Corinne Maier created a sensation last summer with Bonjour Paresse, a handbook for idlers. Here she fantasizes about leaving corporate life for good –
That day I had a dream: I would never work again. At the beginning it was simply a dream. It was just before the alarm went off, at around 7 am. I dreamt that I was taking photos, photos of colourful objects: blue, red, yellow. I was lost in a kaleidoscope of colours that reminded me of the lollipops of my childhood, and slowly I began to awake from my slumber.
“No,” I said to myself, “I don’t want to go to work, I want to stay cocooned in my kaleidoscope.” In my mind, still foggy with sleep, I went through my schedule for the week with a feeling of being totally overwhelmed: five days straight stuck in an air-conditioned tower in the Défense business district, from nine in the morning to half past six in the evening. Five days taking the subway in the morning and coming home exhausted in the evening. Five days with no time to go to the library, no time to meet a friend for a drink and talk, and no time to walk along the banks of the Seine or wander around a museum. Five days of wearing a conventional, neat little suit, five days of making sure that I do exactly what my bosses want, five days of being the very image of a model employee: dynamic, in tune with the corporate culture and all the behavioural codes of middle France, all without showing any passion or individuality (to be avoided at all costs).
After all, companies mean business. You’re not there to have a good time. Nor are you there to dawdle or daydream. And you’re certainly not there to think; it’s pointless, it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t help boost the profit margin or the cashflow. And yet, in companies, some are paid to use their brains; first, the bosses – trained early on and armed with high powered degrees that I lack (at 20 I was more interested in hanging out at my local photo club in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges than training for the top echelons of the civil service). Next then there are the researchers, but for the most part they are forbidden from independent thought. Free thought is dangerous and threatens the established order, and, as we know, dictatorships frown on free-thinking intellectuals. Finally there is that shady category – the “creatives” – trendsetters who imagine future products and find ways of selling them: they are often failed artists who are showing off, but unlike me they are well paid… lucky devils. A 40-year-old middle-manager like myself has already plateaued at $4,000 a month.
You could say that $4,000 a month isn’t bad. But once I’ve paid my rent, the bills and the fees for my kid’s private school, there is not much left. Things are not getting better either, because, like many other companies, my employer is tightening his belt. Salaries are rarely “upgraded”, as they say – except the boss’s, of course. I read in Les Echos that he earns several million dollars a year – it’s unbelievable! If I earned that much in a year, I would give up work. (I wonder why more bosses don’t throw in the towel after one or two years earning at that rate…) Yet I can’t really complain: I am one of the “privileged”, because I actually have a job… how wonderful!
Like all privileges, having a job has its downside. Above all, I have to look as if I believe in it. Firstly, I have to believe that working in a company is – and I’ve read this in an internal newsletter – “a creative act, which allows us all to achieve our potential”. Isn’t that lovely? That statement is topped by my firm’s proud declaration that its goal is “to ensure that their personnel bloom”. Proof of this claim is found in their celebration of the “joy of entrepreneurship”, the “love of initiative” and “courage”. It promotes the values of “tolerance”, “dialogue” and “confidence”. In short, it’s a “people-oriented company”. Yes, I believe in it, I believe, I believe, I believe…
But, in fact, I simply exist as just another link in the corporate “value chain”. I have to report on my activities to my immediate superior on a regular basis. They expect me to jump up and down in front of the whiteboard, to go through creative brainstorming sessions, to anticipate mass-market trends thanks to proactive “benchmarking” – and all this, I must add, in an “autonomous” fashion while respecting the corporate ethics code. Yes, indeed, my employer has an ethics code: you can’t do just any old thing. Or, more accurately, when you do, it is imperative that customers not find out, because they would stop buying and that would kill the business. Of course, the company does lie sometimes: it does what it has to do. As my boss would say: “I have no qualms.” Or, when he has really gone beyond the pale, he blurts out: “I had no choice.”
So, in short, I’m lucky to have a job. Yes, really lucky, when I think of those who don’t. Those poor souls: they have to live in their suburbs trying to make ends meet on state benefits, while they could have really neat jobs, with really neat and exciting titles. Take my friend in marketing, Josyane, who is a “corporate finance ethics specialist”, or Alexandre, who is a “venture manager”, or my friend Jacques, a “ratings manager”. Through sheer hard work, he has become “head of strategic planning”. It’s got a certain ring to it, hasn’t it? In fact, the truth is that when you look closely, these attractive-sounding job titles are just hot air, disguising, as much as possible, mountains of paperwork or prosaic number-crunching – sometimes both.
I’m lucky to have a job, I’m lucky to have a job, I’m lucky to have a job – that’s what I repeat over and over like a mantra. But that day, the day that I’m telling you about, the façade crumbled. Despite the mental edifice I’d constructed, I end up admitting the truth. The life I am leading is ridiculous and meaningless. I am merely a cog in a wheel, fashioned to do a job efficiently. And – a paradox that amuses me – I merely appear to be efficient; what I am asked to do at work, I do indolently and I do poorly. Because I DON’T BELIEVE IN IT ANYMORE. It’s all a con. I have been misled and manipulated. Of course I have been paid – aren’t I lucky – but not enough for the conditioning and standardization that I have put up with for so many years.
So that day I went back to my rainbow world. Blue-red-yellow. I swaddled myself in sleep as in a blanket. “Now,” I thought, “there’s another colour that wasn’t there before – is it mauve?” An astonishing colour, full of light, which sometimes appears in the middle of my dreams, as if I had been chasing it for a long time. I snuggled up again, deciding that I would not go to work that day or the next. The express can leave without me, hurtling across Paris from east to west in the morning and from west to east in the evening, ceaselessly carrying its cargo of commuters, trying to maintain their decorum while packed like sardines in a tin. That day I decided to pack my bags and return to Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. I would once again seek out the photo club. I would explore the mysteries of those colours that capture me while I sleep. Colours, here I am! Armed with my camera, I will play with you to my heart’s content. To work!
Corinne Maier is the author of a series of essays on psychoanalysis, history, literature and art. After being a corporate employee for 15 years, she established herself as a psychoanalyst in 2000 and is a figure in Parisian life since the success of her essay Hello Laziness. She hopes she never has to work in a company again.