I Don't Get No Respect
How to go from High-Status Consultant to Just Another Dipshit
Look, I'm not complaining. Not that I don't love to complain -- I do -- but usually I try to disguise it as making an intellectual point about something. Oh, I could complain. I could whine about descending into wage slavery after fifteen years of freedom, but in truth my job here is about equally exciting as what I was doing before. But oh, the irony: I gave up being an IP to take a regular job at Aquent, whose purpose is to help IPs not have to take a regular job. That interesting twist, plus the oddball originality of this place, makes my current status as a wage-slave bearable.
Nonetheless, there are disadvantages to 'working regular' no matter where you are. I've gone back-and-forth between lots of W2 gigs, and lots of 1099 gigs, and I can endlessly debate the pros and cons of regular jobbery vs. free agency. But one invidious comparison pops into my head most often -- stands out, so to speak, above its fellow bullet points:
As an independent professional, I always get more respect than I get in any regular job.
A Trip Down Memory Lane, Or, No, Really, They Took Me Seriously
The difference isn't subtle. I have glowing memories of myself as an IP... we're talking serious ego-gratification here, which is important to an insecure guy like me... memories of being called into executive suites, strategizing about stuff that the bigwigs couldn't resolve for themselves... and I wasn't even a management consultant! I was just a freelance creative director, for chrissakes! I have memories of being paid for my pure opinion, memories of "projects" where (despite normally working with my hands) I didn't have to do a damned thing, just speak my mind. (Of course, when management consultants give advice, they are doing something, but to someone with an artist/craftsman background like me, being paid just to talk is an experience.) More typically, I worked on projects where I delivered physical assets. That delivery often led to a result that was almost predictable: my answering machine and email would brim over with oohs and ahs of client praise. That doesn't happen now that I'm just another stiff on staff.
I can remember an afternoon as an IP -- admittedly, this is a stroke-my-own-ego story, but I am not making this up -- when I was sitting in some immense wood-panelled room, surrounded by huge oil paintings of executives who'd been dead a hundred years, wondering whether the weight of the massive crystal chandelier could really be supported by that little rod it was hanging from, casually leaning back in the high-backed leather chair while playing with a pencil and talking. Talking? More like I was lecturing, or (more accurately) pontificating my head off and being listened to in hushed silence by a CEO and the entire silk-suited Board of Directors, complete with boring ties, while a secretary scribbled notes in a little pad. Friends, I'm telling you that those starched suits hung on my every word. Occasionally one suit would glance at another one in triumph when I happened to say something that (I assume) reinforced his position in some private battle of which I knew nothing. Yes, I was the Voice of Authority in that boardroom, and my only camouflage was a suit I had bought marked-down to $199 at Filene's Basement. Talk about ego gratification! Talk about the IP life! And did I mention they were paying me for it? Real money! That's respect.
If You're Near Me, You're A Dweeb
By contrast, in a regular job I usually have to force my opinions on people. Occasionally I'm rewarded with a pained expression that says "San, are you planning to shut up any time soon?" Sometimes they even say that out loud. Even here, in this bastion of corporate nonconformity. And this isn't the first time I've noticed the difference, either; I've been round and round this IP/job cycle before. Why is this? Why does going from the IP life to the corporate- dweeb life always wipe out 95% of the respect I get?
The most obvious answer, perhaps, is an old cliché: familiarity breeds contempt. Most people deep down don't respect themselves much, and they extend that attitude to the company they work for. The next pseudo-logical step is to assume that anybody else working for the same company as them couldn't be anything special. The thought process goes something like this: "I'm a dipshit, and I work here, so this must be a dipshit place, and you work here too, so you must be a dipshit too, so don't put on any airs." True, there is an occasional hotshot outfit where people don't think that way. For example, when (decades ago) I taught English in a well-known high school for the intellectually gifted, the teachers all thought they were hot stuff (most of them were wrong), and I know there are a few companies like that around -- but typically, there's a kind of corporate inferiority complex that automatically infects coworkers. IPs who get called in for a consulting gig are usually exempt; they're accorded respect that the regular workers aren't because they're not tainted by the familiar (read 'poisonous') environmental miasma. By the way, even if you're not familiar with IPs in the workplace, you might still have seen a similar psychological phenomenon at work -- you might have noticed that new employees also get temporary respect. It's as though it takes a few weeks for the company contagion to turn them into dipshits just like everybody else.
Another reason IPs get more respect is their relative insulation from corporate politics. It's pretty hard to take a beleaguered coworker (or her workplace enemy) seriously, especially after her accuser has whispered to you some calumny about her unnatural relationship with her dog. With all the mud that gets thrown around in the typical office, it tends to stick to targets and mud-flingers alike.
Contrast that with Joe IP. He walks in with his innocent, clean, scrubbed persona, and looks good by comparison. Of course, Joe isn't really morally superior; he would be just as muddy as everyone else if the circumstances were different, but it's pretty hard for him to get sucked into down-and-dirty office games when he doesn't even know anyone's name. It may be just the grace of circumstance, but by comparison with the corporate combatants, Joe seems free of the political muck; and that adds to his professional "air."
The Joys of Multidimensional Mediocrity
IPs also get more respect because they're focused. An IP is typically brought in for one project -- or, at any rate, one project at a time -- and since the client's meter is running, the IP is usually expected to concentrate exclusively on that one project. Also, the IP is often a specialist who can do specific things for the client's project that the client's own staff can't do. Specialists get more respect because they're only seen in relation to the thing they do best; to people who don't know them, this (falsely) implies that they're competent in general.
By contrast, the typical wage slave, even if he has a specialty, is involved in all kinds of corporate stuff, much of which he's conspicuously mediocre at. The fact that we corporate dweebs have to deal with a much wider range of work than IPs do costs us in the respect department, because people see us at our worst as well as at our best.
What a Jerk
For many people, an even bigger component of the WIRD (wage slave/independent professional respect differential) is personality. For example, you may already be suspecting that I'm -- ah, how shall I say this -- not the world's most linear individual. There's not much point in trying to disguise my strangeness around the office I work in; my coworkers have long since discovered it. But when, in my other incarnation as an IP, I meet with a client or prospective client, or talk to one on the phone, the meeting rarely lasts more than an hour or so. I can sustain an act of normalcy for an hour. I can't sustain it all day. Come to think of it, this may be one of the reasons I almost always worked out of my own office -- not on the clients' sites -- as an IP. Few of us can completely squelch our odd traits in a corporate environment, simply because we're there for too many hours; and such traits are unlikely to engender respect. True, cubicle neighbors sometimes babble mawkishly about their "respect" for each other, but that's mostly office-party chatter after everyone's had three beers. In reality, Respect is something we feel mostly for icons and distant figures. IPs often qualify as distant figures, but the coworkers whose warts and blemishes we see every day do not.
Wait, Everything I've Been Saying Is Wrong
The jerk issue brings us full circle, back to the initial factor I raised: familiarity breeds contempt. Speaking of circles, it occurs to me that I could just as easily stand this entire essay on its head, and talk about how society fails to respect or even understand IPs, and jeers at them for being "self-unemployed," and asks questions like "When are you going to get a real job?" So which is it, San (I often speak harshly to myself at moments of apparent contradiction), do IPs get more respect or less respect? Ah, I sense a Hegelian moment -- you know, thesis and antithesis mutually destructing to produce a new synthesis -- but what do I know about philosophy? Let's just say that "who gets more respect?" is a superficially dichotomous question, and this entire essay was just a heuristic device (heuristic is one of my favorite words) to grope (another word I like) towards deeper insight.
Speaking of unpleasant experiences, all this ruminating about my massive loss of respect is giving me a headache. If you're currently an IP, try not to gloat, okay? And if you're a fellow wage slave, try not to let it depress you. Look, maybe you'll go out on your own one of these decades, or perhaps you'll drop dead soon so none of this will matter. Think positive!
San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.
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