Previously in Sequence: Moloch Hasn’t WonPerfect CompetitionImperfect CompetitionDoes Big Business Hate Your Family?What is Life in an Immoral Maze?Stripping Away the Protections

Immoral Mazes are terrible places to be. Much worse than they naively appear. They promise the rewards and trappings of success. Do not be fooled. 

If there is one takeaway I want everyone to get from the whole discussion of Moral Mazes, it is this:

Being in an immoral 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.

When one works for an immoral maze, what is one hoping for? What is success?

Suppose you persevere. You make the sacrifices. Become the person you need to become. Put in the work day after day. Fortune smiles on you and you win out against all the others doing the same thing. You succeed.

What is success? What do you get in exchange?

For some managers, the drive for success is a quest for the generous financial rewards that high corporate position brings. For others, success means the freedom to define one’s work role with some latitude, to “get out from under the thumb of others.” For still others, it means the chance to gain power and to exert one’s will, to “call the shots,” to “do it my way,” or to know the curiously exhilarating pleasure of controlling other people’s fates. For still others, the quest for success expresses a deep hunger for the recognition and accolades of one’s peers. (Location 955, Quote 118)

This a warning. “Success,” in context, does not mean happiness. It does not make you healthy. It does not improve your reproductive fitness. It does not reflect or spread the values that you (one would hope) had when you stared down that road.

It gives you money. But in terms of actual meaningful personal consumption, you can’t really do much with it beyond status competitions. If you had plans to do something good with the money, by the time the day arrives, it is highly unlikely you’ll do it. You have changed yourself to succeed on your journey.

Even after you ‘succeed’ you probably keep putting tons of hours into the job in ways no amount of money can compensate for, once you already had basically enough.

What was the point? What are you even doing?

Note that failure is indeed much worse than success. You still paid all the sunk costs, including everything you are. You’ve invested a ton in and become very invested in local status hierarchies, and in the quest to climb them, which you have failed. Being ‘under the thumb’ of others who succeeded where you failed is deeply unpleasant – and is the most likely outcome, since the math says most who try will fail.

This is a song with some explicit content about what happens when one disregards this warning, and chooses poorly, although it misses perhaps the most important questions. Who am I? What have I become?

Lyrics here.

Remember that maze conditions are not unique to corporations.

All of this holds true in any sufficiently large organization, to an extent that increases with its size, and will have the same effects if you seek to ascend the hierarchy within.

Size matters, but size is far from the only thing that matters. Some very small organizations effectively have very high maze levels. Some large organizations have relatively low maze levels.

Avoiding mazes is easier said than done. The first step is identifying them, where I will offer some heuristics in the next post. 

The second step after that is what to do about it, especially in difficult circumstances. Many of us believe we need the support of mazes in order to survive. At least for the moment, not all of us are wrong. 

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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:34 AM

I presume this is the same advice you'd give to someone considering taking a non-management job in a sweatshop somewhere. And it carries the same drawbacks: what are these better options you speak of? It's a much more actionable warning to say what to do, rather than what not to do.

To the extent that I am representative of your audience, you lose credibility when making hyperbolic statements like "they couldn't pay you enough" (though I agree with "they (s/definitely/probably/) won't") or "these lives are not worth it". These lives are positive value, and some of them do make enough to consider it worth it.

If your message is just "money doesn't buy happiness", fine, but that's about overall life strategies (and still only true on some margins), not about these specific corporate jobs. I presume you're NOT saying "drop out of college, focus on your music, get rich that way." You're saying "for some of you, you can make nearly as much on average, if less at the top end, without giving up as much of your time/energy/integrity". How?


I thank you for this comment because it is important to know when something is being interpreted in this kind of fashion, and to what extent. If no one ever thinks you're using hyperbole, you're some combination of not using enough rhetorical flourish and spending way too much time obsessing over your work. Swarriner uses hyperbole too when noting that they can not imagine anyone taking this seriously, although I don't think it's a real issue. I think this line's current form is doing a lot more work than harm, and versions that were longer and more careful would not do the same work, but this type of thing is unusually toxic to LW.

As you note, I am not saying that anyone's life has non-positive value, regardless of profession (to themselves, as opposed to their impact on others, which varies widely). I'm also not saying they couldn't pay you enough in some theoretical sense of if a large enough truck was backed up and I was asked to spend a year at the Widget Corporation as a manager, or even five years, there is a point where I do it (I know $1 million/year doesn't do it, but $1 billion/year is massive overkill), although the path and incentives there are so different that the situation would not have the same toxicity. When I say couldn't, I (of course) mean won't, and their internal politics and policies and shareholders would prevent them from doing so even if the CEO wanted to.

When I say these lives are not worth it, I mean compared to the better options available, not to non-existence. I will lay out my advice to people in more detail two posts down the line (so, Wednesday or so), but one key thing that differentiates sweatshop from maze is that sweatshops hire people without good alternatives or skills, so the best alternative can be very, very bad. Mazes don't do that. To be a manager in a maze requires highly marketable skills (a point I likely should edit that post to make more explicit, so thank you again). At a minimum, you can certainly work lower level positions and/or at smaller places that offer reasonable pay but do not put the psychic burden on you, at the cost of scaling back your lifestyle but not endangering one's ability to survive.

Although, if you already have F-U money saved up from working in mazes, and music is what you care about, yes, absolutely focus on your music.

I shouldn't have led with the complaint about hyperbole, I apologize. My point is more that money _IS_ actually important to a lot of people, and it seems likely that these kinds of jobs are the best known option for some people.

It's been a long time, and the world is different now, but the memory remains of worry that I wouldn't ever get a "real job". At the time, I would have jumped at one of these jobs had it been offered. It's sheer luck that I got far enough in smaller companies to realize that I have better options before getting into bigger companies.

That me would have laughed and then cried and swore at you if you said that a managers salary isn't worth it. I agree with you ONLY because I have enough income and savings to afford to agree safely.

If I could rephrase your advice, to something I can get behind, it's "there's a big variance in management (and non-management) jobs. You should change companies (and industries if possible) at least a few times in your first decade, to see how universal the experiences are."

I'll agree that "they couldn't pay you enough" is technically hyperbole but I can't imagine taking that sin seriously enough that it damages the credibility of the argument.

As for the message, here's how I interpret the thesis: "immoral maze work environments have large hedonic costs of a type that are not well offset by monetary compensation (or other promised rewards)". Which is distinct from, although related to, "money doesn't buy happiness".

I also disagree that all advice has to be positive to be actionable. Most people are aware of a variety of career paths they might pursue depending on their situation and talents; it's perfectly adequate to say "don't pursue middle management at a large corporation" because the reader can just update towards their other options.

The usefulness of money is that it allows you to take options that you otherwise wouldn't be able to take. It provides a certain kind of freedom.

If all of your time is spend at your job and all of your social bonds are related to status competition at your job you you lose a lot of freedom and there's no net freedom gain from the job.

I think that some typical mind fallacy is happening here.

Humans evolved to both find the truth, for interacting with the real world, and have beliefs that are good at winning status games. Naturally there is a tradeoff between these criteria. As would be expected, different people fall in different places along a spectrum of truth focused to status focused. This is an unusually truth focused community, and you are probably unusually truth focused. So you see marketing as a status game that you really don't want to get into. To the people who are unusually status focused, immoral mazes might seem nice.

Most of civilisation right now seems to be one giant gas-lighting immoral maze, where any effort to point out or mitigate the massive problems we have is sneered at or ignored.

I'm not clear on one thing: managers participate in mazes, I presume, because the higher positions pay much better.

But why do corporations pay higher positions much better in the first place? Why do they incentivize the maze like that? Surely they would rather have their managers focus on doing their job than on clawing their way up.

Sure, if the higher positions were paid exactly as much as the lower ones, nobody would want to take them (more responsibility for the same money), but in a maze on the other hand, they're paid so much better that managers will sacrifice their firstborns to get to them.

Wouldn't the corporation want to set some kind of a middle road between these two extremes? Where managers are mostly focusing on their job and are indifferent between staying where they are and taking up more responsibility?

Are you asserting that there are no voluntary, aware, participants in these immoral mazes? Surely the people who choose to try to win them perceive a 'success' state, or in the alternative they reject the idea of 'success state' entirely.

I've heard that Talking Heads song dozens of times and have never watched the video. I was missing out!


How does that relate to all what was said (and sang) about 'rat race'?


'Rat race' is a highly related concept. It's mostly a subset, I think, although your view of the term may vary. Rat race illustrates the idea that when all the workers try harder to get ahead of other workers, everyone does lots more work, often to no useful end, without people on net getting ahead. Or, alternatively, that you do all this work just to stay in place. It certainly has implications of 'what I am doing doesn't actually matter' and also 'what I am doing is a zero-sum game" which implies the first thing.