Work Won’t Love You Back, and We’ve Got to Start Acting Like It
I think my sister was the first to point out that I, when compared to a cliche twentysomething woman, have my career and my romantic life switched around. See, even BuzzFeed thinks you can reduce dating in your twenties to a listicle (in this case, they describe 11 real dud relationships). I have been extraordinarily lucky to avoid that experience in my dating life, but I have 100% experienced most of these stereotypes in a work setting. I’ve definitely had the “definitely not good for you or your self-esteem, but you think you can inspire [the organization] to be better and change” job and the “I need therapy so bad, but I don’t know that I need therapy, so I’m going to use you as my therapist until you literally can’t take it anymore” manager and even the “I’m extremely [successful/smart/externally well-liked], and therefore you will ignore all of my bad traits until you just can’t handle it anymore” boss.
Around the time I first started to think about work through the relationship lens, I happened upon an Amy Poehler quote from Yes, Please that really resonated:
Treat your career like a bad boyfriend. Here’s the thing. Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget you birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It’s never going to leave its wife. Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you. … If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else.
From an early age, I was perhaps more susceptible than most to the fantasy of the dream job, and at many different points in my life, I have really truly thought I had reached it. The thing I’ve learned time and time again, however, is that there’s no such thing. I’m actively working now to cultivate a healthier relationship with work, one defined by boundaries rather than some trumped-up idea of “giving your all.” It’s gotten me thinking a lot more about a time in my life when I not-so-secretly thought maybe the best place for me to work would be Monsanto.
Carving out a seat in the belly of the beast
For a while in my senior year of college, I was very attached to the idea of working for the biggest (perceived) baddy in the agriculture space. I was pretty fresh off a research trip to Burkina Faso in West Africa, where I’d spoken with a farm entrepreneur who had challenged me not to pursue a career in international agricultural development (the one I planned on) but to instead return to my own people and the community that raised me and help correct the problems of American agriculture that are constantly being exported and are crushing the local ecosystems and economies of the Global South. He could do the work among his people in Burkina Faso, he told me, if I could do the work among my people in America.
So I went home, and I began reorienting around a career path that I hadn’t even considered when I was an active member of the Future Farmers of America in high school. On my trip, I learned how Monsanto had worked with the Burkinabe government to develop high-yielding GMO cotton varieties, and despite how much government and corporate officials bragged to us about the partnership, the farmers and entrepreneurs we spoke with on the ground were not thrilled. They didn’t want to grow proprietary, GMO cotton — the quality was bad, and they wanted to grow food.
There were a few students on campus I would see, from time to time, picketing or tabling to raise awareness or protest Monsanto as well as GMO crops and the use of agricultural chemicals more broadly. But that work, at least in the spaces where I saw it, felt performative at best. I watched some documentaries and talked to some activist friends of friends, but I wasn’t seeing evidence of very much success in actually causing the American agricultural industry to change course. And the thing that I knew in my heart but didn’t know how to put into words at the time was that I’m not a very good protester. I’m not very big or strong, and having two older sisters and not enough parental supervision means one of my superpowers is knowing how to only pick fights I could win and how to surrender early when there’s no hope. I didn’t have the balls, I thought, to be a full-on activist type. I’m too much the compromiser.
My skills, such as they were (and largely still are), make me a much better insider. I care deeply about relationships, and I know the value of moving slow and of teaching and caring as tools of persuasion. At the time, knowing how little I did, I thought surely the best way to apply my skills to change the way American agriculture does business was from the inside, as an employee. I wrote a blog at the time, and I’ve since found it again. (Read at your own risk. I don’t usually delete things off the internet because I prefer to have a paper trail where I, and anyone else who’s interested, can follow the evolution of my ideas and biases.) Here’s the quote I remember:
Whether or not agribusinesses like Monsanto are evil or just reacted to existing conditions seems irrelevant. … But it does matter. It matters because Monsanto employs more than 25,000 humans who (hopefully, for their own sakes) believe that they are doing right by farmers. Who care about doing right by farmers. Who care about doing good science and about the future of the planet and about feeding people. They are good people.
I would not write this paragraph today for many reasons, but the first thing I’d change is that last sentence, which I’d edit to “There are good people there.” I guess you could say I’ve wised up a bit and have concluded that, just like all populations, there are almost certainly some truly awful people there, but most of them, like most of us, are just kind of meh. Mediocre through and through. But at the heart of the matter, I still believe that the people who work at a place matter. Employees, especially highly skilled employees, have way more power than, say, a business’s customers to force organizational leaders to change the way they’re thinking/acting/doing business. Because at the end of the day, organizations are groups of people, and people can influence one another. It’s possible.
So maybe work for companies you hate?
I was thinking about all this because I got an email a few weeks ago from a teammate asking what I thought about a Big Ag organization they had just accepted a job with. I checked around with some folks I knew to make sure my analysis was correct, and I typed out this belated response:
On the REDACTED job, which you’ve definitely started by now: from what I know about it, it’s certainly not on the cutting edge of sustainability. It’s old Big Ag in a lot of ways, trying to stay relevant without changing too much about its business model — which depends on extraction. But I will also say, companies like REDACTED change because their employees want them to. They change as a result of internal pressure to do better, because people who work within their organizations stay alert and thoughtful and make it clear in every direction that they’re watching and expect to have integrity at work. So just because REDACTED might not be the world leader in addressing climate (no corporation would be, right?), doesn’t mean that you can’t have a meaningful impact there by bringing a different voice to the table. Companies are just groups of people, and people can be swayed.
I’m sure some people are reading this response thinking, “She hasn’t wised up at all. She’s still spewing unrealistic ideas.” And I hear you. One part I should have added but didn’t think of until later was, “Listen, a job is a job, and we live in a capitalist society. Selling your labor for money to eat doesn’t have to be a moral act. You can live a fulfilling and ethical life that doesn’t revolve around the people and place that you’re beholden to for money.”
But I think beyond the above, I really do stand by the sentiment I’ve expressed for so many years now. I don’t think I believe that a whole organization and everyone who works there could be rotten to the core and utterly incapable of doing better. I believe that there are ways a person could go into working for almost any business or organization with the right intentions and make progress. The more nuanced view I’ve developed over the course of my many bad work relationships is that wading into these organizations is all about refusing to buy into the hype—seeing the organization for what it is with all its flaws—and setting robust boundaries. It’s about knowing your limits and what you need to have a sustainable professional relationship with an organization over time.
It can be challenging emotional work to outline specifically “here’s what I need, here’s what I’m going to do to get that, and here’s how long I’m willing to wait and/or what progress I need to see along the way” and then—and this is key—committing to yourself that if those expectations aren’t met, you will leave. It’s fun to remember that that is exactly how the average workplace evaluates you, so you should be going through a similar process for evaluating them.
All that is to say that a lot of us—currently, in the past, and in the future—will work for companies and organizations that have destructive business models or problematic funding sources; ones that treat employees, customers, or the environment badly; and ones that are rampant with toxic culture, mediocre leaders, and disenchanted co-workers who won’t stop asking you to get coffee to complain about it all. Working at these organizations doesn’t make you or anyone else a bad person.
In fact, I think it’s even possible to work for an organization with a villainous reputation with intention and humility and still count it a successful experience if you’re able to, for example, bring up topics in a meeting that some would rather avoid, act against systemic discrimination even in small ways, secretly seed a union, or whatever. Even in the most unpleasant of my professional experiences, I felt like I was able to exert some amount of pressure that bent the long trajectory of giant organizations maybe a tiny bit and able to learn and grow with the people I directly worked with a lot. And in some of those places, I made the greatest impact by leaving.
What I had figured out when I was 20 years old, though I didn’t know it, was that the benefit of working at Monsanto would have been that I never would have been seduced by the idea that it was my dream job. In much the same way I imagine an arranged marriage might feel, working at Monsanto at the behest of a Burkinabe farmer would have involved no starry eyes, no honeymoon, and no slow reveal of the skeletons in the closet. I would have walked in on my first day on edge, guarded, and knowing that every single day from there on out was going to be a struggle, a 9-to-5 wrestling match where my prize might be a couple of inches of course correction for a multinational ocean liner, and the cost, if I lost, would be my integrity or livelihood.
The thing is, that’s what every job is. I don’t care how great an organization you work for, how holy your nonprofit’s mission is, or how important the work of your government body is. Every job is a bad boyfriend. And it’s really, really important to remember that. Every job is going to be an imperfect place where you either have the ability to make it more perfect or you don’t. If the latter is true, my best advice is to learn what you can and keep looking for a place where the former is true. If the former is true, I think you maybe it owe it to yourself, to your fellow employees, and to the world maybe to at least try.
So much of work in the 21st century is about aspiration. Organizations are all about showing potential employees how great they are, and their employees are usually invested in the same narrative because to say otherwise would undermine the perceived value of the experience of working there. But we don’t have to be fooled by aspiration. A good place to start learning how to not fall for the bad-boyfriend-job schtick is this: The next time you’re on LinkedIn or whatever and see a posting for a company you know and dislike, and you think, “Ugh, I’d never work there,” stop and think how you would act if you did work there. Spend some time really feeling that attitude—the way you’d fight for change, the way you’d confront management, the way you’d cultivate relationships with a mind to making change, and the way you’d talk to your friends and family about your work there.
Then take all that energy and apply it to wherever you work right now. Because the thing is, that level of unwillingness to participate in the aspirational job fantasy, that sense of accountability and humility, those “you can take your money and shove it” vibes would probably do just about every workplace in America some real good.