What is Success in an Immoral Maze?

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Pre­vi­ously in Se­quence: Moloch Hasn’t Won, Perfect Com­pe­ti­tion, Im­perfect Com­pe­ti­tion, Does 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.