Dan Lyons and the Beached White Male

My dad was here recently and he was reading a book. Not unusual, at least not the last part. But here was a book that was making him laugh, not just the usual muffled chortle but the full-bellied chuckle, or the yelp of a laugh when something funny jumps out and surprises you. I needed to read the book I decided. I could use a good laugh. And it was funny.  I read the book, Disrupted, in about a day. It was hard to put down.

There’s nothing funnier than a white guy making fun of other white guys. Although sometimes I wondered exactly what I was laughing at.

For those of you who don’t know, Disrupted is Dan Lyons’s memoir, released this year, that details his colourful time (well, perhaps that isn’t the word, the main colours in the book are orange and white) working at HubSpot, a company that hires almost exclusively young white people and tries to redefine very traditional methods of corporate manipulation as “revolutionary.” Lyons’s book is significant for the blow it takes against these start-up tech companies, their Orwellian attempts to brainwash their staff (attempts that are largely successful according to Lyons) and the malevolent cheerfulness that defines the staff members’ interactions with one another. Lyons, a 52 year old journalist from Newsweek recently fired and with two children and an ailing wife to support, finds a job in HubSpot’s marketing department, working with people half his age and eventually under a psychopathic boss whose management style combines inappropriate personal revelations with verbal and emotional abuse.

I’ll admit, it’s a compelling read. One of the things that fascinates me about the book is the snapshot that it gives me into a world I will never be part of: the book implies that HubSpot, like many other tech start-up companies, has an unwritten policy of firing any woman who reaches the age of 35, so there goes my dream. But reading the book, I’m struck not by the tech-world’s exotic landscape but by its odd familiarity.  At one point, Lyons names it for what it is: “This is the New Work, but really it is just a new twist on an old story, the one about labor being exploited by capital. The difference is that this time the exploitation is done with a big smiley face” (121). I agree with Lyons in all respects but one: the smiley face isn’t new at all.

Indeed, the culture that Lyons describes is not all that different from the corporate indoctrination I was subjected to at one of my first jobs in 1999, two years after the internet first went public.  I wasn’t working for a sexy tech company, though. I was working at the Bread Garden along with a bunch of other teenagers. 

I remember my first day on the job at the Bread Garden, a twenty-four hour bakery-cafe on Vancouver’s west side. There were four of us, all being trained to “join the team” at the new location.

The assistant manager, let’s call him Mitchell (not because I’m worried about protecting his identity, but because I honestly can’t remember what his name was) was in charge of my training. He was, in the words of Lyons, someone who had definitely swallowed the kool-aide; he believed the corporate bullshit that he spoke thoroughly, believed so wholeheartedly in the disgusting food and fake hospitality that we were selling that he had almost become a poster cut-out of himself.

In truth, Mitchell frightened me just a little. His smile seemed buttoned in place, like the smile on a Raggedy Ann doll. His movements were so exaggerated, they seemed to pantomime themselves, and his head looked too large for his neck to support it, as if it had been cut out from a magazine and pasted onto another, smaller figure. 

“You see,” Mitchell said to us, “there is no hierarchy here. The dishwasher is just as important as the general manager, the manager, she has her job, the dishwasher has his job. Both are necessary.”

“Is the dishwasher paid the same as the general manager?” I asked.

“Well, no.”

“Then it’s a hierarchy,” I said.

The assistant manager did not unclasp his smile, but his head stopped bouncing. He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time, it was the first and only time I remember him looking me right in the eyes.

Tasks were soon delegated; I was put on dishwashing.

Lyons memoir has many similar anecdotes. At HubSpot, the hierarchical structure of the company is intentionally unclear, but what is clear is that only the people at the very top will ever make any real money. When Lyons tries to go over the heads of middle-management, his desk is moved into the call center, a place where it is too noisy to work. Words change their meaning to suit the corporate agenda. (The best example of this is the word “graduate” which is used to refer to those people who have been unceremoniously fired.) HubSpot, like the Bread Garden, sees everyone as “part of a team.” Instead of receiving decent pay, the employees are given a wall of candy, beer parties and a foosball table. They are told they can have as much vacation time as they want (so that they don’t actually have to be offered any vacation pay) and are constantly being asked to attend meetings that are more like pep-rallies.

I don’t think anyone who worked at a low-level service industry job recently will find any of this new. In fact, the only thing that is new about this is that Lyons, a middle-aged white guy with oodles of privilege, is having to experience what the rest of us have been swallowing for more than twenty years.

Lyons describes the world of journalism as highly critical of jargon, a world that would make fun of places like HubSpot. For this reason, he fails to fully integrate into the culture and becomes hated. He can’t get excited about horseshit. I relate to this too. At the Bread Garden, nobody liked me, that was clear, and this was largely because I couldn’t handle the horseshit–or, more precisely, the insistence that we made things out to be something that we knew they were not. 

Let’s take this idea of the customer. We were not supposed to call them that. Mitchell said that they were guests.

“If they’re our guests,” I said, “then we are terrible hosts. What kind of a host makes you pay for your food and doesn’t sit with you when you eat it?”

By this time, Mitchell was getting used to me. His strategy was to mostly ignore me, except when he felt that I could be doing my job a little bit better like upselling which I hated.

Upselling was part of the game, and Mitchell was the master of the upsell.

“Would you like a fresh tasty roll with that salad?” He would encourage us to ask.

“I can’t say that,” I said. “It’s not true.”

“It is true, besides which, it doesn’t matter.”

“We put them in the microwave. They taste like rubber afterwards.”

“Let the guest decide,” he would say. “They can always refuse.”

Like the BreadGarden’s rolls, HubSpot’s software, according to Lyons, sucks. More money is spent on Marketing and Sales than on Research and Development. This corporate model, of spending more on trying to sell your product than you do on making your product good, is at least as old as the Bread Garden. What is maybe new, or interesting, about it is that it is now spreading to the tech industry which in 1999 employed well-paid, and well-qualified, engineers and software developers. Now it works just like the Bread Garden.

Why not just play along? Lyons tried, he tells us. He just couldn’t hack it. Did I try? I’m not as confident. The truth is that I was sly and dishonest when it served me. I often ruined food on purpose so that I could eat without paying. The company would offer incentives to reward us for selling things, like frappes, the late nineties equivalent of the iced latte. I made a point of stealing whatever was being dangled in front of us that day, even if it was something that I hated, like frappes, which tasted like cold sweet snot, if you can imagine what that might taste like.

Lyons is also corrupted by his environment. He becomes manipulative and conniving like his cooworkers, at one point sending artisinal brownies to an insulted cooworker when he has only contempt for her in his heart. He imagines himself as an anthropologist, observing the peons around him as poor helpless saps that are indoctrinated into a culture that he is somehow immune to.

Immunity. That really is what this is all about. Let’s take a step back here and look at me, at the Bread Garden, and Lyons at HubSpot. I’m 19. I’m from upper-middle-class parents. I’m going to university. I’m good looking. I’m smart. Most important: I don’t need this job at the Bread Garden. Lyons. He’s White. He’s a man. He’s 52. He’s a published author and a respected journalist. He’s been offered a job writing for HBO. His idea of a shitty job is one that requires moving to another state. Despite his attempts to create readerly sympathy, few of us are going to believe that he was really in such a dire situation after being sacked at Newsweek. Poverty for this guy is spending a holiday in Maine. In short: he doesn’t need this job at HubSpot.

So what? The guy has a right to his opinion.  Absolutely, and I have a right to my opinion too. Lyons has every right to hate Spinner, the hateful PR woman who demanded the sycophantic apology, or Marcia and Ashley, the women who blacklist him from participating in (or taking over) their corporate blog. I have every right to hate Mitchell for forcing me to tell lies to people and sell gross things like frappes and listen to the corporate desecration of the English language.

Lyons quit HubSpot only to be told that he was actually fired. I also quit the Bread Garden. I remember that I sat on the patio to craft my letter of resignation on a napkin. I offered two-weeks’ notice, but was told I didn’t need to come back. I remember being vaguely surprised that they were so happy to see me go.

But I could always leave, that’s what strikes me about it now. The Bread Garden was not a real job for me but an act of rebellion, against my mother, who wanted me to go to University. 

When my mother heard that I wasn’t doing very well at work, she said, “Well, we didn’t raise you to work at a place like the Bread Garden.”

And as elitist as it sounds, it’s true. My parents didn’t raise me to eat shit. They didn’t raise me to be an assistant manager. 

That is what ultimately strikes me about Lyons’s book. Look at how lucky he is! Look at how easy it is for him to leave!

But what about Mitchell? What about Marcia and Ashley and Spinner? Certainly a little compassion needs to be offered to these middle-managers, not brilliant enough or lucky enough to reach the top, but just stupid, loyal and unlucky to not be born brilliant or rich. What about all the people who don’t even figure into this equation – the black people and really poor people who don’t even get an interview?

At the beginning of Disrupted Lyons mentions an article that appeared in Newsweek in 2011: “…headline THE BEACHED WHITE MALE. The cover depicted a middle-aged white guy in a suit, soaking wet, facedown on a beach at the water’s edge–maybe not dead, but definitely washed up” (16). The article is apparently about something called the “Mancession”, men who had been laid off and were now, “emasculated, psychologically destroyed, humiliated in front of their wives and children, drifting through life like castrated zombies” (16). While Lyons expresses his disapproval of the overt sexism and lack of diversity in the tech industry, he seems to be quite unaware of their subtle workings in his own writing: the man without his privilege resembles unsurprisingly a woman, emasculated, castrated, stripped of his patriarchal authority. Like the housewife he feels he must both dominate and impress, he is a zombie, forced to obey the dictates of a male authority.

The word zombie is in itself worth considering. Amy Wilentz notes that “the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery,” which also then connects this imagery to race. Now, I imagine the whale in Moby Dick, significant not just for his tragedy but for his colour: white. That he will  join the ranks of the oppressed, women, people of colour, the old and disabled, is really what this book is about, it’s about a man who has had everything lose himself for a moment and experience his own uniquely human vulnerability.

It’s for this reason that the end of the book is so disappointing. When Lyons lands his job in Hollywood – in a milieu where he celebrates “spending weeks on end sitting in a room with writers who talk about huge cocks and dry Vaginas” – I feel depressed. After all, Hollywood is hardly the bastion of diversity and gender equality, even if it is a fun place where the new man can be sarcastic and crass. I liked Lyons better when he was grappling with horseshit, not writing it.

The culture of forced “awesomeness” (a word that seems to pepper every exchange at HubSpot) is not newly awful. The fact that these tech-companies make no money is fascinating and is perhaps what distinguishes them from companies that sell microwaved bread rolls. If you know very little about economics and are interested in understanding how these stupid companies work in that respect, then this book is definitely worth your time. But what interests me about this book is its unconscious meditation on privilege. Dan Lyons’s memoir is fascinating not just for what it exposes about tech companies, but for giving us a glimpse into what it’s like to be a white man who loses some of his privilege and has to, however momentarily, become human.