Why I will never get a 'proper job' again

by Suw on August 5, 2005

Paul Graham has a great essay on why open source is so successful, and in the process explains very clearly why I loathe jobs.

To me the most demoralizing aspect of the traditional office is that you're supposed to be there at certain times. There are usually a few people in a company who really have to, but the reason most employees work fixed hours is that the company can't measure their productivity.
The basic idea behind office hours is that if you can't make people work, you can at least prevent them from having fun. If employees have to be in the building a certain number of hours a day, and are forbidden to do non-work things while there, then they must be working. In theory. In practice they spend a lot of their time in a no-man's land, where they're neither working nor having fun.
I'll work my ass off for a customer, but I resent being told what to do by a boss.
I see the disadvantages of the employer-employee relationship because I've been on both sides of a better one: the investor-founder relationship. I wouldn't claim it's painless. When I was running a startup, the thought of our investors used to keep me up at night. And now that I'm an investor, the thought of our startups keeps me up at night. All the pain of whatever problem you're trying to solve is still there. But the pain hurts less when it isn't mixed with resentment.
I had the misfortune to participate in what amounted to a controlled experiment to prove that. After Yahoo bought our startup I went to work for them. I was doing exactly the same work, except with bosses. And to my horror I started acting like a child: I became sullen and rebellious. The situation pushed buttons I'd forgotten I had.

I've been self-employed for the last eight years, with occasional on-site contracts that to greater or lesser extents drove me up the wall. The clients I have had who have given me troubles have all been ones who treated me like an employee, and nothing makes me more resentful and more bullish than being treated like an employee. Taking you for granted indicates that the client believes that you are in a master-slave relationship, rather than a relationship of equals.
A good client is one who works with you, not one who expects you to work for them. A good client realises that, unless you have a specifically exclusive agreement, you have other clients and other responsibilities all of which are of equal importance. A good client wants you to honour your commitments to other people, because they recognise that that is part of what makes you a good consultant, rather than trying to persuade you to ditch your other commitments so that you can put them first. A good client is one you can collaborate with, learn from, teach, and with whom you can create a sort of creative, positive symbiotic relationship.
Good clients are rare.

Anonymous August 5, 2005 at 1:22 pm

Found this comment interesting:
'I'll work my ass off for a customer, but I resent being told what to do by a boss.'
Maybe I've been lucky, maybe it's working in software development, but with all my bosses I've never been told what to do, I've been asked if I could do it. I think whether you're freelance or not, it's working in an environment of mutual respect that counts. That's why I'll never work anywhere that requires the wearing of a suit and tie.

Anonymous August 5, 2005 at 1:33 pm

Paul Graham's essays are always lovely. They are not perfect pieces but they inspire. They sometimes bury a bit of flawed logic but they incite thought. He's great to have.

“The big advantage of investment over employment, as the examples of open source and blogging suggest, is that people working on projects of their own are enormously more productive. And a startup is a project of one's own in two senses, both of them important: it's creatively one's own, and also economically ones's own.
“Google … even let hackers spend 20% of their time on their own projects.
“Why not let people spend 100% of their time on their own projects, and instead of trying to approximate the value of what they create, give them the actual market value? Impossible? That is in fact what venture capitalists do….
“It's a lot harder to create something people love than to take something people love and figure out how to make money from it.”

Anonymous August 5, 2005 at 1:34 pm

Actually, as a postscript to that, I've recently been in a situation where a project manager asked myself and a colleague the same question: 'when can you get your current work finished by?'
When that question was asked, I heard: 'when can you get your current work finished by?', but my colleague heard: 'that work needs to done as soon as possible.'
Accordingly, I remained relaxed because I thought the project manager was simply trying to keep track of progress, whereas my colleague got all stressed because he was rushing to get everything done and complaining about undue pressure.
Which relates to that other quote: 'The situation pushed buttons I'd forgotten I had'.
Key point: yes, they are your buttons, but they may not be labelled clearly. The other guy might be thinking he's pressing “dispense chocolate buttons”, while you know he's pressing “suffer schizoid embolism”.

Anonymous August 5, 2005 at 2:07 pm

Yes, I do rather agree with you that much of the problem with employer-employee relationship is a disconnect between what people think they are saying to you and what you hear. Clear communications help an awful lot.
But I also have this pathological inability to cope with going to the same place, at the same time, every day, and the fact that I'm expected to be there makes it even worse. Just the thought of it chills my skin. It's a matter of sovereignty, you see – I like to have sovereignty over my my time, my to-do list, my travel descisions, my holidays and every job I have ever had has removed that sovereignty from me, leaving me feeling caged and deeply unhappy. And if people start nagging me, well, I tend to react rather badly to that.
Partly this is a personality thing. Some of my buttons are wired are on a hair trigger, and it doesn't take much for me to go from 'ok, this is fine' to 'just kill me now, because I can't take any more of this shit'.
This is why I intend to be earning the majority of my living through writing books within the next few years. I can pick my subjects, work using whatever methods I want to, and I'll even have deadlines to keep me at it. I'm sure it won't be easy, but then, this has never been about 'easy', but about actually enjoying your work.

Anonymous August 5, 2005 at 3:33 pm

Work is what I do.
Employment is not for me.
The two do not go hand-in-hand to anything like the extent popularly supposed.

Anonymous August 6, 2005 at 10:26 am

I had my first 'proper job' ever this year. Within two days I was depressed. As I'd never, ever done a proper job in my life I didn't realise how horrid an experience it would be. I was shouted at in front of the whole office because I arrived 10 minutes 'late' (they didn't notice how for the first few days I arrived before everyone else and had to stand on the doorstep and wait until someone arrived with the key). Would hear tsk-tsks if I left 'early' – apparently I should have just sat at my desk with nothing tto do for an extra half hour. I had to endure at least one completely pointless meeting every day where nothing ever come of *anything* that was said. All of my knowledge and experience was completely disregarded and I quickly started to feel that I was hired simply to occupy a desk…
I left the second I could…
Never again.

Anonymous August 6, 2005 at 11:06 pm

Gia's comment says it so well. Now here's the question though … why do so many people aspire to work as proper employees when they don't have to? Why don't more want to be independent producers of value, who happen to join in projects with others when they each wish and choose to?

Anonymous August 7, 2005 at 9:23 am

I've been freelance, and at the moment it looks as though I'm shortly going to be freelance again. Going back to a 9 to 5 was depressing, especially as it was one of these places where unpaid overtime was an unwritten rule. I've been in that position before and worked myself until I damaged my health. I wasn't prepared to damage it again.

Anonymous August 10, 2005 at 9:09 pm

“But I also have this pathological inability to cope with going to the same place, at the same time, every day, and the fact that I'm expected to be there makes it even worse”
Yes, yes and yes.
I just think, “what gives them the right?”
Offices are weird places, the social dynamic is very odd and pressurised.
I tend to resent it all.

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