Pretty Prisons, Golden Handcuffs and Caged Birds

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In our travels we are often treated to tours of workplaces. We’ve walked through company kitchens stocked with breakfast cereal and multiple beers on tap. We’ve stepped around dogs resting under desks. We’ve seen rooms dedicated to ping-pong, foosball, and video games.

It doesn’t take much Google-fu to find companies going even further and offering nap rooms, onsite gyms, yoga classes, chef service, ‘speakeasies’ and even overnight apartment spaces.

We’re Working Longer

It’s not hard to understand the desire for more workplace perks. Our average work-week in the USA is approaching 50 hours. In order to give our employers that much time we need some extra services in return.

We also have to work that long in order to pay for the golden handcuffs we’ve willingly held out our wrists for, inflated lifestyles on the left hand and ever-bigger homes on the right.

But We Aren’t Happy

Big house, big life, fancy office with plenty of perks yet most of us are unhappy with our jobs.

Add in a public school schedule, sports, drama, soccer, and church and we’re never home to enjoy what we’re working so hard to pay for.

The stuff keeps piling up and it’s easier to rent storage than deal with it. At this point we are in the warehousing business whether we realize it or not.

Pretty Prisons

It’s not a bad thing to want a fun company culture. It’s not a bad thing to enjoy working in nice offices. It’s not bad to want a nice house in the suburbs.

But be careful about the world that you are creating for yourself.  Are you building yourself a pretty prison?

  • Accept that job knowing the hours will be long? There’s a brick.
  • Adopt that dog because you can bring it to work? There’s a brick.
  • Sign a loan for a boat? There’s a brick.
  • Sign up for 401K plan with a long vesting period? There’s a brick.
  • Start working later because it’s easy and supper is provided? There’s a brick.
  • Start buying a $5/day cup of coffee on the way in every day? There’s a brick.
  • Move that box of unused stuff to the garage rather than all the way out to the curb? There’s a brick.

Prisons are about limitations. Restrictions. Immobility. Loss of control. Once safely locked into your pretty prison what happens if the job goes away? What happens if the housing market tanks? What happens if one of you gets sick?

Which Bird?

The 1983 poem by Maya Angelou compares two birds - one caged and one free:

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams  
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream  
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied  
so he opens his throat to sing.Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou

Our first preference may be for the caged bird because we get to enjoy the song. A closer look helps us understand the song isn’t a gift. It’s a plea.

Do You Sing?

Are you singing away while held hostage in a pretty prison of your own making?

Or are you free?

Break Out of Prison

Successful prison breaks are rarely figured out on the fly. It took years to plan a recent prison break in New York.

Getting out of the suburbs isn’t much different. It will take time. You’ll have to find a route and avoid obstacles. You’ll have to ignore a whole bunch of people who don’t want you to leave. You’ll have to figure out how to support yourself once out.

But the first step?

Seeing that prison for what it is.

Our culture will sell you that prison as the “American Dream”.

But we know better.

8 Comments Pretty Prisons, Golden Handcuffs and Caged Birds

  1. Picture of Lou Lou December 28, 2015

    Well said. Such a fitting time to write an article for us to read. We are in that position , recognizing the prison and planning our escape.  Definitely appreciate you sharing your knowledge along the way, it has been extremely helpful.

  2. Picture of Michael Boyink Michael Boyink December 28, 2015

    Thanks for the comment Lou…good to know someone is reading! ;)

  3. Picture of Jon Jon December 31, 2015

    Great post, Michael.  Recognizing the bricks for what they really are is the first step in escaping from our own pretty prison.  Thanks for all the work you do writing these posts on DS - it’s one of the best resources on the web and definitely one of my favorites!

  4. Picture of Michael Boyink Michael Boyink December 31, 2015

    Thanks Jon - that means a lot.

    I love writing these more thought-provoking pieces as they force me to think deeply about the issue as well.

    The downside is most of the traffic to the site is around the more practical/how-to content.

    We’re in the middle of evaluating things here on the site and planning out the content for the next year - so hearing this type of content is appreciated helps.

  5. Picture of Seung Seung January 06, 2016

    Have you seen the movie, My Dinner with Andre?  There are some good quotes and dialogue that discuss many of the same things that you point out.  It’s an interesting movie.

  6. Picture of Michael Boyink Michael Boyink January 06, 2016

    Hi Seung -

    Haven’t seen that one - we’ll look for it!

  7. Picture of Jody Jody April 27, 2016

    These articles are so thought-provoking. I agree with your sentiments, it’s very important that you are saying these things. Probably more people than you realize agree. Even if they can’t do all the things you have, its inspiring to make the changes they can, now.

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