I was in a hotel the other night, and I had forgotten my Kindle at home, so I laid in bed for some time, catching up on my RSS feeds. I came across this post by John Sonmez, which I read with interest all the way through before I clicked over to read the post to which he was responding. John and I have very similar work ethics, so the part of his post about soldiering on during times when the ‘fun’ thing you started has lost its new car smell really resonated with me. Almost identically to him, I started blogging purely because I thought it’d be fun, but now there are nights where I have no queued posts and I really don’t feel like writing one. But I usually do anyway. A lot of things in my life follow that pattern, even beyond just programming — home improvement projects, setting up an ALM and ticketing system at work, gardening, etc.
And the point-counterpoint of these posts was interesting. The original poster, Loren, basically said that he’d been passionate about joining a startup, but fast forward two years and the job became soul sucking and unfulfilling even as it was cushy and relatively easy — startup Hotel California. So, in a celebratory announcement post, he said that he’d decided to quit his job and see where the wind blew him and that he’d already felt the passion start to reignite for things he likes to do.
I read John’s counterpoint to this as essentially saying, “don’t be that guy.” The guy I mean is the one you knew as a kid who had a closet full of hobbies and interests he’d started and abandoned after a few weeks. There was a violin he’d played for a little while, that old yellow belt from a brief karate stint, a rock tumbler, a football helmet, etc. We associate that with childhood behavior because, as a child, there really aren’t any stakes to just kind of quitting things and picking up new ones as you please. But as an adult, being a dilettante like this tends to have real life consequences. Most people outgrow it as obligations like spouses, mortgages and children enter the picture. But you still occasionally find Uncle Bill with the grown-up closet full of failed dreams of the moment: menus from the restaurant he tried to start, a Microsoft Programming Certificate, his tools from briefly trying to flip houses, etc. I think John was saying, “Don’t Be Uncle Bill. You’re never going to love something the way you did when you fell in love with the idea, and you can’t chase that dragon forever or it will bankrupt you.”
Simple enough: “I want to go chasing rainbows and I think that’s great” versus “chasing rainbows isn’t a career strategy.” Except, in the comments section on Loren’s post, things took a turn for the weird. At first I thought some of the hostility there was really bizarre for a post that just amounted to “I quit my job and I feel a lot better.” Then I thought that it was probably just a byproduct of coming from Hacker News. (If it is principally a “content and comment” engine like HN, YouTube, Reddit or Slashdot, I find that reading the comments tends to be a vaguely depressing experience, like riding a train through a crowded city with lots of debris and graffiti and broken windows everywhere.) But in the comments I saw a trend where the phrase “pay your dues” was repeated a number of times, and it made more sense to me.
Thank You, Sir, May I Have Another
I had intended this series to be a trilogy, rounded out by a post in which I prognosticated about the future of job-hopping (and that’s still coming), but I decided to add a chapter after reading these posts the other day. In the last post, I talked about the dues-paying culture in a corporate setting as one in which a general standard of mediocrity is forced upon the employees in an attempt to make everyone equally (dis)satisfied without playing favorites — you’ll wait three years for your promotion and pay your dues just like everyone else, mister.
At this point, I’d like to point out that I agree with the sentiments in John’s post from a rational self-interest perspective. That is, I think that quitting a job to spend some time with your hobbies is not a smart career move, and telling yourself otherwise is just a rationalization (though I have no quarrel with someone choosing to do this — I’m very small “L” libertarian when it comes to matters of “live and let live.”) But I do differ from John on a small point, which is really his invocation of the concept of dues paying. That is, he makes a reference to paying your dues in a sense that I think of as simple time investment. You start a project and it’s fun, you keep at it when it stops being fun, and eventually you deliver and reap the benefits. I don’t really think of this as paying dues but as investing time into an effort, pure and simple.
Distinguishing my idea of dues paying from John’s may seem like semantics, but I consider it important for two reasons. Firstly, the rest of this post is frankly going to be an attack on the mentality of “people should pay their dues,” and I don’t want to include John’s message about following through in the attack. Secondly, I think that dues paying is actually a perversion of investment. (For a lengthier dive into this topic, feel free to check out the conclusion of the Expert Beginner ebook when it comes out). Investing in one’s future is working hard now for greater opportunity later, whereas dues paying is some combination of Ponzi scheme and working hard now so you can be lazy later.
First of all, dues paying has a literal meaning and an idiomatic meaning. The literal meaning is that you exchange something of value (generally money, but not necessarily) for membership in some sort of club or organization. Dues-requiring organizations that come to mind, off the top, are unions, professional organizations, country clubs, condo associations, fraternities and sororities, and gangs (often weird barter dues involving violence). By and large, you trade something of value for a personal identifier — I pay club dues because I want to be a member of the club. Dues paying, literally, is a way to purchase identity status and its attendant privileges.
The idiomatic meaning has evolved to be this: you suffer in the here and now for rewards to be reaped at a later date. It has culturally-ingrained, protestant-work-ethic overtones as well. It isn’t just that you sacrifice now to be rewarded later, but that the sacrifice — the pain, suffering and indignation — is a character-building, humbling benefit tied up with a mastery and maturity bow in the end. It’s a nice narrative, like that of the Karate Kid.
But how do you get from point A, a payment in order to recieve a certificate of identity and belonging, to point B, a humble prostration before a pack of the worthy? I mean, shelling out 20K a year for the right to play golf hardly evokes images of Daniel-San waxing his way on and off to the karate championship. So what gives? Well, I’d say what gave was the increasing status disparity between early and later members. To put it more bluntly: the more people that get into a club, the more ridiculous the things they make new members do. And, thanks to the cognitive biases, the more the new members do those ridiculous things, the more they start to manufacture value for the experience. Before you know it, victims of horrific and bizarre hazing rituals actually reflect fondly back on them as character-building events that make the club they’re in that much better. They were just payin’ their dues, proving they wanted to be in the club badly enough to get in.
Dues Paying in the Workplace
Doesn’t it strike you as fundamentally weird to juxtapose club membership and salaried employment? That is, when people around the office talk about “paying your dues,” stop for a minute and think how odd that is (unless it’s their union rep talking to them). Organizations that collect dues are selling identity whereas corporations are purchasing labor from their employees. So if I have to “pay my dues” in a company, that means that it’s purchasing labor from me and I’m purchasing identity from it. I’m selling my labor to belong to some cabal of tenured people there that get to mete out the good assignments as they see fit, like fraternity pledge masters handing out the chores to the pledges or gang leaders handing out drugs or whatever to their soldiers. Within the organization, a club forms. It acts orthogonally to the organization’s best interests as it bolsters its own social currency on the backs of captive, hapless newbies who, unlike college freshmen, can’t simply say, “leave me alone — I’m not interested in your stupid club.” At least, they can’t say that without job hopping.
It’s in this culture that the corporate notion of dues paying really thrives. It’s the people that have been with an organization the longest that get to form the club and define its rules, currency (real or social), hazing rituals and customs. It’s cultures like this that marry dues paying to time invested rather than quality. And it’s the hapless job hoppers that bounce around until they find somewhere that this self-important silliness is muted to a minimum.
Of course, almost nothing infuriates a member of the club like someone not wanting to play — it’s a direct rejection of a carefully crafted culture and a whole lot of manufactured value. “Well, Jim, you’re new, but the guy with the most years here gets the best donuts, so — what, you don’t like donuts? Oh, sure, whatever. Heh, you’re clearly jealous.” I say almost nothing infuriates like opting out, because the one thing that really redlines club members is someone who scoots in with some kind of favored status, effectively bypassing the hazing, the rituals and the traditions. That’s a dogfight.
People who talk to you about dues paying in a corporate setting (and mean it in the sense I’m talking about here) have one of three main motivations: jealousy, a sense of being threatened, or external rationalization. Jealousy is the easiest to understand and probably the most common, especially from a veteran of dues-paying cultures in the abstract. This was on display in the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the HN set in Loren’s post. It doesn’t take Freud to figure out that a person getting disproportionately angry about someone else quitting his job to have fun is jealous.
A feeling of threat to one’s validity is also closely related. If you get promoted to architect at age 30 whereas a crowd of “wait your turn” dues payers around you didn’t get there until 40, it triggers thoughts of “what’s wrong with me that I didn’t get there at 30?” That’s a rather existential threat that’s hard to swallow, and it goes beyond simple jealousy. There’s an up-and-comer on the way, and he’s clearly gunning for this position. It’s this second motivation that tends to trigger the most action in a corporate setting, with the Council of Elders appealing to some AVP somewhere that these kids don’t know the value of respect. The Council will bring the full weight of their clique’s political influence with the company down on the newbies, refusing to rest until the youngsters are scrubbing PHP code off the toilets and doing pushups in the server room. It’s good for them. Kids these days have no respect and need to pay their dues.
The final motivation is rationalization. It’s the most interpersonally benign and depressingly insidious. This motivation occurs after the club has dominated and stamped out meritocracy altogether and some manager is left to explain a soul-crushing HR promotion matrix to a talented recent hire. This is when a boss says to his report something like “we think you have a bright future here, so pay your dues and you’ll be rewarded down the line,” when what he really means is “I’d promote you, but there’s a rule that I can’t for three years and I think that happened because there’s all of these lazy senior people here that have already paid their dues and will throw a fearsome temper tantrum if we give you tasks that are challenging and fulfilling before the three-year mark.”
My message to Loren, if you’re reading, and to anyone in general is don’t bother paying dues. That’s for MacLeod losers, golfers and unions members. If you can skip dues paying and enjoy success, by all means do it. Define yourself by what you produce and what you accomplish, not by how much you suffer for some kind of token acceptance from some group primarily interested in you succeeding no more rapidly than they did. Don’t stick around waiting for them to let you in — leave and start your own club where you set the rules and regulations. Create a place where you’re free to abide by the rules of meritocracy and ambition.
Both your money and your time are finite resources. You have to choose between putting them toward corporate/industry identity membership and investing them in your own career, yourself, and your life. I think it’s a no-brainer, personally. Paying your dues gets you comfortably in the door if you just hang around long enough and absorb the hazing, but blazing your own trail lets you buy the property that the clubhouse is built on.