Working at Amazon Sounds Exactly Like Grad School. Is There Anything Wrong With That?

In reading Friday’s New York Times piece on Amazon’s workplace environment, some elements seemed Orwellian and grim – particularly, the use of numbers to track performance metrics with exceptional granularity.

But other parts of life at Amazon seem almost warmly familiar. The company’s culture apparently “stokes employees’ willingness to erode work-life boundaries,” and encourages employees to be vocally critical of one another, and even of themselves. They work on weekends, late nights, and holidays. For some, the pressure leads to quick burnout and departure, while other employees were actively pushed out when management didn’t see them performing.

I found myself reading it and nodding my head.

Because that’s exactly what a high-level PhD program is like.

Amazon employees apparently experience “anxiety-provoking sessions called business reviews,” in which they’re expected, every week, to defend their performance. “Explanations like ‘we’re not totally sure’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ are not acceptable,” reports the Times.

But is it as unacceptable as telling your seminar professor that you don’t have a well-informed take on the evolution of Marx’s definition of labor power between the Grundrisse and Das Kapital? Is a harsh review as anxiety-provoking as a dismissive snort or a condescending “Okay, let’s hear if someone can help you out . . . “?

I had always, frankly, assumed that life in a large, successful corporation was at least as much of a boiler room as a graduate program. That employees were expected to sacrifice themselves for a larger mission, keep their eye on the ball, constantly interrogate what they were doing, innovate and implement, use their brains and sleep under their desks. When I read the Amazon story, it frankly struck me as a trumped-up non-story, with employee “anxiety” now somewhere in the same ballpark as child labor.

NBC called the report ‘scathing,’ Geekwire described it as ‘brutal’. I’m not sure whether that’s how a lot of people saw it, or just how media wanted to spin it. But clearly, at least a good number of folks are glad to get huffy about an innovative company holding its employees to extremely high standards, and leaving behind those who can’t keep up.

It makes me think I’m just not on the same page as a lot of Americans. Okay, maybe my ambition isn’t to sell 10% more chenille curtains this quarter – but aren’t we supposed to be hard workers, with big dreams and big ambitions? That means sacrifice, that means grind, that means maybe facing your own inadequacies and taking some risks every once in a while.

And at least the people at Amazon are getting paid well to do it – those of us going to the mat for philosophy or social science or literature are lucky if we don’t go into debt for the privilege of frying our nervous systems and having our self-esteem pummeled on a weekly basis for years on end.

So, my initial temptation is to say – if you can’t take the heat, why would you even try to work at Amazon?

But then I’m reminded of a much different aspect of my experience in the doctoral meat-grinder. I am a person who’s extremely privileged in a lot of ways, from my stable family background to my white male heteronormativity. There were several significant and very powerful scrums during my time in grad school that, more or less, amounted to some students pushing back against the culture of insanely high standards and overwork.

At the time, my first response was similar – suck it up, buttercup. This shit is hard because it’s hard. You can’t read Lacan just once and hope to get anything out of it.

But as those discussions and fights continued, I started to see the other side. Regardless of identity, some students weren’t as prepared as I was. That was around when I realized that not everyone was reading Kierkegaard in high school. Not everyone got to study Nietzsche with that philosophy professor from Waking Life.

On top of that, not everyone was willing or able to sacrifice themselves at the altar of the Word the way I was. Some people had families, some people had actual relationships (as opposed to whatever the hell it was I was doing with women back then).

And the thing is, I didn’t have these advantages because I was exceptional – at least not primarily. I had these advantages thanks mostly to circumstance. I had parents who kept lots of books around. I went to a pretty decent, college-oriented public high school, where the German teacher led a philosophy club. I had a support system that made it easier to handle the pressure.

There are some relatively simple arguments for making these demanding structures open to people who might not immediately click with them.  Our society hinders a lot of people in a lot of ways, and we would all benefit from trying to compensate for that. I think anything like affirmative action turns potentially poisonous once you transition from an undergraduate learning environment to a performance-oriented professional environment, whether a PhD program or a corporation. But there are and should be programs to recognize and support, for instance, talented minority scholars – thinks like incentive fellowships. Evidence shows pretty strongly that Silicon Valley has yet to come up with a successful model to do anything similar. But greater support and recruitment has nothing to do with lowering standards. Lowering standards is not a way of being ‘supportive’ – it’s just a way of lowering standards.

But the episodes of discontent during my grad program opened my eyes to a more tricky concept – that you may actually need people who aren’t a perfect fit. Sure, you need the high achievers, maybe you even need a plurality of them. But a community made up of people like me would have been absolutely hateful. That seems maybe to be what’s going on at Amazon – the peak performers don’t have much use for anyone with more complex lives and backgrounds than theirs.Which might ultimately weaken a company that’s trying to serve all of America.

But then again, I clearly have no idea what America is like.

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