Just because your early career was hell doesn't mean others' has to be

This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

When Dr. Auriel Fournier was an undergraduate ecology student, her mentors would tell her about research opportunities that she should absolutely, no question, take — it’s how they’d advanced in their careers, and it’s how she should advance, too.

“Everyone told me, you need to pay your dues, you need to get your foot in the door, you need to demonstrate how passionate you are,” Fournier, now a conservation ecologist, said. “And I was like, I am really passionate! I work really really hard! But I also have to pay rent, and eat!” 

Today, Fournier is the director of the Forbes Biological Station near Havana, Illinois — and she’s become an outspoken advocate against unpaid STEM labor. Her appeal is straightforward: “We’re only hearing from the people who made it,” she tells audiences of various professional associations at conferences. “We’re not hearing from everyone else. It’s survival bias. And as scientists, we should find that really alarming.” 

The sample, in other words, is skewed: you don’t hear the stories of people who had to change career trajectories because they couldn’t take an unpaid internship, or unfunded technician position, or “volunteer” for unpredictable hours on a remote project that made it impossible to work a paid job on the side. 

Fournier says she’s constantly trying to get other scientists to understand that “yes, you went and did this cool research, and didn’t get a paycheck, and that was instrumental in your early career — but that doesn’t mean that it is equitable.” At this point, Fournier still considers herself “early career” — and says that people at a similar point in their lives are often the most receptive to the argument.

“If you've had a good paying job long enough,” she told me, “you start to forget how hard it is.” 

Reporting on burnout and the future of work over the last three years, I’ve talked to dozens of people who are trying to make similar, lasting shifts in the culture of work that surrounds them. Most, I’ve found, are in their late 20s, 30s, and early 40s. When they entered the workforce back in the early 2000s, they’d internalized that any pushback against workforce status quo would feed into the stereotypical understanding of millennials as “entitled” and “lazy.” And so they bent ourselves to the existing standards of the workplace, repeating the mantra that we were “just grateful to be here,” no matter the treatment.

Some, as Refinery 29 executive editor Connie Wang put it last year, have realized that we have some explaining to do. And some have made it a priority not to reproduce those same conditions for the next generation of workers.

Justine Jordan, for example, used to help run a conference that prided itself on finding every day practitioners and giving them a platform to talk about their work. “It was very important to me that these weren’t just the big name keynotes that everyone gets,” Jordan told me. “But there was this idea that there was no expectation that you’d get paid — because you were doing it for the ‘exposure.’” Looking back at the period in her life, which was, as Jordan puts it, “two whole jobs ago,” she’s come to understand just how deeply she’d bought into the premise that you could get paid in exposure, and how broken it was. 

“I’ve realized just how much that exploits people, especially from marginalized groups,’ Jordan said. “Or even situations where you’re asked to come speak at a conference, and you’re told you’ll get your speaking expenses reimbursed. What if you don’t have a credit card, or can’t front the money?”

Today, Jordan sees people respond to questions about these sorts of practices with some variation of “oh, this is just the way it is.” But, as Jordan says, it doesn’t have to be

Jordan currently works as head of marketing at Wildbit, a software company that has prided itself on being “people first” since its founding in 2000. In practice, “people-first” means that the company’s priority is the people it serves and the people it employs — the grind of the business, which the founders refer to as “the beast,” is secondary.  That principle extends to Wildbit’s attitude towards exponential growth (as corrupting) and the way they think about employee happiness (as a business advantage).

Wildbit’s constantly tinkering with ways to make work more sustainable: in 2017, for example, they instituted four-day work week, but they’re also fiddling around with hiring practices, too. Earlier this year, Jordan spent a bunch of time crafting what she thought was a pretty cogent job ad. But as soon as it went up, she was fielding questions from all over about the expectations associated with it. So she started to collect the questions, and her best attempt at answering them, into a supplementary document — a “living FAQ.” 

Jordan was trying to make the implicit explicit — and also be clear enough about the parameters of the job that applicants who wouldn’t actually like it won’t waste hours of their time applying. “I know I’m not curing cancer,” she told me. “But if I can convince one other manager to approach their hiring manager with an eye to the actual humans involved, I feel like I’m doing something meaningful and purposeful.” 

Halle Kaplan-Allen spent her childhood and early adulthood in what she describes as “intense private school settings.” When she graduated from college in the mid 2010s, she wanted a job that was the opposite. But when she took one, in the nonprofit world, she also found herself immediately bored. She craved something dynamic, fast-paced — and, in New Orleans, where she lived, the place to find that was at one of the few startups in the area, which, at the time, had just raised significant series B funding. She got a job in sales and re-launched herself into the intensity. 

In hindsight, Kaplan-Allen says, the company’s strategy was the same as so many startups right after they’ve raised money: they used all the cash to focus on growth at all costs. As she put it to me, “they weren’t thinking about scaling in any way, or internal infrastructure, or, like, taking care of employees.”

Kaplan-Allen quickly became her team’s highest performer, and like many top performers, she was immediately given additional work — in this case, building out the company’s strategic operations, which she did on top of her existing sales job for six months. She got a massive raise. She was endlessly excited about the snacks in the office. “I was totally infatuated with this company,” she told me. “I was in a year and a half long Honeymoon phase, and I bent over backwards to be more accommodating. And I was 100% rewarded and encouraged to continue this behavior.” 

You can probably write the rest of the narrative from here. “Nothing I ever worked on ever came to fruition, no matter how hard I worked, even when I worked ridiculous hours,” she said. She was deeply unhappy, but wanted to stay in New Orleans, and felt trapped by the lack of options. The tech scene there was small enough, too, that she had little to judge her experience against. She had a good job and was making good money. Why was she complaining? 

But COVID, and the sheer number of companies opening themselves to remote-first workforces, made change feel possible. She got a job at AngelList, a fin-tech company based in San Francisco, and joined Twitter, where met other people who’d struggled in similar roles in other tech companies. She started a newsletter to outline and address some of the foundational flaws in startup culture, including the fetishization of the “frictionless” employee” — the worker who makes themselves the most flexible and adaptable, who scrapes off aspects of their personality that impede their ability to be “a team player.”

Kaplan-Allen is the first to admit that she strove to meet that frictionless ideal: she prided herself on her lack of boundaries and total accessibility, and her company exploited that willingness. “I’m glad that I was able to learn the ability to put up boundaries in a relatively safe and non-traumatic way,” she told me. “I wasn’t experiencing sexual harassment, abuse, or racism; my story is relatively fine. But I have a lot of resentfulness about my experience. Someone, anyone, should have been discouraging me, or at least not encouraging it — but of course no one did, because it’s the benefit of the company when you behave that way.”

Today, she thinks there’s growing awareness across tech of what the industry’s imperatives of growth and scale does to employees — assisted by testimonies like that of Google software engineer Emi Neitfeld. But her advice to early career employees remains the same: no one, not even your boss, will put up boundaries for you. The responsibility will be yours alone. 

The problem with individually-set boundaries is that they’re imminently breakable, by you and by your peers. When they dissolve, the failure is conceived of as a personal one; the dissolution is narrativized as “I failed to keep my boundaries” instead of “no one, not even my trusted colleagues, respected the boundaries I laid out.”

When cultivating a healthy working culture becomes the responsibility of the individual, it will always fail. Full stop. The responsibility for better culture lies with the workplace itself — which uniquely equipped to construct the sort of guardrails that can actually protect employees, particularly those early in their career and frantic to distinguish themselves, from the freight train of work. 

For David Rabie, the founder and CEO of the food-tech company Tovola, that means cultivating a culture where PTO is not just normalized, but encouraged. When the executive team takes vacations, they email the entire company to publicize it and encourage others to do so well. They shut down the entire company, including the warehouse, with full pay for a week over the winter holidays. They’re continuing to build redundancies so that employees can feel secure actually taking time off, and have an executive coach who works with their teams on how to provide constructive feedback — instead of just the flat, overarching affirmation that rewards existing behaviors, which had been the norm for the very Midwestern style of management at the company.

Rabie also tries to be vocal and transparent about the company’s past mistakes, particularly when they began to grow exponentially. “The operations team was understaffed for months,” he told me. “We talk about what a failure it was on our part. We thank them for what they did, but it can not be the model. We think a lot about who we hold up as heroes in the company, and the sort of work that you praise.”

Total accessibility, emailing on weekends, responding at all hours on Slack, not taking vacations — all of those things might make you seem like an ideal worker, but it’s ultimately not good for the employee, it’s not good for retention, and it’s not good for the company. It has to be continuously, constructively, and actively discouraged.

Rites of early career passage are, ultimately, sorting mechanisms — surfacing those who are best able to suffer in silence, those best equipped to sublimate their emotional and physical needs, and those whose various privileges, financial and otherwise, had already buoyed them to eventual success. It’s worth asking, as many have for some time, the basic demographic profile of the employee that process favors — but it’s also worth considering the character and posture it incentivizes.

Finance banks, for example, survive on an endless supply of renewable “excellence” coming in from the Ivy Leagues, burning through new classes of eager junior bankers every year. This year, 13 first year hires at Goldman put together a slide deck detailing the extent of their overwork and workplace abuse; Goldman’s response at the time: “A year into COVID, people are understandably quite stretched, and that’s why we are listening to their concerns and taking multiple steps to address them.”

But the entire business model of finance and consulting is predicated on this sort of burnout-induced early career churn. It won’t change until these firms’ entire ethos changes.

That could, of course, happen. As economic historian Dror Poleg points out, business school graduates are increasingly opting for careers in tech over finance: in 2008, 20% headed to finance institutions, while 12% went into tech; in 2018, 13% went into finance, and 17% went to tech jobs. “This figure only takes into account business graduates, who are less prized in the tech world than engineers or even product managers,” Poleg writes. “The shift towards tech will only continue, especially if financial firms don't change their ways.” (Poleg quotes a Quora commenter who put the choice in stark terms: "Why slave away at Goldman Sachs for $400k and a $15 Seamless budget when you can turn around and be a PM at Google, work half as many hours, make 50% more, get free meals, and get your eggs frozen for free?")

But it’s not just the number of hours, or the pay, or the free meals. It’s the way that these companies conceive of their ideal worker. Finance and consulting want quick, competitive, ruthless employees who will sublimate their entire selves to their work. That’s certainly true of some tech companies as well. But others, particularly those highlighted above, are seeking a different sort of worker altogether, one who’s innovative, creative, empathetic, endlessly collaborative and experimental.

These workers are highly sought after, but unlike the straight-A business school student, they cannot be reverse engineered or built or even trained. They are a naturally occurring personality resource — but a fragile one. In fact, part of the reason this type worker is so in demand is the nature of the contemporary work itself: all of these now favored characteristics are the ones that have been destroyed by rites of passage. Once gone, they are often incredibly difficult to reproduce. 

When I was talking with Justine Jordan, the head of marketing at Wildbit, I told her that I’d talked to so many people who worked at start-ups during their periods of exponential growth — and who just don’t think it’s possible not to burnout during the “hockey stick” period, as companies move to try to scale at breathtaking speeds. Some know that they’ve created toxic work cultures — and just figure that they’ll deal with them when everything settles down. They’ll rebuild boundaries eventually. Better management training will come down the line. They’ll hire an HR person and fix the culture as soon as they close the funding round. 

Jordan had heard all of that before. Her response was unequivocal — and something for all of us, especially those of us who’ve endured these rites of passage and dealt with the long-lasting ramifications, to consider.

“It’s too late if you wait for the hockey stick to be over to fix this,” she said. “You’ve already destroyed people’s souls.” 


Things I Read and Loved This Week:


If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version. One of the perks = weirdly fun/interesting/generative discussion threads, just for subscribers, every week. This last Friday’s Thread: your ideal aging scenarios.

The other perk: Sidechannel. Read more about it here. It has truly become one of my favorite places on the internet.

If you are a contingent worker or un- or under-employed, just email and I’ll give you a free subscription, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.

If you’re reading this in your inbox, you can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Feel free to comment below — and you can always reach me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com.