7 Secrets About Life and Career From "Office Space"

Let’s get one thing clear — I don’t think Mike Judge wrote the movie “Office Space” to help people improve their career prospects or “find themselves.” It’s a funny, and searing, indictment on the modern workplace (aka cubicle farms), and it did the job so well, it’s become one of the best-selling DVDs ever.

But when you get beneath the oft-repeated quotes (“Hey Peter, what’s happening,” “Looks like someone has a case of the Mun-days,” and “I believe you have my stapler”) there’s a lot more to “Office Space” than great satire.

So let’s look at seven work and life lessons we can all learn from the movie. (See also: Financial Lessons From "The Hunger Games")

1. Life’s Too Short to Work at a Job You Hate

Peter Gibbons hates his job. Every day is a prison sentence. In fact, he confesses to a shrink that every day is the worst day of his life:

So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life.

His best friends and co-workers Michael Bolton and Samir Nagheenanajar also dislike their jobs but not with the same disdain and loathing as Peter. Even the squirrelly Milton Waddams has major issues, as he is constantly moved and demoted. And across the street, Peter’s girlfriend Joanna hates her job at Chotchkie’s, where flair must be worn to keep the customers happy.

In short, everybody in “Office Space” seems to hate their jobs.

In a bad economy, people are thankful to have any job at all, so advising you all to quit your awful jobs and wait for something better to come along is not what I have in mind. But if you don’t have a better job lined up, work at making your current job easier to tolerate. Many of the big problems are never going to change, but you can change your outlook on them. I’ve done it myself, and sometimes I have to remind myself to do it or fall into the trap of whining and complaining. Don’t let hate, anger, and apathy rule your working life.

2. You Have the Ability to Change Your Work Environment

Directly related to the point above, "Office Space" shows us what happens when a guy who hates his job makes it completely livable. When Peter gets hypnotized by the psychiatrist, his paradigm shifts. He decides to lay in bed all day and not go into the office on the weekend. He becomes completely honest with “the Bobs,” the consultants brought in to make staff cut recommendations, and it does him credit. He removes one of the walls of his cubicle to see the scenery. He changes what was seemingly unchangeable, and he becomes better for it.

Sleeping in all day when we should be at work is probably not an option for most of us. We can’t go hacking up the furniture and building. But we can make changes, however small, that help us out. If you really hate your work environment, see if you can change it. Maybe you can be moved to a different area. Maybe you can get a better view. Is the lighting awful? Can you have it switched off, and bring in your own ambient lighting? Can you work flexible hours, maybe to avoid bad traffic or work around a schedule you prefer? Employers are more accommodating than you’d think, and even the smallest changes could make a big difference to your happiness.

3. Your Dreams Can Come True (in the Strangest Ways)

Consider Tom Smykowski, the mustachioed anxiety-ridden “people person” who was one of the first to get axed by “the Bobs.” He had an idea. Not a great idea. Not even a mediocre idea. It was the “Jump to Conclusions” mat, and it was his version of the Pet Rock. Basically, he took the Twister mat concept and put different conclusions on it, that the user could them jump to.

As Michael Bolton said, with a sigh, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard in my life...”

But it was Tom’s baby. He loved it. We wanted it to happen. And when he got fired, his failed suicide attempt resulted in a bizarre accident that got him a seven-figure settlement from the auto insurance company.

Yes, he was in a neck brace and back brace, he and broke every major bone in his body. But he was also the creator of the Jump to Conclusions mat! His dream came true, and at a time when he should have been at his lowest.

So whether you have a terrible idea like the Jump to Conclusions mat, or something that actually has a chance of being bought and used, never give up on your dream. Life has this habit of delivering right when you least expect it.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Visit the Therapist

If you’re having major problems with your job, your direction in life, or even your relationship, then do not rule out therapy. Most insurance plans cover therapy with a co-pay for at least a few months of weekly sessions. And once you get over the hurdle of admitting you need help, those sessions can help you find some balance and peace.

Peter went to an occupational therapist who tried to hypnotize him, and during the process, the therapist died and left Peter in a trance. The trance became the most significant improvement in his adult life. Or at least, it was the catalyst.

Therapy can be a great way to help you relieve some of the burden. Talking about your problems can help you resolve them. And you could finally figure out the direction you want to take in life, if you haven’t done so already.

5. Deal With Small Irritations Before They Become Big Problems

Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. Just a moment! Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. Just a moment! Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. Just a moment! Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. Just a moment!

If you hear that hour after hour, day after day, eventually you’re going to snap. And you can’t snap if you want to keep your job.

Find a way to neutralize the little annoyances before the straw breaks the camel’s back. Maybe it requires the wearing of headphones or moving to a different place in the building. Sometimes all it takes is a little conversation. I have heard stories at my current job of a woman who used to spray perfume and deodorant at least once an hour. There was a cloud of the stuff hanging over her cubicle. It was resolved with just a quick conversation, but not after several people went months complaining to each other but not to the person who could do something about it.

6. It’s Not a Good Job If It Makes You Unhappy

Two people in the movie start out with what many would consider “good jobs” only to end up with jobs that most would consider awful. Peter goes from working an office job, with a suit, tie, and business card, to cleaning up on a construction crew. He’s happier with his hard hat and shovel, working in the sunshine, than he ever was in his grey cubicle.

We also meet Steve, a guy selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. He pretends to be a former crack addict, but he’s actually a former software engineer, just like Peter, who now makes more money selling magazines. And he likes it.

So, don’t think that the job you’re in is the one you need to stay in. Don’t even think the career you chose is set in stone. Life gives us plenty of chances to change paths. We can retrain. We can set up our own home businesses. I’ve talked to several people this week who quit corporate jobs to start eBay businesses, work their own hours, and avoid the kind of stress that comes with corporate politics.

7. Get Your Facts Straight Before You Act

There are several instances in “Office Space” that illustrate the dangers of hearing things second hand, or misunderstanding what you’ve been told.

Peter believes his girlfriend once had a relationship with his boss, Bill Lumbergh, a vile, soulless pig of a man. Turns out it was a different Lumbergh, but that didn’t stop them almost breaking up.

Peter assumes that the software he installed to steal fractions of pennies from his company would result in a lenient, country club prison sentence with conjugal visits. He was way off.

Michael assumes that because he works hard, and Peter is flaky, it will be Peter that will be the one getting marching orders from the efficiency experts. Actually, both he and his friend Samir are getting the ax. Peter is getting a promotion.

You never know what anyone’s plans are until you see them yourself or you hear them from several legitimate sources. So, don’t worry about rumors, and don’t play the gossip games. They will only hurt you and your career.

Can you recall any work/life lessons from "Office Space" I may have missed? Please share them in comments!

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Guest's picture

If you dont stand up for yourself, you will get taken advantage of (moved, office supplies taken, more)

Guest's picture

Decisionmakers are like wolves - if you put out fear, they assume you are weak and attack. If you are completely confident, even the greatest incompetence seems to roll right off of you. (I wish I could say this isn't true, but I've seen it at work enough times)