How to Escape From Immoral Mazes

Link post

Pre­vi­ously in se­quence and most on point: What is Suc­cess in an Im­moral Maze?, How to Iden­tify an Im­moral Maze

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.

Prob­lem statement

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.

Take Risks

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.