Who Wants to be a Company Man? “The Strawberry Statement” Updated

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For several months when I was in high school my favorite book was “The Strawberry Statement,” a first-hand account of the 1968 Columbia University uprisings by the 19-year-old James Simon Kunen.  Of course, even as a 14-year-old, I found those student protests slightly absurd, self-indulgent and somewhat akin to a temper tantrum, but I admired “The Strawberry Statement” itself because of Kunen’s breezy writing style, his you-are-there reporting and his disinclination to go in whole hog with the radicals.

More important, “The Strawberry Statement” realistically depicted what it might be like to head off to college at the very time I was beginning to get anxious about that upcoming experience. I read it as a guide to my future, a future that seemed exciting and important even if I didn’t plan to occupy the Dean’s office.

For my whole life, I’ve toted that book around with me as a talisman of the kid I used to be.  I’ve moved a dozen times and culled hundreds of books, but it always made the cut and still stands on my bookshelf.

Fast forward thirty years and I’m working for a corporate PR agency and one of my biggest clients is AOL Time Warner.  I’m invited to the lunch by one of their writers handling employee communications. As we make small talk sharing our life stories, he casually tells me that when he was in college he wrote a book called “The Strawberry Statement.”  Holy Toledo! This guy Jim Kunen who asked me out to lunch is actually James Simon Kunen, the author of the previously mentioned talisman of my youth.  This is almost like meeting Jerry Salinger and finding yourself with J.D. Salinger.

Of course I fall all over myself in a fairly embarrassing way telling him how much I liked the book etc, etc.  But in the back of my mind there’s this disquieting thought – why is James Simon Kunen, former revolutionary idealist, working as a company hack for one of the most corporatey, shark-infested companies in the world?

Now, it’s one thing for me to work in corporate communications.  As a right-wing Republican, I am ideologically inclined to be an apologist for The Man.  I don’t necessarily think corporate bigwigs are good people, although some of them are, I just believe, per Adam Smith, that a company that does everything it can to legally maximize profits will ultimately provide the most social benefit.  And I have no illusions about human nature, having absorbed the lessons of that other book from my teen years, “The Lord of the Flies.”  I don’t think there are more saints in government, the University or even the church than there are in the corporate world.   And you gotta work somewhere, so why not as a PR guy?

James Simon Kunen, though, is a different story; what’s he doing in a corporate headquarters?  And in employee communications, no less, which is the most propagandist wing in the communications field.  Even I wouldn’t have the stomach to write those feel-good newsletters, company magazines, and rah-rah videos  for very long.

I mention all this now because Jim Kunen has written a very good book on how he reordered his life when that job ended. Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life tells the story of how he got downsized (i.e., fired along with 500 other corporate employees when the AOL/Time Warner merger didn’t quite work out as planned.)

The story that emerges from “Company Man” is that of a typical idealistic Baby Boomer, someone who wanted to do good, but who also wanted to live a modest but comfortable life and send his kids to college.  Kunen started as a public defender, then became a journalist and somehow got talked into doing serious long-form articles for People Magazine.  Of course that couldn’t last at a magazine that takes the Kardashians seriously, so he wrote a heart-felt letter about the parent company’s mission to Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin, which resulted in his being brought to corporate headquarters to write the company’s “Vision and Values” statement. Ugh.  My heart sank when I learned this because I’d worked on similar projects for other clients and the end product is always the same: a bunch of words that sound like every other vision statement and end up forgotten almost as soon as they’re committed to paper.

But Kunen is a believer and not a cynic, so instead of rolling his eyes like I would have done, he plunged in and when that project was done he ended up writing and editing employee communications materials, apparently believing that the company did have a mission other than making money. Turns out he was smarter as a 19-year-old.

The first third of “Diary of a Company Man” describes Kunen’s ultimate disillusion with his corporate experience, which culminates in him being “let go” after eight years at headquarters.  It’s not a happy ending – when you’re dismissed in one of these massive lay-offs the company usually confiscates your badge and declares you persona non grata on the spot.  Kunen felt particularly aggrieved about going from a trusted team member to a potentially dangerous outsider in less than 24 hours and this part of the book is a cautionary tale for anyone who’s thinking about working at the highest level of a corporation.

The rest of “Company Man” is actually more important and profound.  Because what do you do when you’re an aging Boomer and you’ve lost your job?  Your chances of getting another job like the one you just had taken away are slim, assuming you even want that life back.

Kunen knew he was through with the corporate world and found his niche as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for adult immigrants. His tale of how he arrived at this place is compelling, but even more heart-warming are the stories of his students, who still believe in the promise of America.   Many of them were trained in their native countries as professionals, but are working in the U.S. as housecleaners and other entry level jobs (for more on this see this promotional video). Their  slow mastery of English will help them rise in America.  So Kunen is an actual hero, and although he didn’t change the system as much as he might have once dreamed as a Columbia revolutionary, he has made a significant contribution to many people’s lives.

Obviously Kunen’s path is not for everyone.  Whatever fleeting thoughts I might have once had about teaching ESL evaporated as I read this book and realized I wouldn’t have the temperament to inspire students.  The sub-theme of “Company Man” is that career satisfaction requires you to match your essential nature with the right job.  A tragedy of our time is that so many of our most ambitious college graduates want to go into whatever is the most remunerative and high-status career at the time: medicine two generations ago; corporate law a generation ago; management consulting a decade ago; and now Wall Street.

And yet it’s a fantasy to think everyone can be matched to a job that suits his hidden talents.  As Megan Draper’s mother recently pointed out on “Mad Men,”  “Not every little girl can do what they want. The world cannot support that many ballerinas.” Or that many novelists, video game developers or professional basketball players.

Nor is it true that everyone who takes a do-good social service job is happy with his career choice.  Kunen himself started his career unhappily as a public defender and the schools are full of people who decided to teach because it seemed like a safe career choice and have come to loathe their students (and their students’ parents).

And here’s the other hard truth.  The job that you might be best suited for doesn’t necessarily pay enough to support you in the style to which you have become accustomed.  The house, the car, the two-week beach vacation, the occasional night out, the cable and internet service and all the other accouterments of middle-class life add up pretty fast.  I don’t know anything about the finances of the Kunen family, but my guess is that the decades  he and his wife (a former radio news reporter) spent at high-paying jobs laid the financial groundwork for this new career as an ESL teacher.

Thoreau was right when he said that most people live lives of quiet desperation and of course it was fine for him, unmarried and childless, to live a couple of years in Walden woods.  But what about the rest of us?  I think it’s clear the pursuing a career for salary alone is the path to a mid-life crisis.  Assuming it even lasts to mid-life, because that gravy train can end pretty fast, as thousands of investment bankers and traders have learned in the past five years.  It’s also clear that you shouldn’t just drift into a job that offers the path of least resistance, because to be bored by your job and not get paid well is no bargain either.  If you can’t find your dream job, the trick is to make smart compromises and find something that’s interesting and moderately fulfilling, while being careful not to conflate your job with your real life.

“Diary of a Company Man” won’t capture the imagination of the youth market like “The Strawberry Statement” did, which is a shame, because it’s a more valuable guide to real life.  It really should be required reading for every college student, even if it does lead to that uncomfortable conversation you need to have with yourself about what truly makes you happy.  But trust me, it’s better to have that conversation with yourself when you’re 21 than when you’re 41 (or, God forbid, 61).

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2 comments
  1. What did James say when you gushed about his book? – I think I need to add these books to my reading list.

  2. He was kind of embarrassed, like he wasn’t used to it. But for me it was a shock — like all of a sudden realizing you’re talking to Kurt Vonnegut. I did reread the Strawberry Statement after that and it was still pretty good — obviously written by a 19-year-old kid but a good insight into the 1960s. Diary of a Company Man is quite good. He’s too good of a writer to be doing newsletters for Time Warner. Cripes.

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