I have a good friend in the engineering field. We caught up over a beer recently, and after some cathartic ball busting, our conversation took a turn towards work. Mike is two years out of school, and has begun down the path of the “corporate man”. Starting out, he has appreciated the steady paycheck and the benefits, but there’s also a tacit resentment of life on the hamster wheel when we talk. I believe that he will move on to take bigger risks and seek greener pastures in the not-so-distant future. If you’re in a similar situation to his, I hope you’ll do so as well.
Mike’s corporate habitat is familiar to that of most employees’ in today’s work force. The people around him are not in love with what they do, and a series of compromises have led them to their current desks. I can see how this wears on him – after all, he spent four years pursuing an electrical engineering degree, getting good grades, doing “all the right things”, and when faced with the image of those who are ten years up the ladder from him, he sees frustration, apathy, even misery.
I remember Mike taking a sip from his black and tan before putting it down. He said to me, “I hate seeing these people so unhappy, but they’re doing nothing to change the situation – I’m scared of turning out the same way.” His self-awareness is why I have faith that he will forge a better path. I have other friends in similar places, but not many have honestly assessed where they are heading. Unfortunately, they have a high likelihood of burning out and become jaded, thus perpetuating the cycle by inadvertently bringing others down around them.
I’ve observed a couple of mindsets that lead to this trap.
Mike described a woman at the firm who is nothing short of terrible to work with. She’s what I’d call a survivor, and holds the view that life is a zero sum game – the success of others is an inherent threat to her own. She is a taker, and rarely a giver, never offering credit to others and constantly keeping her guard up against retaliatory back stabbing (even when the threat doesn’t exist). To her, the day is something to get through, not to enjoy. Venting, weekends, and paydays are the “little vacations” that she craves, but when they are over, it’s right back to the old routine.
Survivors do just enough to get by, but do not look up to see the bigger picture. It’s similar to the hunter-gatherer. An obsession with the next meal prevents them from creating a system or framework that can relieve practical problems in the longer term, like cultivating crops. Scarcity drives compounding frustration, and drains a person’s energy to make change. It can become a vicious cycle.
Mike’s coworker has gotten to the point where she’ll show up two hours late to the office each day. In this business, workers are paid an annual salary, but can bill overtime when they need to work extended hours and weekends. This woman will do the bare minimum to drag a project along, and bill the maximum overtime, even for hours not worked! I’m not trying to cast a scarlet letter, but there’s a larger point to be made. The survivor walks a tight rope of doing just enough to stay in the job, while getting away with as much as they can. They only survive as long circumstances permit. When layoffs come around, or a project fails, they are typically among the first people to go.
There is one saving quality of the survivor: gumption. However unwanted, these workers often get away with near murder, simply because they have the nerve to ask someone to take on work, request a raise, or take time off. When they sense that their survival is in question, this type will often kick into overdrive to restore equilibrium before reverting to their brinkmanship over time.
If the survivor is aggressive, then the daydreamer is the passive counterpoint. Mike tells me about a man in his office destined for mediocrity, but due to a completely different mindset. This guy comes in with a new strategy every week on how to strike it big: everything from shale oil well royalties, to drone deliveries, to bitcoin. Not every daydreamer is a “hype man”; most keep their ideas to themselves, and are too reserved to shout them out in public. However, this guy is a good example to write about because of his openness.
There’s a difference between dreamers and daydreamers (I’m making up my own taxonomy here). Dreamers don’t settle with the status quo, and look for ways to innovate beyond it. Daydreamers use their musings as a way to cope with the status quo. These are your lottery players and “wantrepreneurs” of the world. They fantasize about wealth, success, preeminence – but when they are pushed on their plans to achieve such heights, a lack of substance becomes apparent.
This man prefers the sugar high of a new idea over the rigors and trials of consistent work towards a goal. The narrative arc usually goes like this: discouragement and frustration with current situation leads to the search for an escape. Idea/product X fills the void, and the daydreamer explores it for anywhere from five minutes, to six months. Without seeing any massive results, they become jaded with the idea and eventually quit with bitterness. Rinse and repeat.
I have always struggled with daydreaming, and decided to write this post because of a startling realization. Daydreaming is extremely addictive, and like most things, can be useful in moderation, but destructive in excess. I have no intention to stop dreaming about a better tomorrow, where I can be there for my girlfriend, my brothers, and to give back to my parents after their many years of working to support our family. However, I need to write this article in order to hold myself accountable. Like a pill popper or porn addict who realizes that “this is not just a habit”, I’m looking for ways to wean off of instant gratification, lifestyle creep, and get rich quick conspiracies in order to see a plan through to success.
Until today, I have taken shortcuts like the survivor, and binged on hype like the daydreamer. I’ll probably encounter moments of weakness, but there’s a higher standard that I’m looking to live by, and I’ve gradually seen the positive changes over the past six months of addressing this. Even if I’m the only person that reads this, having my thoughts in writing is a critical step toward my transition into a man of action. If anyone does stumble across this in the digital ether, then I hope you’ll answer the call as well.
Mike is not a daydreamer, and not a survivor. He’s also not the guy on a yacht sipping a tropical drink seen on a late night infomercial. Mike is one of the third kind – I’d call him a fledgling person of action. He’s not posting vacation pictures on Facebook, or indulging every weekend. Instead, he spends his free time making connections with successful people, building a side business in a field that he’s passionate about (electronics), and keeping his mind off of forgettable BS in the office. He has a list of one to three meaningful goals each day, and measures his progress by the ability to achieve those things. I give him a lot of credit as he is a nose to the grindstone guy, and think of my heroes and mentors who had to go off of the radar to build equity in their selves before emerging as successful. Nobody remembers the sleeper periods of internet heavyweights like Ramit Sethi or Pat Flynn, but their scaffolding was built when they weren’t a pimple on anyone’s ass. I strive to be a better person like Mike, and this blog will be a testament of my success or failure.