Ego Death of the Workaholic, or Identity Politics in Global Norcal

So this has been sitting in my drafts folder for months due to a couple factors. Mostly because I’m scared – if anyone reads it I’m scared what they’ll think, and I’m also scared that no one will read it. Also I think it’s still pretty poorly composed. But since it appears I am never getting back to it, and because it would be such a waste not to use that title, here you go.


The tech industry is problematic. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. But today I’m interested in an underexplored aspect of the problems in tech – namely, problems surrounding and arising from what I have started to call ego death.

Ego death is a psychological/philosophical term describing, as wikipedia puts it, “complete loss of subjective self-identity.” It’s usually used to describe experiences arising from extreme religious practice or heavy psychedelic drug use, but I think it’s an appropriate way to describe a certain kind of tech worker. Ego death usually means something like an absence of one’s sense of self-ness, which is sometimes felt as a moment of panic and sometimes felt as a moment of total absorption in some greater whole. There are many employees in the tech industry that allow their own identity and even agency to be subsumed by their career, or, worse, their current job.

This is found in people who do things like: work 60+ hour weeks voluntarily, are excited to be given the opportunity to be “on call,” effuse about their company’s excellence publicly, especially on social media, etc. I’m sure you know the type. If this person has any hobbies outside of work, it’s programming “for fun,” and if there’s anything beyond that, nobody knows about it anymore. Sometimes this person’s interests will include superficially diversified activities such as “drinking [with teammates],” or “playing video games [that their teammates are also interested in],” or even “attending hackathons,” but it always somehow seems to come back to the company.

And to be clear, these are not people who are driving themselves hard in order to maximize their career as it begins, which is sometimes a valid strategy. These are people that would be described as Macleod Clueless — people who are enthusiastic without meaningful ambition, and thus exploitable. These are people who would be best off working 35 hours a week and going home and playing frisbee, since it would affect their careers just about the same.

And so but there is this group of people who very much want to assimilate themselves as a cog in the machine. A shiny cog that gets mentioned on walking tours, preferably, but ultimately still a cog. A hiring manager or, worse, CEO of an underfunded, uncertain tech startup cannot imagine anything better than hiring one of these suicidal egoists. You mean I get to pay you under market wages (because you’re desperate to find a company to give yourself over to), without much equity (because you assume Company is so great that any equity is worth it), and you’ll still work 60+ hour weeks? sold!

These people, by giving themselves over so completely to being a part of their employer, are causing several problems. There is a whole world of thorny problems about what it could possibly mean about an individual to do this voluntarily, but I’m not actually interested in that — I suspect the number of people for whom this is an emotionally healthy decision approaches zero, but I’m not worried about prescribing anyone’s behaviour for their own wellbeing. I’m interested in the cultural problems the existence of these people causes within the tech industry. Most notably, only a certain kind of person can realistically suffer corporate ego death. There have to be no urgent alternative pressures on your time, there has to be no significant financial risk, and there has to be no conflicting identity worth preserving. Finally, you have to be treated well enough, or at least perceive yourself as treated well enough, to be comfortable with the subsumption. Let’s take these in order.

No Alternative Obligations

It is impossible for, say, a single parent, or the elder child of a disabled sibling, or a child caring for an ill family member to undergo this ego death. There is absolutely no way to spend the time and energy required to nurture another person and still be willing to subsume your identity within your company’s. Your employer would never care for your ill mother, and while you are doing so you cannot possibly continue thinking of yourself as an extension of the company.

Even someone with serious hobbies cannot do this – if you spend 3 evenings a week with your old college buddies jamming in a practice space, that is enough forced external interaction that it’s not going to work out for you to undergo ego death. If you do, you won’t be able to have normal interactions with them, and the band will fall apart. Or say you spend a lot of time drawing — no one wants to read a comic book about how great your company is, so you have to make your art in a different mindset than you make your living. Or maybe you play on a rec baseball team – your colleagues don’t care about your season’s record, and your baseball teammates don’t care about your company’s NPS, so you cannot become completely absorbed in either.

No Significant Financial Risk

This one is a little trickier. I use the word “risk” deliberately here. There can be very real financial downsides (such as taking a dramatically under-market rate to work at a startup), but there cannot be real, existential risk. If you are working at a job that puts you at real risk, the kind of risk where you could end up homeless, or your children could end up without school supplies, or you can’t make good on your student loans, you are necessarily going to spend an awful lot of mental energy trying to improve your station. You have to be in a situation where any financial downsides are not actual risks in order to become one with your employer.

This can mean different things to different people – perhaps you’re sharing a bedroom with a coworker, but you have a security net if things go bad. Maybe you have a network that you are very confident could get you another job within the month if you lost your job or the company went under. Maybe you’re lucky and the company you’re working for is actually paying you fair wages, and so your opportunity cost is in career/skills advancement rather than in dollars this year. But in any case, if there were any serious risk involved, it would be cognitively impossible to truly devote yourself to your company.*

No Conflicting Identity Worth Preserving

Now this one is almost a tautology. You won’t subsume your identity to a company’s if you have an identity that is more valuable to you than what you would gain by said assimilation. In the last two points, the blocker to ego death was, basically, cognitive dissonance. In this one it’s simple disinterest. If I am an interesting person, with my own identity forged from my values, my background, my interests, etc, then why would I need to adopt someone else’s, or, weirder still, an organization’s? I wouldn’t. I would continue being my self, and include that a facet of myself is my career or my success at a particular job.

My identity has to be either very flimsy or already pretty easily aligned with corporate identity in order to go through this ego death. The former would be people who simply don’t have much definition in their life, nothing going on to build their identity around, as covered above – people who are ultimately uninteresting. The latter would be people who come into their careers already believing that being the best possible employee is a valid identity, or people who align themselves very strongly with a particular aspect of the job they’re doing – if you have bought into all the timeless “nerd” stereotypes, then perhaps “programmer” is an identity you wish to claim as your own, and it’s easy to let “programmer@Company” stand in for “Alexander Corwin, professional programmer.” I imagine this can go for other careers about which people get passionate, but I am not qualified to speak to that.

Perceived Good Treatment

If you feel you are treated poorly by your employer, you are not going to become an extension of them.** You cannot wholeheartedly endorse and represent an employer who you privately feel bad about. I mentioned above that a hiring manager is going to be very interested in underpaying and exploiting these sorts of identity-less waifs, so how could they possibly ever feel they are treated well?

It turns out that there are many people who aren’t in it for the money. They seriously believe that the money isn’t really that important. They want to feel special, and respected, and like they’re in a fun, collegial group with peers. A person decides, “I identify as a programmer.” Then they went to feel connected to “programmer culture,” which, it turns out, has been cynically defined as drinking a lot of soda, loving programming more than anything else, wariness of “business people,” working unconventional hours, &c. So if you tell someone who is or wants to be a part of this “culture,” that you’ll pay them $20,000 less than they’re worth, but it’s okay if they come in at 11:30 and can drink free Jolt cola to the tune of $500 a year, they interpret that as special treatment. Being made to feel like you’re “one of the group” is the real perk here, not the money or the hours or the career advancement.

So. What sort of person fits this profile: No meaningful external obligations, no serious financial risk, no conflicting self-identity, and a deep belief that Jolt cola is preferably to money in the bank?

The answer, of course, is: overwhelmingly, young white men, especially those who were bullied for being “nerds” when they were younger. Of course, some other people have the exceptional privilege it takes to be in this group, and a few of those are even deficient enough in self-respect to undergo ego death. So we have some true believer types outside of the group of young white men, and we get people who are happy to let their entire cultural background go at the chance to fit in with the group.

Consequences

I think I’ve spilled enough ink making my point about the homogeneity of the group capable of corporate ego death. I mentioned a couple of times before that people who fit this profile make hiring managers’ eyes light up with dollar signs. I think it should be clear why: They will work more, and work harder, for less money. Further, they will go about shilling for your company – telling their friends to sign up, retweeting your blog posts, boasting about your TechCrunch writeup – and thus net you free brand recognition and save costs on recruitment sourcing!

So let me get to the reason for spelling all this out. The existence of this group of suicidal egoists incentivizes companies to hire from it. There is no rational*** business reason to hire outside of it when you don’t have to. This means that startup teams end up being small groups of young, white, male programmers who identify themselves with their roles too deeply. These people then go on to do their best to hire others like them. This in itself is a serious problem, but the worst part of it is what happens when someone who doesn’t fit the profile sneaks in.

The entire development team has built itself up around this shared ego subsumption, and now we get someone who isn’t down for that. How do you think the group is going to react? This isn’t a group of professionals who are doing good work 40 hours a week, interfacing with same; this is a club where membership is defined not merely by employment at Company, but by religious devotion to Company. So a person who comes in and works 40 hours a week, no matter how well they perform, is going to be ostracized and isolated, subtly or not. This person will be left out of important meetings (maybe the meeting is held at 6pm, or at a bar, and your new employee who has real obligations isn’t able to make it, or maybe your new employee’s absence is justified because they’re not going to be working on this new big initiative anyway, since they’re not devoted enough, or whatever). Over time, the exclusion is going to make it very clear that this new, non-zealous employee is persona non grata, and if they are allowed to stay here, they will be marginalized and not allowed to work on the best projects, not allowed to grow into new and better things, and their input will not be valued as highly as those of the True Believers.

And here I’m totally skipping the obvious: if this new person is, say, female, or black, or otherwise visibly different, there are going to be unpoliced biases at play on top of all that. If your employees are talking and say, “well, Steve doesn’t need to be in this meeting; he’s not really a team player,” someone might actually point out that Steve’s last job used this new technology extensively. If, however, we have the same conversation about Sally, there’s a whole extra level of anti-female bias to contend with on top of the already exclusionary club dynamic of the group, and the odds of anyone standing up for her plummet.

So What Do We Do About It?

I don’t know what we can do about it on a large scale. Many groups of people have opportunities to remedy this, but few of them are economically rational, at least in the short term. If hiring managers across the valley formed a secret cabal to deliberately increase diversity and stop treating their employees like children, that would do wonders, but one or two of them is just a drop in the bucket. If VCs stopped funding companies by people who have networks full of young, white, male True Believers, that might help. If programmers all stood up and said, “Fuck you, I’m an adult. Give me the salary I deserve and keep your fucking free lunches,” that would make some serious waves. But for each programmer who does this individually, all you do is dramatically narrow the range of companies you’re willing to work for.

One thing you can do is, if you find yourself suffering ego death, or trying to camouflage yourself amongst those who have, is just be the voice who stands up for including people outside the club. If the first person who joins and remains their own person has a positive experience working with your team, then they’ll start to provide a counterbalance. They will stay on, and the next person like this that you hire will have a kindred soul, and slowly the tides will shift until it’s normal to be a whole person who also works at Company. I think this is probably the best most of us can do, at least for now.

* I feel obligated to point out that this isn’t totally true. In a way analogous to how people end up totally devoted to abusive partners, you can end up totally devoted to an abusive company – one who promises that promotion in six months, but then keeps giving you a bad performance review, etc. However, I’m not focusing on this sort of dynamic here.

** c.f. above note

*** [short-term]

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One Response to Ego Death of the Workaholic, or Identity Politics in Global Norcal

  1. Pingback: Patricide is a good word | See Alexander Code

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