What The Fountainhead Illustrates about Toxic Corporate Culture

Ayn Rand's novel is also a triumphant ode to the entrepreneur.

“I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom.”  –  Ayn Rand in “Anthem”

“I would have to think on a nice, clean job. I don’t want to think. Not their way. It will have to be their way, no matter where I go.”

These words were spoken by Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s 1943 best seller, The Fountainhead. The book is about an idealistic, misunderstood architect who clings to his integrity even though it costs him everything.

Roark realizes that a cushy office job will do violence to his soul.

Roark makes this statement to his friend and building partner, Mike Donnigan, after turning down a lucrative opportunity to build a bank building. Roark turned down the offer because the board of directors of the bank wanted to substantially change his blueprints, turning his building into something other than he intended. However, Roark  –  Ayn Rand’s “ideal, heroic man”  –  is unwilling to compromise his standards for money, or anything else.

Financially, Roark really needed that commission. By this point in the story, he is getting almost no work. People won’t hire him because his buildings are too “out there” (innovative). His bills are in arrears, and his architectural firm is at risk of going out of business. Yet Roark still refuses to compromise on his values.

Mike offers to help Roark get a job in some corporate architecture firm, but Roark refuses. Instead, Roark asks Mike for a job in a stone quarry because Roark would rather break rocks than be forced to “think their way”. Another way to put it: Roark realizes that a cushy office job will do violence to his soul. “Company men” will try to force him to think about his work the way they do, and Roark realizes that it will be the same story “no matter where I go”.

So, in the words of Sinatra, Roark decides to do it his way.

“There are some rules I’m perfectly willing to obey,” Roark explained. “I’m willing to wear the kind of clothes everybody wears, to eat the same food and use the same subways. But there are some things which I can’t do their way.”

Entrepreneurs Can Relate

Though perhaps not intended as such, I see in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead a scathing indictment of the conformity, politicking and mediocrity that exists in corporate environments. I also see a triumphant ode to the entrepreneur.

In many places the novel pits the competent against the conniving, and nowhere is this more evident than in the average corporate office. I’ve experienced this soul-numbing power struggle in every single corporate job I’ve ever had. As an entrepreneur, I can definitely relate to Roark’s feelings.

For many of us, the average work environment represents every attempt to annihilate rationality and ability. In The Fountainhead, as in many corporate environments, those whose priority is the product are often subject to those whose priority is power and position. These toxic work environments often turn into places where creativity takes a backseat to conformity and productive achievement is trumped by political ploys.

In the words of author David Bolchover, the typical office environment is one where “image counts more than product, seduction more than production.” The average office, Bolchover laments, is characterized by the “dominance of image over reality, of obfuscation over clarity, politics over performance.”

That’s been my experience of corporate America  –  to a “T”. So, I can understand why Roark said what he said to Mike. There have been many times during my entrepreneurial journey when I’ve wanted to do anything but work another office job.

We entrepreneurs feel as if we have something great inside of us. Along with Rand, we want to live out a heroic adventure, a life spent manifesting our rationality and ability. Unfortunately, for many of us, the average work environment represents every attempt to annihilate that rationality and ability.

“Men are brothers,” said Kent Lansing, a supporter of Roark who shares his worldview. “And they have a great instinct for brotherhood  –  except in boards, unions, corporations and other chain gangs.”

One reason I became an entrepreneur is because I can’t stand inefficiency, irrationality or waste. But so much of what is done on the job amounts to wasting time and resources. You spend so much emotional, mental, even physical energy doing things the wrong way simply because you’re ordered to. You’re often required to do things inefficiently, even to do things that make no damned sense. Much of the decision making in these places is arbitrary and whimsical, and corporate shills go out of their way to preserve this madness.

Any entrepreneur will tell you that doing what we do takes an indomitable spirit.

By contrast, entrepreneurship is about that sensible, pointed focus that gets things done. It’s about resourcefulness and ingenuity, industry and efficiency. Entrepreneurship is a supremely rational affair, as Rand might have said.

The Suffering Creator

But for all the crumminess of the cubicle, entrepreneurship is no picnic, either. Being an entrepreneur takes incredible grit and perseverance. As builders of the amazing, creators of our own jobs, we entrepreneurs are thwarted at seemingly every turn. And so was Howard Roark.

“Men like you and me,” said Kent Lansing to Roark, “would not survive … if they did not acquire the patience of an … executioner. And the hide of a battleship.” Tolstoy once said, “Time and patience are the two greatest warriors.” Both Rand and Tolstoy could have been talking about entrepreneurship.

Any entrepreneur will tell you that doing what we do takes an indomitable spirit. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. If you’re going to choose the path of the entrepreneur, then you had better be prepared for some exquisite suffering.

In the novel, the suffering of the creator is perhaps best exemplified by the character of Steven Mallory, a gifted sculptor who, like Roark, is unable to sculpt in accordance with his values and convictions. As a result, over time he becomes an emotionally unstable, violent drunk on the verge of being unemployable. That is, until Roark befriends him.

Not being allowed to get this thing out to the world causes an ache that no corporate job can alleviate.

Roark is able to look past Mallory’s faults and see the real genius inside. Now, I’m not saying that all entrepreneurs are geniuses  –  I don’t use the word ‘genius’ lightly. But I would say that we all long for someone to see the real us  –  to see the vision of greatness that is burning us up inside.

For some of us, we just don’t get that chance to show the real us working in the corporate cube. That causes us extraordinary grief, as it did with Steven Mallory. That’s why Roark wonders whether “there is more suffering in Steven Mallory when he can’t do the work he wants to do, than in a whole field of victims mowed down by a tank?”

When I first read that line, the words jumped off the page and smacked me across the face.

“That’s it! That’s exactly how I feel!” I thought to myself. “What I’m creating is like a fire shut up in my bones.” Not being allowed to get this thing inside of me out to the world causes an ache that no corporate job can alleviate.

The Entrepreneur’s Basic Need

There’s a reason for that ache. “The basic need of the creator is independence,” Roark said. “The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself.” Now, no creator creates in a pure vacuum  –  and for the entrepreneur, without a customer or audience, you can’t get very far. But the difference between the entrepreneur and the ordinary worker is that the former desperately yearns to be the majority shareholder of his productive achievement.

There can be nobility in all work.

Let me put it this way. One of the things I’ve always hated about working at a regular job is the fact that I’m making someone else rich. Think about it. You slave away, 8, 9, 10 hours or more, every day, at a job which probably doesn’t fulfill you  –  and you do all that to make someone else rich?! And in today’s world, where 50% of all jobs are contract, temp or permalance, company execs are giving less and less and expecting more and more.

I want to be clear here: it’s not only about the money or the benefits. It’s fundamentally about self-esteem. I’ll tell you the truth: I would rather work 80 hours a week making $40,000 a year doing something that’s mine than work 40 hours a week making $80,000 a year doing something that’s someone else’s.

And why?

Because nothing brings a creator as much pleasure or makes him feel as good about himself as his own masterpiece.

“Men have been taught every precept that destroys the creator. Men have been taught dependence as a virtue,” Roark said. “The choice is independence or dependence … Man’s first duty is to himself. His moral law is never to place his prime goal within the persons of others.”

If you’re an entrepreneur, chances are that working for others will not be enough to satisfy you.

Now please don’t mistake me. I’m enough of realist to know that someone has to work those 9 to 5 gigs. In fact, most of us have to do it, myself included. Even Roark had to take the quarry job when business dried up. I’m not putting anyone down for where she works, and there can be nobility in all work.

All I’m saying is, if you’re an entrepreneur, chances are that working for others will not be enough to satisfy you  –  and, in fact, may do more to harm you than help you, psychologically.

The desire for independence is one of the deepest forces within the entrepreneur, and it’s the main theme of The Fountainhead. This desire is why we entrepreneurs find it so difficult to work for others. There is something deep within us, in a place almost too sacred for words, that yearns for freedom and independence and refuses to settle for anything less.

Reprinted from Medium.

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