The seduction of knowledge workers: how to find satisfying work and avoid fatal mistakes

Melancolia I, Albrecht Dürer

I’ve noticed a pattern when working at and consulting with startups and small businesses. Knowledge workers (developers, engineers, analysts, and designers) are being twisted into a new permutation of the American Dream.

The glittering temptations of high salaries, high status, and literal candy jars are strewn about many “successful” startups, agencies, tech firms, and the like. They seduce new college grads and highly talented workers into working long hours with free breakfast chefs, coffee, beer, and other delights. Classic classical conditioning. Oddly enough, this reward system has been proven to be ineffective with analytical and creative work.

The current startup culture plays off of our existing predilections and subconscious insecurities like a comically evil twirly-mustachioed hypnotist.

Here are some common manipulations playing off of how we naturally think about ourselves:

“Work with the best of us.”

Who doesn’t want to be an elite? This serves two purposes.

One: flattering our egos. We run with the best. We are driven geniuses. You are a driven genius if you fit into our culture.

Two: stay at your desk. Want to leave before 9pm to go on a date? Got tickets to see your favorite movie or band? Planning on being there for the birth of your child? Too bad. Steve Jobs didn’t do that sort of thing, after all. The needs of the latest software build reign supreme. We are all driven geniuses, after all.

The subtext reads something like this: you aren’t a real programmer/designer/whatever — you aren’t the best — unless you put everything you have into this job. We pressure each other to push the limits of human endurance and attention. Never mind that real, effective productivity comes from closely monitoring the amount of time you spend at work, as there is a steep drop off in productivity once you hit exhaustion levels.

Your sanity is precious. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

“Let’s make the world a better place.”

This one is dangerously well crafted. It serves as the beacon of hope where we squander all of our midnight oil. It threatens our very identity to think we are doing otherwise. It’s painful to think that we may not be really making an impact, despite the long hours, while we work on the next Uber of fill-in-the-blank.

When the funding or customers don’t come through due to the depressingly low odds, the results can be fatal.

“We take care of our workers.”

Check out the perks. Gym memberships you never seem to have time to use. Candy jars and chalkboards and ping pong tables and beer taps. Sleeping arrangements and even living spaces. If you see these at a job interview, step back and question why. I saw the same trends when reading through job listing for advertising agencies, where such perks convinced us to stay until 3am.

This line of thinking can also be fatal. Don’t trade your life for any corporation.

Work at a place with families and where your boss loves their children. They aren’t going to give you that much shit if you want to spend a little time on yourself and they won’t shame you for having a life outside of work.

This isn’t to say all paid work for startups, agencies, and other inherently capitalist pursuits are completely evil. We’ve all gotta keep a roof over our heads and feed our (children/cats/fish/selves).

Disclaimer: I run a consulting agency myself. I spend more time than I probably should musing about how to stay satisfied and productive.

And if you are motivated by money, don’t work in tech. Work in finance.

Much like dieting, everything will work better if you slowly wean yourself off the sugar. You don’t need to quit your job and go work at a nonprofit to make a difference. Take an hour to teach a class to your local public middle school. Speak up in that meeting that doesn’t quite feel right, and point out examples of subtle bias and false assumptions. Look for some open source projects that strike your fancy.

Education is an amazing way to give back. You don’t need to be the best at something to teach it — you just need to be better than the people who are learning it from you. Think of it this way too — by elevating the level of understanding in the world around you, you are optimizing the world to work more effectively. You don’t even have to teach a formal class. Teach a reporter to grep. Take an hour to teach your designers how to use cmd line tools. Take 10 minutes to educate a programmer about typeface legibility. Your ability to verbalize these concepts will both increase and legitimize your knowledge. It will feed into your sense of purpose and mastery — two of the proven ways, along with autonomy, to find motivation in your work.

Write a blog post about the times you failed humanity as well as the times you benefited a company. We’ve all got imposter syndrome, right? Everyone will feel a little better when we don’t always pretend we view everything with rose-tinted glasses.

If you want to go deeper and bite into bigger problems, take a look at the government and at medicine. Doctors are leaving their profession in droves due to shitty, proprietary technology that is riddled with bugs and difficult to use. Doesn’t this have unlocked potential energy? Don’t you want to be part of this future?

The overarching trend is that we knowledge workers are making fairly decent livings (certainly compared to other professions, many of which are endangered), especially with the looming shortage of great programmers and designers (there may be debate about whether or not the skills gap is a real thing, but navigate to any government, medical, or education website and look me in the eye and say to my face that we have enough talent). The hidden truth is that we have powerful leverage with how we choose to spend our time.

Research has shown that once you reach base levels of survival, money doesn’t correlate with happiness and fulfillment anymore. Some studies even show that valuing your time over money actually leads to greater happiness.

We’re all smart people here. What would the world look like if you put 5% of that time and brainpower towards something for good?

Give back to the world with the gift of your knowledge in 2016. It will make you feel better, I promise.