Imagine a rope hanging from the sky. Now, imagine a billion such ropes. You see people climbing up these ropes. They seem to be a hurry to get to the top. They look like they know where they are going. So, you put on the same I-know-what-I-am-doing countenance and start climbing too. There’s no harness. But there’s a safety net. You look down at the safety net going about its business of gathering up the injured. You climb fast. Some days are a struggle, but you keep going. You see some people climbing cheerfully up other ropes; they must have just started. You see the pain on some faces; old timers. Some who started with you have gone way ahead. Some give up so fast, rendering the safety net purposeless. You climb on. Then you see the shoes. You were warned of the shoes. These shoes started much before you. You could climb further up because of those shoes or you could just be left hanging. Sometimes, you could be kicked down. Yes. It’s a tad irritating to be told, “Congrats on making it this far. We’ll let a shoe decide what you should do next.” The shoe is what I call hierarchical-plain-dumb-luck.
In case this rope thing is making you loopy, let’s go back to how this all started: Snakes and Ladders. That was our concept of work: a game of snakes and ladders. Every time you rolled the dice, you went a little ahead. Being at the right place at the right time was akin to getting the right number on the dice. The dice ranged from 1-3. The progress was slow. Patience was promising. After a while, the game got boring.
Every time something gets boring, we have a way to fix it. It’s called innovation. The range of the dice was now 1-6. We added more ladders, more snakes. More players came by. Did they not know the rules were the same? You were ahead of everyone one minute and the next minute, you were caught in the middle of the pack. It’s how it always worked. It was just faster now. Everyone still had the inevitable encounter with the Snake. Some had to start over. Some persisted until they finished the game. Some got disgusted with the snakes and went on to play Monopoly. Most stayed on. This was the only game they knew to play.
More innovation. Now, there were tiny snakes and tiny ladders. You got rewarded just for climbing the ladders. They got a new fittingly un-ingenious name too: the corporate ladder. Even the snakes became fancy. They shed their suited skins and took to trousers. Some of them played this sick game where they would bite you – you fell a few places down – and lo: there was a little ladder. How could you be upset with that kind of mind-bending innovation?
The snakes – if you are wondering where I am going with this – were the bosses. But, we’ve come a long way from there. So long, that we have abolished the word “boss”. It’s “Call me Vivek.”
Sure Vivek, but can you please stop calling me “friend”? It makes me nauseous.
What happened is that over time, people understood the ladders were leaning against a wall. And more and more people started to hit that wall. Irrespective of the number you rolled on the dice, you would be stuck on that wall.
How did we solve this? We removed the ladders.
That’s when we had the infinite length of the ropes hanging from the green horizon of the sky. By this time, people understood different board games, or if I may, they learned their ropes. So, if one rope didn’t work, they would just swing on to the next. But, as Anonymous would say, “with new rope came new shoes.”
I agree this whole game would be a whole lot pleasant if we didn’t have the snakes repeatedly pulling us down or the shoes kicking at us. But, not all snakes are venomous or all shoes filthy. In fact, they may be the very reason for you to actually stay in the game. They may lend you your sense of purpose. And it’s only when you wear those shoes yourself will you understand the heaviness. It’s only when you look in the mirror and see a snake staring back at you do you see the inherent entrapment of the game. I have been in this game for almost five years. Saying I have been lucky would be simplistic. The dice seemed to listen to me. I could speak Parseltongue. I was an unhandsome Harry Potter navigating the corporate wilderness.
Which brings me to monkeys.
Remember the image we were shown back in school where a little monkey becomes larger and straighter over time and voila, we have you, the human – chiseled and Gillette-ready. It turns out that image is completely wrong.
In their defense, no one knows exactly how it turned out. There are some crazy theories that will make you go Gorillas, but let’s go with the safe option of listening to someone who dedicated his life to studying evolution and also never bothered with any Gillette, Charles Darwin. Darwin believed evolution was like this:
Or more precisely, like this:
Although we cannot trace back to our exact ancestors, we seem to have reached a fair bit of consensus on two major factors that led to where we are now: Territorial advantages and Cooperation. Yes, after all this, some dude that decided to walk up to a hairy stranger and talk to him about the great weather is responsible for where we are.
Recent parodies of the flawed image have an extension with a man scrunched over his laptop. Which brings us back to the corporate wilderness, a place where we exhibit a large number of evolutionary traits. One of the predominant traits that pervades the wilderness is that of social structure, what we call hierarchy. It’s the shoes that prevent you from climbing further up the rope or the snake that pushes you all the way down just as you started to like the game. But, hierarchy is not all chest-thumping apes wreaking havoc at different levels. Sometimes, this chest-thumping Ape is what protects and nurtures you. It’s what helps you meet other chest-thumping apes. It’s what helps you navigate around the wilderness. It’s what teaches you how to thump your chest right.
However, this social structure falls apart when the very reasons that were responsible for our evolution are threatened – when we stop co-operating and marking off territories because we got there first. In wilderness language, we become a combination of King Cobras and New world monkeys.
King cobras don’t give a damn about co-operation. If a snake comes to say hi and starts talking about the weather, the cobra just eats it up; even if the snake is a fellow king cobra. New world monkeys, on the other hand, are crazy in a different way. They are an actual family of monkeys known for marking their territories by urination and often “self-anointing” themselves with urine.
Cooperation was essential to human flourishing. It always will be. Yet, we continue to harp on crumby ideas like teamwork and collaboration over and over again. The whole idea of teamwork is inherently territorial. What we have now are a bunch of teams marking off their territories – pissing on the guy that came to say hi. We are eaten away by an asinine sense of competition that fosters no cooperation. Our work has come to be known as regular and 9 to 5 and we as capitalistic-corporate-cushioned-curmudgeon-cocoon-inhabiting-computer infested-chameleons.
But, it’s not all dark and depressing. There is hope. But, for that, we need to relax a little. We can’t continue to blame the snakes, the shoes or the chest-thumping alphas for not getting ahead. We can’t tear apart a system the very heart of which we aim to reach for. We need to forget about reaching the sky and quash our need to head-butt everyone that’s hindering our progress. What we need to do is get good with the ropes. Because that’s our territory. We should explore it and get good at it so that when someone tugs at our shoes, we don’t feel threatened. Instead, we extend our hand and pull ‘em up. That’s the kind of cooperation that can help us explore more rope.
This rope thing can also get frustratingly repetitious.
We get bored at work because we mark off our territory and the wilderness now becomes a small patch of grass. We spend all our time grazing that patch all day every day.
There’s one sheep in the territory that has been grazing the same grass for much longer and that sheep gets to wear shoes and hang the loudest bell around its neck. Most times that sheep turns out to be a complete dumbass, but everyone still wants to hang out with him because – you know – bell curve (sorry!).
One random day, a sheep strays off into other fields: the modern version of logging into social media to take a break, but spending three hours stalking people instead. This sheep discovers there’re so many interesting territories and the other sheep know so much more . Forget the shoe-wearing sheep, the sheep in some territories are driving Audis. It’s pretty wild out there.The sheep comes back to his own territory and demands an Audi. And instead gets a bell that sounds like an Audi. We blame hierarchy. The hierarchy blame-game is a classic missing the forest for the trees. The forest is the territory. We hover high above the forest and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. What we should do is explore it the way our ancestors did.
We blame hierarchy.
The hierarchy blame-game is missing the forest for the trees. The forest is the territory. And you may want to get to know as much of it as you can. We like to hover high above the forest and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. But, it’s not funny when we are in there. Once in, we should explore territories the way our ancestors did. It will be impossible to explore all of the forest, but you must go into a little unknown regularly. If our ancestors discovered one green patch of land with the perfect environment and decided to stay there forever, we may have never evolved and I may have spared you of all this. They learned to survive in the patch and then began to explore more tract. And when strangers showed up and said hi, they didn’t ask “how long have you been in the forest? Where do you see yourself in 2000 years?” They said “Come on in. Want some Gillette?” and newer territories were discovered. That’s what began our journey toward Fire, Friendship, and Facebook.
When you first start in the wilderness, you are excited to explore. You want to see it all. Slowly you realize some territories are cut-off because you don’t have the survival skills to live there. Some are cut-off because they are filled with sophisticated new world monkeys that are scared you’ll become as cool as them. Some tell you to graze your small patch for a while and come back in a few years. You go back, sheepishly. A couple of years into it, and you get bored. You realize the only way to get to a different territory is to head to sheep school. You mortgage all your wool and head-off. You finish school and get back into the wilderness. You have a louder bell – a better shoe – the serpentine gait, but the forest hasn’t changed. There’s still the loud chest-thumping and the long boundaries of pee. Here’s your rope.
Alright then. If the forest is constantly on fire, what do we do?
We open up our territories. Instead of clearing the boundaries for one day in a year, we keep our territories open for exploration. We openly share what we know about our territories while we explore newer territories and learn from them. And we show people around our territory and ask them what they think.
We cooperate not to survive, but to flourish. A new territory may teach you something you never discovered in your own territory. Instead of hanging onto the rope and blaming hierarchy, get off the rope and climb new ropes. Sure, you may have to start all over again, but you’ll get faster and better each time. By hanging on, you are only becoming sore. You can go back to your territory any time. The higher you climb the rope, the harder it will be to let go, and the harder it will be to accept there’s a new way to climb the rope. The hardest thing undoubtedly will be the realization that your rope no longer serves any purpose. You spend so much time on one rope and it’s driving Tarzan mad.
Like that image of evolution we were shown back in school, we have bought into the idea of starting off as that little monkey and having to painstakingly go through every stage to evolve. The great irony, however, is that – as we pass each stage – as we make our way up the ladder – we only become far removed from what it is to be human. We evolve backward. We even speak a language that no human would. “Backward evolution? How unfortunate it is to hear that, my dear friend.” Or as a human would say, “what a shitty deal.”
The battle for hierarchical advantage has become boring. Sure, we got rid of the bell curve and behaved like we eradicated malaria, but it’s questionable how much that is contributing to our evolution. It’s not the curve that’s a worry, it’s the straight path. It’s like that image of evolution we were shown in Biology class. It’s the idea that the infinite length of rope that we think leads to somewhere special. Here’s what we were never told: there’s more than one game you can play with the dice. You can wander off the path. You’ll feel like you have strayed off from the other sheep, but that’s the only way you will find new grass to feed on. And when other sheep find you, show them around the place. Don’t act all sophisticated and say, “I wool (yeah, sorry) not let you eat this grass, baaaa to you!”
What does this mean in human language? It means that your career is not this long rope hanging from the sky with a pair of shoes deciding how far you can go. The choice you need to make is not which rope to climb, but what kind of life you want to live. Is the rope you are climbing teaching you how to climb better or is it teaching you how to kick better? Are you leaving marks that people can follow or are you marking off all knowledge of your territory so no one can enter? Are you getting closer to knowing yourself or are you a vestige of what once was? You will climb many ropes. The goal is not to reach the highest infinity of the rope. The goal is to leave enough rope for someone to find life in.
Let there be evolution.