and ridicule of coworkers and superiors, or worse: be joining the unemployment line.
Risk minimisation is important in any decision making process, but calculated risk taking is a necessity in achieving difficult outcomes in competitive contexts (such as in business). Within companies, risk avoidance leads to a culture of stagnation, lack of creativity and ultimately complacency.
The take-no-risks, offload-all-responsibility attitude of the modern workplace is embodied in the oft-repeated mantra of IT departments the world over: “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” While nobody may have been fired for buying IBM, it’s also quite likely that nobody has ever made it to the board of directors or built a successful business by always taking the “safe” path.
3. You need to be chosen.
Consider the standard script for getting what the majority of society would deem a “good job.” It probably looks something like the following:
- Study hard, test well and make sure you tick all the right boxes (according to parents and teachers).
- Get accepted by a good University.
- Spent 4+ years proving you’re worthy of a piece of paper.
- Because you have “nothing to offer,” accept an entry-level position at an unknown company for minimum wage.
- Repeat step 4 numerous times with incidental wage increases.
- Apply to, interview for and achieve the status of “selected candidate” for the job you initially wanted a decade ago.
Congratulations. After spending more than half your life jumping through hoops, you’ve made it: you have your “dream job.”
The modern workplace teaches you that you need permission. It teaches you that you need to wait until you’re good enough to pursue something, and when the time is right someone will anoint you as being worthy. In reality, in today’s economy many careers can be built by producing results, building relationships and cultivating career assets such as portfolio projects and personal branding artefacts.
Here’s a script that’s more inline with what those succeeding in the current job market are doing:
- Become so good that they can’t ignore you.
- Tell* relevant people about what you do, how you do it, and what you charge.
- Apply your skills on a real-world project.
- Increase your rates and repeat from step 2 (ad infinitum).
*: “telling people” shouldn’t be taken literally; it can also involve blogging about your work, emailing prospects, cold calling, etc..
4. Appearances trump results.
Having a job means that you probably have a boss. And it’s likely that the level of success or failure you experience in your role as an employee will be directly related to that boss’ opinion of you.
If your boss is intelligent, skilled in your area of expertise and has excellent management skills, this can be an incredible opportunity for growth and career progression… but bosses are people and people have flaws. Your boss may be petty and get pissed at you for minor incidents, or may have been promoted for having excellent technical skills but have absolutely no ability to manage other people. And now the future of your career depends on making sure this person likes you.
Jobs encourage you to focus on pleasing those in positions of power. You’re taught to supplicate, express safe opinions and put-in visible arse-in-chair time (after all, you don’t want to be the guy who leaves 15 minutes early everyday, right?). Politics and keeping up the appearance of being an agreeable hard-working employee end up occupying the lion’s share of your attention, while producing results and getting shit done take a back seat.
5. Life can (and should) be divided into “work” and “play”
Implicit in the typical employment relationship is an unspoken agreement: your employer will pay you $X per year, and as a result, you only need to “show up” (mentally and physically) between a certain window of time a number of days a year. Outside of this, you don’t need to be invested in your job.
Baked into this is an assumption that spending more doing work is a bad thing, which raises an important question: why do you want time away from your job?
Obviously working too many hours per week is a bad thing – it makes you unhealthy, dissatisfied with life and a dull person. But wrapped up in the traditional 9-5 mindset is a more insidious dilemma: not taking pride in, or deriving any satisfaction from your job.
The serial entrepreneur Tai Lopez made an interesting point on episode 54 of the Foundation Podcast that I think is relevant here. He challenged the “work less, play more” mentality of the Four Hour Work Week and Lifestyle Business movements by comparing it to meeting the ideal partner:
I’m not big on the Four Hour Work Week, the Tim Ferris mentality. I always tell people, if I came to you and I was like: “I’ve got the greatest news! I’ve met this girl, we’ve been dating, she’s my dream girl … we’re getting married!” You’re like “ok congratulations,” and I’m like “but I got one other piece of news for you!…”
“What’s great about this marriage is that I figured out a way to only spend 4 hours per week with her! Isn’t that great?”
Now your first thought’s going to be like, “why the hell are you marrying a girl that the most exciting thing about it is that you’re only going to spend 4 hours per week [with her]?”
If I said every hour I spend with this girl is amazing time and time slows down, THAT’S what you want.
Day jobs teach you that your work doesn’t have to (and if possible, shouldn’t ever) touch other parts of your life. I’d argue that if your primary goal in your chosen profession is to work less hours, you may need to choose a new profession.
6. The world is stable and predictable.
Having a “stable” 9-5 job tricks you into one of the most potentially damaging false beliefs that there is: the world is predictable and impervious to change. The reality is in fact the opposite: the only thing that we can reliably predict about the world is that it is going to change.
The collapse of global markets in 2008 and subsequent fallout that resulted in millions of redundancies and a crippled job market has been discussed in countless other articles in much more detail and with vastly greater insight than I could ever hope to offer, so I won’t go into it here. But I will touch on the key point.
Companies are built to turn a profit, not to support you or your family. Those aspects are secondary concerns, and when times are tough they’re treated as such.
A 9-5 job seems like the safe, responsible thing to pursue, especially for those with important financial obligations such as mortgage repayments or family members to support. The problem is, it leaves you ill-equipped to deal with change. If something does happen, you’re faced with stress, long-term unemployment and potential bankruptcy.
7. It’s OK for you to outsource your life purpose.
There’s one more lie wrapped up in the traditional employment relationship: that it’s OK to let someone else determine what you should live for.
When we go to work in a standard office environment, we’re implicitly agreeing with the idea that we don’t need to decide what’s important to us, or the impact that we want to have on the world. We’re really saying: “I’ll let the CEO decide what I live for.”
The problem here is that if you don’t decide what’s important to you and why you want to get out of bed in the morning, someone else will do it for you.
The path less traveled.
In closing I do need to add a postface: not all workplaces are this bad.
Some (very progressive) employers do have the awareness to acknowledge these problems and take measures to address them. I’ve worked at places where this is the case.
Have you seen these lies play out in workplaces you’ve been a part of? I’d love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments below, or by private message.