You aren’t going to get along with everyone, or every culture, and you aren’t going to avoid stress – this is part of life, of course. But when you’re working, you want to be around people that are fair-minded and complimentary, and who want to work together to build something great, something that you want to learn about and believe will make a positive impact. If family is the place where you create the most harmony, work should be similar and very close – a second family that helps you accomplish your dreams instead of backstabbing you at any chance to move up the ranks of an outdated, exploitative hierarchical system.
In my first few jobs, whether it was one thing or another that annoyed me, the overarching theme was that I was trapped, forced to do work dictated by others, with little focus on discussing mutual interest in the short or long run.
With my corporate programming job for a an American defense contractor I was always being watched and controlled, and I didn’t know what good the work was actually doing to help the world – am I helping Americans gain intelligence, or fight a war, and is this a good thing?
With the family business work I had a lot more autonomy, and was helping my family and their business grow, but it was revolving around roofing, an industry unrelated to most of my passions. Even though this was a better fit because I got to put my own technological spin on things, modernizing the business, it wasn’t quite right. In both job situations I was primarily helping others accomplish their goals. Over time I realized that I wouldn’t be happy until I could explore the world for opportunities on my own terms, chasing my own dreams.
What Are the Signs of Bad Work & Exploitation?
One of the most heartbreaking things I regularly hear is how much people hate their work or “job”. The answers usually end up falling into several of these categories:
Hyper-competitive work culture
When everything is hyper-competitive inside an organization, including the work quality itself, who gets promoted, and who is “most liked”, among many other things, it puts tremendous pressure on staff to out-do each other, creating co-worker frustration and even animosity. Some see this approach as a way to motivate everyone. Competition does have a way of keeping everyone engaged and interested in improving. But when societies have begun to describe people in broad terms as “winners and losers”, we are clearly letting our advantages, egos, greed, and belief that competition is the highest priority get the best of us. Is it a level playing field? Most definitely not. Is everyone who doesn’t believe in fighting for oneself over others a hippie loser, or a humanitarian? A “winners and losers” societal mentality pressures the society into an ego-centric attitude in order to prevail or “be successful”. From a work perspective, assessing who brings the most overall value to the organization is usually a balance of some competition (in a sportsmanlike manor), and some action towards collective benefit – a balanced approach. The most exploitative organizations adopt a hyper competition model, meant to drive people to be “winners”, tricking people to believe that being better than others in one way, or one culture, is what matters. So what is a winner, and what is success? Could it perhaps have to do with how much value and usefulness to others we bring?
Domineering, manipulative, unfair boss
A boss is there to explain the big picture of projects, set reasonable guidelines and expectations, and make sure that you are following through with your work. Occasionally there will be highs and lows, whether with the size of workload, personal life emotions, and everything else. So this isn’t expected to be perfect at all times. For example, one month you could be super busy and your boss is going through personal issues so everything seems chaotic. But then the next month the workload is slow and your boss is feeling better, and apologizes for any issues that could have been caused. This is all totally fine. But if the extremes continue over a longer period of time, it may be a sign of deeper issues with the boss, the project, or the company.
This could be for so many reasons, but the main point here is that workers should be helpful and collaborative. If you are continuously dealing with petty issues and not collectively doing good work, move on.
No upward mobility structure or follow-through
If someone is doing great work there should always be a path upwards in the organization. Sometimes workers will not say anything for years (or ever) and just treat everything as a “role” they were meant to do forever. Or maybe they ask for simple things like a raise or promotion and are made false promises. In my opinion, management should be transparent with workers and set expectations of how upward mobility will work depending on the success of the organization. For example, if you do great work for 1 year, you’ll get a 10% raise, and 2 years, you’ll get a significant piece of equity, and so on. If you feel like you’re doing good and not moving up, make an alternative plan, then talk to your boss one final time to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, and if things don’t change, move on.
Work is too menial or not challenging enough
In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, he breaks motivation down into 3 aspects – Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. As you may be able to tell while reading most of my material, I focus a lot on the purpose part because I feel this one took the longest for me. But for what challenges us, described in his section on mastery, it comes down to being able to continue advance our learning, not too fast or complex so that it’s overwhelming, and not too slow or repetitive so that it’s menial. Finding the sweet spot takes time – you need to know when you’ve reached limits with subjects and need to find other interesting or complimentary subjects to learn about. Finding your own personal mastery plan should be a priority for how you work within an organization (or by yourself), and you should be open and humble about your strengths and weaknesses with your co-workers and management to find a way to continually grow and challenge yourself. And just like most of these problems, if you try and they don’t sort themselves out in a timely fashion, make a new plan to move on.
Not making enough money
This topic has several layers and is covered in several other posts. Firstly, you should always be paid fairly (market value) for the work you do. But if there is not enough work inside within your primary organization, you should diversify your work among several jobs. I like the idea of freelancing on your best and/or favorite capabilities with many clients to make sure that if any one client or project dissolves, you have others to rely on for base (sustainable) income.
Make sure basic needs are met by money to buy resources, or by the resources acquired directly
The Social Progress Imperative provides this amazing list and breakdown:So how much money does it take to make sure the necessities of life are met? There are several well known studies done by both Harvard and Princeton universities, concluding that $40,000 USD gross income per year in the United States was the turning point for happiness – if people made less, they struggled and were less happy, but if they made $40,000 or more their happiness did not increase much. These studies were conducted in the US only, so you must next factor in the specifics of the country and place you are living – cost of living, availability of resources, infrastructure, and all it takes to meet your basic needs, and how that compares to the income indicated by the Harvard study. For example, in Bangkok the cost of living is much lower, but there are several aspects of the SPI’s list of needs that are not met, so you would adjust your income for standard of living, and then add in extra income needed to make up for these lack of provisions.
And another layer to this is what can be done with more than the basic income – if you want to make more to save, provide to children, family, and invest in retirement, or invest in helping humanity, by all means, do whatever you can to make money – just do it without exploiting others.
Have to work too many hours
Forty hours a week is fairly standard around the world with several weeks vacation. Many progressive countries have realized that providing more vacation and less hourly work allows for greater productivity. Sometimes it’s necessary to work more than 40 because of surges in projects, and sometimes you want to work more to get ahead or because you love what you do. But other than that, you should never work overextended hours for months at at time. It’s bad for your health and is usually a sign of employer exploitation and lack of compassion for your wellbeing.
Don’t believe in the work
This one is a killer. Back to Daniel Pink’s Drive book, without Purpose for the work, why do it in the first place? There are so many blogs on the internet about finding your life’s purpose so I won’t go into that here, but this article is all about breaking the traps of bad work and at least getting started on finding the right path and direction for meaningful work.
Hate the commute
Many businesses are in cities, and require regular business hours because that’s when most customers are available and work is done. And transportation can be either expensive and/or slow. If you commute with a train, bus, shuttle, Uber/Lyft/taxi, or carpool, you can get a lot of work and personal growth done along the way. But you shouldn’t feel like your overall time and expense puts you too close to or underneath the sustainability line. If you love your job but it’s a horrible commute you can try options for cheaper or shared housing.
Hate where job is located
For me NYC is too exhausting and competitive, many other US cities are not culturally diverse enough, and rural areas tend to be a bit slow and non-progressive with technology and “hip culture” (not that i’m super hip or anything). My first job at Northrup Grumman was outside Patuxent Navel Air Station in Hollywood, MD, surrounded by several small towns with very little to do. Single men outnumbered single women 9/1, and having a thriving scene for singles is important if you are single. So, I had to make due with my job and any fun activities I could find. My basketball, golf, pool, gym, and cards (rummy and poker) skills got dramatically better, but I definitely felt limited. Now 15 years later I’ve traveled a bit around the world and can easily say that there are hundreds of places that offer amazing, diverse, interesting living inside the sustainability curve. How you get there – physically, mentally, and professionally is up to you – maybe you should set this is one of your main goals and get started asap!
Poor/unhealthy working conditions
This one is an absolutely no. You would have to pay me crazy amounts of money and find credible experts to explain all of the science as to what kind of harm I’m sacrificing for the money. 90% of the time I’d expect the answer would be no, like coal-mining or asbestos construction. However, some of the most amazing things in life take risk, so it all comes back to balance.
How do I Break Free?
Given that I’ve dealt with so many of these issues personally, I’m dedicating a part of my career to exploring and sharing options for a better career path. I dive into these ideas here – Break Free From Traps and Find Work You Care About.