"Mission-driven," my ass

“I’ll only work for mission-driven companies” —Me, like 5 years ago, super naive

If you were to look at my last three employers, you’d see a pattern. Sure, all of them are/were tech companies (the ”were” is here because Simple no longer exists). Also, they were all more or less startups when I joined. But the key differentiator is that they all claim(ed) to be “mission-driven” companies.

Quick disclaimer here to say I’m not going to talk about any specific company or mission here, because the intention of this post isn’t to rail on my current employer or a previous one. I’m also not in the business of losing my job because of opinions that do not reflect at all on whether I’m good at what I’m employed to do. (Which I am.)

The intention of this post is instead to point out how for-profit companies call themselves “mission-driven” even though that doesn’t actually mean anything and it has shitty outcomes—or at least something like that. So “in this essay, I will show…” etc etc.

Anyway. Back when I was a hopeful young 20-something entering the “real job” market, I used to think that a company being mission-driven meant something. When I landed my first role at such a company, I was like, Wow, the stuff I do here can really make a difference in the world. (Cue current me rolling their eyes at past me.)

Naturally, the behaviors that followed that thought were: working more than 40 hours a week and embracing “hustle culture” (it was big then; I’m aging myself), being deeply and emotionally invested in the outcome of my work, viewing my career as my highest priority in life, checking and responding to Slacks on the weekends, getting super burnt out and crashing, repeating the cycle.

After a certain amount of time doing this whole ass unsustainable way of living (especially unsustainable if you consider I’m chronically fuckin’ ill), I finally started noticing some things.

I noticed that even if our mission was supposedly around helping real-life people tangibly in some way, the company priorities weren’t truly aimed at doing that. In fact, it could be argued the things we were working on would actually in no way accomplish said mission. Instead, our goals—from the top down—were aimed simply at making money.

I mean… Duh. It was a company. That’s what companies do: They try to make money.

And yet, every week we’d have our little all hands meeting and our CEO and the exec team would preach about the company mission as our north star or whatever nonsense, and ultimately the talk didn’t match the walk.

Sometimes, at that first company, someone would ask about how exactly our quarterly and annual goals and priorities did anything to move the needle on our mission. Every time, we’d get the same line. It was always something like, “We need to make money and establish ourselves in the market before we truly make moves to accomplish our mission.”

I’ve heard an iteration of that line at every employer since.

Taken at face value, that statement could make some sense. Like sure, if the mission is a lofty and difficult thing, which of course it always must be or why would a whole ass company have to exist to make it happen, then it would follow that you’d need some cash money to make it happen.

But the thing about making cash money in capitalism is that there’s no such thing as enough. The goal is always more. And the timeline for actually making things that help accomplish the mission—at least in my experience—always ends up being “later.” Plus, all of that relies on the mission even being an accomplishable thing. In most cases it’s not.

The thing about working at a “mission-driven” company is that drinking the proverbial kool-aid feels really good. When you feel like your day-to-day corporate droning is actually doing a solid for the world, it feels a whole lot less like droning. Ignorance is bliss, and all that.

The problem with that, of course, is that people who drink the corporate kool-aid tend to give too much of themselves to their jobs (yes, this is a generalization and perhaps a judgment, but this is my blog and I’m entitled to both). I’ve talked about this a bit before when ranting about how archaic 5-day workweeks are.

When we buy into the idea that these companies are Making the World a Better Place and You Can Too, we tend to give more of ourselves to our jobs than we should (and we tend to be satisfied when they do the bare minimum to maintain status quo while saying they’re doing more). I don’t care how much of a workaholic you personally are, this is a problem. We’re not corporate cash cows; we’re people.

The other bummer is that the disillusionment—if and when it comes—is a lot. It’s sort of—and also not at all–like that moment in The Matrix after Neo takes the red pill and wakes up in that creepy giant robot embryonic pod thing. He realizes the world he’s been living in is an illusion.

That mission you thought you were working towards? Also an illusion.

You’re not spending your workday making the world better. You’re spending your workday building products for your highest paying customers or running tests to get your customers to spend more—or something like that.

Which, honestly, is fine. There’s actually nothing wrong with getting your paycheck and working on potentially creative and interesting things, even if they don’t Make the World a Better Place. It’s totally fine and acceptable and a pretty decent way to fund the life you want to live.

What’s not fine is that companies are saying they’re doing one thing when actually they’re doing another. I’m not going to call this “gaslighting” because that word has been misused so damn much the past couple of years it’s losing its meaning. But I will call it lying.

Whether intentional or not, these missions are mostly a lie. So why even have them? Is it to convince people to work for you? If so, try harder to make your company more attractive to talent with actual things that will improve their lives (cough shorter workweeks cough). Is it so people feel okay working or caring more than they’re actually paid to? Then I guess get fucked.

I don’t have anything profound or revolutionary to say to wrap this thing up. But I do have some advice for employees of said “mission-driven” companies: Take care of you. You matter more than a company. Make sure your needs are met and set clear boundaries (and remember you’re the one who has to protect said boundaries because no one else will). Advocate for your colleagues to help make sure their boundaries are kept and respected. Take time off—and truly disconnect when you do. Remove work chat and email from your phone. (Among other things that I can’t actually talk about because it would put my job at risk.)

Work is a scam and unfortunately not the kind that results in us all being eligible for compensation via a class-action lawsuit or whatever. It’s the kind of scam that means we have to work together to take care of ourselves so we can survive. (My disabled self is unconvinced thriving is an option, so I guess I’ll take it.) 🤷🏻