I spent the first year and half of my working life at Leo Burnett, a big ad agency in Chicago. I lucked out and got an internship at the last minute after graduating college, packed up my bags and moved within a couple weeks. I knew little about advertising but my hope at the time was to find a creative job in business and advertising seemed like as good a guess as any.
Those first few months were a whirlwind. It took every ounce of focus I had just to learn how to fit in to the working world, much less learn the advertising fundamentals that I needed to prove my worth to the company and land a full-time job. I held my own and at the the end of the summer did get hired full time as a junior advertising strategist.
I was happy! I was excited! I was grateful to not have to move home to central Pennsylvania! Really the perfect trio of feelings for a 22 year old three months removed from graduation. Here I was, already a success: diploma in hand, living in a big city, surrounded by lots of other interesting, talented and creative people at a top-tier, international agency. I was living the fucking dream. Except I was miserable.
Maybe six months in to working there I had this sinking realization: everyone was working so hard, putting in long hours toiling in our little cubicles, getting to the office before sunrise on a frigid Chicago morning only to watch it set well before we ever went home. And for what? So that we could log more hours to sell to clients in our joint quest to influence the general public into buying stuff that they probably didn’t need.
When I would see a coworker burning the midnight oil I couldn’t help but think: “You know that if we didn’t do our job and produced no ads that at a minimum no regular person would care and at maximum we might actually make people happier?” Of course I would never say that out loud. This was serious, “important” business after all. Not to mention this was all of my colleague’s, and my own, livelihood.
Which brings me to today’s title: bullshit jobs. This was, for me, a bullshit job. And I struggled to bring myself to do it, ultimately quitting despite not knowing what I would do next and knowing that many other people would have killed for the chance that I just threw out.
“Bullshit jobs” isn’t my own moniker, it comes from David Graeber’s book which recently took me back to this moment in my life. So, according to Graeber’s ideas and my experience, why was this job bullshit? A couple reasons:
The person doing it knows it’s bullshit, but has to pretend to be oblivious to the fact.
I knew that no one would care if we didn’t make ads. I knew I personally wouldn’t. But I could never express that out loud.
The job instills a sense of falsity and purposelessness that makes you unhappy.
I felt rudderless with no sense of purpose. “So I’m going to get people to open up and tell me their inner desires and then turn around and use that to craft the perfect message to sell them something they don’t need? Great...”
The workplace shows an over belief in the virtue of work which creates unnecessary hours of busywork without any real, added productivity.
I logged more hours in the office simply because that’s how the agency made money: hours logged to account. It didn’t much matter if I solved the problem in 1 hour, I better make sure it looked like it took all day.
Have you had a job like this? Where you felt purposeless but had to fake enthusiasm? How might we design jobs for the next century that deliver more value and less bullshit?
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