Are you a loser, or just clueless? Pick your corporate escape route

As soon as I quit my job, I suddenly found myself telling everyone else I knew that they should do the same.

OK, that might be partly because I didn’t want to be alone in taking a risk. But it’s also because as soon as I left the corporate world, I saw two gigantic problems that affect everyone in it – even if you really love what you do.

Firstly, it’s almost impossible to be paid in line with the value you create. That’s not only disheartening, but because no one is concentrating on value, employees have their days filled with non-value-creating activities – like meetings and reports.

Secondly, and related, it’s almost impossible to become wealthy in a job. That’s “wealthy” in terms of earning and investing enough money not to be worrying about the size of your pension, but also wealthy in terms of making other people’s lives better, doing your best work, and hanging out with exciting, motivated people.

(This is leaving aside the issue of personal freedom, which I think we’ve banged on about enough in the past.)

Plenty of people spotted these problems before me, and it’s led to an abundance of advice about how to quit your job. But a lot of it is over-generalised, because it doesn’t address your current position: whether you’re a Sociopath, or Clueless, or a Loser.

Sociopaths, the Clueless, and Losers

The Sociopath/Clueless/Loser distinction comes from Hugh MacLeod’s “Company Hierarchy” diagram, as expanded on by ribbonfarm’s classic post, The Gervais Principle, and reflects how organisations are made up of very different groups of people with competing motivations and trajectories.

Sociopaths are the people with the power who decide the fates of everyone else. We won’t talk about Sociopaths any further because you clearly aren’t one – if you’re reading this blog, you can see beyond climbing the corporate ladder even if you’re not actively doing it yet.

That means you’re either Clueless, or a Loser.

When we were in jobs, Mish was the definition of Clueless: she had what Venkat from ribbonfarm describes as “a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even when events made it abundantly clear that the firm is not loyal to [her]”. She worked hard for what she was being paid, and she pitched new business ideas to her superiors constantly (to their delight, I’m sure). But, of course, this Clueless loyalty got her nowhere.

The Clueless are the middle-managers – and it’s probably the worst place to be. You care about the company, but you’re powerless to do anything about it. And it’s not as easy for you to leave as it is for the Sociopaths (who can hop to another executive position) and the Losers (who we’ll come to next).

The surest way to become Clueless is to be one of the highest-producing Losers.

Two types of Loser

Losers are the people we’re mostly talking about when we talk about quitting your job – those who’ve “traded freedom for a paycheck…they actually produce, but are not compensated in proportion to the value they create”.

It’s possible for Losers to become Sociopaths, but again, if you’re reading this blog that’s probably not your ambition.

Being a Loser is a bad economic bargain – you gain nothing from over-performing. Rationally, the best thing to do is to scrape by doing the bare minimum, and jump ship if something better comes along.

By actually making an effort and doing well, you’re making it clear that you can be exploited – marking you out for Clueless middle-management, and making it much harder to escape.

Being a Loser is dangerous either way.

If you just scrape by doing as little as possible, you’ll form bad habits that you’ll have to break very quickly to have any chance of surviving on your own.

But if you make an effort and over-perform, you can get sucked into a life of Cluelessness and be trapped by your salary and sense of duty. You’ll be promoted beyond doing the actual work (which you might have originally enjoyed) and into a management position, but you’ll lack the Sociopathic tendencies to climb any higher.

Pick your escape plan

Once you’ve realised how organisations work and you truly believe that you’ll be better off outside your job, there are different escape plans based on which part of the pyramid you’re in:

If you’re an over-performing Loser, you’re probably in the best position – you’re free to get out, and the fact that you’re over-delivering value when it makes no rational sense probably means that you’ve got drive, skills, and generally give a shit.

While you save up or work out what you want to do next, you can use your job to learn important skills. Look out for opportunities to make the company better, and pitch them – they’ll probably be knocked back, but spotting inefficiencies and arguing for change is good practice. Learn everything you can, and spend your evenings working on your own projects instead of doing unpaid overtime.

If you’re a Loser and you’re coasting along doing the bare minimum, you’ve got some bad habits to break before you’ll survive outside a company. There’s a good chance that your coasting is reflected in your non-work life too – you might’ve been sucked into the TV-bars-shopping triad by your peers.

The single best way to break out of this pattern is to change your inputs – stop hanging around with other people who don’t care about their jobs, and get inspired by buddying up with people who’re doing exciting things. It’s fine to keep doing the bare minimum at work until you quit, as long as you’ve got a browser tab open teaching yourself sales skills (for example) instead of just Facebook.

If you’re Clueless, your main barrier to escape (other than loyalty) will probably be money. By ascending to the ranks of the Clueless you’ve probably had a few pay rises, and maybe acquired a house, car and spending habits to match. Despite the pay rises, you’re unlikely to have much money in the bank.

That’s easily solved though – just cut back, and concentrate on building your financial buffer before you quit. In the meantime, you might have extra skills to learn – because you’re likely in a management position and not doing the actual work anymore, you might not have a specific skill that’s easy to monetise.

If you want to get out, you’ve GOT to get out

Many people are perfectly happy in jobs – and that’s fine, as long as they’re not under the assumption that everything’s going to be financially hunky-dory when they retire. We tend to ignore the fact that upwards of 80% of people are perfectly happy in the corporate world, purely because reading this blog almost certainly puts you in the other 20%.

I’m also not saying that all companies are horrible bureaucratic machines. There are many companies doing great things who let their employees get on with producing their best work instead of turning it into a paper-pushing exercise…but if you’re doing your best work, why not leave and get paid accordingly?

If you already feel like you want to get out though, you must – over the last year we’ve met hundreds of people who can vouch for how much more satisfying life is when you’re doing your own thing on your own terms.

You just need to form your escape plan. And that means confronting whether you’re Clueless, or a Loser. Sorry.