This article was originally published on Elephant Journal.
Much of the way we live is unconsciously learned behavior that gets built, thought by thought, into habit and routine.
We do something a certain way because “it’s always been done that way.” We believe something because we were told it was true enough times, we stopped wondering. We accept something because we’ve never envisioned it could be different. As said in The Truman Show, “We accept the world with which we are presented, it’s as simple as that.”
To put it bluntly, we have been brainwashed.
Our attitude toward our work life, particularly in America, is no exception, and perhaps provides one of the best examples of our brainwashing.
We’re told, and thus believe, that we should find a job that meets the following criteria: they must pay well, the job must be suited to our abilities, and ideally, there’s room for advancement. Following our passions and curiosity might be on the list somewhere, but not near the top.
We are reminded that simply having a job is something to be thankful for in this country. Wanting more out of a job—such as that it should inspire or excite us, or that we should see ourselves as contributing to the larger mission—is unnecessary, and maybe even greedy.
From the time we’re young, we’re told that we ought to appreciate our jobs, and respect the companies that supply them. But very few of us expect that the companies, and those who run them, ought to equally appreciate and respect their workers, or that companies should be motivated to keep their methods fresh and interesting in order to find and retain the best talent.
The expression “working for the man,” doesn’t, of course, actually mean men, specifically. It means the system of patriarchy, or the social paradigm that we live under and that has divided the world into sections, lines, hierarchies, and tiers. It means the system in which those at the top are over-compensated for their work, while those at the bottom are under-compensated.
The expression also refers to capitalism, which, for all its purported benefits, ensures that every interaction in the workplace is a zero-sum game, turns our peers into our competition, and runs on the principle of scarcity.
As long as we keep believing there’s never enough, effective and rewarding collaboration will continue to be a rare exception in workplaces.
Combine patriarchy with capitalism (assuming they’re not two heads of the same dragon to begin with) and we get workplaces where the employee with the most cut-throat tactics, the least principles, and quiet, blind loyalty is often given the best opportunities. Those who are equally-abled, but strongly principled and ready to speak truth to power, get left behind.
Not only does this leave many workers unfulfilled and unrewarded, it doesn’t actually serve the company, either. And if it’s not serving the company or the workers, then what exactly is the point?
It’s time to rethink how we approach work.
Considering that a large portion of the American population is out of work right now, it may seem an insensitive time to discuss this topic. I see it differently. While the world is turned upside down, while families and individuals are rethinking their priorities and values, and as companies are considering what business is going to look like going forward, it’s not only a good time, it’s an ideal time to discuss new ideas. New egalitarian ideas and beliefs sets can create the foundation we need as we re-conceptualize work in America.
To demonstrate my point: If I created a new religion, I would not try to sell it to people in churches, synagogues, and mosques who, at least on some level, are content in their religion. I would instead share it with people on the streets who are disillusioned by their previous religion, or perhaps newly curious about or looking for religion. These are the people most likely to be open to hearing my idea.
If you’re willing to explore this idea with me, here are just a few examples of why working for a company or for a person ultimately fails everyone. I’m sure we could brainstorm many more.
- Our Employment Becomes a Contest of Loyalty
The way it often works today, when we sign on to work for a person or a company, we are also signing on to the company’s motto, purpose, and way of doing business. Of course, employers always tell prospective employees that they’re seeking innovators and game changers, but are they really? I’ve learned the hard and personal way that when managers say they want your honest opinion, more often they want you to smile and nod.
- The Work Often Doesn’t Match Who We Are
The first job I had out of college was as an administrator for an executive benefits firm. The purpose of this company boiled down to this: find ways to make rich people richer. If you knew me personally, you’d know how laughable it is that a company like this is on my resumé. But it happened with me like it happens for so many: There was a job posting at my college seeking someone with my skill set and credentials. The flyer did not mention what the company did or stood for. By the time I finally wrapped my head around this company’s mission, it was too late—it was a job, and it paid the bills, and that fit with what I had been led to believe a job should do.
- The Company Can’t Work in Nuance
Under the guidelines of patriarchy, most companies are set up to think in black-and-white terms. When an idea is good, its opposite must be bad, which leads to the end of the discussion rather than merely a good starting point. On the other hand, when an idea has failed, the entire idea is thrown out, rather than salvaging what was working. In addition, companies are too often set up as hierarchies, which meets the criteria of patriarchy, but leaves little room for negotiation and collaboration. These are just a couple reasons why companies continue to look less and less like the colorful and diverse world they claim to serve.
- Lack of Ingenuity/Recycling of Ideas
If we are committed to a company but have no incentive to commit to their larger work in the world, I’m sure we can still get our daily work done. But companies miss out on tapping into the raw creativity and ingenuity available in those who perform that daily work—especially those who are new and can see with fresh eyes. No wonder we see so many companies simply rolling out only slightly enhanced versions of the same products, year after year (an upgrade to your Iphone, anyone?). Mix-and-match ideas or recycled versions of already assembled ideas might be easy to do, but they don’t move society forward. Great ideas spring from imagination that reaches beyond the visible edges to the nearly imperceptible magic of possibility. How many companies today actually seek to procure such radical imagination from each every employee?
- No Inherent Check and Balance Between Employee/Employer
Given our dominant belief system that workers just need money and employers just need workers, where is the incentive for employers to seek buy-in from all their employees? Once loyalty has been secured through title or compensation (or through non-compete agreements and other questionable practices), what benefit is there for an employer to ensure that their employees are happy with direction the company is headed? In addition, there is no incentive for an employee to delve deeper, or research on their own and offer new ideas. At a minimum, this leads to mistakes and low productivity. In the extreme, it leads to constant turnover and a failure of the business to meet the actual needs of a society. and no one around who dares to tell the truth.
We must change the way we relate to our idea of work: Rather than working for people or corporations, we must choose to follow and work for the ideas and the idea-makers that inspire us, challenge us, and wake us up to our fullest human potential.
Speaking as a Gen Xer, I applaud and support Millennials for taking ownership over who they work for and why in a way that challenges the status quo. We didn’t even think to advocate for ourselves in this way; it wasn’t considered “polite.” Yet, there is still a long way to go for these new mindsets to domino through our culture entirely. When we talk to our children about finding jobs, or when they talk to their children about finding jobs, we must first consider the vision behind a company or person, and whether or not that’s something we can truly believe and invest in, too.
We must break free of the cultural brainwashing around what it means to work in our society. We must create new habits, routines, and ways of thinking that launch us into a more evolved future where businesses are incentivized to seek out curious and engaged workers to help them build something worthwhile, and workers know that they are valued for their criticisms, suggestions, and ideas.
We must create a world in which people seek to work not for a business or a person, but for an idea, one that brings them joy and calls them into true partnership. This will inevitably foster better working environments, which will mean thriving and fully creative human beings, which will result in more innovative and groundbreaking businesses, all leading to a more evolved and fulfilled way of life, a better world, a more evolved society.
It’s all possible if we wake up from the slumber we’ve been in, stop working for the man, and work for ideas instead.