Workplaces Suffocate Human Potential
by Sallomé Hralima
A modification of the following text was presented at TEDxWesleyanU, April 7, 2018
I was one of the lucky ones. Traditional education was good for me. The teaching styles, the homework assignments and the tests all felt like a series of puzzles and riddles and formulas to be solved. So when I got my report card in seventh grade after the first quarter, I expected the usual - straight As and Outstanding behavior. But this time, I had received a Satisfactory in behavior from Mrs Perkins, and my mom wanted to know what I was doing in that Social Studies class. I tried to explain that Mrs Perkins was just mean and I didn’t do anything differently in that class than any other. But my mom wasn’t having it.
So she went to the school and asked Mrs Perkins what I was doing that warranted me receiving a Satisfactory. Mrs Perkins explained that no child is Outstanding because God didn’t make any perfect children, and went on to say that only Jesus was perfect, therefore she didn’t give any students anything above a Satisfactory. My mom asked why it’d be an option if it wasn’t possible and Mrs Perkins dismissed her. I remember leaving the classroom and telling my mom, “See, I told you she was mean!” My mom said: “People like her should not teach if they are that unhappy with their job.”
That stuck with me. At 11 years old I began paying attention to adults and the jobs they chose - who was excited and who seemed miserable.
In order to ensure that we are all in the same conversation, I want to start by distinguishing what I mean when I say “work.”
Consider someone in your life with a full-time job that they can’t wait to retire from. It could be you, a parent or grandparent, a colleague. This person may have found ways to cope with what they thought they couldn’t change at the job. They may chain smoke, watch Law and Order marathons, or drink to mentally detach from the job. They may have sacrificed their joy to buy the house you can’t wait to sell. Their savings may have gone to pay for your education.
Set aside the conversations you’ve had with your parents about getting a job. We are not delving into the kind of work you might have to discuss at family court. We are not talking about the kind of work that you do because you have kids at home to feed or the kind of work you are doing to save money to start your business.
Now that I hope it is clear what we are NOT talking about. What are we talking about? Kahlil Gibran is quoted saying: “Work is love made visible.” You know the kind of work I’m talking about.
Josephine Baker’s is a work story. LeBron James’ is a work story. We are watching activist Tamika D. Mallory and executive Bozoma Saint John blaze work stories. You don’t think of any of those folks and imagine what they commit so much of themselves to as a job. You probably don’t even think of it as their work. And we each have examples of people, who are not famous, who love what they do so much that their passion is contagious. This is the kind of work I am talking about.
I have spend nearly 15 years studying the difference between the Mrs Perkins and the Bozoma Saint Johns in our country - examining the conditions and the choices that create such stark differences between those who labor and those who work. It is through this understanding, and a thorough examination of labor history that I have come to a deeply held belief that the workplace has a moral and civic obligation to make people's lives better.
Here’s the thing, Josephine Baker had a workplace. But she chose to live and perform in Paris after the rejection in America became too much. LeBron James has a workplace that he chose to leave, with plenty of criticism, in 2010 so that he could gather the support and experience he’d need to bring a championship home to Cleveland. Bozoma Saint John had a workplace. But she left Apple in 2017 and went to Uber in the middle of scathing reports of harassment because, as she said: “There’s no more exciting moment for me as a brand strategist than a turnaround.” While their passions are very different, their audacity is the same. And the lesson they represent is that of Choice. They show us, with their actions, that we deserve to be in a place that respects our craft, that values our contribution, a place where we can collectively imagine making some impossibility possible.
You see, I did the math. It’s scary. We spend approximately 45 years of our life in a job. That’s over half of our lives working to build someone else’s legacy when we could have spent that 40+ years building our own, mastering something, something that changes the world, something that results in our names being remembered forever.
Instead, we go from potential - because that is what we are seen as in the classroom - potential to resource, for extraction purposes in the workplace - an asset or commodity like oil, or groundwater, or diamonds. It’s as if our potential disappears once we get a diploma. No one wants to know what you want to be when you grow up anymore. This extraction of our life energy without an ongoing investment in us is harmful to our society. And we have been conditioned to believe that we have no choice. As if we are lucky to have a job, and the best we can expect is a nice paycheck and the ability to get home early enough to put our kids to bed.
But this depletion has had real consequences. It results in crack and opioid overdoses. This system based on labor instead of purpose-driven work has created thriving alcohol and tobacco industries, abuses in all forms, addictions to junk food and shopping and porn, broken families, stress-related illnesses and road rage.
We need to abolition jobs. American workers are due a reparations of sorts, after hundreds of years of intentional underdevelopment for the monetary gain of a few. It’s time to use company resources to support our humans versus seeing our humans solely as resources.
This insight came in the in-between. You know it. The in-between - in-between majors, in-between school and a professional life, in-between jobs, in-between careers, in-between a raise and a calling. I had about two months to consider whether I wanted to keep doing what I was doing or take on a new role. And I was asking myself a question that not enough of us ask in the in-between - what is worthy of my life energy? What work is worthy of the money I’ve invested in my education, what is worthy of me spending time away from my husband and my children?
Up until that point, I’d helped to build a nonprofit that introduced a new role into public schools - the Dream Director - whose responsibility it was to represent passion and purpose in high schools. My hypothesis was that if you have a generation of young people graduate having had focused time to develop their purpose and explore their passions, they’d live a life of choice versus the have tos and supposed tos that so many in my generation lived by. Helping to build that organization has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. But while we were making significant strides with the students we served, the adults within our organization were experiencing a suffocation of their potential. We were unconsciously sowing seeds that would birth more Mrs Perkins. Members of our team were burning out. They felt undervalued. They were second guessing their intelligence. They felt unsafe. A fire inside of me was set ablaze.
I came out of the in-between focused on the school-to-purpose pipeline. With my new role, in a non-profit I should point out, I believed I could experiment with new ways of organizing accountabilities. So I changed what was known as a Job Description to The Practice. As a part of The Practice, our team would articulate their individual purpose and the ways it aligned with our organization’s mission. The Practice had less of a focus on specific outcomes and more attention on what they might refine day after day, that if mastered would make not only our organization, but their lives more amazing.
I believed that we were dishonoring the history of labor. So I reframed the Employee Handbook and instead called it The Gift with an opening page that acknowledged the people who fought and died to have laws put in place so that we can be safe and respected in the workplace.
I believed that dismantling oppressive workplace culture should exist as more than annual anti-bias workshop. So I encouraged team members most passionate about anti-oppression to incorporate their mission and findings into the way the organization worked - as a part of our decision-making process, as a part of our performance review process, as a part of our recruitment work, as a part of our marketing. But with each stride forward I faced a formidable foe - Capitalism.
Now you might say, “but you worked at a non-profit.” And this is true. But our non-profits take their cues from the for-profit world. If I was unable to demonstrate how we would save money, gain more funders, or provide our service to more young people, the idea of focusing any attention on making our employees’ lives better was dismissed as mission drift. I shared with anyone who’d listen that the most effective way for us to fulfill on our mission would be to ensure that it was alive and real for our team first, and that that would result in outcomes we couldn’t even imagine - possibly even exceed our annual goals and quarterly OKRs.
But I was up against capitalism. And capitalism has no morals, no civic obligation. Our nation’s labor story includes slavery and indentured servitude. Laws had to be passed so that children couldn’t be exploited, so that we couldn’t be forced to work 7-days a week, so that we could take breaks to eat and to pee, so that we could take care of ourselves if we were sick, so that we could go to a job without someone forcing themselves on us. These are all things we have had to fight for in a court of law because capitalism and those who wield power therein would have our humanity stripped away if it’d mean greater profits.
But listen to me good. You can choose. Maybe it won’t be a choice to move to Paris, or to play for the Heat, or to step into an Olivia Pope-like work situation. Or maybe it will. But know that we have the power to eliminate jobs and create purpose-driven workplaces that inspire people to do the impossible.
We can change the employment landscape by working at companies whose founders and CEOs see their employees as their first customers - they provide nourishing food and gym memberships, offer unlimited vacation and life coaching on site.
We can invest in our own potential through Lyft and Uber, TaskRabbit and Fiverr, denying companies their desired workforce if they refuse to invest in us.
As employees, we can use sites like Glassdoor and surveys like Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For to communicate our experience. And just as we detest doing business with companies who use slave labor, we will create a new cultural barometer for workplaces.
Though it may be hard to imagine now, no jobs will be saved from this fate. They will have to invest in us.
If you don’t already see the change coming, let me be the alarm. We choose work over labor. Purpose and passion over promotions.
And wherever you are Mrs Perkins, I owe you immense gratitude. Because through you I have the profound privilege of making so many people’s lives better. I only wish I had the chance to offer these lessons to you. And for that, I’ll swallow the Satisfactory.
Note: This idea worth spreading was born out of their collective genius: The People Team (Ashley Mui, Akua Soadwa, Erin Hinkle, Hayley Darden, Divine Bradley, Jeremy Dominguez, Troy Mitchell, Joyce Gendler, Ben Gellman, Sarah Zapiler), Holley Murchison, Syreeta Gates, and Ibrahim Greenidge.