Fighting The “Corporate World Is Bad” Narrative – Is It Worth Escaping?

The “corporate world is bad” narrative is popular in my finance bubble. There, I keep coming across colleagues who are working on escaping this world and what they call hamster wheel. Some have even made it and are now enjoying the apparently sweet life of freedom. This fruit is tempting, and I often desire to say “fuck it” as well. But I haven’t done it yet because even a hamster wheel can become a merry-go-round. 

Readers key takeaway

  • Escaping the corporate world is a tempting idea. Many people perceive this world as an anonymous, gray, and rainy place where people do meaningless things.
  • A pretty strong “the corporate world is bad” narrative has emerged in my financial bubble based on these images.
  • This article describes how I see this narrative.  And don’t get this article wrong. There are, of course, bullshit jobs that fit the description of a hamster wheel. So I am not going to preach a “corporate world is paradise” narrative. I want to bring some balance into the debate.
  • Indeed, the corporate world steals time. Your time. My time. But such an argument doesn’t mean that this is an inherent problem of the corporate world. I think the finite nature of time and our usage of this valuable resource is the critical issue. The point is to leverage time to our advantage. It doesn’t matter whether we achieve this during a hamster wheel sprint or early retirement.
  • This article is not a playbook or a manual for anything. Take it with a grain of salt and a cup of tea. Then it will taste better.

The “corporate world is bad” narrative

Let’s do a test.

Would you say Steve Cutts’ comic “of a rodent’s unrelenting quest for happiness and fulfillment” describes your current life?

In Steve Cutts‘ comic, we see a rodent (not clear if mouse or rat) that is badly caught up in its search for happiness. It seeks fulfillment in materialism, which gives only brief satisfaction. 

The camera zooms out, and we see the limbo to hell, an open space office full of trapped rodents.  My oh my. Eventually, the mouse ends up in the mousetrap. It’s the perfect fable to describe the corporate world and instantly puts you in a bad mood (so don’t watch it on a Monday). 

If you answered “yes” to the questions at the beginning, then you are one of the many people who think they are stuck in a hamster wheel called the corporate world. The narrative is that this world is the afterbirth of capitalism and a horrible place of exploitation. People spend between 8 and 12 hours of their daily time doing meaningless work to get the money they can spend on things they don’t need.

A hierarchy characterizes this bad place. Your boss is at the top. You are at the bottom. When in doubt, your boss is an idiot, but you can’t do anything about it because you are you, not your boss. And that sucks, at least for you.

Why people want to escape the corporate world

The above is actually enough to understand why so many people want to escape the corporate world. I mean, who wouldn’t, right? As rhetorical as this question is, so is the following quote from Charles Bukowski:

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so? ”

The narratives of Charles Bukowski’s quote and Steve Cutts’s comic are similar. Life, as described, doesn’t feel right. It’s anonymous, gray, and rainy. Beyond that, both narratives characterize life as meaningless.

The comic and the quote from Bukowski achieve that feeling with a trick. Both are only focusing on the course of action, not its content. They insinuate as if all the getting up, getting ready, going to the office, and clicking into the keyboard had no meaning. However, with this repetitive style, everything sounds terrible, even my vacation diary of my stay in La Réunion. 

The “corporate world is bad” narrative is also consistently associated with a job in my bubble. It’s about the worker’s role and about career ladders which are seen as something bad. It’s funny, though, that the sentiment against the “corporate world” is never associated with investing in companies. We can go even one step further. Devotees of the FIRE movement invest in companies like Amazon and Apple and praise their creativity and innovation, but simultaneously want to escape the force that creates it all (the employees).

Don’t worry. I will look at these inconsistencies in more detail below but before that, let me straighten the scope a bit.

Straighten the scope

The “corporate world is bad” narrative lumps many terms together. In fact, many dimensions of work are affected. We are not only talking about lifetime and money/salary but also engagement, satisfaction, and meaningfulness (i.e., the mattering) of a job.

Purpose-providing aspects of a job (the mattering) are not necessarily related to its complexity or difficulty

There are extensive studies that look at how meaningful jobs are. The mere fact that about 50 percent of jobs are at risk of automation gives a sense that many jobs might not matter that much. But it’s not that simple. Just because a machine can also do a job does not mean that this job has no meaning or value to a worker.

We see it in the supposedly pointless work on an assembly line. Many workers of large industrial companies such as General Electric or car manufacturers such as General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, or Renault had a strong sense of identification with the company and were proud to do this work. We know them as company men

In this respect, there is much to suggest that the mattering of a job is less related to its complexity or difficulty. The decisive factor is the feeling of being needed and of having a mission. 

Engagement and happiness are two different things

Another aspect is that people confuse engagement with happiness. According to Gallup’s  State of the Global Workplace, only 15 percent of employees are engaged in the workplace. But that does not necessarily mean that 85 percent of all employees hate or don’t like their jobs. Engagement and satisfaction are entirely different things.

Engagement can arise from happiness but also result from performance pressure and too high expectations. Edwin Locke (University of Maryland) described job happiness or job satisfaction as follows:

“The pleasurable emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s job as achieving or facilitating the achievement of one’s job values.”

And it doesn’t look like everyone confirms the “corporate world is bad and makes unhappy” narrative. In the US, 65 percent of employees are satisfied with their jobs. In the UK, a YouGov poll found that most Brits either love or like their jobs.

escaping the corporate world The majority of Brits either love or like their job
According to a YouGov survey, the majority of Brits either love or like their job, source:

“Mattering” is a double-edged sword

In addition, the search for the mattering could become a reason for unhappiness itself. I feel that, especially in my generation, the question of “mattering” has acquired an outstanding significance.

As far as the job in the “corporate world” is responsible for the income, this job already fulfills one purpose. I don’t think our ancestors asked themselves whether their profession had a purpose or not. It was vital to plow the field, sow, and harvest the grain, as for most workers today, the salary is vital.

And plowing a field is probably not more desirable from our ancestors’ point of view than sitting in a warm office for 8 hours a day populating Excel sheets.

escaping the corporate world The importance of Mattering at Work TEV Blog Image
Escaping the corporate world: The importance of mattering at work

In this respect, the question is whether it is the responsibility of the “corporate world” to give us jobs that fulfill the criterion of mattering. It may also be a luxury problem that my generation has. I am very aware of that problem. The greater the bandwidth, the greater the selection and the pickier I become.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is a good development. But the search for “mattering” becomes a double-edged sword when we place too high expectations on ourselves and on the “corporate world”.

I, therefore, separate the questions of “mattering” and satisfaction. Because otherwise, linking both aspects could bring us on the path to unhappiness due to the pressure and expectations that start to get involved.

That’s why I think the moral question of “mattering” shouldn’t interfere with the hedonistic question of satisfaction, at least in general. Satisfaction should stand on its own. But that’s just my hedonistic view.

Inconsistencies I have stumbled upon

Now that we’ve looked at the individual terminologies a little more closely, I want to discuss some inconsistencies I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. They affect my thinking, but I also recognize them when others express their thoughts.

I have written elsewhere about these inconsistencies in other contexts (see here, for example). Here, I refer to those that affect the “the corporate world is bad” narrative.

Escaping the corporate world while still investing in exactly what we want to escape from

My financial bubble has a bizarre relationship with the corporate world. On the one hand, its members are drawn to it. They invest capital in this world and take stakes in companies. And hell yes, as investors, we claim our damn “fair” share of the success of these profit-driven companies. That’s one side.

On the other hand, we look at the corporate world like oil looks at water. We want to escape from this world and reject it as soon as it is about us and our time becoming a part of it.

We compare ourselves to hamsters on a hamster wheel. Looking in the mirror, we see the unhappy rodent in the mousetrap. In summary, we invest in precisely what we want to escape.

We are looking for personal progression but shy away from the challenge to growth with a company

A big argument against the “corporate world” is that it makes personal development more difficult. One argument goes that the hierarchy, the corset of the corporate structure, and the mindless and monotonous activity turn workers into soulless zombies.

At this point, many investors justify the FIRE movement by saying that financial freedom promotes greater self-improvement. This noble image of a self-educating person sounds tempting. My bucket list in this regard is long, too.

However, it is just as exciting to assist a company in its growth and, to some extent, to help steer this growth. I don’t want to miss that.

The personal development here is enormous. Starting from the bottom as a small intern to taking on responsibility in a multi-million or even billion-dollar project is a huge progression. And while this job can be highly challenging, it is, in the same way, self-fulfilling to push large projects as a lawyer and to guide clients (also from the corporate world) with passion, patience, and commitment through the legal jungle.

“If you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office.”

In return, I earn good money and get insights that are hidden from ordinary investors. It is a fact that I would never come into contact with such processes and insights in early retirement, which would be a shame. That doesn’t make me a better investor, but it helps to understand the mentality of managers, entrepreneurs and the rules and challenges of running a company.

Of course, not every job offers these values. There are bullshit jobs that fit the description of a hamster wheel. My point is not to preach the “corporate world” like paradise. I want to bring some balance into the debate. We’ll also see below that workers have some control over how much insight and responsibility they get.

We are our worst teachers and lousy role models

I find it challenging to go through a learning and development process without a mentor. By that, I don’t mean that I need someone to tell me what to do and how to do it.

I am somewhat concerned with a critical mind that can reflect my thoughts. With a mentor, I mean a very experienced person whose skills exceed mine.

Me, just self-critical enough not to hurt my feelings.

We can find such people who must also be willing to guide us in the corporate world rather than in our private life. It is like that: The corporate world pays your mentor to educate you, and it pays you to ensure that you follow the mentor’s guidance.

Done right, it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. I support my company and help my mentor achieve his or her targets. And what’s in for me? Well, I learn in a competitive environment and can increase my market value

So if you have a skilled mentor, it’s a pretty nice deal. We can benefit from such people and their experiences throughout our lives. I would miss, in particular, the different angle, perspective, and focus that such a mentor might have on a subject.

Because from a purely technical point of view, one’s personality might be the worst teacher and role model. Since human thinking is full of filters and amplifiers, humans are highly biased when they are supposed to criticize their work. Who wants to admit to being an idiot?

And it not only takes a lot of effort to recognize cognitive limits but even more to fight against them. At this point, I’m afraid that without the critical distance of a mentor, I’ll get lost in a spiral of my thinking that ends up consisting of confirmation bias.

What would I miss if I quit now? What would I gain?

I know the feeling of just wanting to quit and do only what I feel like doing. As I said above, my bucket list is packed to the top, so there’s plenty to do. Conversely, there is also a lot on the list that I could not achieve without an active life in the corporate world. The many challenges, the defeats, and the small victories are precisely what push the personality forward and always bring out new aspects about our world.

Learning is currently at the top of my list. I want to learn as much as I can as quickly as possible. There is no better environment for that than a job that challenges you 8 to 10 hours a day (with a good mentor). 

The first years in an international law firm were hard, starting as Legal Counsel at a FAANG company challenging. Retrospectively, being thrown into the ice-cold water hardens and adds more valuable elements to the personality. I would greatly miss that. 

I’m afraid to inflate the bullshit bubble if I quit

Through my job, I have the good fortune to gain insight into matters that the morning news reports on and the bad fortune to read in the evening what the supposed experts think about it.

I’m not blaming anyone here. The reason is simply that I am very close to the events, and the others can only observe them indirectly and from a distance. Anyone with solid niche knowledge knows this feeling when they hear a layperson talking about this niche topic. It always feels a bit off.

And my problem here is that bored people quickly become experts in all sorts of things. But not only that. They divert expertise from their self-proclaimed expert status to take a stand on other issues. In doing so, an amateur fisherman who occasionally digs for worms becomes a geologist and then a climate expert. That is the consequence of trying the impossibility mentioned above of wanting to educate oneself while being one’s teacher.

I would gain time

However, I would gain time by quitting my job, which would be the biggest win in my view. Because in the end, time is what I trade in for everything I get from the job and the corporate world. That includes money, status, knowledge, experience, etc.

Here, the FIRE community has a valid point. The corporate world steals time. Your time. My time. And those who see this as a negative thing are somewhat right about the “corporate world is bad” narrative. But this argument doesn’t mean that this is an inherent problem of the corporate world. Moreover, the finite nature of time and our usage of this valuable resource is the issue.

The point is to use this resource as much as possible to our advantage. So we need to leverage it as best we can to achieve as many of our goals as possible.

And indeed, populating Excel sheets doesn’t help. But ranting through the Twitter columns while living the early retirement life isn’t a desirable scenario either. I look at the corporate world here as a tool, just like other people look at early retirement as a tool to pursue their dreams.

There is no general attribute to describe the corporate world. It’s up to each of us to use this tool in a way that makes us happy. For me, it’s a trade. I’m offering my time and my growing skills to get what’s important to me right now. 

Crafting the right mindset might help

At the end of this article, I want to point out one more thing. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020, 37 percent of the 34,000 people surveyed ranked employees as an essential ingredient to a company’s long-term success. This is equivalent to the 38 percent that said customers are more critical.

Furthermore, 60 percent of employees believe their coworkers are the most significant contributor to their happiness at work.

These surveys show us how important individual employees are for the functioning of this corporate world. Workers are of great value to the company and thus also to our investments. Many companies recognize this. Not all. But many do. That should give reason to think about the “the corporate world is bad” narrative.

There will be a moment when I, too, will leave the corporate world. But that’s still a long way down the road. I’m still learning so many different things and reaching my limits so often that it feels wrong to stop now. Conversely, the many moments of success, victories, and learnings are incredible treasures that I look back on with joy and inner peace. 

They probably won’t make my investments any better. But they will help me get a clearer picture of our world and how it works.

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