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Work • Sorrows of Work

Nasty Businesses

Certain industries have a reputation for being nasty, not in terms of the kinds of products and services they offer, but because of what it’s like to work in them. They may be involved in making some pretty benign things (intellectual radio programs, history or philosophy undergraduate degrees, adverts or cookery books). Seen from a distance, they can look like very attractive places to work. But insiders know a different story: these can be brutally mean places to be, awash with personal rivalries, favouritism and back stabbing.

Buste de Sénèque, marbre (H. 70 cm ; l. 33 cm ; pr. 23 cm) réalisé par un auteur anonyme au XVIIe siècle. – Œuvre N° cat. E144 du Musée du Prado de Madrid. Photographie réalisée lors de l'exposition temporaire l'Europe de Rubens - Musée du Louvre (Lens).

For those working there, there may be solace in a philosophical approach first developed by two Ancient Roman Stoic philosophers: Seneca, an advisor to Nero – and Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome for twenty years. The Imperial Roman court could be a very vicious place – but because it was so powerful and unavoidable, it was deemed philosophically crucial that good people should know how to survive there and try to exercise whatever calming influence they could on the powerful there. Rather than withdraw (as they were often tempted to do), the wise had to work out how to cope inside stormy and unforgiving environments. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius pointed to three helpful moves:

I: Study the nature of the industry

The initial assumption is that what makes an industry nasty is the kind of people who enter it. One feels that maybe advertisers or publishers or humanities academics are just by nature unusually rancorous and sly – and that they would take their passion for malicious gossip with them wherever they happened to work.

In fact, the causality runs the other way round. People are nasty in certain industries not because of who they were at the start, but because of the kind of industry they are in and what it has done to their souls over time. They were once pure; it is the place that has done it to them.


Here are some characteristics of a typical industry which will lead its employees to evolve in mean and twisted directions, whatever they might have been like on graduation day:  

– Success is random and unpredictable. Quantifiable technical skills are not what matter. All one’s degrees are oddly irrelevant here. People operating with broadly similar levels of intelligence and strategies can end meeting with very different fates. Day to day, one has no real clue what is going to lead to triumph, which inspires an atmosphere of perpetual anxiety.

– In the absence of technical skills, what helps people to get on are, it seems, certain kinds of social skills: the ability to work out the fears, longings and hopes of those above one in the hierarchy. A capacity for social manoeuvring starts to seem far more important than anything one has ever been honestly taught.

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– One ends up having to deploy the arts of friendship not for the sake of friendship but for the sake of advancement: it makes one appear slippery, fake and deceitful. One gradually loses the ability even to be a proper friend, so often has one had to be a fake friend to win.

– The industry may have high goals: on a good day, it’s trying to change the world and do something substantial. It therefore encourages those who work in it to conceive of themselves in grand terms. They aren’t there in order to be mediocre: they have joined up for greatness. This makes any eventual failure all the harder to bear and the techniques to avoid it all the more vicious.


– The top of the pyramid is very narrow and the skills one has in the business aren’t transferrable to many other industries. One either succeeds here or nowhere. No wonder the battles are bitter.

By focusing like this on the structural problems of businesses, we start to understand people’s conduct as a response to a given environment, which doesn’t make it any more pleasant to be there, but it changes the emotional burden: instead of feeling personally got at, or blaming individuals, one realises that a particularly nasty situation has been created by impersonal forces. It is not X’s fault; they just happen to be a television producer…

Two: Look at the stars

In comparison with the stars, our own lives are puny, our concerns and troubles occupy only a minute fragment of time. It is humbling to contemplate the immense order of the cosmos – but also a comfort. It brings perspective. Perspective doesn’t make a problem go away. What it does is reduce the level of panic we feel around it.


Three: Cultivate internal security

Personal history can heighten our vulnerability, if we’ve grown up in a family where love feels conditional on achievement or on having the right attitudes. Approval and success at work – which in a nasty environment are hard to come by – matter hugely when these are what we rely on to feed our sense of our own dignity and lovability. This adds greatly to the intensity of the stress: not only is the workplace slippery and difficult; it’s also hugely important to our fragile sense of self-worth to get on.

Another kind of family background might leave someone feeling that while success at work would be nice, it’s not a crucial ingredient of happiness. If you felt loved and valued in a family and at home, you won’t need the same level of validation from your colleagues – and so it won’t be quite so bad when you don’t get it.  

Fortunately, internal security isn’t wholly dependent on the chances of childhood. It’s something we can also develop by reflecting on where we lack it and why – and by imagining what we are as yet missing. Emotional resilience means devoting oneself to things that are independent of what we cannot control, starting with a healthy degree of love for oneself.

Four: Make friends with outsiders


In the early 19th century Ludwig, the heir to the throne of Bavaria, worked in a nasty (though very opulent) court environment surrounded by official intrigues, foreign agents and bullying pressure from aggressive neighbours.

But he liked, whenever he could, to escape the court and hang out with his friends, many of whom were artists, whom he’d got to know during his studies. In the painting above, Ludwig is not even the centre of attention (he’s wearing a green coat, sitting at far top left hand end of the bench). Amongst artists he felt that he could be liked and appreciated more for himself than for his access to power.

We may not have a big job in a monarchy, but the point is universal: we need to have enough friends around us whose interest in us is entirely independent of the progress of our careers in the ‘nasty’ environments we may work in.

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