By Sydney Lester
In today’s hyper-competitive corporate landscape, the most valuable professional skill is the ability to bullshit. We suit up in our intellectual cosplays each morning, robotically shake the hands of our competition, giggle at just the right time, show just the right amount of skin, and kiss the asses of our superiors, all in the name of ceremony. And then, at the end of the day, we get drunk. We unzip, we argue with our partners, and we scheme about getting ahead, because hey, that’s what everyone does. “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players,” right? We live formally, carefully, thoughtfully, using status, connections, and squeaky clean appearances as strategically as pawns in a game of chess. But, of course, we never mention it— everyone knows that working the hardest, being the best, and (most importantly) connecting with just the right person on LinkedIn is the key to success. So long, of course, as you know how to go through the motions of righteousness and morality required by the HR department. Why does professionalism require that we pretend we’re not all putting on a show, subjecting ourselves to a slow and polished suffering, as we all squeeze ourselves into some version of the same bland prototype? We manipulate every unique part of ourselves— and all, to varying degrees, at the expense of our morality, our individuality, and our ability to create. These are the very traits that make us more than mere animals.
Maybe we do it, not because we are all selfish creatures with a natural drive for manipulation, but because in today’s world, we’ve been programmed to believe that validation from the higher-up version of that same prototype equates to success. It seems, although “success” of course is a relative term, that the most primal parts of our brains have begun to identify traditional, hierarchical, “corporate” success as the most viable path to survival, a shift likely inspired by the understandably pressing fears of instability. What if we’re never able to buy a house, or afford a family, or reach a place where we can sleep through the night without jerking awake, filled with anxiety over our credit scores? Everyone wants to survive, to thrive, to know with certainty that our soul-crushing efforts will be worth something— so, we play the game, keeping in mind that the fastest way to lose this type of game is to acknowledge its existence at all. We are trapped in our own detrimental, mechanical games by our own natural survival instincts, which may be the most ironic part of being human of all. Morally damned and crushed by the pressure to conform by playing the game, but arguably fucked in life if you don’t. It’s the ultimate Catch-22, the most tiring example of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” because, it’s simple really: “all you’ve [really] got to do is lay there and die a little.” So we weigh our options, our survival instincts kick in, and very often, we play.
Work hard, be smart, follow the rules, and success will follow, they say. Look the part, act the part, and have the right friends, they whisper. Read the classics, and reference them often—but laugh at their pretentiousness, at the pretentiousness of those who actually read them. Slip your most esteemed accomplishments into casual conversation, develop an enthusiasm for pleasuring the men around you, and laugh at jokes that aren’t funny. Never go off-script, perfect the art of humble-bragging, prepare intensely for ceremonial job interviews, and do it all without revealing that your ability to conform so perfectly comes at such a price. In such games, there are appearances to keep and people to fool, and as much as we’d like to think of the success as something attainable through genuine passion and unique skill, such structures don’t allow for much of that. Generally, while investigating the self-proclaimed “self-made men” of the world, you’ll learn that those who are truly self-made “owe their lack of success to nobody.” But, the not-really-self-made-men (who only received a small loan of a million dollars to fund their start-ups) flaunt their status regardless, and tell underprivileged children that someday, with hard work, they can do it too.
The irony of such displays of pettiness, humility, and desperation— of distinctly human emotion—in such a thoughtfully constructed “professional” processes (in theory) designed to eliminate just those, yet, does not escape us; and such disconnect between our knowing we are living a life of ingenuity but continuing on anyways destroys us from the inside out. What can we do but play, to conform, to try to eliminate ourselves and our individuality from our own, human, constructions of professionalism? You’d think if enough actors opted out, the performance would be disrupted to the point of ruin, and we could relax into a less dramatic version of human nature.
I encourage emerging professionals to do just that. Begin to decouple the genuine success and achievement from validation by competitors and perceived superiors. Although dismantling such deeply ingrained structural processes will certainly require the courage of many generations coming to the widespread realization that a society full of the same copy-pasted finance bro undermines the creativity and beauty that humanity is capable of, we risk losing more than we can afford. By playing this game, we gatekeep success, limit our capacity to create, and, most egregiously, we gamble with our sense of self and our ability to truly empathize. In the end, this is what it will cost us, as these are the things that differentiate our primordial ancestors from humanity as it exists today. The slow process of opting out of such strict requirements of conformity begins with the individual. By fostering genuine passion and embracing our individuality, society at large will eventually notice the resulting innovation and creativity. Genuinity may come at great risk, but it also comes with great reward, and as much as survival instincts rule human behavior, also at our core lies curiosity, an appreciation for beauty, and a desperate need for a genuine connection (as opposed to the superficial mimicking or ass-kissing of some basic prototype) with others.
There is value in remembering that the games we play are constructions that we each uphold by engaging in them, and that remaining complicit, in many ways, is just as threatening to our well-being as risking rejection from others. Although professional competition is somewhat inevitable, there is little value in competing in games that we, at our core, have no interest in or passion for, if not motivated by fear. It is possible to remain a competitive member of society, and live without sacrificing yourself in the process; such competitions just require abandoning conformity and the rigid demands of the corporate prototypes by redefining success.