The Escape Manifesto – Discussion #2: Big Corporates & Fulfilling Work

As those of you who follow Esc will know, we want to explore the ideas around the phenomenon of people ‘escaping the city’ with the aim of helping more corporate professionals to make brave and exciting transitions.

There is certainly no single way of understanding all the various strands related to our concept (jobs, money, career, meaning, work, entrepreneurialism, life, fulfilment, etc, etc!) and we want to encourage as much discussion as possible with the aim of learning more and pushing Esc onwards to greater heights.

Introducing the discussion

We resigned from our corporate jobs because of some really strong ‘pull’ factors (i.e. the prospect of starting a business and working for ourselves doing something we love) but we also left because of some pretty persuasive ‘push’ factors as well.

We want to explore the reasons why people find working for big corporates in professional and financial services unfulfilling. We want to understand what it is that people are looking for but not getting in their corporate jobs (i.e. what important ingredients are missing?).

We’ve always been really keen not to knock the corporate world. For starters the skills that we learnt in ‘The City’ have really helped us start Escape the City – we wouldn’t have been able to get this off the ground without them. Additionally, there are masses of people who really enjoy their corporate jobs.

However, for every person who is clear on why they are in their company and what they’re getting out of the experience, there are masses of others who are thinking ‘I’m not sure this is for me, but what on earth do I do instead?’

Esc is for these people.

So why are jobs in big corporates so often unfulfilling?

  • Lack of control, freedom & independence
  • Bureaucracy
  • Office Politics
  • Hierarchy
  • Feeling of being institutionalised
  • Small cog in a big machine
  • Lack of creativity
  • Work for work’s sake – too much process!
  • Lack of positive social impact
  • Hard to be yourself in the corporate environment
  • Boring work

We started Esc to help solve a problem. What problem? The fact that thousands of ambitious, passionate, talented graduates and professionals end up feeling frustrated doing work that doesn’t really matter to them. Why? Because the alternative is tough. It is hard to find a really exciting job and even harder to start your own business.

If Escape the City is going to meaningfully contribute to understanding what’s going wrong for so many people… then understanding those ‘push’ factors is really important.

Please share your experiences of working in the corporate world… we would love to have a discussion aimed at getting to the heart of why working in big corporate organisations is often unfulfilling.

Go on, get it off your chest!

  • http://goethesaiditbest.blogspot.com/ Karen Macmillan

    For me it was a mixture of burnout, doing it mostly for the money, boredom and a serious misalignment of values.

  • http://www.escapethecity.org Mikey

    Great opportunity for a quote from my main man Derek Sivers…

    “This is your one chance at life, you can have anything you want, what is worth doing? Most people don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing. They imitate others, go with the flow, and follow paths without making their own. They spend decades in pursuit of something that someone convinced them they should want, without realizing that it won’t make them happy.”

    These are the thoughts I had when I wanted to get out of the corporate environment. I was sick of the grey culture, it sapped me of all my motivation, creativity and was changing me in ways I didn’t want to. I hated the game in the office of people trying to make themselves stand out, speaking up just for the sake of it, working long hours, but not being any more efficient or productive than the next guy. It killed morale.

    I realised that every step i had taken up to the point that I quit, had been pre-programmed into me by school, university, peer groups, etc. I hadn’t once made my own real decision about what I wanted to do with my life, and when I realised that all the people that surrounded me at work were in the same boat but were too scared to admit it, I knew I had to escape.

    Creativity is best nurtured by those that create. If you’re not working with people who are eager to shape and improve their environment, and are passionate about what they are doing, then its time to think about something else. The human mindset has changed over the last 100 years, but in many places the corporate environment that goes with it has stayed the same. These large companies are still factories, meant for people that just want a job. The companies of the future are the ones that grey the lines between work and life. They nurture the creativity and ambitions that people have and they will be more successful because of it.

  • Eddie

    I haven’t escaped yet. Actually, I’ve only been in the corporate world for 13 months now, but that’s long enough for me to know that it’s not for me. I work in finance, which is not what I studied, and sometimes wonder if simply working in another department would be enough. But I think deep down I know that the corporate environment won’t provide me with fulfillment.

    There are several elements that frustrate me: the hours in front of excel, the amount of unproductive meetings, the clocking in and clocking out, the brown nosing… the game. Basically if you want to get ahead, you have to play the game. And I think it boils down to the fact that I don’t like playing the game, and I don’t particularly want to get ahead in the line of work that I’m currently in.

    What’s keeping me from escaping immediately:
    1) This is the first real job that I’ve ever had. It pays well, and I’m finally able to save a good chunk of my salary. I have friends who have great degrees, but are in a lot of debt and struggling to find work to pay them off.

    2) As mentioned by Rob, the corporate environment does actually teach you valuable skills, even if you don’t like the work. I still find myself learning some of these skills, which will probably be helpful in whatever I choose to do next.

    And the most important:
    3) I don’t know what exactly what to do after this. I have different ideas and different areas that interest me, but it’s very difficult to narrow something down and go after it. I’m trying to set a deadline for my escape. Hopefully that’ll help push me towards the plunge.

    • http://www.escapethecity.org Mikey

      Hey Eddie,

      Can completely relate to everything you said. 4 years of banking before joining Esc and I knew almost immediately that it wasn’t for me. Like you, I just didn’t know where to go.

      I think you’re going the right way about things. If you’re able to save a good chunk of your money, then thats fantastic. I made the error of spending every penny i had and more on holidays. Don’t regret it because i needed them to escape at least temporarily from work that i really didn’t like. If you can save anything, it gives you loads more flexibility.

      Hopefully it won’t take you four years to figure out the next step! All the best with whatever changes you decide to make, and thanks for joining the discussion!


  • http://vkwink.com/ Leo von Wendorff

    For me leaving a corporate job and striking out on my own had more to do with my ego than anything else. I wanted to do something meaningful with my life, which validates my ego but also adds in a positive way to humanity. I guess if I wanted to express ‘validation of ego’ in a more socially and political correct way, it would read ‘lack of freedom & independence’ and many of the other reasons you listed above. Be that as it may, the true reason, which kept (and still keeps) me going, was happiness. The opposite of happiness is not sadness. The opposite of happiness is apathy and boredom. Even though I’m stressed and feel anxious about my future and the future of my workers, I feel happy. I’m doing something; I’m becoming someone.

    • http://www.escapethecity.org Rob

      Absolutely. Boredom is the biggest danger. Boredom terrifies me more than anything. We only have a certain amount of time here. What a waste to spend it in a pit of apathy!

  • http://vkwink.com denice

    Hello from the Philippines!

    First of all, brilliant website.:D I’ve been on it for only a day but the idea excites me. I agree that there is a need for an alternative to a lifestyle of cubicles and meetings and work that does not even matter to anybody. There should be more to life than endless paperwork…otherwise I’d REALLY want my money back.

    Essentially I’m not supposed to be working in a corporate environment, because as a magazine editor, the job is supposed to be exciting. But a magazine is still a business and often, the worry of the bottomline, the production-for-production’s-sake, and HR restrictions (keeping a 9-5 schedule instead of opting for the more productive flexi-time) zap the creativity and the excitement of what is supposed to be a vocation rather than a job.

    I think that often, what makes a corporate job unbearable is the thought that instead of fulfilling you, it’s killing you inside. There is no room for growth other than what has been mandated: promotion, where you will end up doing more soul-sucking work and having more stress. Also, the being boxed in mentioned above–not just with what you can do with your job, but because of the many rules and expectations of you as a person even outside your workplace.

    Also, doesn’t it just come to the point where your worklife eats you and you realize that you don’t know anyone that doesn’t know you from your job? Inevitably, your career will define you, and then you’d be left to contend with whether you like yourself defined that way or not. That, I think, is what makes corporate jobs frustrating and scary. I dont want to be defined by my blazer and high heels.

    • http://www.escapethecity.org Rob

      Agreed. I remember being really upset when I met a girl who asked ‘what do you do?’. I replied ‘I’m a management consultant’. She said: ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look like one…’. So I shaved my head the next day!!

      In all seriousness though, we define ourselves by what we do. And if we’re not proud to be a banker / accountant / corporate worker then no wonder we feel empty / unfulfilled / untrue to ourselves.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • kennyakasouthparkdude

    I totally agree with everything I’ve read so far. I worked both in the civil service govt side and the corporate side of house and both were in the end unfulfilled soul sucking spirit killing places to spend the best days of your short life . If your not doing something that really makes you feel excited proud and alive then what the hell are you doing with the short time you have on this earth? You can rationalize all you want but in the end you can’t lie to the person in the mirror about who your becoming or not.

    • http://www.twitter.com/adelebarlow Adele

      Totally agree. I think those opportunities can come from anywhere though – some people are really happy in corporate roles, some people in civil org roles, some people as entrepreneurs, others as artists… ideally, the point is to be fulfilled and content in whatever set of actions and tasks you’re engaging in every day. Easier said than done but we think it’s a goal worth working towards.

  • Heidi

    Hang in there anyone who works in the corporate sector but dreams of being elsewhere. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just not for everyone but the corporate world can be seen in a positive way if viewed as a stepping stone to your dream job, or perhaps even giving you the skills to have a go at something completely new.

    I worked in charity sector in the UK and abroad for 5 years and absolutely loved it. It fulfilled all the necessary ‘I love my job’ criteria and inspired and motivated me on a daily basis. Then, one day, my last international post came to an end and I couldn’t find a job so I ended up in the corporate sector…all for the love of being able to buy food!

    The monotony, lack of trust, micro management, unhealthy work environment and office politics really weren’t my cup of tea, but the experience was certainly an eye opener and at the very least cemented my desire to ‘get the hell out’ and do something I could once again be passionate about. That said, the job did enhance my writing skills and gave me the confidence to set up as a freelance writer, for which I am very grateful. I now work for myself, which has challenges, but mostly it gives me the time and freedom to work towards my goals.

    The charity sector is still my passion to the extent that I would happily work in an office, in a far flung place, 7 days a week because it’s work I love but seeing everything as a new and positive experience helps to find that elusive silver lining. It opens our minds to new and exciting possibilities.

    I’m sure in 100 years time, the ‘workplace’ will no longer exist; everyone will be working remotely from tropical islands and air-conditioning, dodgy Boots sandwiches and the office Christmas party will be relegated to history books entitled ‘How Did Any Work Get Done in the 20th Century’….

    • Adele

      Loved reading your story, Heidi – so interesting about how the corporate world set you up to then become a freelance writer (much like how Rob & Dom’s corporate experience is ironically what enabled Esc to exist). Amen to what you said about the disappearing nature of the ‘workplace’ – ReWork by Jason Fried is a book that talks about this. ROWE – results only work environments (i.e. doesn’t matter where or when you do the work, as long as the work gets done) – is a concept I believe in pretty strongly as it tends to work for both employers AND employees, but it only seems to be effective in a high-trust environment.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/ElusiveLand Anne Dagen

    Size is not important!

    In a large corporate you become used to dealing with very large numbers. a side effect of this is that when you look at alternatives it becomes easy to dismiss smaller numbers as being not worth your attention.

    ‘Only’ 1000 customers? But that might be 50% of the marketplace.

    ‘Only’ £100,000 revenue? But that could leave 90% of the money to split between 2 part-timers who are free to spend most of the week surfing or skiing or training to become Olympic champions.

    Most business ‘wisdom’ focuses on size and growth as though these were the only measures of success. They aren’t. There’s nothing to prevent you defining your own success measures. Success can be having enough to finance your desired lifestyle balance through serving a limited customer base. The corporate mentality may say big is beautiful but that’s what you want to escape from.

    • Lola

      I come from financial services world. Driving shareholder value is the main goal. You are enriching a few already rich people. It’s all about profits. It’s all about money. Anyone could be made redundant just to drive operational costs down. You realise that no one is unique and anyone could be easily replaced. But most importantly for me, do you know of a bank or finance company which made a difference, saved people’s lives, ensured humankind’s breakthrough, made the world a better place? Exactly. The soul is missing, this is the problem.