Milton from Office Space is a real guy. I've seen him. Well, not him specifically, but people like him. People who sit in chairs surrounded by walls just high enough that you have to tiptoe to see if they are inside.
If you've ever worked in an old-fashioned corporate environment, you know what I mean. When I tell my coworkers at the new enterprise software company I work at about this, they can't imagine ever working in such lame conditions. "How horrible," they say. But times will change once again and the new age youth computer worker of the future will scoff at the idea of an open seating plan where anyone can see your screen at any time.
During my time at the old-fashioned corporation, I met a guy who had grown into his desk. It looked like his body had shaped itself to better sit in his chair and operate his computer controls. His stride looked completely unnatural, as if he could never get up from the slouch position he was in all day long. Legs out, arm opposite the mouse hand resting on the armrest, fingers just perfectly reaching the keyboard. Seeing him made me think of a skinny version of Jenkins.
There are many like him. Entire swaths of company men and women who become so much a part of their company, desk included, that it literally becomes their identity.
When IBM started laying off a bunch of their workforce, who were in shock that their beloved company would do such a thing, many of them had trouble finding themselves outside of the comfortable grey walls they had come to love.
Why be a salary man?
It seems odd in today's day and age that people would dedicate their life to a single company. We have so much choice. We want to try different things and have different careers. And it's normal. Most of us are jumping ship every two to three years.
But think about what would compel you to stay with the same company for the rest of your life. What would you need?
You'd probably say something about good benefits, stability, reliability, ownership, comfort, space, a great group of coworkers, opportunity for advancement, mobility, healthcare, and the expectation of a bright future.
Yes, all of those things would be great. A lot has to line up properly for someone to stay at a company for so long.
But what else? You can get all of those things at most companies out there.
What's one of the biggest things you crave? One of the most difficult things to figure out? What would make you happy on your deathbed?
The 1996 article from the Washington Post tells us that
[the] personal lives of the 24 people interviewed have changed since they left IBM. One couple divorced. Two people said they suffered mental breakdowns. Nearly all had to lower their standard of living, although two are now making more money than they did at IBM. Two found themselves unable to assist their college-age children with school expenses, and the kids dropped out and went to work to support themselves. Five found jobs, but then were downsizing victims again. One woman, once debt-free, declared bankruptcy and may lose her home.
The former Milton's lives were turned upside down when they could not go into work anymore. Even those who found work, some even with better pay, felt like there was something missing in their lives.
They were no longer able to take part in the mission. They had been kicked out. They were no longer invited. Their identity taken away from them.
They lost their purpose.
So why be Milton? Why make your life's purpose something that someone else has set? Wouldn't it be careless after we have seen what IBM and other corporations have done to their uber-loyal employees?
Sure, we might think that it's crazy to stay with the same company for all of your life - all the free food, beer, video games, and other life-as-a-service benefits can't keep most people at their bullshit jobs for more than a few years.
But it does not mean that the Spirit of Milton is absent from today's workforce. Just look around you and you'll see Miltons all over the place. Some people even even go through several iterations of being Milton.
Today, we voluntarily lay ourselves off from our jobs because we think there is something better. We have so many options to choose from, there must be something better out there for us to dedicate our lives to.
The IBM Miltons lost their sense of purpose after getting laid off, so they had to re-find their sense of purpose. Some never did, even if they got back on their feet.
Today's Startup Miltons become disillusion with their company's mission to "make the world a better place" and lay themselves off to search for another sense of purpose.
The mistake that all Miltons make is in thinking that life's purpose comes from the outside. They try to find a sense of purpose by hopping onto a company's mission.
It's mission impossible.
No matter how great the food, how free the beer, how wonderful the camaraderie, how catchy the tune, you will be let down if your sense of purpose comes from outside. It might take one year or thirty, but you will realize that your true sense of purpose must come from within.
And once you realize that, it doesn't matter what company you work for, get fired, or become disillusioned with the company mission.
Once the Spirit of Milton is gone from you, you're free of it forever. If it tries to come back, you know how to kill it.
Why not kill the Spirit of Milton?
The question that remains is why the Spirit of Milton exists within so many people today.
The easy answer is that it is easy. It is easier to attach yourself to an already-existing, already-created sense of purpose because it saves you from having to create one for yourself. It saves you from having to go through the seemingly difficult process of figuring it out.
But, because creating your own sense of purpose is not impossible,only seemingly difficult, the conclusion must be drawn that many choose not to, and are happy to live without a true sense of purpose.
You have a couch, TV, toaster, car, stapler, and a lazy stream of income from a company that's on a mission to make the world a better place. Why change anything? You have everything you need right here. Finding your true sense of purpose? That's crazy hippie talk.
—Spirit of Milton
Once you live a comfortable life, the desire to move ever onward diminishes. It's still there, but you will not exert yourself beyond the limits of your comfort to satisfy it.
You can see this clearly even in the way people protest.
People will protest global warming, then fill up their ozone-depleting machine with government-subsidised fossil fuels to drive home.
They will take to the streets to march against child exploitation in developing countries while sharing the experience on their phone, assembled by dollar-a-day children in the developing world.
They will change their profile pictures on Facebook to raise awareness of human trafficking while posting pictures of their children's first steps for the world to see.
People who take part in such protests are all being led by the Spirit of Milton. They don't actually want to do anything about the thing they are protesting about because it would mean giving up the comfort they've gotten so used to. They just want feel better about themselves without having to think about what they are doing.
They do not even know why they are protesting.
At some point, they will be let down. The purpose they have been following will come to light, and they will not like it. The stubborn will not accept what they see, and will continue protesting. But it will not be effective, because they have not learned how to create real change in all of their years of protesting things they have been told to be mad about.
As long as they have the little things that make life comfortable, along with an illusion of purpose, they will not want to take the reins of their lives away from the Spirit of Milton that dwells within.