This post deals with the goal of avoiding or escaping being trapped in an immoral maze, accepting that for now we are trapped in a society that contains powerful mazes.
We will not discuss methods of improving conditions (or preventing the worsening of conditions) within a maze, beyond a brief note on what a CEO might do. For a middle manager anything beyond not making the problem worse is exceedingly difficult. Even for the CEO this is an extraordinarily difficult task.
To rescue society as a whole requires collectively fighting back. We will consider such options in later posts.
For now, the problem statement is hard enough.
To reiterate the main personal-level takeaway
Being in a maze is not worth it. They couldn’t pay you enough. Even if they could, they definitely don’t. If you end up CEO, you still lose. These lives are not worth it. Do not be a middle manager at a major corporation or other organization that works like this. Do not sell your soul.
Increasingly, avoiding mazes is easier said than done.
First, one must identify them, for which the previous post offers a guide.
After that, there are still many hard problems to solve.
How do we avoid moral mazes? How do we justify that choice to others? What alternative choices do we have? What if we’re already in a maze? What if we’ve already self-modified in ways that make it hard to extract ourselves? What if our human or social capital only pays off inside them?
What about if you are doing object-level work without anyone who reports to you, but you have a maze above you?
And for those who think this way, do I have a moral obligation to suffer and do this anyway, in order to maximize my charitable giving, or to otherwise do good?
How do we avoid immoral mazes?
Truly understand how painful it will be to interact with a maze even if you’re not an employee. Know the signs, as discussed in the previous post. Keep a close eye out for mazes. Realize that you have other options. Choose other paths.
This isn’t an ‘all things being equal’ choose other paths. This is making what look like major sacrifices and different life choices and profession choices, or taking big risks (that may or may not include starting a business or doing work outside of an organization) in order to have skin in the game. Really understand that the offer from even a relatively tolerable maze is much, much worse than it looks, and that opportunities outside mazes are often much better and more realistic than they look.
Young people starting out in the labor market often have The Fear that they will never find a job or never find a good job or another good job. If you are capable of getting this far, and you persevere, that is not true for you. A wide variety of jobs and other opportunities are out there.
I realize some people have already become so trapped in mazes that they cannot walk away.
If you actually can’t walk away, see the last two questions.
What do you do if you find yourself inside a maze?
Quit. Seriously. Go do something else. Ideally, do it today.
At least start planning and looking. Every day there is another day you suffer, another day you invest your social and human capital in ways that can’t be transferred, and another day you become infected by the maze that much more.
If you actually can’t afford to quit, see the last three questions.
How do we justify our choice to others?
When I worked for a financial firm, the question ‘what do you do?’ (or, in a scarier form, ‘who are you?’ as implicitly defined by your job) had an easy answer. I work for (firm). One of the big benefits was being able to tell an easy, compact story of me and my life and work choices, that most found praiseworthy. It was easy. It was comfortable. It also worked wonders for things like renting an apartment or otherwise proving myself respectable.
A lot of the alternative answers that don’t involve mazes give you a much better life and method of earning a living, but they do make answering the ‘what do you do?’ and ‘how can I count on you to make rent or support a family?’ questions trickier. One must acknowledge this.
It isn’t only strangers you tell this story to. It is your friends. It is your family. It is also yourself.
I likely stayed at (firm) months longer than I should have due to being scared of not being able to tell this story anymore, especially to my wife and to myself, and having to instead tell a different one.
A lot of this fear is the expectation that others won’t understand and won’t accept our justifications. That does happen, but far less than people typically expect or fear. Most people are far more sympathetic than the inside view might suggest.
Even the internet is supportive. Which is not its style.
This is largely because, at least for now, there is a widespread cultural belief that one should do what you love, and be content in one’s work. That work should provide meaning. That’s not always a good rule or good idea, although it is a fine aspiration. Not everyone can have soul in the game. But almost everyone recognizes that it would be better if one did.
How do you go about telling your new story? (Justification continued)
Here’s my take on how to approach this, based on my experience. Comments suggesting improvements or alternatives are highly encouraged.
There are two parts of this.
One is to figure out what you are doing, not only what you’re not doing, and how to talk about that. Some of those answers are mostly culturally normal and comfortable, some of them are less so. Now that I can say ‘I’m a game designer’ that goes over quite well.
The most important things here are to make the thing you are doing sound simple, put it in terms that people can relate to, and to make it clear that you are comfortable and happy with it to the extent that this wouldn’t be lying to people. If you’re not comfortable and happy with it, people will pounce on that. It’s also much better to be happy with what you are doing for your own sake, so that is something to work on, either looking to get to that place, or to finding another option where you can do that.
If you quit today without a plan, then what you will be doing is recovering from your experience and figuring out what to do next. I told that story for about a month. That story goes over better than you would expect – for a while. From a social (as well as financial) perspective you are most definitely on a clock. There are plenty of people who let that clock run out. But if it’s two weeks in, own it.
The other part of your explanation is justifying why you’re not doing the standard thing of indenturing yourself to a new maze, unless you have an obviously great alternative thing going. The worse your answer to part one sounds, the harder part two is going to be.
First try giving it to them straight. Tell them you find large corporations highly toxic and morally compromising. It left you a wreck. You have no interest in the lifestyle you would live or the person that you would be. If they are genuinely curious, you can point them to Moral Mazes itself or this series of posts, or explain further in your own words.
You can also use the culturally assigned incantations to explain your decision. Tell people you need to do what you are passionate about, to ‘follow your heart/passion,’ to do what you believe in, to ‘help people’ or ‘make a difference.’ To ‘get your hands dirty’ and ‘do something real.’ Some people appreciate wanting to ‘be your own boss’ or ‘do it your way,’ which are weaker, non-dystopian ways of sending the real message.
And of course, you can simply say ‘it was making me miserable. I hated it. Doing this instead makes me happy.’
I’ve gotten into the habit of saying my job at (firm) was ‘a poor fit’ because I genuinely believe both that there were particular real needs they have that were expensive for me to provide, and that the firm was in many ways unusually great and unusually low on maze characteristics, and I do not think it is a mistake to take a job there if it would suit you. They treated me right and I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus.
You could also, if you wanted to, use the question as an opportunity to do a public service and spread the word. That’s supererogatory.
Another thing to keep in mind, as discussed in the next question, is that those pushing us towards mazes are often operating on traditions and heuristics that used to push towards virtuous action that led to happiness and real success. The world changed, and those traditions and heuristics started getting this wrong. This is highly sympathetic. It might help to approach from this perspective.
Most people get it. They don’t fully get it unless they’ve been on in the inside and reflected upon what happened. But they do get that there’s something soul-killing about working for the man and/or being lost in a maze of political actions.
Others won’t get it.
What if my family or culture won’t accept my justifications?
Some people won’t get it. They will respond that all of this is excuses for not wanting to do hard work or make sacrifices. That this is how the ‘real world’ works. That it is ‘time to grow up.’ That a ‘real adult/man/woman/hero/whomever’ would suck it up and deal with it. That it is your responsibility to do so, for your family, for the world or for yourself. That ‘get a steady job’ is what good and responsible people do. That this is how one survives in today’s world, and how one gets to raise and support a family.
Often people who are counting on you, usually family members, will effectively let you know that while they care a non-zero amount about whether your life experience is miserable, or what impact your work has on the world, or what upside or opportunities for personal growth you might have, what they actually care about is whether you are projecting the illusion of security. They want to mentally cache that you/they ‘are going to be OK’ and that ‘everything is all right.’
This has remarkably little to do with actual security. Jobs in many mazes are not especially secure. Others are secure barring disruption of the underlying order, if you are willing to pay the prices discussed, and tie all your human and social capital to the maze.
The security they seek is the security of the banker who loses money when everyone around him loses money. This is useful to the banker because one cannot then scapegoat and fire him if he has bad luck and does poorly. This is useful to those in a maze and those who tie their fates to them, because they hope they will similarly seem responsible and legitimate, and thus worthy of sympathy and assistance if things go poorly.
It is a self-reinforcing charade. People demand this illusion of legitimacy to protect against others’ accusations of illegitimacy. They will defend this charade even if times change, the mazes mostly fail and those who are doing real things succeed, and attempt to forcibly transfer wealth from people doing real things to those who previously worked in mazes. All of that doesn’t make participation in the charade worthless. You can even hope to benefit from the expropriations. But it is important to know that it is a charade.
If you face a family and/or culture that demands devotion of one’s entire life to the illusion of respectability, have sympathy for those making these demands. In the past, when these traditions and heuristics developed, the illusion of respectability corresponded to real work and other worthy virtues that lead to happiness and true success. If they fail to realize the change, and update accordingly, that is at least somewhat understandable.
If attempts to make them realize this change or accept your perspective fail, one must treat them the same way one treats anything else that is out to get you. If their demands cannot be satisfied in a way you can accept, because they will simply demand more until it is something you cannot accept, then attempting to satisfy their demands is folly.
If you previously chose those around you based upon being a member of a maze, then it is plausible that having invested in those people and relationships it makes sense to stick around. It is also plausible that being around them afterwards no longer makes sense.
I know it is easy to say and tough to act upon, but hopefully in time either they will understand and/or come around, or you will realize that life is better without them.
What if you’ve already self-modified too much?
This sucks quite a lot.
After a while, those little status differences and little battles start to deeply matter. Other things matter less and less. Humans can adapt to many things. Giving up all that likely fills you with deep existential dread.
Even worse, you’ve sculpted everything else, including your friends and often your family, around these obsessions. You, and often they, depend on the currently steady money and the illusion of security the maze provides. Without that, things could rapidly fall apart.
The good news is, you’ve figured out that this happened. Perhaps you haven’t self-modified as much as you’ve feared, or you have a path back to undoing this. Often the modifications start reverting once you extract yourself from the situation. Often you’re deeply miserable, in a way that those around you at least subconsciously know quite well. Those around you often realize this long before the person realizes it about themselves. If you tell the people you care about what’s really going on, if they’re worth keeping, they’ll almost always be supportive.
I’ve seen a number of people realize they hated their jobs and needed to go. Almost all of them got lots of support when they got the courage to say it out loud.
A note I got on a previous draft: “The happiest Uber drivers I have seen used to be middle management.”
If anything, I see many people around me being too supportive of opting out of working, or in a sense out of life, entirely. It is important to help and encourage people to do more things.
See the question above on how to explain your choices and situation to others.
So my first suggestion is to admit to yourself what is happening to you. Take an inventory. Concretely observe what is actually going on around you, without excuses or euphemisms, and what that is doing to your brain and your life.
Then tell the people who care about you. And go from there.
Are mazes are where our human and/or social capital pays off?
Note that when I say ‘pays off’ here, I mean maximally pays off. If you have the skills and opportunity to advance inside a maze, you have the skills and opportunity to take a lower level position at a smaller institution, and still earn a reasonable living. That does not mean that this transition would not be painful, or that you could maintain your current lifestyle, or that your family and friends would stand by you, but you definitely have that option.
If you are an academic with a PhD, and notice your academic institution is a maze, keep in mind that the entire concern about you only getting paid off in academia probably simply isn’t true. Academics typically get substantial pay bumps when they move to private industry.
A lot of other professionals are similarly buying the security and familiarity of what they’re used to, rather than being paid off with dollars.
One must still be careful to ensure not to jump from one maze into another.
Then there’s big corporations. Big corporations really do pay better than smaller businesses if you can’t get equity in either business. The recent history of domestic ‘income inequality’ is in large part inequality between firms as bigger and more successful firms pay higher salaries even to their lower tiers, and have more higher tiers in which to earn yet more.
There are three theories I know about for why big corporations pay more.
Theory one is that big corporations are more likely to have O-ring production functions or otherwise benefit more from higher quality workers, so they pay more in order to attract better workers.
Theory two is that big corporations make more money per employee, and are big enough to potentially support unions, so employees demand and receive more of that pay.
Theory three is that working in a big corporation sucks, and employees realize this to at least some extent, so employees demand more money in order to be willing to work there.
If working at a major corporation is a major life cost, and working in management a bigger one, and these come with higher pay, than a lot of income inequality in developed countries does not represent a gap in desired life outcomes, and it might be more unfair if that part of the gap was closed.
A lot more of that pay gap is that some professions engage in rent seeking behavior to extract resources. Some big examples are finance, law, education/academia, and medicine. Again, that comes with much better pay.
It also usually comes with a big time investment in the development of the relevant social capital, human capital and credentials you need to succeed. If you went to medical school or law school or worked hard to get a tenure track, and later realize that your profession is a maze (I’m making no claim here that these professions are or aren’t mazes in general or how intense those mazes might be, although some central organizations within them clearly are very intense mazes), walking away from that is going to be expensive.
This is doubly true for human capital within a single organization. When I took a job at a financial firm, they spent a large part of my first two years training me. The first year had a lot of firm-specific detail but was mostly training about markets and trading in general, that applies everywhere there are markets. It was fascinating, and pretty great. Five stars, would study again, especially given they paid me rather than the other way around. The second year still had a lot of training and learning, but increasingly it was about the specific problems I was working on, developing relationships with and learning about coworkers and organizational structures and how we did things, and other information specific to the firm. This was less fun, and when I left, it became worthless.
I had another job I stayed in for five years. This was also a place I got to observe transition from mostly not being a maze into becoming one over time, although that’s a story I can’t tell online.
Early on there was a lot of learning, a lot of which was very specific to our business, but a lot of which applies universally. I worked mainly with one particular person, who knew what we were doing and cared about us doing it well. It provided great experience.
By the third year, I was learning about our specific products and customers and dynamics, in increasingly arcane fashion. I was also forced to interact increasingly with the maze growing around us, spending more time making bosses and others like what they saw rather than doing what was right for the business. I was unable to get the resources to enhance our performance, despite yearly returns on investment obviously well above 100%. I made an effort to switch over into problems that were both more valuable and offered more room for growth, both for me and for the business, and which I could tackle with the resources available.
By the fifth year, I wasn’t developing any skills that would be useful elsewhere, except that I was now learning to code because I got tired of no one being able to code what I needed. This brought me from ‘can code but not in an actually useful way’ to ‘can code real things that are useful, but badly/slowly.’
Note that the managers in Moral Mazes who succeed were always moving around to bigger and better things. If they weren’t, they instead moved on to similar and different thus hard to compare things to preserve the illusion of career momentum. If you have adopted the maze nature, many of the skills you have learned doing so translate to other mazes. Your existing within-maze status can often also be transferred to your new location, but only if you continue to be seen as a winner. If you’re a loser, no one else will want you, and moving on will mean moving down.
That means that once your path in the maze is stalled, even though you have invested a lot to get to this point, recovering your momentum is going to be extremely difficult. If you are not satisfied with your current role, your human capital is a lot less valuable than it naively appears to be, because it no longer has much upside even on its own terms. The fall from where you are to starting over can still be large.
The best feature of an academic maze is that they have a perfectly designed system in which to not care about getting ahead, which The Gervais Principle calls a loser, and which academia calls tenure.
The pattern remains. The more you dedicate time to a path, both a profession and a particular job, the more you give up when you leave and the less of your time you can carry with you. Many people don’t have great options. The job market isn’t that great out there if you don’t want to be coding and don’t have an in with the rent seekers, and can’t use the skills you’ve developed, or do the thing that legibly follows from your resume.
If mazes are where my social and/or human capital pays off, what should I do?
Let us ignore here why your capital pays off best in a maze. It does not much matter to your decision, in important senses, to what extent rent seeking, theft, coercion, fraud or even systems designed explicitly to make your skills not transfer to honest work are or aren’t responsible for this being the case. For whatever reason, often events conspire to prevent you from efficiently plying your trade (or in some cases, plying it at all), where you hold comparative advantage, without being part of a maze.
Some people really do have a dilemma, where they can either do something menial and mindless that still gets them abused and doesn’t pay much, if they can find work at all. Or they can go out on a limb that looks super risky and likely to fail, and/or that requires years without compensation. Or they can keep working in the maze.
It is important that vastly more people think they are in this position, than are in this position. If you think you are in this position, consider the possibility that you are mistaken. Consider all the alternatives. Consider how much the reduction in medium-term funds and superficial status would actually matter to you. Consider how much of what’s holding you back is simply The Fear in some form.
Imagine exactly how relieved you’d be to be out of there. Remember that even if leaving really is super painful, involving a large reduction in consumption levels and superficial status and standard of living, and the abandonment of large sunk costs, that doesn’t mean it isn’t Worth It.
My first line of response to this dilemma is exactly what you would expect: Consider leaving anyway. But I admit that isn’t always the right answer. In some cases, things really have gone too far, you have too many promises to keep and too many sunk costs.
Become a Loser
The next line of defense is to become a loser, in the sense laid out in The Gervais Principle. A loser does not strive to get ahead while at work. A loser finds their value in other places than work. At work, they pride themselves on putting forward at most the minimum amount of effort to get the job done.
The Gervais Principle can be seen as the prequel to Moral Mazes, dealing with life at lower levels of mazes that have to interact with the real world. Mazes need, as several quotes describe, people who keep their heads down and ‘do their job’ with no ambitions for further advancement. Ideally one does this as low on the totem pole as one can stomach and afford, as the life that results is far less odious and taxing.
By declaring themselves as neutral and not a threat, such people are often left mostly alone if they’re important to the system continuing to run. They can now reclaim some slack and a personal life. It’s not a great solution. You’re still holding up the maze. You’re still interacting with it. You’ll still have to make severe moral sacrifices. But to some extent, some of the time, you can pick and choose what to have no part in.
Over time, your position likely will slowly degrade. Eventually this may lead you to leave. Hopefully by then you’ll have been able to save enough and be prepared enough to be ready for that. If you’re stuck in a maze, the least you can do is turn a healthy monthly profit.
The final line of defense I can come up with is to take big bold risks. Either stand up for what you believe in or gamble to advance your own situation. Sometimes this will work, your situation will improve and you’ll learn your situation was better than you thought. Other times they’ll backfire, and you’ll learn your situation was worse than you thought and is now worse than that. Remember that if you get fired from a job you don’t want, that can be a big win, because you might not have had the courage to leave on your own and you might even get severance and unemployment.
The real danger is often not that you get fired. It’s that you become ‘dead without knowing it’ as in this quote:
You can put the damper on anyone who works for you very easily and that’s why there’s too much chemistry in the corporation. There’s not enough objective information about people. When you really want to do somebody in, you just say, well, he can’t get along with people. That’s a big one. And we do that constantly. What that means, by the way, is that he pissed me off; he gave evidence of his frustration with some situation. Another big one is that he can’t manage—he doesn’t delegate or he doesn’t make his subordinates keep his commitments. So in this sort of way, a consensus does build up about a person and a guy can be dead and not even know it. (Location 1475, Quote 10)
This can lead you to waste years of your life struggling for something you had no chance of getting. This is one reason why a great way to take risk is to force the issue, asking for or demanding raises or promotions. It avoids this danger. The more uncertain you are about where you stand, the more you should take risk to create clarity.
At all my jobs in mazes, I would have greatly benefited from taking greater risks to create clarity, regardless of the outcome.
Can You Change Things From the Top?
If you by some miracle reach the top with your soul intact, now you can try and change the system. Or at least you can do harm reduction in earnest. One shouldn’t give this much hope or weight, since such intentions rarely survive that long, and doing anything lasting about it will still be quite hard. I don’t know what would work.
My friends and I have talked to several people who have reached the top. Many of them understand what the process has done to them, but don’t know how to fix themselves or the system. It isn’t cheap or easy to reverse or even halt the damage.
It is unlikely you can have much impact without reaching the actual top and becoming CEO. If you do become CEO, you may have a short window in which you can ‘clean house’ the way that maze CEOs do, and put people opposed to mazes into key positions where they can clean their houses in turn. You can then combine that with other efforts, and maybe get somewhere, but I don’t have the insights necessary to say much more, and such efforts will be exceedingly difficult. The maze will fight back.
I strongly believe it is much easier to build a new system from scratch than to ‘change the system from within.’
What about if you are doing object-level work without anyone who reports to you, but you have a maze above you?
In Moral Mazes such workers are said to be ‘on the line.’
Details of this situation will determine to what extent this represents being stuck in the maze, versus to what extent this represents doing regular object-level work.
What are you actually doing all day? What are your incentives?
If your essential scenario is given an object-level job to do and do it, that is mostly fine.
If your essential scenario is not that, it is less fine, but it is still far better than being a middle manager. It’s not good to have a bull**** job, but it’s not the nightmare we’re describing elsewhere.
Consider the car salesmen from Imperfect Competition.
One can imagine a car dealership as no different from the local hardware store, buying useful tools wholesale and selling them at a higher price to customers who want to buy and use those tools, and the only difference is that you sell 0.1% as many tools for a thousand times the price. One can also imagine that the demands of the car corporation, and the incentives they provide, and the misinformation they spread, and the regulations they twist and engineer, and so forth, end up with you effectively stuck in the maze. The truth is presumably somewhere in between – you see insane things around quotas and regulations and advertising campaigns you cannot control, and the dealerships have their own issues of their own design, but you are still mostly working for a small actual business most of the time.
The same would go for the workers in The Office, as analyzed in The Gervais Principle. Michael is largely in maze hell. Jim spends a lot of time avoiding maze hell. Most of the workers have to deal with the craziness and what it does to the business, but this is only ordinary soul crushing and not what middle managers deal with.
Jim’s situation on The Office is the biggest problem. There is no future. The only way up, to better your work situation, would be to dive into the maze. If you do that while not buying into the system, it will go badly for you on all levels. If you do buy in, then you’ve fully made the big mistake I’m warning against.
Consider the Uber drivers, some of whom are reported to be happy refugees from middle management.
To the extent that the driver is offered rides, chooses to accept them individually, and gets paid for each ride provided, the driver is good. They set their hours and level of effort. There is word that Uber and its ilk are now using algorithmic systems and various overall incentives to try and ensnare their drivers more broadly into the system, which would be worse, but the core experience is still one of real work.
Consider a software engineer, given specific tasks to code and coding them. That seems likely to be mostly fine.
Consider a worker that is literally ‘on the line’ in a manufacturing plant that makes physical objects. It is not the best or most compensated work, but you are mostly free from the maze.
Being ‘on the line’ and continuing to do real work is miles behind doing real work where you have skin in the game, but if you get to dodge the worst of all this, it is a reasonable temporary fallback if you lack alternatives. Look carefully at details.
If you are a manager but not a middle manager (e.g. no one who reports to you has anyone who reports to them), and the group of people you manage has object-level tasks to do together, you aren’t automatically doomed, but there is great danger lurking, including the risk you will be promoted.
Do I have a moral obligation to work in mazes to maximize my charitable giving?
No. You don’t.
This post has done its best to deliberately ignore the moral costs of participating in mazes, because avoiding them is already over-determined without that.
I want to make it clear that I’m not relying on moral concerns.
But if that’s what you are concerned about, moral concerns work in the opposite direction. Making the world more and more maze-like by embracing the system, and engaging in zero-sum competitions to extract resources, while making your life miserable, is the opposite of a moral obligation.
It may help to remember that a drowning child is hard to find.
Moral systems that imply that subjecting oneself to torture in the service of immoral mazes or other harmful systems, for the purposes of allowing other such systems to then extract those resources from you, is a moral obligation, are not likely to be good ideas, or to have your or humanity’s best interests at heart.