Like every other aspect of my life, my ideas about work and company loyalty were informed by culture and the experiences of relatives I'd grown up with. Our work culture has shifted in ways many of us would've never expected and though I'm a very proud Millennial, I recently realized that I needed to undergo a shift as well.
A bit of background: I grew up in a Black family in Chicago whose matriarch and patriarch had come up from Mississippi in the late '50s. My mother worked jobs to supplement her income and I grew up selling candy and being a mini 'trep because it was invigorating and fun and kept me in pocket change. I grew up watching my grandfather rise in the morning, battle the Chicago winters and come home year after year, mentioning the goings-on of his workplace like the Black version of an Everyman telenovela. He'd worked multiple jobs for decades to support a family of eight and always brought home amazing food from Oscar Mayer.
I thought that loyalty to a workplace was indicative of solid character. Unbeknownst to him, this was my grandfather's lesson about work ethic to me: "show up, put in work, return year after year until you can't do it no more or they close the plant". My grandfather grew up flitting to and from jukejoints, cotton fields, and school in rural Mississippi in the '40s. Nearly seventy years later, I learned that it does not serve me to hold fast to that model of work ethic and expected reward in today's culture.
I'm in my late 20s. I was born and raised in Chicago. I chose to make my bones in Cambridge, where code and creativity are king...not calluses, the natural byproduct of Sisyphean efforts in manual labor. My gifts in the workplace are conceptual and critical of culture. This is where I shine.
Now, let me tell you why I chose to take my shine elsewhere.
1. Make a way out of no way. Remember what I lead with. I grew up with old school, Southern standards of the value of work. I carry with me the reality that you will only have what you create. Wallace Stegner was right when he said that culture is a pyramid to which each of us brings a stone. If everyone doesn't bring something grand to the table, we won't have what we need. While I have a responsibility as an employee to bring my A game by drawing on my skills in service of my passions within my workplace context, it is never okay to be insufficiently trained and unsupported.
While my dream position would enable me to work hard in service of clear goals (preferably with dynamic snacks and funny coworkers in the mix), sometimes my position will entail making a dollar out of fifteen cents. That should never be the regular state of affairs.
2. Seems, madam? Nay it is, I know not seems. Shakespeare should've written a folio or two about workplaces, 'cause this one is on the money for my next point. A workplace is only healthy insofar as its vision rests in harmony with its practices and goals. I stayed in my industry for as long as I have (10 years for a 28 year old is meaningful) because I believe in the virtues of multiculturalism done right. I've witnessed the harmony and understanding engendered at the dinner table of a popular dormitory. I've seen the youngest generations of countries formerly at war bond over Americans' terrible French and German accents. I've heard the warmth in a Saudi Arabian student's voice after spending Christmas and Kwanzaa with their Black American host family in Dorchester.
I've left positions feeling accomplished because I've been given the tools I need to succeed. The best workplaces thrive when its members' gifts and insight are honored. An underlying current of job insecurity, resentment and defeatism does nothing positive for employees or the owners' bottom line. It simply contributes to overworked, bitter employees who will improve their LinkedIn profiles, polish networking skills and use their benefits before they expire.
3. Good for the geese, unnecessary for the gander. You might've gleaned by now that I am a very big fan of using (sub)culture as a set of lenses through which I interpret how we live, understand, and interact with one another. Cultural sensitivity training, regardless of industry, can provide many with tools they need for navigating an increasingly diverse workplace when done right. That said, multinational companies have got to come to terms with the fact that the United States does not have it all together. Training foreign team members while allowing domestic ones to languish under a lack of awareness can only harm your company...and drive a wedge between employees.
I usually find myself in spaces where women and people of color are underrepresented. I live in a house in Cambridge sandwiched in between MIT and Harvard and am learning more and more about the startup and tech scenes out here. If I know one thing to be true it's this: technology and solid infrastructure help us figure out how we live, and even help us do so with more ease...but people who are adept at interpreting culture and telling our story will always serve us by reminding us of why.
4. Blocks, stones, worse than senseless things. I have really got Shakespeare on the brain tonight. I'll lay this one out plain: I knew it was sayonara time when I felt impeded by middle and upper management. While I'm no stranger to management or positions of influence, I don't thirst after positions of authority. It's simply not my style. I know for a fact that the head that wears the crown is a heavy one, and rightly so - any head worth being crowned should be aware of the gravity of their position.
Management is not for the weary, and in a perfect world, not for those who lack humility, empathy and appreciation for the people who chose to pour their time and talent into the mix. So it goes.
5. Gone girl. I am a thoughtful cookie. I am observant and comfortable sitting with my feelings until I have language for my understanding (or lack thereof). I knew it was time to leave when I no longer had a heart for what I did, when the thought of boarding a bus to make my hour-long commute tugged at my heartstrings, when I operated in my role during the workday while brainstorming how I'd account for it on my resume. I typed up my resignation letter while teary-eyed. I went into a conference room and thought about what I'd be leaving behind, and about the failure I'd been part of. There's a saying that goes: Tell the truth...even if your voice shakes. I knew that I was in no position to keep this position, so I told the truth while my voice shook.
The heart always knows. The spirit can always tell. The work ethic always suffers as a result.
Having grace for myself was important. It's been said that everything you need to know about a company is communicated before you even peruse the offer letter. I've gone away from an incredibly lackluster experience with more understanding of myself, my working style, and most of all...
...a value system around work more fitting for this century.