This age-old camp song represents all that’s wrong with the American work culture
Joe pushes buttons. Don’t be like Joe.
My six-year-old came home from camp yesterday singing a song I remember from my own childhood. It’s about this guy named Joe who works in a button factory.
Don’t bother asking what a button factory is, or whether the factory exists to actually produce buttons, or solely to ensure they’re pressed as prescribed, or for some other purpose entirely; all that is beside the point.
The song follows Joe as his boss continues piling responsibility after responsibility upon him. Joe takes on each task with a smile, performing each one progressively more poorly until he finally has no choice but to admit he can’t handle anymore.
I hadn’t heard the tune in decades, but as my daughter sang it and I tried in vain to perform the successively more ridiculous motions, I began recognizing echoes from my own life. By the end, I started to see this simple camp song as something else entirely: a disturbingly accurate parable for the American attitude toward work.
[Author’s note: If you are unfamiliar with the song, you are welcome to scroll to an awkward team-building version at the end of this story, though it’s not strictly necessary. When you’re humming it to yourself tonight as you drift off to sleep, know that you’ve got my six-year-old to thank for it.]
Joe’s story begins on a typical day. He’s just a family man going about his work when his boss offhandedly asks him, “Are you busy?”
Joe, always the company man says, “No.”
“Cool,” says the boss, indicating one of the buttons on Joe’s console. “Push this button with one hand.” The boss returns to his glass office and resumes his putting practice.
No big deal, Joe thinks. He wasn’t busy anyway, and he does work in a button factory; it’s logical that pushing some buttons would be part of the job. He begins pushing the button with his dominant hand. Dominant-hand button-pushing soon becomes an implicit part of Joe’s job. The boss lays off the person who was originally responsible for pushing that button because, you know, operational efficiency and such.
A few days later, Joe’s boss returns from the country club and approaches Joe once more. “Busy?” he asks again.
Joe, of course, sees this as another chance to show his go-get-’em attitude. He’s doing the job of two people now, remember. Maybe if he takes on a little more responsibility, and shows grace under pressure, he’ll get that raise he and his partner have been hoping for.
“Nope,” he says with a smile, all the while pushing the button with one hand.
“Sweet,” says the boss, indicating a new button. “Push this one with your other hand.”
Joe dutifully complies, and he’s almost as successful at pushing the second button as he is the first. The rest of his work suffers, however, because with both hands occupied, his feet are the only tools he has with which to perform his leadership and administrative responsibilities. And feet are no substitute for hands.
He tries to conduct one-on-ones and team meetings, but his attention is divided and he can’t both run the meetings and do the button-pushing at the same time. Apologizing, he cancels one meeting after another until his direct reports begin assembling without him and complaining to the boss about the lack of direction.
The boss comes back for a third time, wearing new Gucci shoes, and explains that the button-pushing division has been restructured. All Joe’s direct reports have been either axed or reassigned, and he is now the sole member of the team. With a sigh and a strained smile, Joe diverts his feet from the last vestiges of his former position, focusing them on the more immediate task of button-pushing.
The administrative work piles up, and Joe tries to complete it in the evening, at home, but his hands and feet are so sore from pushing buttons all day that it’s all he can do to kiss his child goodnight before climbing into bed and falling asleep.
Joe’s lost all hope for a raise or a promotion. At this point, he’s struggling just to keep his job — a job whose description and responsibilities have shifted 180 degrees from the one he was hired to do; a job that includes neither any of the leadership responsibilities for which he’s trained nor the technical work he used to enjoy.
He’s one individual trying to do the job of an entire division, and his day-to-day responsibilities have decayed into menial tasks that exist just to keep the organization afloat. And, let’s face it, even the button-pushing is suffering at this point because, as each new button is added, his ability to perform each individual task deteriorates.
But Joe is a glutton for punishment. His boss returns yet again, sporting a fresh tan from a weekend on his yacht, and this time he wields a brand new button. “I’m out of limbs; I can’t push any more buttons,” you expect Joe to say, but he doesn’t. Instead, he sticks out his only remaining pseudo-appendage, raising his eyebrows in question.
“Push this one with your tongue,” his boss says, nodding with a self-satisfied smile.
It seems ridiculous from both sides. That the boss would make such a request is outlandish, but that Joe would acquiesce is equally exasperating. It makes you want to shake both of them and rewind to the days before all this seemed inevitable.
By now, Joe is a lost cause. He hates his job, his relationship is in shambles, and he’s got carpal tunnel syndrome from all the button-pushing (but good luck getting a doctor to confirm that).
Still, while it may be too late for him, there’s a lot to be learned from his mistakes — mistakes which I, certainly, and perhaps you, as well, have made during the course of a long career.
First and foremost, never tell your boss you’re not busy. It’s understandable to want to appear open and eager, but if you’re doing your job, you’re only ever less busy, never not busy. Not only does denying your busy-ness open you up to the same unsustainable piling of responsibilities to which Joe was subjected, but, frankly, if I were your boss, it would make me wonder why on earth you weren’t trying to find a way to contribute.
Next, know your priorities. If you are a leader, for example, and you have a team full of people expecting some guidance from you, pushing the buttons isn’t the best use of your time. You should be leading.
You also need to set boundaries and hold firm to them. Once you absorb responsibilities that aren’t in your job description and begin taking work home with you, these things become the norm and it can be nearly impossible to re-set expectations.
Finally, you need to be a strong self-advocate. Speak up when you’re overwhelmed — or, better yet, before you get that way. This is different from whining and complaining, as many a seasoned manager can attest to. If you’re doing your best work and your job turns into something that can’t be accomplished during your work hours, then something’s gotta give.
The average adult spends 30% of her life sleeping and gives another 20% to her job each year. Don’t let your work take over the remaining half of your living hours.
Know your priorities, set boundaries, and proactively advocate for yourself, all while offering your best contribution to your workplace, and you can be sure not to repeat Joe’s mistakes.
As promised (and don’t say I didn’t warn you):