When I landed my first job at a massive global investment bank, my reaction to the corporate world was almost allergic.
My allergic reaction mostly had to do with the environment of the corporate world. Within the first few days I felt the gnawing numbness begin to creep over me as I stared across a sea of identical 75 square foot cubicles, dotted along grey carpet, exposed under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent strip lighting.
I still remember my first day, watching the clock tick barely past 11am, my muscles aching and unaccustomed to sitting at a desk for extended periods, wondering how I was possibly meant to stay sitting for yet another 7 hours. My body’s natural desire to move did not diminish as the weeks passed and the corporate working structure descended on me – it merely intensified. I found more and more excuses to make unnecessary trips to the printer, the water cooler, the washroom, just to break up the interface between myself and my computer monitor.
I must pause to add that there were definitely elements I did enjoy about the experience. I enjoyed suiting up in the mornings, the routine and structure, access to interesting events and senior individuals and meeting new people. Most of all, however, I enjoyed observing the ins and outs of this environment: the epitome of a corporate workplace.
You see, I believe that the current traditional corporate mode of working is in fact not working for many of us. From the mandated working hours, the uninspired ‘cubes’ we sit in, or the amount of time staring at a screen or a BlackBerry, people are losing touch with what it means to be alive and to feel alive.
Here’s what I learned from my short time in the corporate world:
1) IT’S NOT FOR EVERYONE AND THAT’S OK
Don’t beat yourself up if you wander around the office, wondering how everyone else can sit in front of a computer with no breaks for nine hours straight and you can’t. There’s nothing wrong with you. This is just simply not an environment that maximizes your potential and your flow of energy and creativity.
2) DON’T SUCCUMB TO THE “POWER” OR THE HIERARCHY
Every organization invariably has its own lexicon of jargon and organizational terms, its own gossip and seniority ladders. It is easy to lose your voice, to lose your power, to lose your confidence and your ability to express yourself, when you buy into the prevailing culture of fear of authority and an unforgiving hierarchy. Job levels and job titles can leave you feeling small and insignificant and those higher up on the ladder can exploit their position by wielding their sense of power by belittling others. Don’t be afraid to own your space, to be yourself and to speak up. Create your own value.
3) THERE IS A DISSONANCE BETWEEN OFFICE BASED WORK ENVIRONMENTS AND HUMAN NATURE
Human beings are animals, just like every other creature on the planet. Our ancestors were hunters and gatherers and we were constantly on the move, building and sourcing the things necessary for our survival. With incredible advances in technology and automation a huge proportion of humans live very sedentary lives today. Yet sedentary living and sedentary office work is incompatible with the body’s extraordinary capacity to move and create. More and more research articles are warning us of the risks of too much sitting. Excessive sitting has been linked with Type 2 Diabetes, some types of cancer and premature death. Not even 30-60 minutes of concentrated daily physical activity can diminish the risks of 8 hours of sitting. Not only is there distress on the physical body, there is also often a degree of psychological damage. There is something deeply unsatisfactory for the human spirit to be “caged” in a cubicle, or an office, or a culture of presenteeism. Human beings are not robots or machines. We cannot perform at exactly the same standard every single day between the hours of 8.30am-6pm as defined by the standardized work contract. We need fresh air and sunshine just like we need food and water. We need to experience the elements in order to be in our element. The lack of visual and physical stimulation found in most office spaces including but not limited to a monochrome colour palette and computer-based work, numbs the human’s sense of freedom, creativity and inspiration.
4) THERE ARE OTHER WAYS TO WORK AND LIVE – THEY JUST TAKE MORE COURAGE, FAITH & TIME
Sometimes it feels impossible to imagine how to earn money without a ‘job’. We are socially conditioned to believe in employment. Within the first few days of starting a degree at university, we are trained to start thinking about our strategies to enter the workforce. Many students opt to do an ‘industrial placement’ mid-way through their degree program to get a leg up on the competition when it comes time to find work after graduation. The term itself, industrial placement, does not immediately spark a feeling of excitement. Many individuals deny themselves the opportunity to think outside the box, to imagine a career beyond their wildest dreams. Much of this comes down to fear. Fear of financial insecurity. Fear of failure. Fear of going against the grain. Fear of taking a risk.
5) IF YOUR JOB IS IMPACTING YOUR PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL, MENTAL OR SPIRITUAL HEALTH, STOP. IT’S NOT WORTH IT.
Stop before it’s too late. This seems simple enough but a huge number of individuals are virtually deaf when it comes to listening to their inner voices. Our bodies send us very strong signals but for many of us, picking up on these signals and respecting them is not second nature. Conditioned to take direction from our minds, with slogans like ‘Work Hard, Play Hard’, and ‘Quitting is for losers’, we work until we collapse. We run through the pain. We caffeinate and medicate. We don’t stop until we drop. It is important to give your job a chance. Give the corporate world a chance. But if your days in the office become unbearably painful, if your soul and spirit feel as if they are dying, if your body aches with burnout – stop. If each day passes in a blur of grey, if you feel as if you are not learning, not contributing and not appreciated – stop. If your integrity feels compromised, your creativity stymied, your mind numbed – stop. If your work is stoking a substance or process addiction (alcohol, cigarettes, food, compulsive shopping, technology or sex), ill health or deep unhappiness – stop. If suicide seems the best way out – STOP. Stop. It’s ok. You’re not a failure. The world won’t crumble. You’ll find a way through. You’ll find what you need. You might not know how right now but that’s ok. We rarely create the time and space to simply allow the signs and answers to come to us. If you are fortunate enough to be able to allow yourself a few weeks or even months of unstructured time, you may discover the gifts and passions you’ve been suppressing for a long time because they didn’t fit in to any of the job descriptions you found.
As for me, I am currently taking a time-out from the corporate world. I am not applying for jobs at the moment after nearly two years of tireless applications and disappointing rejection. I feel both a freedom and a great apprehension. There is a natural fear in giving up the security and structure of a paid job. The inner voice telling me it wasn’t working for me at this stage of my career, however, became louder than the voice of fear. I could very well return but just for now I’m letting myself explore alternatives. I know as well that there is a cultural shift happening in many corporate workplaces. Many organizations are following the alternative working structures found in Silicon Valley start-ups or pioneering companies such as Richard Branson’s Virgin. I am conscious that my initial corporate experience happened to be in a very traditional old-school working environment. I would love to hear from Millennials out there working in fun, inspiring and joyful corporate jobs. I know that they exist and it’s important to hear about them in order to be able to imagine a full-range of options and means of earning a living.
So what’s your career experience? I’d love to hear.