Friday, May 15, 2009



Have you seen the shadow people? If you get up early in the morning, you see them scurrying stone-faced from their apartments in fresh suits with laptops, briefcases or duffel bags. If they are women, you can smell newly-applied perfume as you walk past them. The women carry expensive designer bags in which they mix work papers with a few personal things. Both the men and women look like they just got out of the shower. If you don’t pay attention, you will miss them because they move fast. They move down the hallway, jump on the elevator and zip out the front door where they hail cabs. You might never see them again for three months. Then you discover that they live in your building.

I live in a pretty typical Manhattan apartment building. I thank good fortune for the fact that I do not have a “traditional job.” It lets me come and go as I please. I get up around 7:30 in the morning and go to bed around midnight. I do not have to dress up every day and I am free to leave the premises without punching a time clock or otherwise accounting to anyone for my whereabouts. I meet people who live in my building. I get used to seeing them. But occasionally I will get up earlier than 7:30. On those days, I invariably encounter “shadow people.” Just last week, I counted four new “shadow people” in my building. One lives on my floor. He is probably 30, but his facial expression makes him look about 57. I saw him at 6:45 one Thursday morning. He was on his way to work. Later the same day, I saw him coming home—still in his suit—as I came back to my apartment with dinner at 9:30 PM. On Friday morning, I was up early again. There he was, this time with wet hair and smelling like he had just washed. It was 7:00 AM. He was on his way to work again.

You know who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the people with no life-work balance. I do not like to judge others’ lifestyles, but I can’t understand the shadow people. I do not even need to meet them to know they are unhappy. It is evident. They have drawn, haggard faces. They move intensely. They look cranky. They do not stop for anything. They are always rushing. They have to be somewhere all the time, and the clock is ticking. They even curse and mutter to themselves when there is a delay of any kind. They mouth profanities in subway stations, elevators and grocery stores. If something does not go according to plan, they let others know how upset they are. After all, they have important things to do. And people expect them to be somewhere else, namely, at work.

Anyone who spends 14 hours a day working in a corporate office will eventually collapse into unhappiness. True, bright-eyed young workers who want to bootlick their way to success might have the capacity to ignore time and discomfort for a while. But as the months pass—and opportunities for youthful personal enjoyment wane—resentment and misery replace zeal and cheer. Shadow people are all relatively young. They all have something to prove. When they were very young, they lived their lives to prepare for work. Now, they are actually “living the dream.” Yet as the reality dawns on them that time escapes—and they are not getting any younger—something else displaces their enthusiasm, something desperate and intolerant. You can sense it when you encounter them. There is always some pressing issue, a phone call, a meeting. There is always something urgent, something that demands immediate attention. There is no time to waste. And that is precisely the problem. There is no time for anything anymore. Not even sleep. When time moves like that, years can pass in a flash.

Shadow people frighten me for two reasons. First, their intensity makes me feel uneasy. Second, they show me an alternate reality that is truly terrifying because it runs counter to everything I hold dear in my life. On the intensity question, who likes being around perennially nervous, edgy, rushing, pushy, unexciting people who only think about getting to work on time? Who likes enduring brutal stares when you accidentally hold up the line in the morning? Shadow people have no mercy because they live intensely. They are racing. They are competing. They have to work as many hours as they can to get a promotion, make partner or win some other monumental work-based accolade. Any moment outside the office is wasted time, and they are not afraid to tell you that. They do not tell you directly; you can just feel it by the way they look, act and speak. In short, don’t get in their way. Thankfully, it is easy to avoid them. You just need to sleep past 6 AM and get home before 10 PM.

Shadow people’s “alternate reality” frightens me every time I see it. I could have been in their position. If life had carried me in a different direction with the law, I might have been an associate at some monolithic law firm. If I had, I would have become a shadow person. I would have donned a costume every morning before dawn, crept into my office and worked on mergers until night fell and well beyond. I would have contended with billable hours requirements, overweening supervisors, supercilious colleagues and bitter rivals. Outside the office, I would have rushed to and fro in an effort to make deadlines and get home in time to snatch a few winks. Or maybe I would have just slept in a cot in the office, then washed up in the firm’s 57th floor restroom. If this had been my life, I would not have had time to reflect. I would not have had time to be forgiving. My face would have become drawn, my temples gray and my eyes sunken. I would have had no time to create anything but pleadings. I would have had no time to think for myself. Instead, I would have been a legal automaton working maniacally toward “partnerhood.” Although not all shadow people are lawyers, they all share one thing in common: Total dedication to success in the employment-centered life program.

What is that, exactly? It is what it says. To use my definition, a life program refers to a lifestyle coupled with core, guiding values, assumptions and prejudices. Lifestyle simply means a person’s everyday routine: What time to get up, what time to eat, how to dress, how to speak, where to go, what to do, etc. But a life program infuses that routine with guiding values and prejudices. In my life program, I infuse my daily routine with a respect for time, a desire to enrich my mind with new knowledge and the freedom to live independently. “Traditional success” does not guide me, nor do I feel badly that I have not achieved it. I do not put faith in “traditional success” because I believe that “traditional success” depends too much on the judgments of others. In the shadow person’s life program, however, external judgments are all-important. They want to succeed in a hierarchical system. To do that, they must please those in “superior hierarchical positions” by giving them the results they want. Their own values are irrelevant to that task. Rather, they must assume the superior’s values. Their superiors show up at the office early and stay late. So the shadow person does the same. They imitate their “successful superiors.” To achieve success, they turn to employment. And it is not just any employment. Shadow people aim high. They want stressful jobs and stressful tasks. They do not want to work 8 hours a day. They do not care about how much they sacrifice. They transform their values to suit the arduous endeavor ahead. In the “employment-centered life program,” shadow people live to work. They do not work to live. There is no balance between work and life. For shadow people, work is life, and life is work. Work provides meaning as much it provides opportunity for “success.”

But there is more to this phenomenon. Because employment is central to the “employment-centered life program,” the values of modern employment play a key role in the shadow person’s existence. These values not only control the shadow person’s bodily movements (ie, summoning his body to the office for countless hours; compelling him to adhere to mundane protocols; subjecting him to cruel and abusive treatment by superiors, etc.), but they also influence his overall perceptions. He gets dressed in a suit every morning because that is the rule. Still, he does not resent it. Why? If he reflected on the question beyond the mere “requirement” to dress formally, he would realize: “One must dress well at work in order to dignify and respect the job.” In this sense, his job takes on a noble status. Just as courtiers had to wear their best when appearing before the King, so too must modern employees wear their best to appear at work. They must dignify employment as an institution. Shadow people revere their jobs because their jobs exercise sovereign power over them in every way. That is what motivates them to get up before dawn and put on a suit. They are answering the King’s call. Employment changes their values, whether they know it or not.

You may say: “People wear suits at work; so what?” It may seem obvious. Yet I mention it because there is no real reason—in the abstract—to dignify employment. Employment means nothing but compensated service by a servant on behalf of a master. The master’s work may be utterly repugnant, selfish or unethical. It may be utterly mundane, unexciting and unprofound. Why then should the servant dignify it with fine clothes? Why dignify something that may be undignified? In my view, the idea that “employment” deserves intrinsic “respect” by “dressing well” bespeaks a hopelessly servile mindset. It is as if “service to a private economic master” has replaced “presence before the King” as the event necessitating “respectful” dress. The job has become the sovereign. Not only must the employee answer the King’s every command; rather, he must also “dignify his majesty” by appearing in his best clothes before him. The irony is that most employees at large offices rarely see anyone from the outside world while at work, rendering all their fine dress superfluous. They are not impressing anyone. There is no one there to see them. They are simply “dignifying their jobs” in the abstract. They are just following the “employment-centered life program.” And that program demands respect for employment in the abstract.

Shadow people live purposively. You can see it when you encounter them. They always have a place to go and something to do. They are always on phones or rushing off to accomplish some important task. Everything has a purpose in their lives. Every action and every thought ostensibly leads a step further to the coveted promotion, the coveted big account or the coveted deal. Purposes provide guidance and reassurance. Purposes transform into goals, and goals set purposeful action in motion. Purposes ward off meaninglessness and win “success.” On the other hand, purposes beget risk. One can either fulfill a purpose or fail to fulfill it. That means that purposes involve winning and losing. Winning fulfills the purpose. Losing leaves the purpose unfulfilled. When human beings engage in activities that involve winning and losing, their minds narrow and their emotions darken. They fixate on winning and do their utmost to avoid losing. Winning feels good; losing hurts like hell. To avoid losing and to maximize their chances to win, shadow people compete. That means they put forward their maximal efforts to accomplish their purposes, necessarily to the detriment of all those who seek to accomplish the same purpose. Competition means a spirited, contested quest to win something. It raises emotions and tensions. It raises expectations and sharpens nerves. It spawns imaginative methods calculated to win victory and avoid defeat. In victory, it intensifies good emotions. In defeat, it exacerbates bad emotions. The “employment-centered life program” constantly involves competition. That is why shadow people are so intense. They are racing to win, no matter how banal the activity. If they lose, they fail to fulfill their purpose. And that would undermine their reason for living. For shadow people, everything in life becomes competitive, from catching a cab to ordering dinner to getting the long-coveted promotion. Put simply, when people are competitive, they are not pleasant. They are trying to win. If you threaten their chances to win, you will receive no quarter from them.

Who are these people? Do you recognize them? I call them shadow people for two reasons. For one, they move quickly and almost unnoticeably, like shadows. Second, they are like shadows because they merely reflect others’ light. Shadow people live their lives for “employment-centered success.” As such, they tailor their values, habits and lifestyles to match the requirements needed to achieve that success. This makes them “shadow-like” in the sense that the “employer shines the light” and we simply see their silhouettes.

When a shadow person moves quickly down the hallway at 5:30 AM, Tumi bag in hand, he is not rushing for himself. He is rushing to fulfill his employment-related purpose. It is not his purpose. He just thinks it is his purpose. By dutifully rushing somewhere at an ungodly hour, he thinks he is advancing up the chain. But he would not be running back to the office if someone did not expect him to be there. He is expected; he does not expect. And he would not seek to advance up “the chain” if he did not implicitly revere “the chain” itself. That is shadow-like. After all, shadows are passive. They depend on some other object to exist at all. So it goes with the shadow people.

1 comment:

Timoteo said...

Fantastic piece...I've always thought it ironic that when one becomes "successful" he is required to unceasingly wear a noose around his neck (necktie) so tight he can hardly breathe.