Fourteen years ago today, I got on a plane from England and moved to New York. Since then, I’ve written over 500,000 words, placed a few hundred (or even over a thousand? Probably?) media hits for clients, and learned that, for the most part, the biggest thing missing in modern management is empathy.
I know this sounds trite, but it’s at the core of almost every horrible quote from monsters like Kevin O’Leary, every pro-office screed, and every questionable op-ed about quiet quitting. Every single one of these stories reminds me of every bad boss and manager I’ve had because all I could ever think was, “what if somebody did you what you’re doing to me?” While this makes me sound like a bit of a victim (and I guess I was at the time it happened), I’ve experienced and heard at this point hundreds of similar stories of managers and bosses acting as if work is beneath them but also damning those who do not work hard enough.
However, the empathy problem is larger than just sympathy and understanding of another human’s suffering. I believe that modern management has reached a point where many (most?) managers are looking to accelerate their careers to distancing themselves from the actual work product. As I’ve written in The Atlantic and other places, managers have become mini-bosses, oracles of what the boss wishes to see you do, but never really executing any firm plan or action beyond “I want you to do something, so do it now, and then do more things that I haven’t told you yet.”
I will be frank - my experiences with bad management have deeply scarred me. I feel as if the response I get from my readers suggests that this is far more common than people want to admit, as these conditions are classically discussed through the lens of interpersonal relationships rather than professional. But based on what I’ve heard from my readers, many of you have experienced (or experience!) similarly traumatizing events - either through outright awful singular actions or a white noise of micro-abuses, like when I used to memorize my managers’ footsteps so that when they deliberately crept up on me when I was working I knew who it was and what to have on my screen.
A large part of the problem is that modern business culture has no ability to evaluate abuse unless it is painfully obvious, despite many abuses (and abusers) existing deliberately within the confines of polite society. The person at work that is regularly horrible to you that is able to turn on the charm the second somebody else walks in, the “harmless” email at 8PM that your manager sends with a specific comment about the way you act or speak, the colleague that makes a comment about how long you were in the bathroom - these are all abusive, shitty things to do to another human that are considered “all part of the working world.”
At the core of this misery is an attempt to escape actual responsibility or accomplishment. Those who succeed as passive-aggressive workplace manipulators often are known as “nice” or “team players,” surviving on a diet of office politics and throwing people under the bus. They care deeply about the aesthetics of work, and while they may have outputs, these outputs exist only to prove they’re “good” to everyone else without actually creating or sustaining anything. This is why you’ll see managers pour over strategic documents or reports - presenting work is more important than creating it, and if they’re the presenter, they’re given all of the credit.
It’s not just managers that are the problem, either. For example, people like marketer Robin Robins believe that “meaningless work and intentionally doing the minimum to get a paycheck [is] the saddest existence for a human being.” While the obvious saddest existence for a human being is “romanticizing labor abuse in a blog about sending emails,” Robins is a great example of the modern managerial mindset - someone who believes that all success is a net result of hard work, and that there is some sort of valor in labor rather than outputs, and, indeed, that more outputs come from hard work. The article in question was written as a result of a reader’s disgust at her extremely bizarre quiet quitting article, which involves a very real-sounding story in which her colleagues told her to stop her working so hard.
It also includes the single least-mad paragraph in history.
You see, degreed or not, I have a right to an opinion on this topic. Let me tell you MY qualifications. First, I’m one of the unique individuals in our country who has started a business from scratch, and I’ve employed hundreds of people for the last 20 years. I employ nearly 100 people now, and that number is growing. This puts me into the category of less than 10% of all employers, which also means I’m a category of 0.1% of the entire population.
Incredible! Who gives a fuck. Furthermore, why can’t I find 100 employees for your company on LinkedIn? Weird that such a big company has no Glassdoor. Anyway, who cares.
Elsewhere on the web, Gene Marks, a guy who makes trenchant analyses such as “here at the top stories in tech today,” recently wrote the confusingly titled “My grandmother was a ‘quiet quitter.’ Now she’s dead” cursing the memory of his dead relative as someone that “took many cigarette breaks, chatted more than her fair share with her workmates and squeezed every last minute out of her lunch hour. She arrived at 9:01 AM and left at 4:59 PM. Just enough to get the job done.” Marks suggests that this is bad, yet also mentions that his grandmother worked at her job processing payroll for a suit manufacturer for twenty years. It sounds like this woman was both awesome and did her job well enough that she didn’t get fired. It’s certainly a more respectable job than “I write columns about business,” and trust me, I know a lot about that.
The commonality I’ve found between everyone panicking about Quiet Quitting is that they appear to have not done any real work in quite some time. They become irate and defensive at the prospect that someone could succeed - or even operate! - in the working world without “working hard,” because it interferes with their own internal narrative about how they got successful.
But more importantly, even the concept of Quiet Quitting taking any kind of foothold in society is an existential threat to any and all hustle culture weirdos.
Think about it like this: if you’re someone like Gary Vaynerchuk, or Kevin O’Leary, or Robin Robins, your entire business and product is predicated on success being a kind of effort-based vending machine. The dream you sell isn’t just that working hard results in success, but that the specific amounts and methods of success come from you. Hustle culture is bought and sold on the simple concept that the only limiter on your success is you and how much “hard work” you can do, and that “hustling” is the way that you succeed rather than a combination of luck, privilege, and hard work at the time that it actually matters.
If quiet quitting actually exists, people realize that hard work isn’t what makes you a success, which undermines the business model of hustle culture hustlers but also erodes their entire mythology. This may seem counterintuitive - after all, in hustle culture people love to talk about being efficient - but if someone succeeds without “hustling,” it suggests that the reason that these people were a success of any kind wasn’t predicated on any of the vague quasi-religious beliefs they’ve been peddling. Furthermore, if a hustle culture pusher’s success was never really from equal units of “hard work,” or didn’t follow the advice they gave, the concept of quiet quitting terrifies them - because it reveals them to be the very same people they’re so utterly disgusted with.
And that’s where I think a chunk of the anger at the concept comes from. Quiet quitting, real or otherwise, is a fairly harmless concept - it is something where people are coming to work and doing their work then leaving. Nobody should be mad about it. But those who find the concept enraging are simply self-conscious goons, terrified that the world will realize that their success didn’t come from reading 80 eBooks called “The Business Lessons of Dracula” or “440 Secrets That Email Companies Don’t Want You To Know.”
It’s similar to how investment publications never really give away any true investment advice. If the advice to be a success was as easy as working hard and doing things said in a blog, everybody would be successful, right?
In my case, my own mythology is so much simpler. I grew up in a family that loved me. My parents put me through college. I got to America because I saved, but it was also because I lived at home and my parents fed me. I had a great education. I sent 30 or 40 job applications, got one interview, and got the position from that interview. While I may have had a natural talent for media relations, my “big break” was when I serviced one particular client so well that their VC wanted to push me more clients, which led to yCombinator clients, which created a fairly strong business pipeline. No amount of burning the midnight oil would recreate my existence, and while I worked hard, I didn’t work as hard as many people do every day for far less, and I still don’t, and I’m grateful for it.
I was not rewarded for “working hard,” I was rewarded for being good at something I found out I was good at by accident, after a good amount of treading water. Had I not got the one job interview, I would likely have never moved. Had I not been introduced to one person, my agency would not have grown. There are a million little ways in which everything about my success could come crumbling down, because the things that make someone successful are more often than not moments that they don’t realize the significance of for years later - and they’re often not the result of working 85 hour days and ruining your life in the process.
The one lesson I have learned is that you must put more good into the world than it costs to sustain your life within it. If you are successful, you should not be spending your time suppressing those who are not. Those with platforms should not be seeking to shame workers, or push noxious, toxic platitudes about “what it takes to succeed.” And never, ever punch down. Otherwise you’re just a loser.