Take a stroll through the average office building in the middle of the modern concrete paradise we call an office building complex, and it’s easy not to see what I now see. What I can’t unsee.
It starts in the parking lot, where hundreds of oversized cars are parked as close to the front door as possible. I suspect this is to preserve precious energy for a long day of sitting in front of a computer and typing. If there’s a bike rack, it’s likely empty. In my parking lot, my bike has been the only bike in the rack for the last 2.5 years (since one of our cycling college interns left).
After entering the building, you’ll see the elevator where overweight sedentary men and women wait for a ride up just one or two flights of stairs. On each side of the elevator sit fake plants. If you’re lucky there might be real plants watered daily by the staff. You walk past them, to the stairs* and go up a single flight of steps.
(*) I’m not criticizing the elevators, which should be available for those who are handicapped and unable to use the stairs. I am, however, criticizing the vast majority who use the elevator for no acceptable reason.
The hallways are well-lit with synthetic lighting. Muzak plays from hidden speakers. If you listen to it carefully you’ll realize it’s The Doors “Light My Fire” (at this point, you can’t help but feel sorry for the musician who sadly and reservedly sat down to record this muzak track to make a quick buck). The short, nylon carpet floors are grey, or beige, or some other dull color that best hides stains.
After swiping a security badge to enter a room that hardly needs such means of security, you can see the mecca of the current office culture. The Cubicle Farm. Above you, the muzak has stopped and it’s been replaced with white noise machines to deaden other ambient noise. (No joke folks, this is a real thing. There’s some serious Orwellian stuff going on here).
Each cubicle is identical. Three full height walls approximately 5 feet tall. The fourth wall is approximately 3 feet in height, which also acts as the entryway into the “cube.” Inside sits a dead-eyed employee staring at his email, or an Excel spreadsheet, or perhaps a schematic design. Audible conversation is rare, you’re much more likely to hear sighs and complaints being muttered under their breath.
Every row or two of cubicles, you’ll find a group of people standing around and talking. Conversation topics vary, but the most common are:
- Serious business talk – where employees talk about serious things like quarterly business reviews, schedules, and operational costs.
- Bitching about (a) the job, (b) the boss, (c) bureaucracy, or (d) other employees currently not present. Often, the conversation covers (e) all of the above.
No one wants to be there. That’s not to say enoyable jobs don’t exist, just that no one wants to be in a cubicle farm. If someone tells you that they like the cubicle architecture, they’re lying. Possibly to themselves, and definitely to you. Cubicle farms are for saving space and money, nothing else.
Once you see all of this, you cannot unsee it.
Last Thursday, I walked through the cubicles as I do most weekdays, observant as usual to the desperate sadness of the farm. But something was different this day. I suppose it’s because I was coming up on my final vacation (which I’m on now) before I finally resign from this unnatural lifestyle. I looked into cube after cube of lifeless worker, some of whom I consider friends. But this day all I could see was waste. Grey-haired men, with live’s wasting away, going along with a system they never questioned, never challenged, never even knew was there enough to reject it. Puppets to a force they falsely assume is more powerful than them. I felt sadness, but mostly compassion for all of the potential lost. And I also felt a shiver of fear, and anger, and betrayal. I had been one of them, a puppet to this system, and no one looking out for me. Not my family, and not my friends. Until a few years ago, no one ever told me that this whole thing was bullshit. That we had (and have) choices.
Grey-haired men and women who have lost their youth, their kids grown up with kids of their own in a blink of an eye. The job has paid for super-sized houses, luxurious vacations, excess security, and extravagant comfort. But it’s cost them much of their lives. In a few decades, they’ll be dead. And none of them, not a single one, will wish they’d worked more. Most would trade their leftover money and lavish comforts for just a few more days of youthful exuberance, quiet walks with their spouse, and playful time with their young children who are now grown up. None of them, not a single one, will look back and wish they’d worked more. If they consider their live’s at all, most will wish they worked less. And yet despite this being a statistical guarantee, so few people are doing anything about it!
The unexamined life is not worth living
I felt like pulling up an ergonomic cubicle chairs, standing on top of it, and screaming at the top of my lungs “Wake Up! Do you know why you are here!?! Is this really where you want to spend today, tomorrow, and the rest of your life!?! You have a choice!!!”
I didn’t, of course. Because no one would understand, and because I’d look like an idiot. I wasn’t looking for a Jerry Maguire moment.
As I’ve gotten closer to my upcoming resignation (or retirement, if you prefer), I’ll admit that I’ve had moments of fear. Fear that I’m missing something, that my calculations are off and retiring now is a fool’s move. That I’m leaving behind an posh job and all-but-guaranteed security because I just got lazy, or I just couldn’t cut it anymore. That I’d lost.
But this moment was one of clarity. I no longer had fear, and I haven’t had it since. I now realized that I would rather quit now and fail miserably than to go on with this useless work. Staying in this cubicle farm would be a decision only driven by a desire for comforts I don’t need and by fear of the unknown. But this isn’t how I’m wired, and I suspect that if you’re still reading this then it’s not how you’re wired either.
I didn’t stand on the ergonomic swivel chair and passionately scream my pleas for change, but that doesn’t mean the opportunity is lost. I still have my voice. Here. So if you’re still sitting in a cubicle at a job you don’t like, let me just say:
“Wake Up! Why are you here!?! Is this really where you want to spend today, tomorrow, and the rest of your life!?! You have a choice!!!”
And, most importantly, “What are you doing about it?”
What is your biggest fear?
I’ll tell you mine. It’s not running out of money or losing my reputation as a hard worker and an intelligent dude. It’s running out of time and regretting how I spent the finite amount I was blessed with.
In the next few weeks (and possibly earlier), I’ll be retiring from the cubicle lifestyle for something better and more natural. I’ll let you know how it goes. 😉