“The Man” Is You

“The Man” Is You

If there’s a bad part about retiring early (and so far there aren’t many), it would be that I have to shift my blogging muse perspective from the negative (“here’s why it SUCKS to be stuck in an office”) to the positive (“here’s why it’s AWESOME to NOT be stuck in an office”).

But before I wrap-up that paradigm shift, I’m going to dig into the well one more time.

This is an alternative optimistic follow up to my previous post on corporations. It wasn’t my intention to be pessimistic in the last post, just honest.  But I know a few of you didn’t like it.  😉

During my last week in the office, a coworker of mine came up to me to vent. He’d just finished a conference call with our management and one of our large customers. The project he was working on is way behind schedule, and the customer wasn’t happy. Even worse, the scope of the project was increasing without changing to the schedule.

This scope increase is a common scenario in the engineering world, and I suspect it’s pretty common in most corporate environments. I like to playfully refer to this as “planning for failure,” but unfortunately most people haven’t accepted this. Instead, they think of it as “planning for overtime.” This might not be so bad, except we’re all on salary so overtime really just means “working for free.”

Here’s the conversation as it played out:

Andy: (sighs) I just got off the phone with <insert customer>. Do you remember when we scoped out this project, and we all agreed that we would buy an off-the-shelf <insert widget>, rather than designing our own custom <insert widget>?

Me: Yeah. Why?

Andy: Well, now they want us to design and test the <widget>. That’s weeks of extra work, and we’re already way understaffed and behind schedule.

Me: That’s not good. I guess you’ll have to change the schedule and the budget.

Andy: Yeah, you’d think. But <insert manager and director> were on the call and they said we’d do it. They told <customer> we were committed to this project and that we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get back on schedule and give them what they want. They didn’t even act like it was additional work.

Me: What’s in the SoW? (This is the Statement of Work: The detailed definition of what the design teams will provide, including the scope of work, budget, and schedule)

Andy: It says that we’d buy it off the shelf.  That we’d do no design and only a small amount of integration testing.

Me: Then you’ll have to change the schedule if they want more than that.

Andy: It’s not that easy.  Our fearless leaders already agreed to it.  So the SoW doesn’t do much good if we don’t stick with it.

Me: You’re looking at it wrong. The SoW isn’t just an agreement between our two companies, it’s also an agreement between Engineering and Management.  If you accept this overtime, then you’re condoning it. And if it was a one-time thing, maybe that’s the right thing to do.  But do you think that in this case it’s the right thing to do?

Andy: No, but…

Me: Engineers are terrible, and electrical engineers are the worst.  We complain about the long hours and having no social life, and yet we constantly blame “The Man” for our situations.  The truth is, we create this environment for ourselves by always sucking it up.  If you don’t want to work nights and weekends for the next 6 months, then you need to go take the SoW to <insert manager> and tell them that this is out of scope, and that we’re not resourced to pull it off.  It’s one thing to work overtime when we screw up, or during “crunch time” on a project, but to actually plan for it is absurd.  And if you condone it, or even accept it, then you are The Man.

(end scene)

The irony is, I worked crazy long hours during the first decade of my career.  And it would be easy to call me a hypocrite now for calling someone else out now that I’m in retirement. But there’s a key difference: when I worked those long hours I actually wanted to.  I was young, energetic, and filled with ambition.  I didn’t do it because someone made me, I did it because I wanted to be the best. I wanted more money and more authority, I wanted to beat my peers and rise up the ranks faster than anyone ever has in the industry.  I never ever complained.  Like a cyclist in the Tour de France that actually pushes the pace near the top of the Col du Tourmalet, I wanted to keep working to see if I could break everyone else in the Peloton with my relentless pace.

But let’s face it, most people aren’t like this.  Instead, most people will complain under their breath, and begrudgingly suck it up. Like Andy…

For me, when the day came that I no longer wanted to work long hours (coinciding with when my son was born 6 years ago), I stopped doing it.  And you know how much my career trajectory slowed down?

None.

Not a bit.  I continued to rise up the promotional ranks, get maximum bonuses, and increased authority.  As that continued to happen, I realized something: The Man, who’s been pushing us to work more and to prioritize our work over our family, is within.  No one ever expected me to work like I did, and no one punished me when I stopped.

I realized that The Man is just a figment of our imagination who we let control us through fear.  Fear of being fired, of letting someone down, or of not getting a much-desired promotion.  Sure, there are plenty of people that will let you work your ass off: managers, customers, stockholders, and even your peers – they will all let you work harder to make their live’s easier.  But they aren’t The Man.  They can’t be The Man because they’re all busy working for their own “Man.”

What To Do About It

The power in this message is simply in recognizing the truth, that The Man is an imaginary guy in your head that holds no power over you unless you give him that power. There’s no one holding you down, no one holding a gun to your head to work so hard that you’re sacrificing your physical, mental, or emotional health.  There’s no one chaining you up and keeping you from your family. There are plenty of people that will let you believe that there’s a gun to your head if it means they get some benefit from it, but with rare exceptions there’s no one ready to fire you for not letting your career overtake your life.

In the case of my buddy Andy, I told him to try exactly what I’d done many times in the past.  I told him to take the SoW, mark it up and present it to his manager with logic and reason, and no emotion.  Explain that it was out of scope, and that he couldn’t support it without a schedule change.  I told him to explain that we write the SoW for a reason, and that we shouldn’t “plan for overtime.”

When he removed the anger and frustration from his mind and his communication to his manager, he was able to rationally explain the situation to his manager and the customer.  Ultimately, the customer prioritized the schedule and regressed back to the original scope of work, knowing that he was right.  And just that easily, The Man was emasculated.

Even now in retirement, I still love sticking it to The Man.  :)

tl;dr?  The Man doesn’t exist.  So stop blaming him, and take responsibility for your own work/life balance.


20 Responses to “The Man” Is You

  1. I see this scenario play out every day at work. For all of 2013, I kept communicating up that my team was under-resourced for the work but I put in several full weeks of overtime to get the job done… I liked the money and to be very honest, I liked to join everyone else in complaining. Our head count still hasn’t changed and probably won’t but the scope of tasks has only increased.

    Now, my POV is changing. As a young person who isn’t tied down yet, I’m starting to see that people stay in these very demanding roles for fear of change… they have mortgages, they are starting to have children but are afraid of working less, they are afraid of not being seen as a team player. If we won’t stand up for ourselves, why would expect for others to do so?

    • I see this happening too. Two directors made fun of a couple of people who did a fun lunch break outside (picnic). They said who has time for that, they must not have enough to do. While I do frown upon people who take super long lunches all the time, I do see the benefit of having lunches for the purpose of bonding with other departments every once in a while. We work in such silos, we forget other people exist.

      • Wow, it’s unfortunate that those directors are making fun of the picnickers versus trying to encourage inexpensive ways to love where you work and who you work with. Seems like the people that are able to bring fun into the workplace while staying productive are the people that have the right priorities and formula for managing “The Man”.

        I just got a new job offer yesterday… the hiring manager said I stood out because I liked to “celebrate successes” and that I cared if I had met my potential future manager during the process. When I said those things, I didn’t think those would be my sellers, but it’s refreshing to know I have the power to change my own work/life situation whenever I’m ready.

  2. Dr. Doom says:

    Hi BNL. I really wish I’d had you as a co-worker back in 2006 when I was taking on massive projects subject to scope creep and “fearless” leaders who would shamelessly over-commit to anyone and everyone. Like you I was extremely ambitions for a while, but unlike you, my ambitious period only lasted five years, at which point I really wanted to dial it down.
    The trouble was that when tasks and projects threatened to take over the entirety of my existence, I felt powerless to push back. This was true despite the fact that I’d already saved FU money, and despite also knowing I was in the right. I didn’t have the energy or confidence to fight against the incoming tide of work and requests.
    End result: I continued to donate hours of unpaid OT to keep pace with peers and satisfy management, despite a complete lack of drive on my part. Rather than have a confrontation, I left the job, but the current, wiser version of me realizes that I didn’t have to. The real problem was that I hadn’t yet developed as a person enough to be able to WANT that confrontation with management. Fear ruled the day. I think it takes time for some people to reach the point where they can do what you suggest. And good mentors can potentially help them along. Question: Would 2006 BNL have made the same suggestion to Andy that 2014 BNL did?
    Also: Are you enjoying your new life?

    • Question: Would 2006 BNL have made the same suggestion to Andy that 2014 BNL did?

      Nope. 2006 BNL, who certainly wasn’t “BNL” at the time, would have ruthlessly laughed at Andy’s whining, and then pushed even harder with 12-14 hour days until Andy just couldn’t take it anymore. And if 2014 BNL had written the post above for me to read at the time, I would have skimmed it quickly, dismissed it with some Ayn Rand rhetoric about hard work, and then headed back to the lab for more.

      Also: Are you enjoying your new life?

      Oh man, retired life is great so far. Busier than ever, but a lot of fun. I thought I’d have so much more time to write here, but between landscaping, installing new flooring, painting, refinishing my deck, swimming, running, playing with my kids, finishing my aquaponics setup, and setting up a new eCommerce business I feel like I have less time than ever. But in a good way. :)

      • Dr. Doom says:

        Thanks for the honest response. I’m glad you’ve moved on from Rand to DFW. Not that I don’t believe in hard work – I certainly do – but I also believe that hard work alone a) won’t get everyone where they want to go due to genetics and circumstance and b) is good in reasonable doses but is not a great way to live 100% of your waking hours on planet earth.

        I’m really glad you’re enjoying the no-more-formal-job thing but you’re staying busy. March 2015 and I’ll be there too. Keep the posts coming.

      • eliG. says:

        Hey I’d like to hear more about this great retired life! the construction, eCommerce and the fun things with the family! haha. It sounds fun, Honestly I thought you’re first post after leaving work was gonna be more about these things. Good post though, everyone could always use some words of empowerment to stand up for themselves.

  3. Michael says:

    This is a great reminder of the choices we have. I would love to hear more about how you navigated the maze of Corporate America to meet your own goals. You seem to have done a really good job with that. In fact, I have a meeting scheduled today about an impossible project I’m assigned to, where I’ll apply some of these principles.

    A couple of other questions: will there be a reveal of who Brave New Life is in real life? Or will you remain anonymous?

    Also, how was the first month of retirement? Did you have any doubts that it was the right decision after you left? Did the angels descend from the heavens and sing over you day after day with no problems in your life whatsoever?

    Lastly I appreciate your writing. You’ve inspired me to start my own blog.

    • I would love to hear more about how you navigated the maze of Corporate America to meet your own goals. You seem to have done a really good job with that.

      I really don’t consider myself a role model for navigating Corporate America. My only advice would be to work as hard as you can where it meets your life’s goals at the time, but no more. So if you’re 22 with no family and a desire to bust your ass – go for it, move up the ranks, and make as much money as you can while you can. When you have other things to do, do those things instead. Never find yourself prioritizing work over family and friends just because of fear. If you’re sitting here reading this, you are already so far ahead of most people that you realistically have nothing to fear.

      My only other advice is to keep your lifestyle simple so that you never catch yourself wearing golden handcuffs. Once you do that, you have no one to blame except yourself. And in that case, keep any complaining about work to yourself.

      will there be a reveal of who Brave New Life is in real life? Or will you remain anonymous?

      Well, I did update my Twitter avatar to my own picture. Wasn’t that enough??? Nevermind that it’s from far away and I purposely reduced the resolution. :)

      Also, how was the first month of retirement? Did you have any doubts that it was the right decision after you left? Did the angels descend from the heavens and sing over you day after day with no problems in your life whatsoever?

      No angels, but otherwise it’s been pretty awesome. I had no doubts it was the right thing to do, and I’ve had no doubts since. As long as my passive income continues to earn more than I spend (and grows at a rate faster than inflation) what else could I ask for?

      Lastly I appreciate your writing. You’ve inspired me to start my own blog.

      Thanks, that’s a heckuva complement.

  4. Man Of Leisure says:

    It really is quite impressive that you were able to go from working long days to being a guy who knows when to – and is willing to – draw the line with what management deems to be the proper course of action.
    In my engineering experience, I’ve observed that the engineers who put up with long hours for a while are eventually just expected to do the same on future projects.
    I made it point early in my career to avoid being put in a position where I’m expected to work insane hours and it has had absolutely zero negative impact on my career. Occasionally, there may be an issue that comes up that may require me to put in a little extra time, but I’d say I probably go significantly over 40 hrs/week only 2-4 weeks in any given year. And even in those few weeks, pushing past 45 hours is exceedingly rare.
    Basically my point is if you never tolerate the company pushing around, then they never will push you around. (Of course, in some situations, that may be easier said than done!)

  5. Mr. Nickels says:

    Wow! This one hit home. HARD! The Mrs. has been on me for the past few months about this very subject. Because of the long hours I put in, I’m pretty much a zombie during the week. Does it affect my life away from work? Absolutely. Back in my 20’s, I was working these same long hours trying to move up the corporate ladder. Was it worth it? Yes. My career took off and I was making more than I thought was possible. That was some 20 years ago and that big yellow Kodak logo shines no more. Now in a different industry, the time I put in won’t affect my career or my future plans. It’s not that I don’t have ambition to move up, it’s that my goals aren’t tied to a corporate climb. So, why the long hours? It’s almost a form of guilt. I feel I need to put in those hours so I don’t seem lazy. I am very dedicated to my job and always give above and beyond. Why feel this way? Was it the way I was raised? Most likely. Will I change? I hope so. I read your post on a break this morning, and have already had the discussion with my manager about the crazy hours that both of us put in and how unnecessary it is. Thanks for the timely inspiration.

  6. BNL,

    I really enjoy reading your blog.

    I also spent the first 10 years of my career working my ass off trying to reach sales goals, profit targets, and most importantly beating every rival within my environment. While I did receive more money, recognition, and promotions, the unfortunate by-products were strained relationships, the accumulation of meaningless “stuff”, and general unhappiness with my quality of life. I finally decided I needed a plan of escape.

    Ten years ago I decided to eliminate all debt including my mortgage and by 2010 I had no debt and a paid off house. Since then, I have received a couple more promotions which have allowed me to build my passive income (ie my future freedom). I see work and all the hassles that come with it as a means to an end. I recently received a promotion that pays over $200k a year. I now feel that I MUST work six days a week because there are plenty of others who would gladly take this position and the ungodly hours. I only want it for about three more years and then I will happily relinquish it. Whether or not I am The Man I don’t know. More concerning is will I have the nerve to leave a $200k job? I believe I will!

    The good news is that in three years (or less) The Man, whoever he is will no longer be of concern to me as I will have reached FI.

    MDP

  7. Hey BNL,

    Certainly a different tone than your last piece 😉

    I have a co-worker in her mid-20s that is working a good amount of hours, taking on various volunteer projects with the company (not in her job title), then coming back to complain she doesn’t have enough time to get her work done and is stressed. I’m trying to convince her that she’ll never meet her own expectations, and she’ll overload at some point, but my warnings are falling on deaf ears. Oh well, I’ll keep plugging away.

    Interestingly, she admonishes me for coming across too laid back. I didn’t realize I needed to let the entire office know if I’m stressed 😉

  8. Danielle says:

    I’m going to have to disagree with your closing premise – that work-life balance is the responsiblity and domain of employees. Not true, especially when you take into account parents of young children, older parents caring for elder relatives or simply those who’ve unfortunately had all other sorts of life contingencies happen. Work-life balance is being chipped away by explicit and tacit workplace forces/pressures. Confronting a manager about one project is not likely to result in meaningful, sustained work-life balance. Moreover, if you are a woman or a minority and try this, you may face deeper repercussions that the average white male may not.

    • It sounds like you’d prefer my previous article about corporations’ colonization of human life.

      As I see it, it’s two sides of the same coin. Yes, corporations use “explicit and tacit workplace forces” to try to control you and your time. That was the premise of my last article. But I also believe that except for VERY rare circumstances, circumstances that probably don’t apply to people reading this site considering they are relatively rich by the mere fact of having access to a computer and internet, you always have a choice. I’m not claiming the choices are completely fair, or that they are all fun choices to make, but the choice does exist. You can let the workplace control you, or you can reject that control. In many cases, fear of repercussions is far worse than the repercussions themselves. That was the case for me, although I’m the average white male you described (albeit with young children).

      If you do choose to let the workplace control you (I’m using “you” loosely, not singling you out), then you must also accept that this is a choice you’ve consciously made after weighing your options. If, after weighing those options you still find all choices to be crappy, then it’s time to make bigger changes (either in perspective, or in your life’s circumstances).

  9. @freepursue says:

    I always have and always will enjoy working long hours when it is by choice. I’ve done it for years.

    What caused my corporate work life to come to a grinding halt was having a manager who clearly expected it and made if very clear that there was NO excuse good enough to leave work if work had to be done or if a presentation to senior management went long. When it was made clear that it would no longer be a choice but an expectation, I lost all respect for him. I didn’t care what blew up. He had no right to think he “owned” his underlings. So, I quit the organization. That’s the beauty of F-U money! I’ve been working by choice for some time now.

    My only regret is that I took too long. I went through what I consider 4 months of hell just to get a hefty bonus. In hindsight, my husband and I agree the money was just not worth the wait.

    Now, I still work hard, but it’s on my own terms as a member of the “selfishly employed” ;).

  10. I like the way this post and the previous one about corporate abuses play off one another. The last post needed this one as a foil, since it provides a suggestion to escape the trap of the working dead.

  11. Laurence says:

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  12. Andrew says:

    Reminds me of this Dilbert comic.

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