Fording the Amazon: On Corporate Culture, Rockstars, and Having a Great Career



Fording the Amazon

On ‘Rockstars’, corporate culture, and what it means to have a Great Career

Article by Ben Feuer.  Photo by Valeriy Osipov. 

    A week ago, my wife met an elderly black woman on the subway sitting next to a Chinese man with Down’s syndrome.  My wife, assuming the woman was a professional home aide, asked her how she liked her job.  “Oh, I’m not his caretaker,” the woman replied.  “We’re going to a flashmob together”.  This woman devoted several hours every week to escorting the young man, an acquaintance, around to fun events.  He was challenging charge — he blurted out loud, confused statements and was sometimes physically aggressive — but she clearly enjoyed it.  “I can handle him,” she said with pride.

    Almost everyone else in the world seems to understand that work is just a small part of a great life – Americans, however, cling stubbornly to the peculiar and hard-headed belief that our country can and should be run in much the same way as, say, one might optimize the delivery a Frozen “Elsa” doll — efficiently, impersonally and uncompromisingly.

    That, of course, is a not-so-veiled reference to  A recent must-read Times Magazine article exposes the company’s metric-driven hiring and management practices.  It describes a culture of backstabbing and suspicion, eighty-hour work weeks, midnight text messages demanding responses and little tolerance for those struggling with illness or injury.  Nor is this the first time we’ve heard this about Amazon – complaints about the company stretch back for years.

    But let’s be clear, Amazon is neither the worst nor the only offender in this regard.  Another recent Times article points out that so-called “big law” firms have been doing this kind of thing for years, and it shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.  So even though I’m talking about Amazon in this post, I’m not *just* talking about Amazon.

    In the article, Amazon HR says they’re after a team of ‘rockstars’, ambitious, brilliant powerhouses.  In case you’re a little hazy on the definition of this term, a rockstar is a technical savant, a hard-driving (usually) young white princeling with the right credentials, smart enough to know it all but not quite smart enough to know better.  Drunk on a newfound sense of power and agency (and blind to how narrow their particular beam of light really is) they’re usually too immature to have any clue as to why others might not be able to match their particular brand of industry, and so they run around demanding everyone else match their pace, style and volume.

    Not so great to share an office with, but awesome to manage, right?  From a numbers standpoint, if each rockstar is, say, 35 percent more efficient than the average employee, a team of them should be 35 percent more efficient than the average team, right?  Actually, you might not want to count your chickens just yet. The research on this point indicates just the opposite — not everyone wants to be or should be a ‘rockstar’, even at Amazon, and getting a full night’s sleep and trusting (and building relationships with) your team over months or years contributes more to quality of work than any individual effort. 

    Overconfident ‘rockstar’ employees (and executives) can also lead their teams on wild goose chases if they are too locked-in to a particular vision of a project – certain recent Amazon failures come to mind. That pesky little thing called reality notwithstanding, the idea of the ‘super-employee’ is too sexy (and too flattering to founders) to possibly pass up, and so the vicious cycle continues.

    Can Amazon really be as bad as the Times article makes it out to be?  Probably not quite – many employees and ex-employees have since chimed in and said their experience at Amazon was nothing like this (apparently, the better managed teams at Amazon are largely insulated from the chaos and maintain more normal hours and culture).  But there is certainly more than a little truth in what these employees are saying, since many more workers have now echoed the article’s claims.  In one particularly telling Times comment, a man described placing a negative review on a product after it shipped late and receiving a desperate call from an Amazon employee begging him to take it down — “You have no idea how much trouble this comment is causing us!”  We do now.

    Even Bezos didn’t counter the Times’s case with data (his favorite fetish).  Instead, he fell back on anecdotes.  “The amazon he knows” isn’t like this.  Furthermore, if the Amazon YOU know does sound like this … well, there’s the door.  You hear this kind of free market argument a lot when people are defending businesses.  They have a point – a disproportionate number of Amazonians do leave, as the Times article mentions.  But people with cancer and expecting mothers often can’t afford to sacrifice their employer-linked health insurance on the altar of rugged individualism, and vulnerable populations are the prey at Amazon, not young healthy bucks with nothing better to do than cram themselves into Hermann Miller chairs for 80 hours a week.  Mr. Bezos is quoted in the article as saying that maintaining Amazon’s culture is his primary job responsibility at this point in time — if all of these ‘anomalies’ come as news to him, perhaps he needs to check his Anytime Feedback Tool more often. 

    The real question is this; will Amazon be our new normal, or are we, as Americans, going to demand a counterbalancing force to corporations in the hiring process?  Since unions are mostly dead, and since we all know the federal government isn’t going to do anything, we worker bees have little to no protection left … except our voices. But our voices are more powerful than we realize.  We can— many millenials ARE — choosing to prioritize lifestyle over salary, balance over bonuses.  If we speak as one, employers will listen, particularly tech companies, whose lifeblood is innovation and creativity.

    We have power as consumers too, even though we don’t always exercise it.  Personally, I think that since Amazon is using its ‘customer obsession’ (rule #1) as a justification to smash its own employees, I think we should let them know, as customers, just how we feel about that.  How fortunate, then, that they have a review system.  Perhaps that shiny new Fire HD Tablet they’re advertising on their front page would be good forum to deposit our feelings? 




You give them an inch, they take a yard.

No, that’s not another one of Job Talk’s esoteric sexual puns—it’s the ill matter of performing favors for co-workers. (Do count the sexual puns in this article, though—the number’s listed at the rear.)

Being asked to break the rules for somebody and bending over backwards just because you’re friends not only puts you in a compromising position, it takes away your power and credibility.

The reverse is doubly unsatisfying: nobody wants the victim who always needs to be paid early because his finances are a disaster. Bringing the drama of your everyday life to the office by asking for special favors (especially getting your check early) not only kills your chances at a promotion, it lowers your status in the office considerably.

No matter how small the business, companies’ systems are set in stone for a reason. It’s to prevent workplace sanfus where co-workers are placed in vulnerable positions that detract from office performance and pile on dysfunction.

Business environments, especially at small-mid sized companies like Forster-Thomas, can get very close and familial. If you want it to stay intimate, everyone has to follow the guidelines set in place and not kneel down for any little favor.

You’re going to get ahead at work only when you stop focusing on being liked or looking for others to break the rules for you. Offering leeway only serves to open a Pandora’s box, where the compromise snowballs into a bunch of he-saids and she-saids and workplace drama that gets you nowhere.

Know the rules and stick to them. You might like your co-workers. Really like them. But the only way you’re going to move up and maintain workplace relationships is keeping your power, your dignity and your favors to yourself.


Sexual puns in this article: 69

The One Thing We Don’t Want to Admit About Elliot Rodgers


SHOW DATE: MAY 28, 2014

Elliot Rodgers, who killed 6 people and injured 7 more near the University of California on a shooting spree, has left us thinking.

It’s disturbing what Rodgers did. But we get angry too. Really angry. And we fantasize about doing things to our co-workers.

Truth is, there’s a little bit of Elliot Rodgers in all of us. And if we don’t acknowledge this, our negative thoughts will fester, take form, and boil over

Elliot was indeed insane on some level. But we all daydream in the office, we all have that little bit of psycho. Everyone gets to a place in their heads where they get fed up. Dan Savage, the popular sex columnist and podcaster, admitted that the Columbine massacre was terrible. But, as a gay man in high school, he admits that if he had a gun, he wouldn’t know what he would have done.

We’re half-sane, and we’re not looking to hurt anyone physically, but we do sometimes rage. We do get angry. We get crazy inside and we want to do things to hurt people, verbally.

It’s not just about pulling out a gun. It’s the gossip we tell behind people’s backs, the lives we destroy by stealing jobs, spreading rumors, ruining careers. There’s a lot of ways we Elliot-Roger people.

To just sit and avoid the issue that you have a little bit of crazy, to watch the news and dismiss the fact that you have a bit of Elliot Rodgers in you, is just letting that anger grow.

It’s easy not to take anything away from this debacle, to say “I’ll never pick up a gun and point it at a human being.”

But we lash out and make mistakes all the time.

How can you stop your own version of Elliot Rodgers?

Here’s a few quick tips to quell that top before it blows:

1) Ask somebody else to speak to the co-worker: Don’t rely on this one too much. But if you’re overly emotional and can’t think straight because you’re mad at your co-worker, ask a third-party to intervene. Get them to send a moderate response over email, or get them to talk to the co-worker in person. You’re doing two things here: you’re letting go of your ego by not proving how “wrong” the other person is, and you’re allowing yourself time to cool.

2) Rehearse what you will say out loud: “You’re an asshole.” Sounds better in your head, doesn’t it? Now look at your face as you say it in the mirror. Rehearsing out loud is always a great indicator of whether what you’re about to incur more fury than pacify the conflict.

3) Wait a day or two: Let yourself cool for a day or two and you’ll find the issue losing importance in your mind. In the moment you’re crazed. Two days later you forget what you were even angry about.

Elliot Rodgers felt like the world was unfair to him. We feel like that in the workplace sometimes. Acknowledge it. Shine light on it. Don’t keep it in and let it fester, or it’ll end up hurting you and those around you.

Stop Complaining About Your Job – You’re Not Selling Tangerines in China


I’ve been traipsing through Asia over the past month—it’s one of those hybrid trips; a little work, a little play, a lot of airports, security checks, and death-defying taxi rides. For a hybrid trip, it turned out to be a lot more work than I expected. As much as I love meeting potential new clients and creating new business opportunities abroad—I have to say, holding yet another meeting while Beijing’s Forbidden City beckons through the window, unexplored, just sucks. Sometimes, I just hate being on the job.

After two weeks of more work, less play, Uncle David and I made to Yangshuo—a tourist town just south of Guilin, China, where the Li and Yulong Rivers meet.

Arriving in Yangshuo wasn’t as relaxing as we’d hoped. The “Shangri-La” hotel that Uncle David booked turned out to be Shangri-Less-Than-We-Could-Tolerate. This beaten-down hostel with no Wifi would have been charming, even adventurous with its breathtaking view of Yangzhou’s karsts mountains and jade green rice paddies (water buffalo included). But I’m not 25. This began our search for a new hotel as the sun set and the brownout flickered.

Two hours later, I finally found myself sitting in the Imperial Suite in the center of Yangshuo. Trust me, this isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. I didn’t feel like an Empress, I felt bedraggled, cheated, beaten-down, and angry at my life.

Then David pulled the curtain back in our air conditioned room to view the hopping nightlife on West Street—and there she was. A 60-year-old woman sitting by herself selling tangerines on a tourist-trap street at 10pm. She was bored out of her mind. Dozens of tourists walked past her without so much as a glance in. Still, she never stopped working. At her feet were two stacks of red plastic take-away bags. To the left, they were crunched up; to the right, they were expertly folded. I watched her carefully and neatly take a minute to fold each as if she were handling an Hermes scarf. She was clearly creating busywork to occupy her mind. Or was it pride of ownership? Whatever it was, anger wasn’t part of it.

hard working wedding ball lady

I watched her on and off until midnight, and I couldn’t take it anymore: Out of respect for her diligence and commitment—not to mention my own OCD appreciation for her folding skills—I ran downstairs, and purchased more tangerines than I could eat in a week. I think I spent about 12 yuan, or $2.

The next night, threading my way through a packed pedestrian street, I saw another woman. She was selling assorted fruit—bananas, oranges, passion fruit—on a woven-bamboo plate. People were pressing past her, annoyed, like she was the car clogging the expressway. But the way she kept the fruit neatly organized on that plate every time someone jostled it struck me again: pride of ownership. I will never know if she loves or hates her life, but one thing was obvious: nothing stopped her, she wasn’t complaining, she was doing her job the best she could. I bought another bundle of fruit I’d never finish.

hard working vegetable seller

The next day, Uncle David and I trekked 800 steps (that felt like 8000) up to the scenic vista called Moon Hill. We’re not in bad shape, but by the time we could get to the top, I was so sweaty and bedraggled I refused to let Uncle David memorialize the climb on his camera. The view was amazing, but my eye went straight for an elderly woman hunched protectively over a Styrofoam cooler filled with cold water bottles and Coca-Cola. I don’t know if I’ve met a happier person in China or anywhere. After I bought a bottle, she shoved a tattered journal into my hand and grinned ear to ear (bless all four of her teeth). The journal was full of notes and blessings from travelers worldwide. “Never thought I’d climb a mountain and find a 70-year-old woman at the top selling water!” said one, dated several years earlier. “Zheng climbs these 800 steps every day! God bless her.”

hard working moon hill lady

I admit—I’m a job complainer. Nobody thanks me enough, nobody appreciates me enough, I don’t get paid enough, I work too hard, my colleagues don’t understand, my mother doesn’t respect what I do…this is just the beginning of my list.

So, encountering these three women blew my mind. I can’t begin to compare what they go through on a daily basis to the ease, support, compensation, and appreciation I receive just for making it to work on a Monday. Not to mention the break I get most nights and weekends. Or the simple fact that I could consider taking a week off in Yangshuo between business trips in Beijing and Shanghai with my husband.

The change was immediate: stop complaining! Sometimes the wifi won’t work. Sometimes things suck. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want—in work and in life. I wanted to scratch my own eyes out the next day when Uncle David, beaming with childlike excitement, grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s go to the Chinese Nibble Fish Spa!” Nothing sounded worse to me in that moment than dunking my feet into a nasty aquarium (who knows how many people had been there that day) and let freaky frenzied fish nibble the dead skin from the soles of my feet. I could feel the complaints start to bubble up. I knew the drill: I would agree to go with David and do whatever stupid thing he was excited about today, and then complain the entire time. Misery loves company, and I can sometimes be a bit aggressive making sure those around me are as miserable as I am. But why do that to Uncle David? Why ruin it for him? In fact, why ruin it for myself?

That’s when I realized that the decision to have fun or be miserable was all in my head. I white-knuckled it, stuck my feet in the water, and turned around my whole attitude. I ended up having a great time and very soft feet.

We’re still in Yangshuo, and one of the clients we’ll be meeting next week in Shanghai just wrote and asked us to meet him at his favorite bagel restaurant—about an hour out of our way. Oh God. That was the last thing I wanted to do. Didn’t he understand that I didn’t know the Shanghai subway system and would probably get lost? Did he really think that a New Yorker who regularly eats the best bagels in the world would care about some knockoff Shanghai version? Or was this all an ego trip, to see how far out of my way I’d go to get his business?

Wow—I hadn’t even left China and I’d already forgotten the lesson of the three Chinese vendors. I’d forgotten how much fun I ended up having with the nibble fish. So I decided to change my iPhone screensaver to Zheng up on Moon Hill. Now I’m reminded of how to live a complaint-free life every time my phone rings.

I get that your life sucks sometimes. Like me, you are certain that no one respects your work and you’re annoyed that your family wants to go to Six Flags, when all you want to do is kick back. It’s so easy to complain, so easy to ruin the moment. So enjoy the three pictures I posted here. Put one up on your monitor at work. Put another up on your bathroom mirror. Put the final one in your wallet—and next time your spouse is excited to do something you aren’t, or your boss wants you to work overtime, or your mom complains you don’t call her enough—just look at one of these pictures. Remember what an amazing life you have. Be thankful, take pride of ownership—because only you own your life, and only you can sell yourself out to complaints, anger, and regret.

–Auntie Evan

The Secret to Sticking to Life-Changing Resolutions



We just got back from an amazing Asia trip, and it’s helped us get a new look on life and work.

We’re here to help you get a new perspective on yours.

The great thing about cathartic getaways is, whether you’re lying on the beach looking up at the stars or immersed in an entirely different culture, it really shakes up your life perspective.

On the plane from China, Auntie Evan made some serious resolutions (including no more wheat; gluten-free baby!). The decision that really stuck out, however, was his promise to stop complaining on the job.


How did he reach such a drastic resolution?

After the beautiful Dr. Seussian Silver Cave in Yangzhou, Auntie Evan and Uncle David get to their hotel room overlooking the town and nightlife.


Auntie Evan looked out the window and spotted this elderly Chinese woman folding plastic bags, slowly, one after another. From the left she took unfolded bags and laid them out neatly on the right, selling tangerines on the side for 5 cents a dozen.

After two hours, she was still there. After dinner, she was still there. She’s there for 12 hours a day.

And here Auntie Evan is complaining about not enough stamps in the office. In retrospect, his life is amazing, and so he decided to give up complaining about the petty things.

But Uncle David was immediately skeptical, curious how Auntie Evan is going to make this stick.

So we called up Roberto, our office manager at Forster-Thomas, on the show. After a hearty laugh, Roberto told Auntie Evan: “In the last 24 hours I wanted to murder you so many times.”

The latest Auntie Evan complaint? A newly broken lock on the file cabinet.

The lesson? When you overlook the 1000 things your co-workers, employees or interns do for you and focus on the single tiny thing that wasn’t done right, it makes those around you at work (and life) question if they’re actually good at their job, and it makes them question if they really want to work there in the first place.

That’s not the message you want to send people.

We get that creating real change in your life is not easy. But we’ve got a streamlined process for anybody who has a resolution or wants to change their behavior and stick with it:

1) First off, keep that moment that first inspired you to jump into action alive (Auntie Evan took a photo of Folding Bag Woman).

2) Empower someone to keep you on track and call you out when you derail.

3) You can’t make the person you give power regret their role by punishing them every time they tell you what you told them to tell you (read that over).

Have people around you act as a support system and let yourself be helped. That life-changing resolution will stick.

Sure Signs That You Need a Vacation NOW



Your body might be telling you that you need a vacation ASAP.

We read an interesting article by’s Jeff Haden, where Haden interviewed Jeremiah Bishop, a pro mountain bike racer.

Bishop, being a high-performance athlete, knows his body really well. He gave some excellent indicators that you may need a vacation NOW:

1) Check your emotions: if you’re having emotional mood swings that put you out of character, that’s one sign you need a vacation.

2) Check your weight: Bishop says that if you’re having 1% swings in your weight per day, you’re in trouble. Your weight fluctuations are a sign you need to stop stressing and haul your ass to the nearest plane.

2) Check your urine: as a village drunk once said: “The piss is in the details!” If your body is exasperated, you tend to get dehydrated more often, which causes your urine to be darker.


Co-Worker on Vacation? Time to Prove Your Mettle



If your co-worker or supervisor is going on vacation, let your evil side come out and use the their absence as a way to get a promotion.



Did we say evil? We meant EFFECTIVE.

It doesn’t mean steal their job necessarily–although Auntie Evan has done that before–but this gives you a great opportunity to prove your mettle.

In fact, while working as a guidance counselor for a nonprofit, Auntie Evan got to prove his worth when a co-worker went away for vacation. The nonprofit liked his work so much better that they promoted Auntie Evan to a supervisory role.

Instead of taking it easy when your co-workers are on vacation, step it up, especially if it’s your supervisor that’s away; they’re nervous about everything staying in order while they’re away, so once they come back and see how you’ve maintained peace and avoided snafu, only good things will come.