Work Is Personal

Last Saturday, the NY Times published an article titled Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas In A Bruising Workplace. I found the piece fascinating, horrifying and uncomfortably…familiar. I’ve worked at startups before and I’ve been a card carrying member of the online marketing industry for *gulp* 18 years.

I started out at a tiny web development shop in upstate NY. I was about 26 years old, engaged to be married (along with about four other people at the company). I was one of the old ones…

No one had children except the CEO, but he worked relentlessly, his wife stayed home with the kids. We worked 60 hour weeks on average, more when deadlines came up, which was often. This was before everyone owned a cell phone, but email was ubiquitous. It’s when I got in the habit of checking my email when I woke up in the morning, and right before bed at night. If I was starting out at the company now, I shudder to think of the always-on connectedness I’d be willing to participate in  – texts and emails at all hours from all locations thanks to my shiny new smartphone, working late into the night on my laptop (Internet was slow in the late nineties -you couldn’t really get a ton done from home with a dialup connection…) I was never a burn-the-midnight-oil kind of person, even back then. I’d leave at 6 most days or 7 if I was working late. I’ve always been more productive in the morning anyway…

Well, what does this have to do with writing? This is my author web site, after all. But this is also my platform – as an author, as a worker, as a person – and I have a complicated relationship with Amazon. I’ve been a customer almost since the beginning when all they sold was books and the name “Amazon” was baffling. What did it have to do with books?

I am also a writer with books on Amazon, but that wasn’t the case at first. When Amazon first launched back in 1994, I was working on my first novel. It was a book that took me over six years to write, and by the time it was finished that start-up job I mentioned above was my top priority. Dreams of being a novelist faded in the excitement of being part of “the company” and I had little time for anything else. I loved my fellow employees. The idea of “snitching” on my colleagues so that I could potentially move up in the company was (and still is) repulsive – and reading about this in the NY Times makes me sad. I hope it’s exaggerated. I hope we’re not teaching people to work like this…

At first glance, the viral sideshow of Amazon’s soul-sucking work environment doesn’t seem to be about me – but it is, isn’t it? Because Amazon has become a part of my daily routine – like food shopping, getting gas, feeding the cats… I bought into Amazon Prime almost the minute it was launched. I got into the habit of checking on Amazon first for anything and everything so I could take advantage on the free 2 day shipping. I said to my husband, “I know what they’re doing here. They’re hooking me. But that’s okay…” My most treasured possession is my Kindle. I buy books like candy – inhaling at least one new book a week thanks to the ease of Amazon’s platform. As a writer, I’m conscious of my dependence on Amazon. My dream is to write full-time within 5-7 years. Can I realize this dream without Amazon? Probably not.

That brings me back to the reason why I’m writing this post in the first place – Amazon’s work environment, which is somewhat reminiscent of my early years at that startup (it’s gone now – purchased by a larger company then dismantled). After five years of putting my heart and soul into that company, the twin towers fell. We were all there – 100 employees – crowded around a television screen in the break room. We saw the first one fall together. I drove home at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday to my husband and my 4-month-old daughter and questioned the value of slogging off to work every day when it could all end so suddenly…as it had for thousands of people that morning. How many of them had a dream deferred because of work? How long was I going to defer mine?

I can blame my fizzling enthusiasm in that job on 9/11 but, in truth, my blind devotion to the agency had already begun to fade after a series of layoffs and inept management decisions that left me wondering why I’d worked so hard in the first place. At that point in my career I was the Director of Internet Marketing – a title I never thought I’d see with my barely-bachelor’s degree. I was 30 years old and I had a new baby. I wanted to leave at 5 p.m. – and for the first time I realized that I was one of the only ones leaving at that time. I felt guilty. I felt torn. Getting laid off a few months later, while shocking and upsetting, was actually a huge relief. That was around spring of 2002. I’ve been freelancing ever since.

So, I guess the entire point of this article is to bestow some wisdom to Amazon employees from someone who is older, possibly wiser and a total skeptic about corporate bullshit.

The company doesn’t own you.

You have choices.

It’s not okay to be belittled in any way shape or form. If someone does this to you in a meeting, or in an email, or on a conference call – speak up. Tell them it’s not okay.

Your family is MORE important.

Your family is MORE important.

Your family is MORE important.

This thing that is your job – this place – this company that has become the most important part of your identity. It’s not your identity. You don’t have to say it is, either. You can work hard and still be you. Amazon belongs to Jeff Bezos and his elite group of managers. Don’t ever forget that you are expendable (and most of the top brass at Amazon likely is as well). You know what’s not expendable? Time. It’s limited. It’s finite. You have every right to have a life outside of work. It doesn’t make you weaker. Perhaps wanting to have time for yourself, or your family, or your children makes you poor “Amazon” material – but is that such a bad thing? When your time at Amazon is over, take the good with you and leave the bullshit where it belongs.

Amazon – or any company that expects you to give up your entire self for their bottom line – is asking too much. And what do you get in return? Definitely not job security. Loyalty should be a two way street. I’m directing this to you, Amazonians particularly the young ones – the ones who have heard “Do What You Love” as an excuse to squeeze work out of you – as if shipping toilet paper and Barbie dolls is something you could possibly feel passionate about forever. Do what you love at a company like Amazon? That’s total crap. Do what you need to, put your time in, move on.

Amazon seems to have taken a brutally honest approach about how it views its workers. Employees are producers who lose value when they lose productivity – if you have a problem with that, then don’t work here. Okay…so maybe it’s time for employees to admit, candidly, what Amazon is to them – a means to an end. It’s a paycheck, a way to get experience so they can start their own company, or work for a BETTER company (and there are many…) It’s all just business, right?

But let’s not pretend that it’s okay to treat people like crap, okay? Let’s not tell people to “suck it up” and accept that this is a good way to work. Because it’s not.  There are obvious diminishing returns when you consider your health, your family, and the fact that human beings grow older and can’t keep up a breakneck work pace forever. That doesn’t make them weak, by the way. It seems to me that pitting people against each other, creating a toxic work environment that burns people out so you can hire younger, hungrier people (for lower wages), is actually the weaker approach compared to putting the time and effort into cultivating a healthy work environment…but I digress.

And even Amazon, in all it’s next-day-shipping glory, is expendable. There are other web sites, other stores, other e-readers waiting to take their place. I no longer do all my holiday shopping at Amazon (I once bragged about doing this). I’d rather shop at local stores or on specific web sites (Etsy, OpenSky) where it may take longer to get stuff, but I can almost always find unique things sold by small business owners or artisans (and are truly satisfying to give as gifts).

As for Amazon, well…I hope the NY Times piece inspires some change in their corporate culture.