Rules of the Trade

I recently read a book called Rules of the Trade by Joe Weissman. This early 2012 release is a sort of running stream of consciousness by a guy who started his professional career in October 2007, literally the month the Great Recession began according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The first words of the novel are, “My entire professional career has been this depression.” After reading the book you realize he doesn’t just mean the economic downturn, he also means the mental depression caused by a career hamstrung by external economic factors. The guy has a solid educational pedigree, though not of the top 5%-type. His career starts out in a low paying job that offers a lot of skill growth and knowledge, but advancement never comes. Due to the economy and managerial stupidity, the firm has to lay off 25% of the people in the dark days of 2009, and the firm later gets taken over by a tyrannical and extremely hierarchical company. The short Napoleon-complexed CEO of the new firm decides everything and all the employees of the acquiring firm are tall weak sycophants. The evil acquiring firm gives no raises and all changes move very slowly with no light at the end of the tunnel; it’s like a slowly sinking ship, as the protagonist and his colleagues all try to scramble for life rafts. The new company unwittingly keeps many of the incompetent as the hard workers try leave to seek opportunity elsewhere, but it is slow due to the economy. Several years into his career there is still no real growth for the protagonist, but thanks to some random skills he acquired specifically with the mindset he would never use them (ie for fun), he gets a position with another firm, which is just ending a massive counter-cyclical growth spurt. He gets a reasonable jump in his salary but he is forever trailing his own expectations, and, by a larger margin, equally skilled people who started working just a few years before the recession started. People who started working in 2005 or 2006 accomplished in 2 years what it would take the protagonist and most of his colleagues to do in 5. By the end of two years at the new firm he still has no growth; in fact his real wage has fallen. All the while he watches other people get promoted and sees the inflationary tide lift some boats but not his. Basically, as a professional of the recession, he is a permanent notch lower than those who started a few years before him. As the inflation slowly builds and prices stay artificially higher, kids right out of school are given salaries right on his heels. The only thing that seems to be moving in an orderly fashion is the fact that every day is one left in his life.

The book details some really annoying experiences for someone who would have to see them first-hand. For example, at one job there is an old Chinese woman who clips her toenails at work and does nothing productive; indeed, she even makes things worse when she tries to do her part. But she makes more than four times what he does. Similarly he sees Chinese employees who can’t do mathematics or speak English, but, who are somehow pulling in checks the same as his or more. At the same time, Patrick Bateman-like analysts with MBA’s from un-impressive schools pull in better money than him even though they are visibly incompetent and even fraudulent. For many of these people their success is due purely to seniority and the fact that they started their careers prior to the recession. Uneducated people he knows always manage to get to the right company at the right time, and it all falls in their lap. He sees female lawyers who gossip for hours a day, never do anything, but still get promotions, essentially because they are decorative distribution requirements. At one job, the nephew of one of the senior managers gets hired for a great position without question, and of course, the kid pulls in a starting salary that is much better than anyone else just beginning their careers – more than the protagonist made in his first two years. Sometimes the protagonist sees other people like him, and when they’re older it’s like looking into a mirror of the future. There is one older divorced guy who pulls lots of weight but gets none of the credit. He is just trying to get by for his kids, while is x-wife is out fucking someone else and spending the money stolen from him. His only goal is to land a deal to make a trivial more amount of money for his kids, while other people at the company, who make more than twice what he does, try to steal the deal from him. It is these and other observations that lead to a series of insights throughout the book.

And not surprisingly, the themes that permeate the book are where the title comes from. The “rules of the trade” are simple truisms he has learned in a career that has occurred in economic stagnation where the mal-investments like overpaid incompetent people and artificially high prices are clearer than ever.

First, here is the big takeaway:

Companies are islands of central planning floating on a sea of the free market.

And then here are the rules:

Nobody takes care of you. Just like in a socialist country the powers that be never give you anything of real value. They reward themselves first and then they reward their friends – all at your expense in the zero sum game of how limited resources are distributed by management. They keep you and others around so long as it suits them. If you want something you need to fight for it. But you can’t fight forever. You need to be come critical to them. Ultimately, you need to establish a system of abuse and favoritism no different than theirs.

Ass-kissing works. Self-respect is a drag on your ability to position yourself. In the book he talks about noticing a guy who would watch his superiors, everyday, and then get up and get lunch at the same time as them. By virtue of being near the big boss, this guy ended up getting assigned tasks that made him critical to the firm over time and eventually lead to his own fiefdom within it. It was stupid and wasted the employee’s time, but when it came down to the socialism of the firm, the ass-kisser got what he wanted.

Seniority only matters if you are liked. All throughout the book he talks about senior workers who should have been let go, but weren’t. Even though they added no value and actually decreased value, these people pulled down the big money, while the younger workers, who did the entire grunt work got no increases or were even let go. These senior people were liked or had power. At the same time he saw people who had already been working for a few years but “all work and no pay” had made them less than charming and hence they weren’t liked. When the firm went to make a new hire it got kids right out of school and paid them more than the skilled guy who had been there longer and bore the scares to prove it. All his years of work meant nothing. This lead to a corollary rule: never become outwardly discontent or visibly frustrated.

Docile people are kept like decorative palace eunuchs. Non-ambitious people are blessed in their own way, because they don’t represent a threat to the people currently consuming the money produced. The docile start out doing their part but never go above and beyond, and they never try to advance. The powers that be want to be surrounded by weak and non-ambitious people.  So, they harvest them, with title changes and remedial salary increases every three-plus years, despite the fact that they produce less and less and become more of a burden with every passing year. Eventually, these docile people become the fat of the firm with all the same effects obesity has on an overweight person. Except, when push comes to shove, they disappear.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The employers brought the protagonist in, worked him hard, and rewarded others, but always promised him “significant upside and potential for advancement.” In the beginning he would believe them, but he started to learn very quickly that an increase at a new place was worth more than staying put and believing in hopes and dreams that were never guaranteed to pass. Indeed, the only positive parts of the story were when he would get a new job with a higher salary. It would be a weight lifted off his back, and he would marvel at the fact that one week he would make a certain amount, and the next week he would make so much more, despite the fact that nothing in his self had changed. It simply proved that he had been underpaid, and that someone else got his just rewards. On a practical level, my takeaway was that an employer never pays you significantly more than he hired you at. Unless you win the seniority and work-place politics games, you only make meaningfully more money by changing employers.

All-in-all the book was good at 7.2 out of 10. Though depressing, it was informative and a unique viewpoint. I’d be curious to know who the real writer is. “Joe Weissman,” meaning “Joe White Man” in German is an obvious pen name playing to the fact that this plight is recognizably common amongst lowermiddle-class taxpaying white heterosexual males.


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