This post is dedicated to the laborers on this Labor Day!
Think about the life of your liver, a part of you. And let’s say you’re an alcoholic. Your dukkha lead you to alcoholism, which soothes your mind’s dukkha passing it along in the form of a tougher life for your liver. Try as your liver might, your brain is in control. As a liver, the dukkha of the human it serves is its dukkha.
Similarly, as a part of the corporation at which you earn your living, the dukkha of your boss is your dukkha. And the dukkha of your boss’ boss is your boss’ dukkha. It goes on and on and on.
Corporations are all about dukkha – goals, competition, punishment, deadlines. It is the social organization invented by the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution is about the exploitation of machines, perfect in execution and uncomplaining. Unfortunately, we poor human parts get caught up in the same bucket of expectations of perfection.
Unlike people, corporations cannot become enlightened with the realization that all suffering is due to clinging. So even if we as an individual has tossed our dukkha overboard, neither have the corporations where we work nor most of the the people working there. We are still submerged in corporate dukkha.
Before continuing, I need to make my obligatory clarification. I need to be clear that this post isn’t about denigrating corporations, corporate culture, or corporate workers, particularly the executives. In a similar vein, I don’t denigrate the evolution mechanism of Life on Earth where pretty much every animal makes its living killing and devouring another creature. How much more sadistic could a system be?
When I talked to Ringo about this post, he warned, “Your readuhs ah goin tah wundah why of all places yah took a sad song an’ made it worse!” On the contrary, my intent is to smooth out (un-dukkha) our unavoidable love-hate relationship with corporations. The wonder of humanity’s potential can only be fully realized through the organization, scale and integration of human minds through corporations. Humans are creatures of evolution and corporations are creatures of humanity.
Those seemingly depressing views on corporation and evolution are from the low-perspective of we poor humans as helpless little scraps of flotsam caught in the whirlpool of Life on Earth. It’s just our half-baked sentience, caught in the ugly stage between animal and Enlightened. From the high perspective of the Enlightened, we see the big picture and understand that it’s easy to take a limited view out of context and make it bad.
In the beginning, there was no dukkha …
We all know that in the beginning Adam and Eve enjoyed dukkha-free lives in the Garden of Eden. “Worry” was a word yet to be invented as they were One with God. Because they were One with God, there also wasn’t really an Adam and Eve, just One. Speaking of One, there was just one rule – don’t eat that stupid apple.
The act of making a decision completely changed the world. Decisions are made to satisfy desires. Desires are for things outside of us to become a part of us, so that implies there is a me and everything else. The world was no longer One to them, but now they were symbolically-thinking beings, capable of manipulating things in the World.
It wasn’t some magic apple, a tangible object, Eve ate that brought dukkha into the world. It was the intangible act of making a decision, which we all do at some time a year or so after we come into this world, declaring we are our own person. For humanity, it was the progressive emergence of our self-aware, symbolical-thinking sentience.
Go West, Young Man … Try East … South then? … OK, Up!
Compared to the way our old hunter-gatherer ancestors made a living, our means today of earning a living under corporate culture has advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, most of us don’t risk our lives fighting with animals a magnitude stronger than us anymore. On the other hand, there’s something appealing about not having eight bosses breathing down my neck and dealing with daily commutes, those real-life video games.
Whichever is better, right here, right now, we’re stuck with corporate culture. We’re dependent upon its massive capabilities to support the seven billion people alive in the world. Without that massive scale, half of us would starve, and those of us remaining will live with those ungodly memories. There are no longer enough wild buffalo on the plains of the American Midwest or and Copper River salmon in Alaska to feed us all. We depend on the innovation of these enterprises to eventually fix the many messes we find ourselves in during this “ugly stage” of our transition.
We can’t quit our jobs. In today’s information world, all corporations are pretty much the same – no different than some cars painted mauve and some magenta. They all learn from the same articles in Harvard Business Review, follow each other’s best practices based on published case studies, satisfied with minimally incremental improvements.
Besides, how would you obtain the $100 million for your 1000 acres of quality woods at $100,000 per acre to build your log cabin and self-sustaining farm?
Forty Hours per Week?
For those with typical “8 to 5” jobs, that euphemism doesn’t even begin to account for what our corporate job entails beyond those nine hours. It also doesn’t the door to door commute each way, the time to put on your corporate costume. That’s not the mention the intellectual drain of navigating the traffic madness as well as compressing your life chores into an hour or so. Most importantly, what about the clouds hanging over your head even when not on the clock due to deadlines.
Literally, at the “end of the day”, you probably didn’t enjoy the sun at all. On many days, I actually end up with more on my plate than I started with.
Having worked for about 40 years with hundreds of people, I’m pretty sure I can safely say that most people would readily choose to quit their jobs and choose the freedom of the retirement life now rather than later. Even if they say they love their jobs, I can’t help but sense that for some it’s one of those Stockholm Syndrome things where “You keep telling yourself that and some day you’ll actually believe it”.
But I know many retired people who find retirement boring. And somehow with all that freedom they managed to fill their lives with a different set of dukkha. I’ve personally known a few people who just died soon after retirement.
It’s not corporate culture itself that’s the bad thing. It is the reality we live in, as much a part of our lives as the “natural” world. It’s just a part – a huge part – of the journey to the other shore. It’s the “ugly” of the “ugly stage” of the journey.
Maybe there is some insight into how to begin to accept the lot of being a corporate cog in a lesson I got very long ago in karate class.
When I started taking a karate class as a teenager, I was clumsy and really, I struggled with it. Even after only one class I was bitching and moaning! A senior black belt who was helping me out could see most of my attention was focused on worrying about how others were perceiving my efforts – as opposed to focused on my efforts. She snapped at me, “Who do you think you are? Don’t you think they’re focusing on their practice and not on you?!”
It certainly helped me in karate class and most other sorts of training classes I’ve been in. But the key phrase is “training class”. In a class, we are there to build our skill, not compete against each other – even though that’s how it may seem, with tests and all. The “competition” we perceive in that class is for us to test each other. The problem is that in real life, business, we do compete against each other from the business level (SQL Server vs Oracle) down to you competing with your colleagues/friends to keep your job.
However, as Enlightened Beings, a perpetual beginner with an empty cup, we understand that yearning for some other ideal, such as a life of retirement where we are free, is too clinging to something. We understand that randori, the chaos we navigate in the real world, is this complex system we ultimately don’t control but can and must learn to blend into.
Our corporate jobs gives us the opportunity to see life from the point of view not from the comfortable perch as the apex predators or the most sentient creatures of Earth. Rather we get to see life from a perspective similar to how our organs (heart, kidney, lungs, etc) would envision us as entire human beings.
The Consciousness of a Corporation
A corporation is an organism. It competes against other corporations for the right to live. It has an anatomy. It is made up of very many moving parts, forming hierarchies of departments (organs of real organisms), ideally working in concert towards some goal larger than each of the little parts. It evolves along with changes in business climate. If you prick it, it does bleed, albeit in a metaphorical way.
However, a corporation itself isn’t sentient, it isn’t aware of itself. But the bigger chunk of its many moving parts are sentient humans – most of whom are still filled with dukkha. Perhaps a corporation could be viewed as somewhat sentient if we imagine the CEO, a sentient human, as the highest-level mind, the master puppeteer. But even with a master puppeteer a puppet is still kind of lumbering, not as graceful as a sentient human.
Sentient or not, corporations are subject to the same things that cause our human dukkha – clinging to things. Corporations cling to its business plans, clings to its market share, clings to the satisfaction of its customers, clings to the blessing of the government(s) under which it operates, and the familiarity of how things were always done (what seems to have always worked).
Since corporations aren’t sentient, they don’t suffer as we humans do. However, like flesh and blood beings, corporations have an “instinct” to survive and are in a perpetual state of entropy requiring constant care. That perpetual state of entropy is the equivalent of our human experience of dying. Corporations can be “reincarnated” through Chapter 11 deaths. Beyond just the entropy all entities endure from just existing, corporations are battered, constantly at war with other corporations – no different from bear on bear, bear on lion, or lion on gazelle violence.
A big difference between our human body and a corporation is that at least our parts (our organs) don’t really have desires of their own. Our organs don’t have their own hopes that dreams. They just carry on with their nature. For corporations, we all certainly have our own hopes and dreams and cycles.
On the other extreme, a corporation is certainly not akin to a hive of busy bees all completely in alignment for “the greater good” of the hive. Each bee has no goal, each is a perfect bee. Each just follows simple rules whereby the “hiveness” of the hive emerges. A corporation isn’t made of simple bees with no goals just following simple rules. It is made up of many very individual people with individual tastes, goals, ideas, all trying to be goal-less machines.
However, bees can only make honey. They can’t make space shuttles and iPhones. Further, as wonderful as each of us humans are, we cannot individually make space shuttles and iPhones. It takes the incredible organization and integration of our countless respective skills to do in a matter of days, years, or even decades what it took evolution billions of years to accomplish.
Corporations are not just the many independently intelligent moving parts. It is also the designed processes by which these many moving parts interact, or at least intend to interact. A corporation is a designed entity, not the product of evolution. Designed things impose onto the smoothly changing fabric of an evolutionary environment. The dukkha of a corporation is worse than for a human. At least a single human is a single set of desires compared to the collective and often competing dukkhas of all the employees.
The problem is that these processes are rather rigid. As the “god of these processes”, that is, as the designers, it’s our responsibility to update them along with the relentlessly changing world. But like people, corporations cling to “what works”, fighting the change, exacerbating its ability to adapt, to innovate.
In this day, most of us spend most of the day under the direction of our employer, the government, in addition to tending to the needs of ourselves, family, and friends. Earning a living is essentially an institutionalized proposition, with all the laws and regulations. It’s a monopoly on the means to earn a living by relatively few.
We can’t just go out into the woods, build a log cabin, and farm the land from which we cut down trees to make our cabin. We’re told that if we don’t like where we work, we’re free to leave. But to where? Every corporation today is almost identical.
Driven by Relentless Growth
At the foundation of Life on Earth are molecules that replicate themselves. For simplicity, just think of these replicating molecules as our DNA. The don’t “desire” to replicate, they just do, it’s their nature – and relentlessly. Because they do relentlessly replicate, with the finite resources on Earth, they quickly reach a point where they are competing with each other, winners getting to replicate and losers that become the material for that replication. That same relentless growth manifests at cell levels, individual levels, species levels, and ecosystem levels.
The corporation we know and love, is too driven by relentless growth, not any different from any species of nature. It is as much Life on Earth as we are Life on Earth. After all, it is our creation, and we are certainly creatures of Life on Earth. Corporations too are on layers of existence starting with our DNA that are phenomenon out of relentless growth.
What happens if something ceases to relentlessly grow? It’s snuffed out of existence by other things that didn’t decide to cease its nature of relentless growth. Life on Earth is a Yin and Yang kaleidoscope of relentlessly growing entities grinding away at each other.
Is this just life on Earth? Why does a star or planet stop growing? Because it thought it’s big enough? Gravity doesn’t stop at some size. There’s simply no more available material.
Different Paths, Different Sets of Dukkha
Climbing the “corporate ladder” is a game no worse or better than the game of fighting to be the best at some skill – such as Big Data consultant, lawyer, or HR recruiter. It’s just another of the countless paths to the same place – Enlightenment, freedom from Dukkha. The only real differences among the paths are the measures of success. But it’s hard to see that equality in paths since we still look up to and fear those higher on the corporate ladder.
Obviously, that’s because the power to control others is pretty much defined by where you are on the ladder. More power to control means less stress, less power to control your lives means more. However, everyone has a boss. Measuring your success by your place on the corporate ladder naturally hands your happiness to the mercy of the will and dukkha of those above you, those people who have “rightful” control over you. Again, that’s not good or bad – and it’s critical to not judge that or anything else. It just is.
In all sincerity – absolutely no passive-aggressive sarcasm intended – have compassion for your bosses, the executives. They and Pontius Pilate aren’t all that different. They play a part in this wide drama, no bigger or smaller than anyone else’s part. The Eternal Fishnu reminds me that Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, who held Jesus’ fate in his hands:
“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” – John 19:11
Executives don’t realize that they are caught in a very sticky web of dukkha. They can’t afford to realize that since it will undermine the confidence they need to pass judgement on a fellow human. They lead many people, thousands up to millions. The fortunes and 401Ks of many are at risk. They must whole-heartedly believe that they are indeed better than everyone to perform such a feat. How could they do their if they didn’t believe that? For all herd animals, the role of leader goes to the strongest.
But Jesus’ sentiment towards Pontius Pilate goes for everyone, not just those who hold power over you, but for peers as well. Jesus addressed to a wider audience:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” – Luke 23:34
Forgive the lions for killing gazelle, and give the gazelle the right to flee or fight back even if that means the lion’s cubs will starve.
Buy Inner Strength at Pennies on the Dollar
As far as Life on Earth is concerned, if you provide a valuable service with a high level of skill, you are valuable. You will be needed somewhere by someone for something – whether or not your Mama/Papa Boss actually likes you.
Inner Strength. You don’t care about who is the best. You are thankful that there are those more skilled in your Zen Art to pull you forward, as you pull others less skilled. Have the patience and faith to conquer the folly of instant gratification.
It’s important to keep in mind that Inner Strength isn’t something you “build”. It’s something that’s already there as you are One with the Universe whether you think you are or not. Rather, Inner Strength, is taken back from the delusion of your symbolically thinking self.
If you were to focus on your level of skill, you probably won’t climb the corporate ladder very high and live on “Melody Lane with all the other rich people” because that’s no longer your narrow-minded destination. You will be of value. The question is, how can you hone your skills when many struggle to find even ten extra minutes in the morning to have a leisurely breakfast with your loved ones, the difference to scarfing a bagel in the car on the way to work?
How can we make time to hone our skill? That is, not for the skill required for our part of the cog in the machine, but our Zen Art, our passion for which work is not work. As soon as we figure out how to do a task at more efficiently at work, that is, make me some breathing room, that vacuum is filled … whooosh! More with Less and the obsession with growth.
The answer is to realize energy is more powerful and precious than money and even time. Time is finite and limited, excess money is a false security easily rendered useless – how much does it help with cancer? But energy has no maximum. There are megawatts to reclaim by dumping all that crap you mindlessly cling to that you shouldn’t care about and use that energy to build more energy.
It starts with the scary and counter-intuitive notion of forgetting about those piddly bonuses, employee of the month prizes, and promotions. Those are scraps! Say you make $50,000 per year as I do (give or take $40,000) and can receive a 15% bonus upon meeting stated benchmarks, your KPIs. Did you really work just 15% harder to earn that bonus? Isn’t the reality more like well over 50% harder if not double or more than that?
Let go of the injustice of being a cog in a corporate machine. Embrace it, remove that friction. Counter-intuitively, you will actually be of much greater value to your employer as you will be the cog in the machine your corporation always wanted you to be. And you will have purchased with those lost bonuses the energy you need to escape your corporate dukkha – a bargain at pennies on the dollar! It may not seem like much, but if you invest that energy wisely into your skill, your Zen Art, it pays compounded interest.
Not seeking the power of the Executive Suite goes against everything pounded in our head since we can remember. The better to control us, right? Instead trust in the wisdom of polishing your sword. Every path, whether it’s the corporate ladder path, the altruistic path, or the skill path, they all have their own sets of dukkha. Let everyone have their path and the interaction of those paths yields the wonder of this Universe.
If there were a corporate counterpart to Siddhartha Gautama, that sat under a Bodhi Skyscraper until it became enlightened, what would it come up with? What would be its equivalent to Sakyamuni Buddha’s realization that “all suffering is caused by clinging”?
Well, first off, as mentioned, corporations aren’t self-aware. So corporations aren’t aware of any suffering. By “Corporate Dukkha” I’m not referring the dukkha a corporate entity may feel, but the dukkha it heaps onto we sentient humans caught up as cogs in those lumbering, greedy machines.
So even if that corporate counterpart to Siddhartha Gautama itself doesn’t suffer, corporations are nonetheless a tremendous new source of dukkha we humans are cornered into carrying. As Siddhartha’s Four Noble Truths ironed out the rift between human sentience and Life on Earth, The Eternal Fishnu offers this as the corporate version of the Four Noble Truths that irons out the rift between human sentience and our own corporate creations:
- There is no corporate ladder. Every diligent employee, from CEO to we lowly software developers plays an equally important part. The scope of the part has two dimensions – width of the big picture (call it w) and depth of each specific task (call it d) such that w * d of any job position is always equal to 1.
- All actions have hidden costs. There are rarely genuine free lunches, most things being zero-sum games with costs that are really hard to see and/or easy to hide. Some may take a while to notice, some are swept under the rug. Such hidden costs are transferred to the poor employees, the environment, and even the customers.
- A corporation doesn’t live in a vacuum. A corporation is a part of Life on Earth, neither an abomination nor the shackles placed upon us by the rich.
- A corporation must take care to not be an impenetrable wall to change. Change is constant, and impenetrable walls are eventually penetrated, but will come with an explosion of built-up dangers. All things must be yielding, but not completely submissive, to change.