Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Disruptive Technology Plus Rapid Growth Equals Excess Devotion, For the Newbie

Chapter 5: The Role of Circumstance Part 11

In the last post, we met Mary, who enthusiastically embraced the corporate life after graduate school and was shocked when the first layoffs hit.  It is perfectly understandable that early in her career, Mary did not understand the business realities, especially coming from a different set of realities.

As a science graduate student, she worked independently on her project, with a large peer group of fellow grad students to commiserate with.  There was no overall institutional loyalty – a graduate student is part of a scientist’s lab, who in many cases could care less about what you think of them or the institution.  In fact, many a graduate advisor hates the institution for all the bureaucracy.  Personal identity does not become intertwined with the institution.

A corporation is a completely different environment.  It’s about making money for the company, and working with other people towards a common goal.  At work Mary was surrounded by signals that re-enforced her attachment to the company, and she was caught up in the gung-ho attitude of trying to change the world.

The customers were almost all of the top twenty pharmaceutical companies, which reinforced her perception that the company was helping to revolutionize drug discovery.  (See this post on the illusion of control.) And, these companies were a very lucrative source of revenue.  At one point, the stock price was going up 20 to 30 points a day, and everyone was talking about it.  You could literally hear people screaming out numbers and cheering from their cubes.   One of the founders, whose major contribution at the time was surfing porn sites, was once seen dancing down the hall chanting the company name.

The core of Mary’s devotion, though, came from the company President, who was energetic and visionary.

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Thirty, Single, and Killing Herself For the Company

Busting Your Corporate Idol.  Chapter 5, Part 10

Mary is tall, with curly dark hair and a serious expression when you first meet her.  After a while her bubbly side emerges, a pleasant balance to her focus and determination.  She spoke to me with great sincerity and emotion, and she tells her story better than I ever could:

[At] my first job out of grad school, I was excited and wanted to do well.  The culture was a small company feel, everybody knows each other, familyish.  Everyone was trying to do the right thing to make the company successful. You wanted to go the extra mile, [because] you were working with your friends. You felt this camaraderie. I was traveling for the first time, yeah! I’ll go anywhere yeah! Just all the perks of being in a company vs. academia: the money, the bonuses, the 401k it was so exciting.  I felt so successful compared with my Ph.D. Writing email at night, fixing customer problems, writing customer requirements, it[work] fulfilled me to a certain amount. Even now, ten years later I still feel a connection to many of the people I worked with. 

So when the layoffs hit, it was such a slap in the face. It was really hard. I have very vivid images of the layoffs. I wasn’t part of it, but it was a mess.  I remember the CSO was crying. Everyone had to get in a room. I remember being up high, looking down and seeing everyone scrambling around in the corridor to see if they were on the list.  It was awful.” 

The layoffs were a wake up call for Mary.  

I was 30 and still single. I though ‘I’m killing myself for the company, and not getting anywhere in my personal life.’  You don’t realize that at first, except for Friday nights when you grab movie, Thai noodles and sit by yourself.  It started to be ‘wait a minute, I want to get married, have kids, and I’m getting older.  I have an awesome apartment downtown and no one to share it with’. I traveled a lot and gained weight, which made it hard to be single.  Even if I looked fine, I didn’t feel good about myself. 

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What Happens When The Idealist Gets That First Job ?

Chapter 5: The Role Of Circumstance Part 9

I did not get my first real job until I was over 30, thanks to the ten years I spent as scientist in the academic world, in graduate school and as a postdoctoral fellow.  My twenties were spent in the lab, and I loved it.  Well, I should be careful how I say that – lab work at the bench was a grind, often frustrating and repetitive.  I loved thinking up experiments, interpreting the data and the rush when something was working.  My first really big experimental result came in the forth year of graduate school at about ten o’clock at night.  I rushed around the floor looking for other people to share it with – I found plenty.  We were grad students in our twenties – where else would we be?

I was not the first, nor the last person to move from the academic to the corporate world.  “Mary Cassidy” could not get out of the academic world fast enough.  She went to graduate school for six long years studying oncology.  It was not a supportive environment, and the project was difficult.  The Ph.D. felt like it had been paid for in blood.  On a good project, experiments lead to a clear yes or no answer, allowing the researcher to move on to the next experiment.  Ambiguous results are a nightmare – one replicate yes, one says no and a lot of maybe.  This led to repeat after repeat – which was both demoralizing and frustrating. Moving from the snows of the Midwest back to San Diego, to work at a small but hot biotech company was exciting beyond her wildest expectations.

In the next post, we’ll see how Mary found herself thirty, single, and killing herself for the company.

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Three Reasons Why You Might Be Staying In A Job You Don’t Like

Chapter 5: The Role Of Circumstance

In the last post, I told the story of “Sue” who stayed in a negative working environment until she became sick, both physically and mentally.  I believe that staying in an unhealthy work environment is a form of corporate idolatry because one is following a value system that prioritizes work over personal health.  Several women I interviewed went so far as to say that they felt like they were in an abusive relationship with the company.  

[The competition for jobs in the market] makes me feel stuck and dependent on the company.  The battered wife who keeps on going back and won’t leave, sometimes I feel like that. 

People I interviewed cited a number of reasons why they don’t leave negative situations.  Here are three of them.

  1. Loyalty to peers or reports: I did not have any corporate allegiance.  I had personal allegiance to people within the company.  I wanted to protect my staff.  [Not wanting to] let that team down was part of [why I didn’t leave.] I made it my mission to at least try to make their work environment better than mine was.  It was frustrating because I could only make it so good, could only fix it so much.
  2. Learning [The executives] need to find different ways to value people.  It’s arrogant. I’ve seen a lot of turnover.  The main reason I stayed was I was learning so much.  I had a lot of great friends and colleagues.  I couldn’t have asked for a better learning experience the last few years.
  3. Momentum [I was] very well compensated and it’s hard to give up a large paycheck.  [Leaving] came to mind frequently.  One [good] thing would happen – it’s never all bad.  I’d find some silver lining, and choose to think about the action plan to fix what I wasn’t liking, visualizing success of the plan. 

But of all the circumstances I heard about, the one that had the biggest impact is the time in your career.

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Why Was the Vice President Crying Every Morning?

Chapter 6: The Role Of Circumstance Part 7

She was in the midst of a successful career. She was the rock holding everyone together at work.  She’d moved up through the ranks to Vice President.  And she was crying every morning, and sneaking off to the ladies room during the day to nurse horrible migraines.

It wasn’t always that way.  “Sue” arrived at the company as a senior product manager.  “It was hard but fun.  Everyone was working towards the same goals, and to this day the core group [of us] remain friends.  We made some kick-ass software.”  For five years, the company did well,  and her career prospered.  But then things changed.

“The management team fell apart, the strategy started to shift and the company wasn’t doing as well.  There was a big panic. A lot of us wanted it to be like it was.  I wanted to be the one to bring it back.  There was a nagging voice in back of the head telling me it was too far gone.  I kick myself for working myself to death, giving up my free time on weekends, perusing my hobbies, [not] spending time with my spouse.”

I asked Sue if she would have stayed if there had not been the good times first.  She laughed.  “No, I would have bailed.  [In hindsight,] I had an obligation to do a good job, but I did not have an obligation to give up all of my free time to the company.”

In Chapter 8: Build Your Community, we will visit Sue again to see how she remained in the corporate world and rebalanced her life. Read it here.

Today, a big buzzword I see is employee engagement. Was Sue an engaged employee?

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