As I See It: Different Yet the Same
September 19, 2022 Victor Rozek
For all of you who must discover,
for all who seek to understand
In having left the path of others,
you find a very special hand
— Christy Moore, Bright Blue Rose
It is among the most common of human yearnings: the desire to see oneself as special and distinct from the herd. Individualism, coupled with exceptionalism has long been ingrained in American mythology. The model endures, even as it evolves over time, as each generation rebels against the prior in an attempt to create its own unique identity.
But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to claim uniqueness when we live in the era of Costco and Amazon. Gone are the pioneer days of near-total self-reliance. A smart phone and Venmo can supply just about all our worldly needs without breaking a sweat. Preserving the flow of cash binds us all in the pursuit of sameness. If leaving “the path of others” is a common human yearning, it has also become a mass delusion. The workplace, at least in regard to its survival function, has become one giant sameness factory.
While distinction is commonly associated with achievement, it has devolved to include such trivialities as attire, piercing, and tattooing. With the advent of social media, “influencing” and celebrity without substance have become coveted paths to distinction. And, as always, the acquisition of wealth seems an admirable pursuit, especially to those without it.
Thankfully, many still express their individuality through art or music, the pursuit of knowledge, or by mastering a highly specialized skill. A select few do it by demonstrating their athletic prowess, and still fewer by living a life of service.
But while our belief in our own uniqueness can serve as a behavior generator and a source of pride and inspiration, when unrequited, it becomes a bitter pill of disappointment and enmity. And that, apparently, has been the case in the workplace.
Widespread disappointment became evident during the Great Resignation. In 2021, over 47 million people left “the path of others” by quitting their jobs. Another 4.53 million joined them in March 2022 alone. The covid epidemic forced a pause in business-as-usual which made room for long-neglected introspection. Beyond practical considerations like avoiding covid and long commutes, people wanted their uniqueness acknowledged and longed for jobs that would allow them to express it. At the very least, they wanted jobs that would not prevent them from expressing it.
It’s as if after years or even decades of somnambulant acquiescence, the workforce suddenly awakened to discover that the workplace runs on compliance and discourages excessive individuality.
On the surface, leaving the source of sustenance and security would seem risky if not foolish. But quite the contrary, it seems to have worked out famously for a vast majority of quitters. Karia Miller, writing in the Business section of The Washington Post, cites a Harris Poll survey conducted for USA Today. It reveals that only “1 in 5 workers who quit a job in the past two years regrets it.” People, she says, are “mostly better off mentally and emotionally if not financially.” That’s a startling indictment of the impacts the workplace was having on tens-of-millions of people.
Not that there aren’t concerns about the economic outlook or future prospects. But no one, says Miller, expressed a desire to go back to their previous job. Most are thrilled with the changes they’ve made. The difference has everything to do with well-being. “The improvement in my personal happiness,” said one employee, “is priceless.”
Those who stayed at their jobs and did not act on their disappointment found a solution born, in part, of enmity. It goes by the catchy alliteration, “Quiet Quitting.” Exactly how quiet quitting is defined is largely determined by who is defining it. From an employee perspective, quiet quitting is a refusal to be taken advantage of; to do anything beyond what they are paid to do. No extended shifts, no weekend availability, no answering emails after work hours. They seek balance, equity, and most of all meaning in their lives; meaning that their jobs apparently don’t provide. In other words, they seek a means to express their specialness, and lacking that, they want to ensure they have the time to pursue their own interests.
But the unfortunate reality is: if you don’t like your job, your job doesn’t care. From an employer’s perspective quiet quitting looks passive aggressive. It reeks of doing your job without commitment or enthusiasm; working with minimal effort, being indifferent to outcome. From a manager’s chair, the concept becomes self defeating because quiet quitters are unlikely to inspire raises or distinguish themselves for promotion. At best, quiet quitting limits prospects; at worst, it marks people for termination should layoffs be required.
But a small, growing number of people have found a third way. Rather than quitting quietly or loudly, they are organizing to improve their working conditions and compensation. Steven Greenhouse, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, reports that “over the last year, employees at some of the nation’s best-known companies — Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Apple, REI and Chipotle – have organized for the first time. Workers at a Trader Joe’s in Minneapolis voted 55-5 to unionize; at an REI store in Manhattan, it was 88 to 14.” While the numbers are modest, interest in unions is rising especially among frontline and retail employees. Four thousand Google cafeteria workers recently unionized, and the public’s support for unions is the highest it has been since the mid-1960s.
So, while unionized workers may be no closer to finding optimum expression for their individuality, they will have achieved a degree of distinction from the herd by exerting a greater influence in their workplace.
When we fail to exercise our specialness, it’s easy to blame others for not seeing it, for not acknowledging it, for not rewarding it. Choosing to be stuck, sometimes for an entire career in an uninspiring job, it’s convenient to shift blame to the job. It took a pandemic that killed over 1 million Americans for a large portion of the workforce to re-embrace their specialness and refuse to sell it short.
While cherishing our uniqueness, it is also important to acknowledge our sameness. Rather than competing for distinction, in the long run it may be healthier to admit that, in many ways, we’re not so different after all. The vast majority are chasing the same rainbow’s end. Each one of us may indeed have unique properties. The challenge is to discover and embrace our own, while finding appreciation for the uniqueness of others.