Management / The American View: Cubicle Farm of Abandoned Dreams

The American View: Cubicle Farm of Abandoned Dreams

Every kid wants to be an astronaut when she grows up, but 99.999999% of us never even see a rocket. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger explores how the steady erosion of our childhood ambitions leads to depression, hopelessness, and stress … and how we can counteract it.

I’ve been having the exact same conversation with my co-workers for several years, and it’s bothering me. Picture me – or, better yet, picture the movie star of your choice playing me – answering a ringing office phone.

‘Good morning, [other person].’ I drawl. ‘How are you?’

‘Oh, you know.’ [other person] says. ‘I’m living the dream!

‘Get better dreams,’ I always quip.

I’ve responded with the same dry retort for … years now, I think. I’m not sure who I started saying it to. I just remember that the silly joke always set me on edge. ‘Living the dream,’ Hell! Since when did anyone dream about shuffling pointless forms in a dingy cubicle for nine hours a day in exchange for weak coffee and steadily-declining purchasing power? I could understand the joke response if the other person was playing sports professionally, or test-flying fighter jets, or touring with a K-pop band, or contributing to a team of scientists curing a disease. Those dreams resonate.

When you ask a little kid ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ they tend to display grand ambitions: they want to be an astronaut, or a doctor, or a firefighter, or (better yet) all three at once. That makes sense. I’ve never heard a kid say ‘I wanna be a powerless office drone with no purpose in life and no job security!’

‘WOOOO! This is EXACTLY where I always to be!'

I understand that the joke is meant to be sarcastic and I grasp the subtext. The thing is … the obviously-untrue assertion bothers me far more than it should. There’s something fundamentally wrong with even pretending to rejoice in an unfulfilling and hopeless work-life situation that seems right out of Winston Smith’s graduation from Room 101.

Without context, the phrase ‘living the dream’ seems to be an admission that the joker’s life has fallen far short of his or her childhood imaginings and that the speaker has given up all hope of their life improving. Acknowledging the lie seems like endorsing the speaker’s nihilistic outlook, like a hopelessness validation service.

Something happened to me last week, though, that challenged my usual thinking. The rote exchange started (‘How are you?’ ‘Oh, you know …’) and I was struck by the thought Is it possible that this truly is the best dream that [other person] could come up with? That was followed by the thought Or is this the only viable dream that that they have left?

I’m not claiming that I came to any world-changing epiphany; smarter people working in social science and philosophy have opined on this subject better than I can. I just happened to catch up a bit late, and it sent me scurrying down the rabbit hole of published research. I started exploring why people’s visions of their desired life seem to steadily and inexorably diminish as they age even though their skills, knowledge, and earning potential supposedly increase.

‘I made it to the top of my career ladder … it just wasn’t the ladder that I wanted to climb.'

Benjamin Hardy wrote an interesting column for Inc. on this one year ago called Why Even Ambitious People Rarely Become Successful. He opened with a great paragraph:

‘”Success” can only truly occur internally, because it is based on emotion. At the most basic level, success if your relationship with yourself. Most people are living a lie. They purposefully ignore and distract themselves from what they deep down want for themselves.’

There’s a ton of interesting concepts to unpack, but I’ll save that for another column. The main thrust of Mr Hardy’s column is that only those people who are totally committed to achieving a specific outcome will succeed at it. I find his premise great … in the abstract. I feel that his assertion frays to pieces when viewed pragmatically.

As an easy (and facetious) example, let’s say that my ambition was to become the next Emperor of Japan once Emperor Akihito leaves the Chrysanthemum Throne. That’s a grand and noble ambition. I could commit myself to it with every waking breath and will never succeed because I’m (a) not Japanese, and (b) am not a legitimate male descendent from the approved line of dynastic succession. In the abstract, Hardy’s advice to ‘totally commit’ to my goal of becoming emperor would help me succeed; if I do everything in my power to prepare myself, I’ll create the conditions necessary to compete. In reality, this career option was closed off for me the moment I was born. No amount of ambition or personal commitment can ever change that.

Undeniably awesome, but not ‘emperor’ material.

I’m not trying to knock Hardy’s argument on the importance of working to secure your dreams. Rather, I’m arguing that the act of growing up includes a steady accumulation of knowledge about all of the ways in which your early dreams cannot possibly come true. It’s fine to dream about being a king or a carpenter, but perseverance and hard work will only allow you to qualify for one of those professions.

Let’s set aside the obvious – and crucially important – side-argument about racial, sexual, religious, and economic discrimination. Those are real problems that exist and must be dealt with. Focusing only on the abstract issue of ablating dreams for a notional person, I argue that a significant part of ‘growing up’ involves discovering that the crucial prerequisite tasks required to achieve a career objective either could never be achieved or else passed you by and thus are no longer available. This can run the gamut from graduating medical school to joining the paratroopers to being a teen pop star. If you didn’t perform the required qualifying steps while your window of eligibility was open, you lost the opportunity to pursue that particular goal forever.

Grappling with that realisation is a huge source of stress for many people. You wanted to be an astronaut? You missed your window when you didn’t qualify to become a military test pilot. Whoops! Wanted to be a pop star? You didn’t audition with Disney back when you were still young and cute. Whoops! You wanted to be the CEO of Company X? Your parents weren’t rich enough to get you into the university and fraternity that all of the Top Men of Company X graduate from. Whoops! Discovering the so-called ‘critical path to success’ for a job that you want often happens only after it’s too late to have a go at it. This can be crushingly depressing.

Which is what this whole column is, right? One giant downer, meant to drive every reader straight to the nearest pub to try and dull the horror of existence? Actually … no.

This is the uplifting part of the article, in both senses of the word. 

I’m not trying to be ‘the Werner Herzog of the cubicle farm’ here. [1] Quite the contrary! Instead, I want to point out that this aching pit of despair that comes from growing up and watching our childhood dreams rot away can actually be a life-changing positive opportunity for us as leaders to liberate people’s hope. No, really. We have the power to do for others what they can’t do for themselves. Not universally, but enough to rekindle people’s joy and ambition.

See, we have the positional power, clout, and experience to create opportunities for people so that new dreams to flourish to replace their now-impossible ones. As leaders, we can open up new professional paths that our workers didn’t realize existed. We can send our people to classes that they can’t afford on their own. We can arrange for cross-training with experts and other departments. We can endorse our people to compete for positions that their resumes won’t support. We can lean on HR to take a chance on a guy or gal trying something new. We can open those doors and encourage our people to charge through them.

That’s the glory and the reward of being in charge of people. We get to engineer new opportunities, liberate hope and otherwise improve other people’s lives. [2] We get to be the essential catalyst that overcomes those institutional barriers that block good people’s advancement. We get to mentor our people to help smooth out their rough edges. We get to introduce our people to pivotal decision makers in other departments and at other companies. We get to fund investment and take risks and create the raw potential for our people to craft all-new dreams.

So, yeah. I’ve started changing my routine snarky response when people greet me with a trite joke. Instead of telling people to get better dreams, I’ve started asking what they’re rather be instead. Yeah, we might not get to put a person on a throne, but we can damned sure put them in a better position than they could ever reach on their own.

You can too. Give it a shot. It’s exhilarating for everyone involved.

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[1] Save, perhaps, for tapping into the director’s morbidly dry and dark sense of humour. See this article for examples. Emulate your heroes!

[2] Like the supervisor who endorsed me to take on an all-new Security Awareness role. Hi, Adam! You rock!

 

Title Allusions: Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010 documentary film)

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POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.