I finally quit my job and I'll tell you why.
Not the job. I loved my job. The job was great. And for years I was as perfect for the job as the job was for me. Worked hard. Paid well. Good benefits. People knew me by how well I did my job. I was successful. Secure. Satisfied. I vowed never to be smug. To me, smugness was next to ungod- liness.
You see, I appreciated my job. I counted myself among the happy few who knew how good his luck could run and for how long.
Twenty three years.
That's how long I worked for the same company. Twenty three years. From right out of college until just the other day... First, doing the job I loved. Then, trying to love the job I was allowed to do... But in the end.
That's what it came down to .
The it that sucked wasn't the job. It was the situation. The situation that prevented me from doing the job as I felt it should be done.
The job was great.
The situation sucked.
Sound familiar? It should. There's a lot of it going around. The situation sucks in jobs all over America where quiet desperation has replaced creative ambition among the best and the brightest individuals in their fields.
Ross Perot was right about that sound we all hear. But wrong about the cause. The giant sucking sound you hear isn't coming from American jobs fleeing to Mexico, it's coming from all the employment situations that prevent talented people from doing their best work. The giant sucking sound is coming from inside businesses, hospitals, universities, manufacturing industries, service industries, publicly owned and non-profit companies located in every corner of the United States of Corporate America.
If what I'm describing sounds too familiar, take some
comfort in a simple fact:
We are not alone, you and I. We have met the enemy and he is not us. The sucking sound is created by our resis- tance to their insistance that they know better than us, by our refusal to subscribe to their definition of success, to wit, when we become one of them.
We'll be in real trouble when the sucking sound stops because that would mean the battle is over. We will have surrendered.
Their will be done.
Our souls be damned.
I call this thing, this great destroyer of individuality, this relentless process by which our best work (what we consider our best effort) is unsought and unwelcomed, the Corporate Culture.
The Corporate Culture operates with this credo:
It does what it does because it can. It doesn't have to make sense. It doesn't have to explain. It can be cruel. It can be benevolent.But neither result is its mission, merely its impact.
Unlike the larger Marketplace in which it operates, an individual company's Corporate Culture answers to noone and nothing. Not success. Not failure. Not justice. Not even common sense. The Corporate Culture merely does what it does until it does something else.
"The raucous romance of our wild free days
had gone from th enewspaper profession and
the dead oared by the dumb went upward
with the flood"
--William Allen White
Emporia (KANSAS) Gazzette
Despite the warning sounded above by a small town newspaper editor William Allen White in 1926, my industry, print journalism, was late contracting the Corporate Culture virus. At least it was at the newspaper where I worked for more than two decades, even though we were part of - the very flagship- for a large multi-media corporation with newspapers, tele vision stations and a variety of video and on-line enterprises in cities large and small from coast to coast.
I was aware, along with my colleagues, that all of us were at risk, that our working environment was CC-positive, that there was no such thing in this day and age as safe jobs. But I was reasonably secure in the knowledge that my job was as safe as any. I did not participate in high-risk work activity. I had been involved in a monogamous relationship with my employer since the early 1970's. I was reliable. I was never sick. I worked weekends. My output was considered phenomenal by peers. The quality and variety of my work was deemed superior. If there was a star system where I work, I was the star.
Not that I ever felt like a star at work. For 23 years I sat at the same sloppy-topped gun-metal gray desk (or one exactly like it) which sat front-to-front and side-to-side with other identical gun-metal gray desks in a large cluttered newsroom, which was illuminated from overhead by panels of flourescent tubes emitting a bleak joyless pale light that cast no shadows to combat computer-monitor related eyestrain.
It was hard to feel like a bigshot in such a democratically depressing environment. I was always reminded of an episode of The Lou Grant Show, where reporter Joe Rossi was led into the newsroom at gunpoint by a man who wanted Rossi to write a retraction. "Where's your office?" the gunman demanded. Rossi pointed to his gun-metal gray desk in the middle of the newsroom of the fictional newspaper in Los Angeles, a desk just like mine in Philadelphia. The gunman looked at the desk in disbelief and then back at Rossi with contempt. "I thought you were important!" he sneered.
I never thought I was important but I did feel confident that I was valuable. Valuable to the newspaper by being valuable to the readers. Valuable to myself, my family and my city. After all, I was doing something unique in big city American Journalism. I wrote a daily clolumn for a major metropolitan daily, a highly regarded newspaper at that, The Philadelphia Inquirer. For 16 years I wrote six columns a week for the paper's metro section. In later years I was cut back to five columns a week. In the final year, I was down to 1 column a week in the feature section.
Looking at the progression, one might assume that I was a victim of burn out. That I'd lost my stuff. That I'd been squeezed dry.
That would make sense, of course. But that's not what really happened. What happened doesn't make any sense. And as I said before, it doesn't have to make any sense. It just has to happen.
What happened was that I wanted to do more, more of what I thought my column should be about. I wanted to write more honestly about the dilemma of race in America, how we're all poisoned by racism because all our lives we've been from the same poisoned well. I wanted to write about the moral paradox of black racism, especially when it was directed toward Asians and other immigrants. I wanted to point out that being a victim of racism is no excuse to engage in it, how you can feel the pain but fail to learn the lesson.
I wanted to speak the unspoken. I wanted to write about issues of the heart and gut. I wanted to ask the big questions.
My editors wanted me to write jokes; tasteful, politically correct observations with a humorous kicker. They wanted short answers to the questions they would not let me ask.
"I am expressing myself badly, but well enough, I think, for you to understand the general trend of my resistence to your criticisms, judicious though they may be. You were asking me to turn it into another book. You were asking me to violate the inner poetics that determined the pattern after which it was concieved. Finally, I should have failed in my duty to myself and to you, in acting out of deference and not out of conviction."
"Art requires neither complaisance nor politeness;
nothing by faith - faith and freedom."
I fought with my editors, of course. Constantly. We fought like cats and dogs, like Serbs and Croats, like well, like writers and editors. For years we fought. It came with territory. I'd win some, I'd lose some. I'd live to fight another day.
But as often as I battled with my editors, I failed to notice how the war had changed. I wan't fighting over words. I wasn't fighting about the use of language. I was fighting for freedom of expression. But to them, the war was not about writing. It was about power. It was about obedience. It was about playing ball.
Finally in a moment of clarity, I comprehended the true nature of the conflict. It was like arguing for human rights to a government capable of rationalizing ethnic cleansing. They just didn't get it.
And they didn't have to get it. In the world of Corporate Culture, there is no appeal to the United Nations. There is no international sanctions, unless of course the conflict involves specific abuses to an approved minority, in which case there are legal sanctions, EEOC air strikes, federal court mandated safe zones and annoying expressions of outraged public opinion.
But for a native born 45-year-old white male freedom fighter with his back against the wall in the battle for his soul, there is no uber-corporate redress. There is only choice. That and the bathroom mirror awaiting the maker of the choice each morning.
So I quit my job and I'll tell you why.
I chose to look that man in the mirror, in the eye.