disillusioned - Friday November 13 1998    

location: a large A-frame house in Idyllwild, California, at a company retreat

There was a period of time early this morning during which my co-workers were whispering among themselves in such a way that their combined roar might as well have been shouting. Then one of them, acting in the capacity of petty-leader, let loose with a "Good Morning, [name of the internet startup company for which I work]!" It was a little past 7:00am, and many of us had been drinking to excess last night, so this wasn't an especially welcomed announcement. But we're all go-getters of one kind or another and eager, especially in a group environment subtly pervaded with unspoken analysis of performance, to respectively demonstrate what energy we can muster. I didn't have much energy and wasn't especially interested in showing any. I sat on a couch sipping water, nibbling on a biscuit, and post-poning all bodily functions. Both bathrooms had impossibly long queues and I didn't want people waiting impatiently for a room I'd be perfuming with my own vile hangover bowel movement odour. Several people made vaguely condescending comments about my seeming incapacity to face the day, and I responded with every bit of the gruffness I felt appropriate in response.
Not really wanting to interact with anyone in my hungover state, I chose to thumb through a book of team-building exercises, wondering which ones were going to be used on us today. I'm extremely cynical about such things, from the details right on up to the underlying psychology. Coming from an anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian background, I don't like going through the motions of pretending I like my co-workers unless I actually have some genuine reason to do so. Still, in the spirit of group unity, I put my aversions on hold, kept an open mind, and (with tightened sphincter muscles) restrained my considerable intestinal gas as the day's activities began.
The first order of the day was a "Human Development" session. "Human Development" (as the term is used by the grand pooh-bah of my company) is based on the dubious premise that we humans only use 3% of our brain's total capacity, and that if we unleash just a small fraction of the remaining 97%, we'll be capable of achieving goals completely unanswerable by weaker employees in lesser companies. For my part, I think the 3% theory is unsupported by science and is nothing more than another pseudoscientific newage attempt to set an impossibly high limit on human capability. If that extra 97% really were accessible to anyone, there would be geniuses in our world capable of putting Einstein to shame. If such people exist, I've never heard of them. By the way, Ms. Vos Savant's brilliance doesn't especially impress me.
To bring about our "Human Development" and unleash some of our spare 97%, the Grand Pooh Bah thought it appropriate to play us the first in a series of Tony Robbins motivational tapes. I guess I've heard of Tony Robbins in the context of being some sort of late night infomercial motivational guru (the sort of person I could, for what I think obvious reasons, never take seriously). But this morning I decided to give Tony a shot. I like my company a great deal and if the Grand Pooh Bah, who has breathed this agreeable culture into existence, thinks Tony Robbins is the way to go, then I thought I'd give the fast talking huckster of self-improvement a chance. So I listened to the tape with an open mind.
What Tony Robbins was saying made sense, in the way that truisms make sense. But it wasn't earth-shattering material. I didn't get a sense of great revelation going on here. Being far more motivated than most people, I've discovered many of Tony's axioms on my own and apply them in my life already. For example, I routinely dive into projects for which I feel I lack necessary prerequisite knowledge, confident that I can learn what I need to know along the way. That's how (to cite a recent example) I learned Active Server Page programming. That's also how I taught myself to masturbate. I don't feel the need to enrich a late night infomercial guru putting my life in order. It is in order, and yet this is only the beginning.
After the tape was over, the Grand Pooh Bah asked for a show of hands about how many of us would be willing to come to work a half hour earlier each morning for the next thirty days to listen to Tony Robbins tapes. This request for a show of hands came with the firm expectation that everyone would raise their hands. He's the Grand Pooh Bah, after all, and it was obvious what he wanted.
But I have a strong character and I am not afraid to make waves or draw attention to myself over matters of principle. This contrived non-secret polling of me and my co-workers was little different from the group prayers, pep rallies, pledges of allegiance to the flag and other essentially fascistic ceremonies I loathed throughout my youth. So, amongst a forest of arms, I pointedly kept both mine down. There are very few things that will make me get up a half hour earlier each morning, and listening to tapes made by an infomercial guru is not one of them. I saw the loss of this extra half hour of my mornings as a line not to be crossed in what I am willing to do for my company. I have a life and loved ones outside the company and I have chosen to defend them at this and other Rubicons that cross my day. On later reflection, I saw this half hour as the tip of an iceberg of even more frightening things, a separation of me from my life outside, a severing of connections that is characteristic of cult indoctrination.
I know the Grand Pooh Bah took notice of my failure to raise my hand, and I could see this darkening his mood. Who was I to take a stand of this sort so early in my employ? I don't really know how he operates, but I got the distinct feeling that bad things suddenly lay in my future. In a way that has never yet happened in this particular workplace, I could feel myself becoming afraid, my motivation to do my all for this company ebbing away. It seemed so sad and unnecessary.
Another who noticed my assertion of individuality was Courtney, a girl with apparent punk tendencies who works the phone for an unfamiliar branch of the company. And from that point on, I am touched to say, she seemed (in an unexpectedly sly, persuasive and extremely intelligent manner) to take me up as one of her causes. She was vocal during all subsequent discussions, saying exactly what I was thinking, that all of us develop in our own way and that there needs to be flexibility in our company's culture for industrious people who advance in their own unique ways. At times she was even blunt in her assertion of supportive remarks. She never mentioned me by name, but I was moved almost to tears by her words. Why was she doing this? What was in it for her? Her words seemed to be flowing from a fountain of idealism, but I didn't really know for sure. Best of all, she spoke with an authority that implied obviously social (and thus political) power, transcending her youth and short circuiting all the bullshit and the actions of all the cows who simply go along and never make waves.

A majestic rocky peak in the mountains above Idyllwild.

Jen the graphic designer (and lover of the Grand Pooh Bah) builds a tiny snowman in a genuine patch of snow.

Various co-workers gathering in a clearing during the retreat.

After this most disturbing and disillusioning of "Human Development" sessions, we all went outside and walked about a half mile up the mountain to a clearing in the piney woods. I was sort of freaked out at the time and felt uncomfortable talking to anyone. The scenery was spectacular, with sheer rocky peaks over which ravens soared and croaked their calls. Through the pines several unfamiliar birds species could be seen, including Stellar Jays and a species of woodpecker that stores acorns in little holes drilled into the thick bark of pine trees, tantalizingly visible but still utterly inaccessible to the many squirrels. The air was cool (down in the fifties) and here and there we could find actual patches of snow, what may well be the only snow I'll see this year.
Since we all spend at least 10 hours each day sitting in front of computers, it wasn't a complete surprise that some of of our numbers were incapable of making the walk without vehicular assistance.
This part of the retreat went a little better than the preceding part. We talked about our company's culture, especially the occasionally conflicting needs of advertisers and those who use the free services we provide. Partly out of self-defense, (given what happened during Human Development), I made several vocal contributions.
To keep my hands busy, I found myself braiding long, flexible pine needles into little hippie bracelets. Others were doing the same, or else digging holes and building model civilizations of rock and soil.
As we walked back down the mountain to get to our lunch, each of us was given the task of pairing up with someone we didn't know very well. I paired with Lydia, the somewhat intimidating Data Analyst, and we had a good conversation about our lives. Unexpectedly (given the ruthlessness with which she stomps about the office) she's actually a warm, funny and somewhat socially insecure person. We were joined part way down by the Grand Pooh Bah, and he was friendly at first, but towards the bottom his dark mood seemed to resurface.
There were a few good conversations during our lunch of lasagna. I mentioned my recent interest in automation to some of my co-workers, and most of them could think of projects for me to do. Given the primitive means by which we deal with routine operations, I can see enormous benefits coming to our company from the establishment of a position specifically designed to co-ordinate and develop automation systems. But despite the fundamental soundness of this idea, there never was any part in today's discussion where it seemed appropriate to bring it up. I slowly realized throughout the day that we hadn't, as we'd been led to believe, been brought up to this mountain retreat to reformulate our company culture by group consensus. We'd been brought up here as an exercise in indoctrination and mind control, no less. Most of my co-workers were intimidated out of making any contributions whatsoever, led to believe they should, but then finding themselves spending all their energy wondering if they could say anything and still keep face. Mind control seems to work best when people think they're free. I didn't have such an extremely negative view quite yet, however.
We had another outdoor lecture, talking about core values and such. By now the sun was sinking low and the air temperature had fallen far below what was comfortable for sitting in the shade. I found myself shivering and wishing increasingly to duck behind a bush and pee. When a slight break came in the activity, I ran off and peed long and deliciously. Then came yet another team building activity in which six of us joined hands across a circle and then tried to untangle ourselves.
Back in the warmth of the A-frame, we had still another team-building game. Pieces of paper were handed out and we were each expected to draw a picture to represent ourselves, and these were placed into a basket, mixed up and then we as a group tried to guess who each picture represented. Mine was of a flasher in a raincoat whose nudity was concealed by a sign saying "Hi Mom!" It was about my online journal of course, but when time came to explain it, I said it referred to the fact that I'm a weirdo but that I conceal it in funny ways. Most of the other drawings seemed sadly lacking in creativity, although some of us (especially the under-employed goth receptionist) took the opportunity to proclaim their interesting individuality. When we were all done, we were told shout in unison the name of the person who'd done the "best" in this exercise. Predictably, the winner was the guy in sales whose contribution had been most tied to the betterment of the company.
What followed next was by far the scariest segment of the retreat. In addressing the issue of attracting and keeping exceptional employees, the Grand Pooh Bah stated "this isn't a commune" and that the only people in the company who would remain for the long term would be those in the "top one percent." He added that in the recruitment process, occasional mistakes are made and sometimes people who are only in the top 5% are hired. He concluded this point by saying that half of us present wouldn't be here in four months.
If the Grand Pooh Bah's hope in saying such things was to motivate us, I don't think he accomplished his objective. I for one know I'm good at ASP programming and have a lot of original ideas about what to do and how to do it. But I'm not in the top 1% there, and, frankly, I doubt anyone at my workplace (as good as they actually may be) are in the top 1% in their respective fields. The company doesn't pay competitive wages and it's difficult to see how they could hope to hire such exceptional people. And though I doubt I have to worry about anyone coming along to fill my position at anything close to my wage, this language made me feel insecure and had the effect of sucking away my motivation and zeal, especially since it wasn't made just in reference to our performance, but also included a rementioning of that ludicrous late night informercial Human Development hocus pocus. The Grand Pooh Bah even said at one point that salary increases and promotions would be contingent on participation in Human Development. I was nothing if not alienated and angered by these words.
The Grand Pooh Bah was increasingly coming across as an irrational slave driver, subscribing to kooky theories to establish a logical justification behind his strategy to win the race in his market. Aware that he couldn't afford to hire the best, he was resting all his hopes on a personal faith in the bogus pseudoscience of Human Development. I found this to be personally repugnant and extremely cult leaderesque.
But the Grand Pooh Bah wasn't yet done with disillusioning me. The grand finale came when his girlfriend Jen, the graphic designer, mentioned that she appreciated the way Lydia stomps around the office, that it sent out a message of urgency. To this the Grand Pooh Bah added that he liked the fact that there isn't (as there is in most companies) frequent instances of idle chit chat among the employees, that whenever he hears such chit chat it makes, as he said, "my blood boil." He added, "We're in a race, and 2nd place is losing place. The horse's nose. When I see people wasting time, I feel as if they're sitting around taking a break when they really should be running as hard as they can!"
There were a number of us who were dismayed by such talk, which seemed to imply that we weren't expected to act like actual human beings.
But the kicker came with regard to people taking a break for lunch. There seemed to be some confusion on the issue, since apparently several of the "team coaches" had discouraged their charges from taking lunch breaks at all. Evidently this "race to be first" was to take precedence over everything, including basic biology. As I was to realize later, the difference between what was being advocated here and the biology-denying act of castration undertaken by the Heaven's Gate cult members was simply a matter of degree!
The Grand Pooh Bah's response to this lunch issue was confusing at best. He said we were free to take any kind of lunch break we want for as long as we want, but that we're in a race here and that if someone can be found who doesn't need a lunch break then we who take them will be replaced. It didn't take much reading between the lines to see that the Grand Pooh Bah was expecting us to sacrifice our basic biology for this cause.
And what cause is it? I know it's about money and market share, and the influence over communication systems of the future. But beyond that, where is the need for me to sacrifice everything in my life? Sure, we all have stock options, but the Grand Pooh Bah is the one with the most to gain from our denial. And since his girlfriend is a co-worker, he doesn't risk alienating her with his demand that we spend so much time in the workplace. The numbers add up, but they show the Grand Pooh Bah to be just another greedy American cult leader.
Happily, though, there was some dissent to the Grand Pooh Bah's message, especially from the old guard, who probably saw the need to ease the impact of some of the more alarming rantings of our leader. Several people said that lunch was an important time for them to get out of the office and reclaim their focus. One girl made the excellent point that it didn't make sense for us to end up divorced with broken families from spending all our time at work. Even the Grand Pooh Bah himself had to admit that back when people worked 14 hour days, productivity was lower than it had been when people worked 10 hour days. I took the opportunity to say (with what probably sounded like an angry, determined, measured voice) that programming quandaries haunt me all day long and that some of my best ideas for the solution to company problems come in the middle of the night at home or during the course of hour-long lunch breaks.
After dinner, I found myself chatting again with the Grand Pooh Bah, and something in me forced me to subconsciously bait him. Some of my hippie bracelets braided from pine needles were on the table before him, and when he took notice of them, I said that I'd made them during the lecture (implying he'd been a bore) and that, furthermore, some members of his old guard had been doing similar things. Some minutes later when I realized I'd said these things, I was deeply embarrassed. But in retrospect I'm glad I did. I was angry and alienated and insults were most definitely called for.
Things were informal after dinner. People started to trickle away or, if they stayed, drink beer. I couldn't find an appropriate social niche, so I played a couple losing games of solitaire with a real deck of cards, unconcerned about what a loser I was making myself out to be.
I got a ride all the way back to Normal Heights with the Database Administrator. Let me just say, the conversation we had did much to lift my spirits after this long and disastrous company retreat.

location: the cabana in Normal Heights, San Diego

The cabana was picked almost clean of our possessions; while I'd been off being disillusioned Kim had been moving the bulk of our stuff and setting up the new place in Ocean Beach. She was gone when I arrived but she showed up soon enough. We decided to spend tonight at the new place.
Kim had it all set up with the new furniture, a zebra-striped rug, a modernist yuppie glass coffee table, and numerous amenities funded by the check written by her neurotic mother. I told Kim about my harrowing company retreat experience and said that it might be good to keep my options open just in case the place turns out to be too weird for me.
It's really a terrible shame that a company with such promise is led by someone so unskilled in motivational speech. Instead of thinking about programming solutions to the company's many challenges, instead I found myself mulling over the specifics of how creepy my place of employment actually is.

send me mail
previous | next