The Dilbert Stages of Professional Cynicism

Over the years, I have come to believe that there are three stages to one’s professional career, and that those stages may be defined relative to ones opinion of the work of Scott Adams, specifically ‘Dilbert’.

This theory is borne of my own experiences, but like most of the ideas on here, is unlikely to be terribly original, well thought through, or even succinctly put. In an effort reduce the word count a bit, I’ll apply Ockham’s Razor, shave some words off, and define the stages as follows; 

  • You don’t think Dilbert is funny
  • You think Dilbert is hilarious
  • You think Dilbert is based on your professional life.

Or, to put it another way;

  • You don’t get Dilbert
  • You get Dilbert
  • Dilbert gets you.

These three stages reflect the effect of corporate reality as it slowly eats away at the fresh-faced young employee, heretofore swaddled in the protective nirvana of educational utopia. They are the measure of how much of the child has been replaced by corporate robot, of how much idealism has been replaced by cynicism.
 
Someone I know is very keen that people aren’t cynical and go into things with an open mind, with the attitude that things can be done.As I’ve said before, I consider myself to be both a realist and an idealist. I try to nurture the hope that all things are possible, but I’m not going to stay up all night waiting.

People are cynics for a reason. Cynics are not born; we are made, or rather corrupted. While we may be cast in our mother’s womb, we are forged in the fires of industry, in the furnaces of commerce. It is in this inhospitable environment that the naif in all of us has, at some point, had our eyes forcibly opened a la Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

Lord Acton was only halfway there; Power may corrupt, but its lack is just as harmful, albeit in different ways. Absolute power may make you believe that you can do what you like, but the lack thereof makes you believe that nothing is possible and that, whatever you do, forces beyond your control serve to constrain you.

Eventually, you stop trying. Only the blindest optimist or greatest fool would continue in the face of a life’s experience. Indeed, Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

To return to The Three Stages, the first two stages are merely precusors to the transition to Stage 3, a transition that represents a paradigm shift in the professional outlook of the person in question. A person who has made the transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3 has been “broken”, a term that intentionally mirrors the process by which horses become rideable.

While horses are more useful once broken, broken employees are often less useful. While they are still useful and important members of the team, they are less likely to go the extra mile.

The point at which employees break is often quite tangible. Someone previously level-headed and conscientious will suddenly become outspoken in meetings, or their grin get slightly manic, or “Thursday Afternoon Effect”1 behavior happens on other days of the week.

We all know the signs, and we all silently mourn the passing of their youth, and think “You’re one of us now”.

1 The Thursday Afternoon Effect is the point on Day 11 of a 12-day week full of 10 hour days when everything, even quite sad things, become hilariously funny, and the slightest thing can send you off into wild paroxysms of maniacal laughter.


I am working on an update to the theory that posits a fourth stage, which may be exemplified by the phrase “You know what, fuck that, it doesn’t have to be this way”. Whether this is merely an acute remission in otherwise chronic decline, or the turning of the tide, is the subject of further study.

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