Book Review: Escape from Cubicle Nation

September 20, 2011

Pamela Slim’s Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur is the bible for the self-employed—and those burned out on the corporate world who’d like to become independent. Despite the ongoing recession, the book retains its timeliness. Though there may now be fewer people wishing to escape the corporate world and more wishing they could once again be part of it, the book remains important for those stuck in dead-end corporate positions as well as the unemployed looking for a way to thrive in the downsized economy. If you work independently, would like to work on your own, or see no other option than to build your own business, this book is indispensable.

Escape from Cublicle Nation Book CoverSlim divides her book into four sections, but more broadly speaking there are just two: what I’d call the Excitement section and the Reality section. The first is more entertaining, but the second more essential.

In her opening chapter, “I Have a Fancy Title, Steady Paycheck, and Good Benefits. Why Am I So Miserable?,” Slim assures readers that they aren’t crazy for wanting something more or different. The myriad problems of the corporate world largely come down to a single element: poor leadership. Too many companies expect their people to give extraordinary effort and self-sacrifice in exchange for a dysfunctional work environment, endless stress and little if any long-term job security. Her “Open Letter to CXOs Across the Corporate World,” originally written as blog post (which caught the attention of Guy Kawasaki, who helped it go viral) on the inadequacies of corporate leadership, is worth the cost of the book on its own. A brief excerpt:

“Don’t spend millions of dollars to try and change your culture. Corporate culture is a natural thing that can’t be manufactured. No amount of posters, incentive programs, PowerPoint presentations or slogans on websites will affect the hearts and minds of your employees. If you want to see things change immediately, stop acting like an asshole. If you see one of your senior managers acting like an asshole, ask him to stop. If he doesn’t stop, fire him. You will be amazed at how fast the culture shifts.”

The remainder of section 1 is by turns frustrating, funny and exhilarating as Slim skewers corporate groupthink, addresses fears real and imagined, and helps the reader imagine a better world. But she notes that self-employment isn’t a magical path to happiness and isn’t right for everyone. I’d add that for some people unhappy in their current corporate roles, working to improve the situation internally, transferring to a different department or location, or getting a different job may be better alternatives than striking out on their own. How do you know?

On key test Slim provides is a quote from author Jim Collins:

“He referred to the ultimate work situation as your ‘sweet spot.’ This is the intersection of three interlocking circles:

  • • The first circle is ‘what people will pay you to do’—marketable skills and abilities that you have developed over your working life.
  • • The second is ‘that which you have great passion for’—areas of interest, hobbies, ideas, or causes that make your heart race.
  • • The third, and most elusive, is ‘that which you are genetically encoded to do’—the things that you were brought on this earth to accomplish that no one else on the planet can do as well as you.”

For some people, that “sweet spot” will necessarily be found only as part of a larger organization (even if not with their current employer or employment situation). For others, however, independence is the answer. And it for those souls that the second section of the book is crucial.

The tone as well as the content in the second part of the book shifts. Actually making the move to self employment is far different from sitting in a gray cubicle and imagining it. And Slim has high goals for this book; it’s about creating a new life, not just a new career. “Your life plan lays out the specific ways that your life would be structured to provide for maximum enjoyment and productivity. When done well, it is not a pie-in-the-sky vision; it is a blueprint for designing a great business.”

The second section covers all of the key considerations those contemplating (or jumping into) self-employment need to address: choosing the right business idea, recruiting help (mentors and connections), writing a business plan, making financial adjustments, shopping for benefits and more. Among the highlights:

  • • Great advice on how to determine whether you really have a great business idea (e.g.,  “you have a unique approach, skill, or capability that will allow you to serve this need better than anyone else…your target market not only is interested in what you have to offer, but has the money to pay for what you are selling”) or just an expensive hobby (“when you discuss the idea with people who would be the target market for your product or service, they are either overcome by an embarrassing silence or are direct like Michael Bolton from [the movie] Office Space and say ‘That is the worst business idea I have ever heard.'”).
  • • How to recruit a team of advisors, connections and mentors who will help you make your business successful through investment, guidance, introductions and more. She calls this your “High Council of Jedi Knights.”
  • • How to develop “natural networking” ability (another section that is worth the price of the book in itself). She expands on key approaches including being interested, noticing what’s important to the person you are networking with, asking for an introduction, and being nice to everyone. Much of may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how uncommon these skills really are.
  • • How to write a business plan. Slim helpfully lays a series of “blocks” critical to any business plan that help organize thoughts,  create a natural flow, and include all of the essential elements needed to raise funds and simply make sure no important details are overlooked.
  • • Ignore competitors. Okay, not completely of course, but don’t obsess about them. This is great advice not only for solopreneurs but for established businesses as well. Steve Jobs never worried about what his competitors were doing; he focused on creating things were new, cool and that customers would love. As Slim puts this, “When you shift your focus from understanding who your competitors are to spending half your time thinking about them, you have ceded your own power. In essence, you are choosing the role of follower and not leader. Focus on what is exciting, special, unique, and revolutionary about your own business.”
  • • Avoid corporatespeak. The second section of the book, though more direct and down to earth than the first, isn’t without its own gems. Slim recommends getting a “gang member coach” (okay, perhaps not literally) to help you “keep it real.” Discussing a meeting where a corporate CXO was droning on in meaningless corporate buzzwords, she imagines having a gang member in the room:

“Joe, VP of Alliance Partnerships: ‘And as you can see from my deck, by creating a strategic partnership that focuses on key enablers of the new paradigm, we can leverage out-of-the-box thinking and deliver an integrated solution to our end-users.’

Juan, the Gang Member Coach: ‘Joe, what the f**k are you talking about?’

In five minutes or less, Joe, the stammering vice president, would have to explain in clear, plain terms what he was trying to say.”

Leaving the corporate world to pursue independence is not a move to be taken lightly, and Slim gives this decision the gravity it deserves, along with practical, comprehensive and thoughtful guidance on how to first determine if such a move is right for you, and then how to execute if the answer is “yes.” The grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence, but it definitely tastes different. You’ll be giving up a steady paycheck, benefits and paid vacations for income diversification (having multiple clients means your entire income isn’t based on the fortunes of any single enterprise), scheduling flexibility, and no more rush hour commutes.

If you love the corporate world and the thought of striking out on your own scares the pants off you, this book isn’t for you. But if you are considering blazing your own trail or are new to working independently, Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur is a must-read vital resource.

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7 Responses

  1. Jamie 

    “If you see one of your senior managers acting like an asshole, ask him to stop. If he doesn’t stop, fire him. You will be amazed at how fast the culture shifts.” ~ I wish there were true. However it is the same arseholes and kiss-arsers leaders that stay and get promoted. How could higher management be so oblivious to this kinds of people?

  2. Tom 

    Sadly true Jamie. That’s why the best people leave (when they can) and the drones hang on. At least, too often.

  3. darren 

    I haven’t read the book yet but this review definitely makes me want to. I have been working behind a cubicle for 7 years now and I have never felt so unsatisfied and restless in my entire life. There’s that feeling of void and emptiness. It’s like being stuck in a rut. This book might help me figure out what’s the best way to go and make it on my own instead, considering that my life is already built around the internet anyway. Great review! Thanks 😉

  4. Tom 

    No worries Darren, thanks for the kind words. Best of luck in whatever you decide to do next!

  5. Jamey 

    I’ve also read this book so I am not sure why I read your entire review. But I did and would also like to add some points. I hope you don’t think I’m being rude, I just thought I could give some honest opinion as well.

    First off I just wanted to say I fully FULLY agree when you say, “broadly speaking there are just two [sections]: what I’d call the Excitement section and the Reality section.”

    I was really excited reading the first section but then got really bored in the reality section. Did you? I mean was it just the nature of the content or is Pam not that great a writer. I mean I read Four Hour Work Week in a single night and this book (even though much thicker) took me over a month to get through. I was simply bored reading it.

    I am 26 and actually did quit my job after reading this book…but this book had nothing to do with it. I found this is a good book for my parents. People who are more engrained in the 9-5 grind as oppose to younger less brainwashed like me who already basically knew everything she says namely, corporation are dumb, avoid corporate speak sort a thing. Does this make sense? I dunno, i just didn’t really like the book because I felt that even though I was aggressively trying to escape cubicle nation the book was very drawn out (read: detailed) and it was far off an enjoyable read for me. Call me a Tim Ferris fan boy but Four Hour Work Week did leaps and bounds more for me than this.

    Cheers for your review and I hope you respect my honest opinion as I’m just saying the book didn’t suite my style…


  6. Tom 

    Thanks Jamy, I felt the same way. I think Pam was trying to paint a fair picture of the reality of going independent and present information on topics that people really need to consider (e.g., health insurance), but the second half of the book does seem somewhat drawn out and lacks the energy of the first half. Still, I think it’s an important read for anyone seriously considering making this leap.

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