Giving my finger to the man

One cold, rainy day in corporate London I marched into my office, looked my boss dead in the eye and told her to fuck off. I then proceeded to ride off into the sunset on a horse named Freelance to live happily ever after.

Of course I’m definitely lying and that’s not what happened at all. However, it was a dream I’d shared with thousands of others over the last few years. As technology has progressed to make our lives easier, as working hours, instead of getting shorter got unbearably longer, and as the work life balance faded into the halls of mythology, an uneasiness began to grow in me. The terrible sensation that what I was doing wasn’t right. That’s not to say I didn’t like my job, I did. But waking up at 6am to stand under someone’s armpit for half an hour (if you’re lucky) on the Tube, to then sit in an oxygenated room for twelve hours a day making someone else rich was never really my idea of a good time, no matter how good the job actually is.

You can be the most engaged employee but the setup of the modern business world will, eventually, dull the brightest eyes and quell the bushiest tails. We work too hard. For too little. Giving too much of our time. And those little company perks, like the latest iPhone, is in fact just another chain to the corporate machine. Another way to keep you constantly in that inbox, constantly replying and constantly on the job.

Yes you can turn it off, make sure you don’t check it after a certain time while ensuring you leave the office at a reasonable hour, but the lull of promotion, pay rises and recognition will softly draw you back into those long hours like an addict returning to the needle. I have lost count of the weekends I spent in the office, of the night shifts completed, of the emails I sent from my bed, of the sick days spent between throwing up and conference calls because sick days are unheard of.

We’ve all done it. But the truth of the matter is, while you’re breaking your back to do an excellent job so you get a great rating in your yearly review, your sweat is merely putting another cushion under someone’s arse as they float through the Mediterranean on their yacht. You on the other hand, don’t have a yacht. You have a monthly tube pass, and you could barely afford that.

As I worked my way through corporate recruitment (and nothing will break your heart or your spirit more than corporate recruitment), I knew something had to change. This wasn’t the life I wanted, so I skipped off to work in the startup world instead. Despite all the chat about ping pong tables, beanbags and innovate thinking, most startups are trying to run like a corporate in order to survive, and it will break your spirit just as much. If anyone approaches you about a startup and starts talking about the beanbags, tell them to fuck off. Beanbags are not a viable solution for long term work satisfaction.

Now this is the part in the story I would like to say my earlier dream came true as I flipped my desk upside down and twirled out of the office, bravery in one hand and courage in the other to start my own ventures. Alas, that didn’t happen. Change is more often than not the result of extreme pressure and uncontrollable circumstances meeting in the middle, and if you happen to be working in a startup, there’s a lot of things out of your control. And so, in the space of a day, I lost my CEO, Founder, COO and CFO, leaving me on the wrong side of a losing war, and no one wants a loyalist hanging around. So redundancy swiftly hit in the guise of ‘downsizing’ to keep HR happy (I’m joking, we didn’t a HR), and I unexpectedly left the office one day, a box of my belongings under my arm, fear in one hand, and worry in the other.

I did what any trained worker would do and lined up interviews, had conversations and reached out to my network. Almost a programmed reflex. Luckily, or perhaps it’s testament to my abilities, by the time the interviews and conversations were over, there were numerous very attractive job offers on the table. As I stared at them all and thought about beginning the process again, the late nights proving myself, the hours in the office to show your bosses they’d made the right choice, the long evenings working instead of living, I realised I’d rather punch myself in the face then go down that rabbit hole again. I’ve been down it one too many times and it’s not such a wonderland after all.

So I promptly registered my content marketing business, set myself up as a freelancer, and began to have the conversations all over again, but this time, it was for me. To build the company I’d always wanted to set up. To work with companies I’d been interested in. To work on projects that fired me up instead of dumbing me down.

It’s been six months since I set up on my own, and since then I’ve worked with companies in New York, North Carolina, Florida and the UK. I’ve worked from home, from coffee shops, from museums and from WeWork spaces. I’ve worked Saturdays and Sundays, nights and days. I’ve taken time off and out when I wanted. I’ve worked from different countries and places. Anywhere I have an internet connection, I’ve sat down and done work, and it hasn’t mattered if that’s in America or England. On a beach or in a city. I’ve been excited and thrilled about the projects I work on, because I finally get to pick them.

It might not have happened the way I always dreamt it would, but as I sat and looked at the job offers in front of me, I did make a choice. I chose not to continue down the safe path of a monthly pay check in an equally safe plc that wouldn’t go bust. Instead, I chose to carve out my own piece of this business world and begin to pull together a life I was excited about.

There are a hundred different ways to connect to one person, and there’s thousands of ways to do one thing, so why are we all still sitting in tiny boxes in the city, working the same way, doing the same thing, over and over and over again? It’s long past time the business world started to actually evolve and let in new ways of working, that inspire new inventions, ideas and creativity. We’ve got to crack it open and let some light flood through those grey skyscrapers because there’s too many souls at risk. There’s too many souls dying in those buildings and it’s just not worth it. So with middle finger high in the sky, I eventually do ride off into a sunset of my very own making.


Salma El-Wardany