Escape From The Cubicle Farm

Escape From The Cubicle Farm

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:

  1. Serious business talk – where employees talk about serious things like quarterly business reviews, schedules, and operational costs.
  2. 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 Friday

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

– Socrates

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.  😉

 


42 Responses to Escape From The Cubicle Farm

  1. Paul says:

    From most of the calculations I’ve done I should have enough to retire. Coming to this realization in the last year has been quite eye opening and has made me feel more free. But I still am hesitant to pull the trigger and quit. I have two fears related to quitting work that battle each other.
    Running out of money before I die and not doing enough with my life before I die! Hopefully I’ll get up enough courage to quit in the next year.

    • Petra says:

      Is there perhaps another way? Like working less hours for a while, or like switching to a different, less demanding, position?

      You probably still need some time to adjust to this new idea that you could quit if you wanted. Hopefully you will soon leave the fear behind you.

    • Dr. Doom says:

      I completely understand this struggle — I’m going through it myself. I’ve set a date to help settle myself down — Feb 28, 2015. This gives me a concrete endpoint to work toward and focuses the planning – maybe you want to consider something similar?

      I’ve come to believe that the final year of the FI journey is, for most people, figuring out how to actually leave and solidifying the plans (e.g. logistically how to draw living expenses off of your stash, covering health care, determining what (if anything) you’re going to tell your friends and loved ones, etc.)

      You’re almost there!

  2. Petra says:

    I don’t work in a cubicle. I work with people. I guess that makes my work a lot more bearable than the cubicle life. Still, we get to adhere to certain rules, and they change every few months or so. Recently the company announced that they will soon send us all a document with our newly minted “core values”. The higher ups have been thinking about those “core values” for two days while being pampered at some resort.
    So there’s a decent amount of madness at my job as well, even though I definitely CAN see some direct results from my meetings with people.

    I’ll need a few more years to be able to quit, but I will get there…

  3. Nicely written post. My current brand of cubicle isn’t as oppressive as most, but the culture mirrors what you’re talking about. Being around a lot of older people who have made poor decisions with their health and finances definitely motivates me to break out.

  4. Kellen says:

    I hear you. I don’t know if it’s worth regretting that no one told you about this option ahead of time though – as someone who has only been working for 3 years, it doesn’t yet seem very optional to me – we haven’t been working long enough to experience much lifestyle inflation, and I am well aware that I would like to do something more with my time than sit in the office all day, fiddling with spreadsheets, however without the savings you were able to build up over time, quitting doesn’t seem like a viable option.
    In some ways, ignorance of the possibility of not working for years may have helped you get through the years you did need to work to get to a high enough salary and savings level to make this possible?

  5. Loved this post and congratulations on your escape! My biggest fear in my quest for financial independence and deciding whether to continue with my career or escape is letting down my dependents. I would be fine on whatever lifestyle I can afford but I also want my family to feel that they did not have to sacrifice for my luxury. What if some unforeseen circumstance develops and I can’t not effectively solve the issue that I otherwise may have been able to if I had continued building up my resources? That is my biggest fear but I realize that it is not all that likely that I would ever be put in that situation and to continue to sell my life just in case, when I can afford to spend more time with family, is an irrational fear.

  6. Harlin says:

    I can dig it. But… there are a lot of people who will gladly take your cubicle job. Everyone is just at a different point in their life. Some of those people you mention at the office may think they have it good and think you’re crazy for wanting to give up on the gravy train. That being said, congrats. I hope to join you very soon. First, I gotta help put the kids through college very soon 😉

    All the best!

  7. insourcelife says:

    Everything you wrote is true and a bit depressing. I work in a similar environment but choose to look at it from a different perspective, mostly to feel better in the present I guess. This is the fastest and easiest way for me to get to FI. Sure, it’s bleak but I’d rather do this for a limited amount of time than work somewhere else to achieve what I want financially over a much longer period of time and probably with a lot more effort. I’ve done both white collar and blue collar jobs and I’ll take my posh cubicle any day. It’s ironic, really because the job you hate so much is what’s allowing you to retire in your 30s. You just need to know how to play the game. I get your point though – it’s sad to hear 50-60 year-olds talking about how they will never be able to retire. OK, so what are you doing about it?! Unfortunately, they are not likely to read your blog which could help them wake up. Good job and congrats on your upcoming escape from the cubicle “hell”!

  8. Bonnie says:

    I couldn’t find on your site how you acquired your education that sent you to the cubicle farm. Maybe some gray haired man or woman took a job for 30 years to pay for your upbringing and education and instilled those values of hard work and persistence. Nothing is free and I suspect someone else made a sacrifice besides your few years in corporate life to allow you to retire early.

    • I grew up in public school, then went to college which was paid for in equal parts by my parents, my student loans (which I paid off), and my part time job. Yes, you are correct, others made sacrifices. But that’s not really the point. The point is that there are better ways to live life other than in a cubicle farm and I intend to seek this life and share it with others as well.

      Because others grew gray and old in an office to give me opportunities is all the more reason why I should take advantage of these opportunities and seek something better. Here’s a quote from Alan Watts I think explains it well:

      But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on doing things you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track. See, what we’re doing is we’re bringing up children, and educating them to live the same sort of lives we’re living in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing. It’s all wretch and no vomit. It never gets there!

  9. Iowa says:

    I have a suggestion that might be motivational to some, depressing to others, and just a good piece of history for you. You should have someone take a picture of you staring at your monitor acting busy. Or if the frames/second are sufficient, an action shot with you furiously working in your cube with mouse in hand, ever ready to click on any unsuspecting collection of pixels on the monitor. Nice little keepsake to post in your next ‘work’ area.

    It’s lunch on Monday and I’m already losing it! Back to live action…

  10. Mr. FI says:

    I agree. I’m 25 and have only been in the cubicle lifestyle for 3 years but its already depressing. But this idea of being free continues to motivate me. I may have to stick to this job to get there, but in the mean time, I can improve my life on the daily.

    Riding my bike to work, working on my web developing skills, picking up a new hobby (like playing the Piano) being a better husband, finding time for being outside. This all helps in the mean time. And I do enjoy my co-workers. So it’s not all lost, but I am dreaming of a better life post-cubicle.

  11. dude says:

    Totally know how you feel even though I have an actual office, and not a cubicle! But I’m usually reminded by others that it beats getting tossed around on the ocean working on a fishing boat, or mopping hot tar on industrial building rooftops, or hauling lumber, shingles and the like and pounding nails in the hot sun/winter cold all day. Yeah, I’ve done all these jobs and more, and I’ve seen dudes get truly old in a short amount of time in those kinds of jobs. I’m gladly (though not without some complaining like you do above) biding my time until the office days are done and I can move on to greener pastures (literally). Good post though, and a reminder how truly unfree many of us really are until we reach the point where passive income can replace the need to work.

  12. Dr. Doom says:

    Good timing on this post. I’m also in my final year of working and it’s increasingly difficult to cope with office life. I’ve been at it for about 13 years. The first three barely registered because I figured, hey. This is life. You can’t change it, so you’ve got to accept it.

    But then I found the FI path and since then things have gotten more difficult to bear. It’s like staying in the Matrix voluntarily when you know that the real world is out there. Everything is phony, false, hollow. Goals and objectives and mission statements and paperwork, idle chatter about nothing, griping about pay and the cost of living, working on projects of (frequently) questionable use.

    You’re completely right, of course. No one enjoys this. It’s not possible for someone to want to live this way, five out of seven days of nearly every week of the year. Anyone who really believes this is a natural and wonderful way to live out your three score and ten has gotten so good at lying that they’re unconsciously doing it to themselves.

    Anyways, I’ve been looking forward to you actually quitting your day job for a couple of years now — Big congrats, and I can’t wait to read some posts about how everything is going.

    • Completely agree, the image that flashed in my mind was in The Matrix, where Neo gets unplugged for the first time and it shows the fields of humans still plugged in.

      I sit in a cubicle now. I’ve never minded it, never felt boxed in. That being said it’s a means to an end. Maybe I’ll enjoy my job enough when I’m FI to stay, but I want the freedom to choose when the time comes.

  13. So awesome. I waver between trying to be respectful of others and how they want to live their lives, and the thought that they probably aren’t being that intentional about how they’re living anyway. I mean, is the better thing to assume that they’re unhappy and therefore in need of a wake up call? Or might the diversity of approaches mean that, maybe, some or most of those people are actually really happy with how things are going? With how much we have to deal with the personas & not the person, it’s hard to say.

    • I see no harm in helping to awaken consciousness. That’s not to be confused with pushing ideas on how one should live their lives, and it certainly won’t harm diversity. If anything, it will increase diversity because everyone will be making choices on decisions they weren’t previously aware existed.

  14. MJ says:

    Another awesome article BNL!

    I am 28, working in an investment bank in New York. Based on my calculation I already have enough asset to move out of NYC and retire, but I just cannot pull the trigger…

    My biggest fear is 1) What if I run out of money one day? It’s not likely that I can come back to my current position after a few years. 2) People (co-workers, friends, relatives) will think I am crazy giving up my “some-people-consider-prestigious” job…

    Any suggestions?

    Regards,
    MJ

    • MJ –

      1) What if I run out of money one day? It’s not likely that I can come back to my current position after a few years.

      How real is your concern? Do you have enough to follow the traditional 3% or 4% withdrawal rate rule? If so, then mathematically you’re pretty safe and your concerns are purely fear driven (statistically speaking). I can say this and mean no insult because it describes where I was mentally a year ago. Also, it’s very unrealistic to think you’ll never make money again. You don’t need to work for others in a fast food joint or in a cubicle to make money – there are thousands of nano-business opportunities. I have about 10 I’m already considering to pursue once I quit – which will make money but also be a lot of fun.

      2) People (co-workers, friends, relatives) will think I am crazy giving up my “some-people-consider-prestigious” job…

      I’ll answer with a quote, because he said it better than I can. :)

      It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

    • One other thing… If your 2 concerns are still bothering you, try reading Thoreau’s Walden. If you’ve read it, read it again. I read it regularly as a reminder of what I’m doing, why, and how he was surrounded by the same crazy societal mindset over 150 years ago!

    • AM says:

      Hi MJ

      As an experienced financial sector worker (in Australia, not the USA) I understand completely your two fears, having gone through them myself before I made a move into semi-‘BNLment’ that also involved a move from Australia to the USA courtesy of my beloved wife.

      What helped me was an evaluation of what activities I genuinely found important and worthwhile as opposed to the usual earn-and-spend of a high income family, and using the published monthly annual budgets of BNL and MMM as yardsticks to calculate assets. But I did experience fear, and I had to accept it as part of any major change to my life.

      Regards opinions of others, you would probably be surprised at how many of your colleagues and family members would be delighted how you have ‘made it’ at such a young age. When I told some hard-working, hard-living colleagues of my plans, the almost-universal response was pleasure for me and almost envy that I was leaving the ‘live to work’ for a ‘work to live’ environment where I could share my daughter’s childhood instead of snatching a few moments on weekends between emails.

  15. TJB says:

    Fantastic Post! Good luck over the next couple of weeks, and congratulations.

  16. Jeremy says:

    Great post! I’m reading it in my cubicle, or as my company calls it, “workstation.” I’m lucky though, as I have a window and a nice view. Knowing what you know now about careers and FI, what would you advise to 20-somethings for career paths?

    If FI and the “examined life” is the ultimate goal, should you pick a job and “do it for the money?” I’m 25 and struggling to pick a career path that will allow me to have a high salary and will involve work I don’t mind. I understand it’s not just about one source, but having a high income certainly helps.

  17. Looking forward to your new life journey! I really work hard because I need to help my younger sister for her school, I know I’m not responsible for that one, but I’ll be glad if I can help my family.

  18. Nick says:

    Very good article and it hits home for me. I recently gave my notice to my employer and will following a different path starting after my last day here on September 30th. The hardest part for me is knowing that I will likely never earn as much money again and losing that security blanket was difficult. I can always find work again in my field but the pay will be significantly lower and likely not make it worth my effort at that point. I’m also planning on doing some part time in a field I enjoy (permaculture) which has eased some of my angst. Keep the articles coming, I really enjoyed this one and can’t wait to end my days working in a cubicle farm.

  19. Eli G. says:

    Thank you for this post, this really inspires me! I am also planing my retirement tho it’s far from now. I don’t work a cubicle job, i’m actually out on the field quite a bit but also have a shared office desk. However I would prefer having 100% control over my time and schedule, doing the things I enjoy with the people that I want and mining my own business. So for now I keep working hard, saving my money and walking in the path of early retirement.

  20. Brian says:

    It takes guts to be bold and different and for that I salute you, BNL!

    Key takeaway from this post is that time is a non-renewable resource – use it wisely. In contrast, if you are reasonably smart and motivated you can almost always make more money.

  21. Mr. Nickels says:

    This hits close to home. I experienced the aftermath of your biggest fear when I started a new job a year ago. I replaced a guy who died on the job, counting down the days to his retirement. Just hearing the story changed my life. Don’t run out of time.

  22. MikeWillRetire says:

    Looking forward to your next posts. I’ve worked in a cubicle for 29 years now. I really believe the computer is responsible for some of the cubicle monotony. When I started as an engineer, I sat at a drafting table performing hand calculations and preparing drawings by hand. Now the computer does all that, while I operate the software. Not nearly as enjoyable.

  23. Russell says:

    I think you’d really enjoy brewing your own beer. You should look into it.

    • I used to brew, and I did enjoy it. The problem for me is that when I have beer in my house, I tend to drink it. So brewing big batches at a time wasn’t good for my gut. :)

      So I took up running instead…

      • Man Of Leisure says:

        Really enjoyed your post. It made me want to stand up and walk right out of my mini cubicle farm.
        I’m very early on in the process of ramping up my savings, so I have to tough it out for some time, though. In the meantime I need to focus on the positives despite the soul-crushing nature of cubicle life. Sometimes even the little things help. Even taking the stairs (all 7 flights) reminds me I don’t have be stuck in the daily grind forever.
        You could always homebrew and keep up running. That’s what I do — just not at the same time.

  24. […] further we go down this road, the more we realize there’s no turning back. We can’t unsee what we’ve seen, and we can’t unlearn what we’ve discovered about the old life. We march forward, each step […]

  25. Good luck in the retirement. I hope to retire in 2 years, and have more than enough to live in at 56. Maybe I could go sooner, but I am also afraid of running out of $$.

  26. kristen says:

    It must feel great to be so close! Congrats.

  27. […] Escape From The Cubicle Farm by Brave New Life. Great post by BNL explaining the reasons he getting done at his current job and beginning early retirement. […]

  28. Sir Salty says:

    I’ve been reading your site for a while, and this is one of your best posts. Nice work. It has pushed me over the edge to finally start a blog, and hold myself accountable to cutting costs and retiring early – similar to how you did. Limiting waste and becoming self reliant all makes so much sense. Thanks for putting forward the effort that goes into this site.

  29. […] I long to be free. To move with the rhythms of the land and of my body, to sleep in sometimes, to take spontaneous days off, to breathe in fresh air, to do work that matters. I am not a cog in a corporate machine. […]

  30. John says:

    Cubicle life made me feel suicidal. I was a programmer, but on the inside I was an artist since childhood.

    The cubicles take that all away. I remember working in a collections hellhole cubicle farm for Chase several years ago that they called a “think tank”, just Oracle/MSSQL reporting, very bland. I called the Art Institute of Dallas to see about learning 3D modeling, they told me $100k for a degree, so I spent the next several years self teaching.

    I never even broke six figures as a programmer, and I was a C# developer, and managed people at two local companies. There was a woman I loved that I dated who saw me as work/sleep only in the cubicle life, I hope to rekindle things with her now that I’m out of cubicle hell.

  31. […] Escape From The Cubicle Farm | Brave New Life – I don’t work in a cubicle. I work with people. I guess that makes my work a lot more bearable than the cubicle life. Still, we get to adhere to certain rules, and … […]

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