How's your cage?

The cage

When a friend found a cow in her front yard the other day it reminded me of a question by Gerald Weinberg. I think his question was like this: "How do you keep a buffalo from running away?" The answer is simple: give it just enough room so it doesn't realize it's in a cage.

I've found that when it comes to work a lot of people are just like the buffalo in this story: You're in a cage, but your cage has gotten large enough so that you're comfortable, and most of the time you forget about it.

How's your cage?

Some times when you remember the cage is there you grumble a little bit, and maybe you get a title, a salary increase, or a bonus that makes you feel better ... at least for a little while. But every once in a while there's this Matrix-like thought, and you know you could be doing better. At that point you're either like Neo -- and you do something about it -- or you push those thoughts to the back of your mind, and try to make yourself content in your little cage.

One day rolls into another, until finally 30 years have gone by. Then it's time to retire, and it really hits you: you don't have enough money to do those things you really wanted to do all those years. At this moment you realize that you wasted 30 years living in a cage. You can blame it on "the man", and you'd be partly right: yes, he knows you're in the cage. But all he did was make it large enough to keep you content. If you're being honest with yourself, you know that you allowed yourself to be kept in the cage.

Thinking about this last night, I don't know why people let themselves be kept in a cage. Maybe it's a lack of ambition, low self-esteem, a lack of self-confidence, some combination of all those, or something else.

Bigger cages

I've already written a story about a guy I know named Dan, and how he made a ton of money back in the early 90s just because he asked for it. You may think that's unusual, but it's not. I knew a number of people working as consultants in the mid-1990s who were making $100-125K, and right now another guy I know makes $75 per hour ($150K/year). Ironically, though this guy is good, he's not anywhere near as talented as Dan or other people I know; he just had the chutzpah to ask for it.

One thing I will say about this person is that he's made the decision to work as a consultant, and IMHO a consulting job is usually harder than performing similar tasks in a non-consulting role. As a consultant you need to be making at least 50% more than you would otherwise just to justify the lifestyle, otherwise it's just not worth the personal sacrifices: longer hours, more stress, sales meetings, proposals, lots of time traveling on the road, and all sorts of other sacrifices.

In recent years I've come to really appreciate what many people have to go through in more-typical jobs -- especially production-related issues -- but I still believe the consulting role puts you in a lot of situations where you better be making an extra 50% for it to be worth it.