Work vs Real Work

When I was 25, I got a call from a friend who was working for a prestigious consulting firm in the DC Area called, Booz Allen Hamilton.  My friend informed me they were hiring and asked if I would be interested in coming in for an interview.  Needless to say, I was honored to be considered for employment at such an illustrious company.

After a series of interviews, I was offered; a position with the title of “Consultant,” a nice benefit package, the promise to work with some of the most well-known Government clients, and the opportunity to solve interesting problems.  Coming from a small company with no name recognition, I felt as though I had “made it.”

At the time, Booz Allen had ~20,000 employees around the globe and was considered one of the top consulting firms to work for.  The company’s impressive slogan was “Results that Endure.”  My peers were young professionals from well-known Universities who wore really nice suits, drove Acuras and Camrys, and lived in nice apartments.  I went to a small school nobody had heard of, my suits were hand-me-downs from my Dad and my apartment was more akin to a dungeon than a living quarter.  All this meant – I felt way out of my league. 

During the first couple weeks of employment, I was scared to talk because I didn’t speak in acronyms or use fancy business language like “the value add is” or “what’s the use case?”  I was sure it was only a matter of time before they kicked my hand-me-down suit wearing ass out of there.

Soon after getting hired, I remember attending a Monday meeting that was around 2.5 hours long.  Sticking to my plan, I didn’t say anything and prayed no one would call on the “new guy.”  Towards the end of the meeting, my Boss looked at me and said, “What do you think Dan?”  Petrified, I tried my best to sound confident and professional and responded with, “I agree with you, we should write up an explanation.”  To which my boss replied, “great, you do it and have it done by the end of the week.”  To which I thought, “OH SH*T…NOT GOOD, NOT GOOD, NOT GOOD!?”

For four days, I wandered around the office grabbing anyone to give me advice on how to write my section of the VERY IMPORTANT brief for a VERY IMPORTANT department of the military I had absolutely no understanding of.  I “worked” constantly on this paper and logged multiple 12-hour days (most of the time was spent staring at a blank computer screen).

At the end of the week, I had cobbled together approximately two pages of absolute grade A, bull-sh*t.  Certain I was going to get fired from a job I just took, I nervously handed over the document to my boss.  He took a quick look and said, “thanks Dan, good work.”  I walked out of the office convinced he said that just to have pity on me and my pink slip would arrive any day.

However, the pink slip never arrived and I was soon writing additional sections of additional proposals, presentations, and VERY IMPORTANT briefs and documents.

Several weeks later, I was relieved and confused to learn the initial brief I had helped to prepare was never sent to the client.  I would soon discover that much of the work I completed at Booz Allen would not be a “Result that Endured” – it wouldn’t even be a “Result that was Submitted.”

I do not mention this story to belittle the work of this company or the fine people who continue to be employed there today.  However, when I give a long and honest look at the “work” I completed there and at most of the corporate jobs I’ve held in my career, an incredible amount of time was wasted on supposed, VERY IMPORTANT tasks, objectives, and missions.  If I had to guess, I’d say that only around 20% of the work I did was actually necessary and/or used.  Which means that out of all those 60-80 hour weeks I logged, only 12-16 hours at the office were needed.  I would have been better off working on Monday and Tuesday and then spending the rest of the week playing Grand Theft Auto and riding my bike.

The fact is, those extra-long and perceived meaningless hours were not meaningless at all.  The culture at Booz Allen (and many companies) is employees are expected to work well in excess of 50 hours a week.  The unwritten equation is,


The more extra hours, the more the employee is considered an “All-Star.”

Wanting to be an “All-Star,” I would frequently “work” until 6:30pm, 7:00pm, sometimes later.  However, this time consisted of me “working” until 4pm or so (when I would usually finish my tasks), and then for the remaining hours I would sit at my desk educating myself on business topics I found interesting, helping co-workers or even reading the news or writing emails to friends until the appropriate perceived time arrived to leave. 

This (sometimes) false presentation worked.  While I do think I delivered good results (doubtful they endured), I would guess that the awards and promotions I received were provided more for the presentation of my work, then the actual quality.

In my experience, companies do not always provide rewards and promotions to the employee who does the most in the least amount of time possible.  If you got all your “work” done by 11am everyday and then went home, would you get promotion or a bonus for this?  No, you’d be seen as a slacker and probably fired. However, isn’t this the definition of productivity success?

Because changing a culture is WAY harder than adapting to a culture, I don’t recommend you leave your office at early times that will give your co-workers and bosses the impression you “don’t care.”  However, I also don’t recommend you waste your time either.

My employer after working at Booz Allen was for the development company of the London 2012 Olympics.  After going through a couple of months similar to my first months at Booz Allen (where I thought I didn’t know anything and I was going to be found out as a fraud), I eventually learned the lingo, figured out how things were done, and was able to complete my work by around 3pm every day.  After asking my co-workers if there was anything I could help with and usually receiving the answer of “no,” I sat at my desk and worked on “real” work.  In this case, the “real” work I worked on the rest of the day was a startup plan that would eventually morph into a business plan for my next job – the company I would create and from which I would get fired from 8 years later.

As I sit here at my desk and put the finishing touches on this blog post, you would think without a company culture to follow or a Boss looking over my shoulder, I would be impervious to the equation of hours worked = star employee.  However, this is an equation I still battle frequently.  Whether it is ingrained within me from the corporate world or due to the Puritanical roots of our American Ancestors, during periods when I judge myself not to be putting forth “lots of hours” in whatever I am doing, my self-worth declines and my self-disgust increases.

Without a new start up to occupy my headspace and direct my extra hours of productivity towards, I have chosen to look more inwards.  In doing so, I’ve come to a realization about culture.  We often see culture as an external force – something that exists outside of us, like a corporate culture of excessive labor hours equaling success.  But a company isn’t alive.  Microsoft, Booz Allen, and Initech are just names on a letterhead.  Corporate culture (or any culture) comes from within.  Choose to believe and follow the culture and it becomes you.  Change you and you change culture.

How do you change you?  I believe real change is made by identifying the root cause of my emotions.  Just like a computer, I have been programmed to operate a certain way.  In the case of feeling hatred towards myself because of a perceived failure to “work hard” or put in a lot of hours – like most “issues,” I think this stems from childhood.  From the earliest age, I can remember my parents teaching me the value of “hard work” and “you need to hustle.”  These are outstanding lessons for sure, but to what end?  When do I stop working?  What am I hustling for?

I don’t blame my parents for helping to pass down a desire to “work,” but as an adult, I take responsibility for re-programming myself to better handle my emotions.  In my opinion, this is the most important work of my life and worth putting in the extra hours for. Real extra hours, not those sending emails or surfing the web.  Who knows, if I stick with it, maybe I’ll be an “All-Star” one day.

Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners with 5 to 500 employees, helping them to work “on” their business not “in” their business.

5 thoughts on “Work vs Real Work

  1. Eilidh Horder

    It sounds like you had a classic example of Imposter Syndrome in the early job you describe.
    Really interesting post. When I returned to ‘the office’ after having a freelance break, it really bothered me that co-workers were getting paid to surf Facebook and such. I just thought it was a total waste for everyone involved. Like you say, I would have rather gone home and done something better with my time than be sat in the office to clock in those hours. I totally relate to that feeling of always having to be working or you must be wasting your time. And I’m also ‘working on’ changing the way I was programmed.
    Happy blogging!


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