How I Almost Got Infected by the Corporate Virus

I didn’t quite know what I was signing up for when I first entered the corporate world, and it’s probably a good thing I didn’t.

It was my first engineering job after graduating from the university, and I was eager to hit the ground running. I was going to apply all the knowledge and skills I’d learned in college and work my way up the company ladder. I was going to work harder than anyone else and really make a name for myself. This was my plan.

As I received my first assignment, I took off with a fury. The challenge was to add a new set of features to our in-house software program, that allowed us to push our technology to its limits. To show what it could really do.

“How exciting!” I thought. This was just the chance I was looking for.

As I began digging through the code, however, I realized I was going to need some help. This was obviously a piece of software that had been around for years, and trying to understand it was like trying to decode ancient hieroglyphs.

I studied it for hours, then days. I read, then re-read different parts of the code, but it was clear I was going in circles.

Finally, I went to Frank, who’d been part of the original team to develop the code years earlier. Frank was a stern fellow — a seasoned engineer with decades of experience and expert-level knowledge. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, everyone listened closely. One of his sentences contained volumes of knowledge and information. He was exactly the person to help me sort it all out.

I walked to his cubicle, my list of questions prepared and ready to go.

As I walked in, he shot me a severe look. “What do you need?” he asked abruptly.

“Umm, hey Frank. I was just working on the performance project I was assigned, and I was wondering if you could help me understand a few things about the code.”

“What’s not clear?” he retorted.

I was caught off guard. What followed in the next few minutes was an awkward and strained dialogue. I asked my questions, but every question was met with a sharp retort, or a vague generality that left me even more confused than I was to start off with. Soon, I noticed the body language of someone who clearly didn’t want to be bothered.

“Umm, alright, that’s fine for now, Frank. Thanks.” I left the cubicle as it was clear the conversation was going nowhere.

Over the coming weeks and months, I experienced more of the same. As I worked with other people in the organization, I felt as though I was pulling teeth to get people to cooperate.

“Is it me? Did I say or do something wrong?” I thought to myself.

But soon I came to recognize that it wasn’t me. Time and again, I came face-to-face with employees who were angry, irritable or disengaged. Getting anything done felt ten times harder than it needed to be.

“I’ll overcome it through sheer effort. I’m smart — I can fix this problem.” I was eternally optimistic.

I eventually put the pieces together and completed my project successfully. But it didn’t come without a price.

As the months dragged on, without me even noticing, my mood began to shift. I didn’t have the same pep in my step. My enthusiasm waned, and the raging fire that once burned inside me was now a faint glow.

Eventually I grew tired of the battle. It was as if I’d been swimming against the current for months, and my energy was at an all-time low.

I began lowering my expectations. It was hard to keep my hopes high, because I’d been disappointed time and again. The pessimism and negativity began seeping into my bloodstream, and I found myself walking into the office anticipating the doom and gloom of the day.

I’d go to lunch with coworkers, and we’d gossip and complain about how much we had to suffer through. How unfairly we were being treated. How unjust the system was.

And then one day I came to a stunning realization: I was angry. I was irritable. I was disengaged.

I was becoming one of them.

As the reality of the situation sunk in, I could hardly believe it. Somehow I’d been transformed from a once-peppy, motivated twenty-something into a walking, talking ball of grievances. It was not the type of person I had aspired to be.

I could see the writing on the wall. It was clear what a few more years or decades would lead to. I knew I had to do something.

Later that year, I managed to land another job and get out of the toxic environment, and eventually decided to launch my own business. I knew deep down inside that I did not want to experience life as a bitter, angry employee.

As I reflect upon my experience, I realize how impactful a toxic work environment can be. Like a virus, it spreads from one person to another, infecting even the most ambitious of souls.

As much as we like to think that we are 100% in control, the reality is that our environment affects us. I learned that if I want to be inspired and productive, it’s important to create an environment which supports that. I thrive when I’m around people who are driven by possibility, not pressure. People who operate from a position of inspiration rather than obligation.

It was a close call — I was nearly infected by the corporate virus. I came face-to-face with a force that has buried hopes and dreams under a pile of bureaucracy. Had I let things continue a bit longer, I might not be here writing this article right now.

Now I’m grateful for that experience. Seeing that world helped me realize what I don’t want, and to discover what I truly desire — a path of freedom, creativity and purpose. It helped me realize what is most important to me, and how I can create a life that brings joy and excitement in each day.

Ironically, that brush with the corporate virus may be the very thing which saved me.