Don’t Be Like Ajay

There’s a lot of bad career advice out there, but the worst of it comes from people who’ve been successful at private-sector social climbing. Blind to their own privilege, and invested in the perverse mythology of corporate meritocracy, they are least equipped to perceive the truth– not to mention their lack of incentive to share it, in the off chance of discovering it. At the same time, these people can say anything and get it into print, so desperate are the rest of us, the proles, to hear the inside corporate secrets they purport to have.

There are no secrets. The corporate system is corrupt; it is not a conspiracy. It is exactly what it looks like; the powerful abuse the powerless, the rich get richer, and people who speak the truth about it are punished.

This pestilent article, “What College Grads Could Learn From My Former Intern“, comes from Zillow CEO, Spencer Rascoff. Now, I have no personal knowledge of the author, and I know even less about the “Ajay”– that may or may not be his real name; it doesn’t matter– so I’m going to stick to the merits of the article itself.

This I will say: venture-funded startup CEOs are the worst when it comes to self-deception and the profligate evangelization of nonsense.

Venture capital, at least in the technology industry, has become a mechanism for the replication of privilege. Well-connected families create the appearance of their progeny having built businesses from scratch when, it fact, they had all sorts of hidden advantages: tighter sales advantages, fawning press coverage, and most importantly, the privilege not to worry about personal financial nonsense. (If their businesses tanked, they’d fail up into cushy executive jobs, often as venture capitalists.) It’s money laundering, plain and simple, and it’s not even well hidden since it’s technically not illegal.

The corporate system is a resource extraction culture, not unlike the ones in culturally impoverished, oil-rich societies that never needed to grow or innovate, because they could pump wealth out of the ground. In this case, though, the depleting resource is the good faith of the American middle class– an earnest belief in hard work, an affinity for technology, an acceptance of authority. The purpose of the ruse is to make it look like “this time it’s different” and that today’s elite, unlike the warlords and viscounts of the past, actually earned it.

 

Ajay, the protagonist of this second-rate Horatio Alger story, was a hard worker, eager to please, by the author’s description (emphasis mine):

Ajay did [difficult, unpleasant work] eagerly and with a smile; he worked incredibly hard and because of that, built a reputation for himself as someone who would pitch in to help with anything you asked and give it his best effort. People liked that.

I almost retched when I came upon “and with a smile”. Gross.

My thoughts, for the rising generation? Yes, work hard when it’s worth it to work hard. In fact, I would not try to give advice to the young about “work-life balance” or tell them that they should backpack around Australia for two years. It’s hard enough to achieve something significant during peace time; it’s much harder in 2018, when the rich have made it so much harder for anyone to get a chance. One cannot produce significant work in any field and also have the Instagram party life.

This said, there is difficult, unpleasant work worth doing; there are other tasks that are waste. If one has to do the job with a goddamn smile to get credit for it, then it’s almost certainly in the latter category.

 

Bosses might like, on a personal level, those who do unpleasant work with a smile. That doesn’t mean that it leads to career success. It’s never good to be disliked by a manager, but bosses don’t get to promote everyone they like. If one is well-liked only because of having made it a path of least resistance to give one unpleasant, career-incoherent work, then one is in a state sustained only by suffering, that one can almost never turn into career advancement.

I’d also like to point out the author’s corporate weasel terminology. He says, “People liked that.” He liked it. There’s nothing sinister or surprising about a boss liking someone who’s preternaturally “easy to manage”. What’s galling is that, like most corporate bosses, he felt entitled to superpose his opinion over the entire company. It’s like when managers fire people but want to avoid taking responsibility, so they say “the team decided”.

I would guess that many people disliked Ajay. They saw what he was doing, and they cringed.

Of course, if Ajay succeeded, then their opinions didn’t matter; those people didn’t win. Still, it’s generally not useful to be disliked by one’s colleagues, and no one likes ass-kissers.

Ajay was also a serial networker, even all the way up to me, the CEO.

It’s funny how blind CEOs are the politics that exist all around them. Since they get everything they want, there’s “no politics” in the organization. I suppose that’s true. The ultimate solution for someone who wishes to abolish politics is despotism– the degenerate but nominally apolitical arrangement. Most of us don’t want that, of course.

At any rate, if Ajay’s colleagues and managers tolerated “a serial networker”, it’s because they never saw him as a threat until he was fully ensconced in the managerial sun. Perhaps they were wrong and got blindsided. Like I said, I don’t know these people.

 

In general, though, the idea that a 22-year-old can try to rub elbows with a CEO, in a competitive environment like a startup or investment bank, and not get shanked by someone at or above his own level, is laughable. The people with the training to pull this off are those with inherited wealth and social resources, who have the least need for “internal networking” because of the extensive external networks their Daddies gave them.

When Ajay left to finish school and go on to various startups, he continued to build upon his brand and kept in touch—essentially marketing himself through his networks.

Emphases mine. There’s nothing incorrect about “essentially”; I just wanted to highlight an unnecessary adverb that really, totally, very badly, irritatingly weakened the prose.

I want to focus more on “build upon his brand”. (The author could have taken out “upon” and nothing would have been lost, but there’s actual incorrectness here, so I shan’t dwell on it.) See, what got me to write this response is not that the author’s giving misguided career advice. To be honest, I couldn’t give better advice that Forbes readers (if my estimation of its demographic is correct) would want to hear. I’d offer the truth– the game is rigged and most people will lose no matter what they do– and that’s not a charismatic message. No, I’m writing this response because the notion of “personal brand” is, to me, sickening.

I am not a brand. There are not five hundred of me stacked on a shelf in grocery store, all in neat order like the rectangular boxes they put toothpaste tubes in. You, dear reader, are not a brand either. If you don’t cringe when you hear the words “personal brand”, then wake up.

People who use the term “personal brand” without dripping contempt are a special breed of douchebag. What’s amusing is that, while they identify “personal brand” with their desperate claims of uniqueness, these people are pretty much all the same.

It is bad advice. The truth is that people who focus on “building their brand” are assumed by their colleagues not to be doing the work, and they’re the first ones to get shanked when things get difficult. Perhaps Ajay succeeded. Perhaps he’s in a corporate jet, still smile. Or perhaps he used his bonus on plastic surgery to fix that frozen-face smile after getting kicked out of a funeral for the goddamn last time.

You want to be remembered, whether you’re joining a company of five or 500, because remembered people get opportunities; anonymous ones don’t.

Remembered people get denied opportunities.

I’ve been involved with the antifascist cause since 2011. I’ve been turned down for jobs because of a somewhat public (and, in cases, adversarially publicized) track record of having the backbone to stand up for what’s right.

When it comes to social media, employment references, and personal uniqueness, we live in a 500-mile world. As in, follow any driver for 500 miles, and you’ll find a reason to write him up. It used to be difficult (literally, and in metaphor) and time-consuming to follow one person so far; technology and surveillance have made it easier.

I’ve been a hiring manager. I was always sympathetic to people with controversial online histories, for obvious reasons, but it’s the most common reason for denying a job to someone good enough to make it to the final round. No, these people aren’t alt-right psychopaths or proud, public drug users. Usually, they’re normal people who just happen to hold opinions. It’s assumed that they’ll get bored, or that they’ll react badly to mistakes made from authority. I did, on one occasion, cringe when a startup executive commented on a black woman’s natural hair being “political”.

The people who rise in the corporate system are boring. The best odds, in the corporate game, come from becoming the most bland, inoffensive, socially useless person one can. The problem with this truth– the reason it lacks business-magazine charisma– is that its odds are still poor. There are a lot of perfunctory losers out there, and they don’t all get executive jobs. Most of them get the same shitty treatment and outcomes as everyone else.

Not being boring, though, means that someone only has to follow you for 25 miles to find a reason to screw you over, damage your reputation, or deny you a job.

The optimal strategy is to be boring, to ingratiate oneself to powerful people over time, and to become intertwined enough with an organization’s powerful people that one is perceived to have undocumented leverage, and therefore gets what one wants out of the organization. Does this strategy work for everyone, all the time? No. The odds are depressing– most social climbers fail. But the odds are even worse for all the other strategies.

 

“How do you effectively brand yourself without being a peacock or a sycophant?” There are two ways: intentionally constructing it and being patient.

There are several ways to brand yourself. The classic approach is apply pressure with iron, heated in a fire. At high enough temperatures, permanent scars can be achieved in two or three seconds. Electric arcs are sometimes used for this process. An alternative to thermal burns is “cold branding”, often using liquid nitrogen. There seems to be no risk-free option, since branding literally is skin damage.

 

The same should be true for you: “Work with Sophia—she has a great attitude, big ideas, and is really hard-working.”

This guy must be getting paid per word. The Hemingway editor yells at me; I use adverbs. They’re not always unnecessary and replacing one with a clunky adverb-free adverbial phrase isn’t my way. Still, not only is the “really” unnecessary, but the author could have said “works hard”.

Whatever you decide to pursue as your personal brand, make sure it has a strong purpose behind it. If you do that, the rest is just packaging.

“Just packaging.” A product’s brand is literally that: packaging. Brand is the use of identical-looking boxes to convince buyers that a minimum standard of quality has been met. A Hershey Bar isn’t going to blow me away, but it’s perfectly adequate. I know that when I buy one, I’m unlikely to find a severed housefly wing in it.

If you want “perfectly adequate” on your tombstone, then consider being like Ajay– a brand. That said, you might want to pull that smile down. Do your job and do it well, of course, but if you smile so much, you’ll make everyone hate you. No one wants to compete for attention with an ass-kisser.

The Truth

As I said, I found the article harmless till I got to the “personal brand” bit.

There’s a lot of bad career advice out there from successful people (most of whom lucked into, or were born into, what they have). There’s also a lot of bad career advice from unsuccessful people who’ve found success selling the “inside secrets” of a corporate game they never actually won– now that is personal brand. The well-meaning self-deception will never go away, nor will the intentionally deceptive sleaze. There are many gamblers who “have a system” for beating roulette wheels and slot machines. Many books have been written on their systems. They do not work. The house wins in the long term. That’s why it’s the house.

The house is smart enough to keep people coming in. So it offers intermittent small wins, and a few big ones that generate publicity. It’s very hard for lottery winners to keep their windfalls private; lotteries discourage it. In these corrupt career lotteries, though, the system doesn’t have to make it hard for game winners to stay private. They shout in open air; they never shut up.

Is “be like Ajay” good advice? I don’t know, because I don’t know who Ajay is. Perhaps he was a ruthless political operator, fully aware of the resentments his supplicating smiles generated, and he used them for some sort of eleven-dimensional manifold socio-economic judo so brilliant it’s beyond my comprehension. Perhaps Ajay’s reading this blog post on Trump’s golden toilet, laughing at me. For the average schmuck, though, it’s not good advice. Of course, don’t be incompetent. Don’t be too grumpy. Be the “go to” guy or girl for work you genuinely enjoy and are good at. But, as a favor to yourself, don’t become a dumpster for career-incoherent work. Also, don’t smile all the time; it’s creepy.

I would love to advise authenticity, but that is also not a good approach for someone who needs to squeeze money out of the corporate system– and most people have no other choice.

 

There’s no path I can sell for the individual. The situation, in truth, is quite dire. In Boomer times, the corporate system seduced people with greed: $500 executive lunches, business-class travel all over the world, and seven-figure bonuses just for showing up. Today, it runs on fear. Fear’s cheap. Most Ajays won’t succeed; I can say that with confidence. I can also say that most anti-Ajays won’t succeed. Most people won’t succeed. The corporate game is rigged and anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell something toxic. I have no elixir of socioeconomic invulnerability; I’ll admit that. There’s a massive market for false hope. I will not sell into it. I am better than that.

For the world– if, sadly, not always the individual– it would be better if we woke up, tore down the corporate system brick-by-brick like the Bastille, and replaced it with a fairer, more sensible, pro-intellectual style of society worth caring about. If enough of us had the courage to live in truth, consequences be damned, the whole corporate edifice would crumble and we’d all be better off for it.

It’s not easy to live in truth. It’s downright hard to change a world whose most powerful people loathe any change at all. A first step, though, might be for us, unhindered by mercy, to mock anyone and everyone who says “personal brand” without vehement contempt for the concept. If we work together, we can make such people shut up. That would be a start.

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9 thoughts on “Don’t Be Like Ajay

  1. > alt-right
    > psychopaths

    Let me guess: to you, Rascoff is a white male; and to you, a basic income and engineer unionization laws would be used to protect people like you rather than being used by today’s elites as weapons to further disenfranchise you. Good luck, dude. Sorry we’re not diverse or equal enough yet.

  2. I need scarers like… James P. Sullivan [1].

    Hopefully, Ajay also has a Mike, a Bill, and a Mrs. Sullivan. ‘Cause if not, he’s fucked. The weaker the sidekick and the more famous the dad, the worse. Or is it the better?

    I really enjoy reading your stuff man. Nice read, simple words, clear message, simple story. Keep doing the stuff.

    References:

    [1] Background. Sulley is a top scarer under his boss Henry J. Waternoose, who is the CEO of Monsters, Inc. Sulley’s best friend and sidekick is Mike Wazowski. His mom is Mrs. Sullivan (who is not seen in the movie, but mentioned by Mike) and his dad is the famous scarer, Bill Sullivan.

  3. This is a problem of caring too much, MOC. You yourself have written that tech-as-RnD, where technically savvy people have some autonomy, has been eliminated in most of the industry. To reverse this would require a coordinated guerilla movement that would most likely fail. He who pays wins. Always.

    I’m of the theory that when you see particularly disgusting people rewarded for their behavior in a company, the simplest explanation is that this company wants that behavior. For example, the incompetent, alchoholic psychopath who fired half of the team I worked on got so much praise from the company *because* he was an alchoholic psychopath, and I wouldn’t be surprised if upper management dispayed similar patterns of sociopathy, substance abuse, and incompetence.

    But it’s their money. If the boss wants his ego burnished, and he’s the one in control of the company’s resources, then he has a right to do this. If the company fails, it’s on him.

    So we either have to go out and set up our own shops or accept the values of the companies we work for.

  4. Looks like Ajay’s doing alright, he’s got a nice fancy title at some startup nobody heard of:

    linkedin.com/in/ajayumehta/

  5. This seems relevant, somehow. Replace Americans with “programmers”.

    George Bernard Shaw, preface of his novel The Irrational Knot, describing events around 1880 at Edison Telephone Company in London:

    [the Americans] worked with a ferocious energy which was out of all proportion to the actual result achieved. Indomitably resolved to assert their republican manhood by taking no orders from tall-hatted Englishmen[…]they insisted on being slave-driven with genuine American oaths by a genuine free and equal American foreman. They utterly despised the artfully slow British workman who did as little for his wages as he possibly could; never hurried himself; and had a deep reverence for anyone whose pocket could be tapped by respectful behaviour. Need I add that they were contemptuously wondered at by this same British workman as a parcel of outlandish adult boys, who sweated themselves for their employer’s benefit instead of looking after their own interests?

    • This is a pretty nice comment-post and comparison (both in time and in other communities). The way I read the original article (as well as the story of Ajay) is that there’s quite a bit of cheering from the management (community) about something Ajay does. As Michael points out, this comes with a shadow. And there’s a lot going in that shadow.

      Such celebrated things like SCRUM, open offices, transparency, etc. are positive in a sense that one learns by observing or being involved. When things get crowded is when bad things overwhelm. The same things that nurtured and let grow can be used for control and pressure. This is what I am learning from the articles of Michael.

      What do you learn for the articles?

  6. How do you figure out what actually constitutes good career advice? What is the best strategy for making a decent salary and staying sane in today’s economy? If you cause controversy, how much will your career actually be hurt that much? What opportunities are there outside the corporate system? Is it possible to play the system?

    It seems difficult to get honest answers.

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