After taking a morning bike ride with the wife, it was a perfect Sunday to sit back and enjoy one of the cinematic masterpieces of my generation – Office Space. I’m not quite sure how many times I’ve seen it, but I know I used to own it on VHS. This time I had one of those reflectional moments where I watched it and realized that this movie influenced me and my values at a very young age.
Released in 1999, I was a junior in high school and saw it when it came out in theaters. While I didn’t have any prior office-related jobs, it still seemed to resonate with me. I knew one thing – I didn’t want that to be me. Seven years later I was thrust into the same environment I once knew I would loathe. I drove to a huge office complex and stored my car in a huge parking deck. I was connected to a telephone headset like it was my umbilical cord. I spent my 40 hours working so that I could afford the suburban luxuries of Plano, Texas.
Needless to say, that didn’t pan out (Countrywide Home Loans circa 2007) and I soon found myself at another cube farm in Dallas. This time, I endured an even further drive down the Dallas North Tollway and I was shackled in front of a computer for 50 hours a week. This is the point where I had my Peter Gibbons revelation: “What am I doing?” No, seriously, “Is this what I envisioned when I was younger?” Having just fully renovated my home and sold it, I had a sense of fulfillment that wasn’t able to be obtained by just going to work.
A few other movies had come out during my time as a youth that also influenced my core values. Surprisingly, they were released in the same year as Office Space, 1999. Those movies were Fight Club and American Beauty.
The most memorable thing I took from Fight Club is the IKEA scene where Tyler Durden is narrating how his materialism represents everything he works for. I knew at a young age that I didn’t want my living room set to define me either. What’s ironic is that I used to drive past the huge blue and yellow Swedish beacon on the Dallas North Tollway each and every day coming back home to my apartment in Frisco, Texas. It’s a love/hate relationship with my Scandinavian roots.
While American Beauty might be an extremely dramatic take on suburban life, it still exemplifies that what is neat and tidy on the outside isn’t always as it appears on the inside. Lester (Kevin Spacey) feels so sedated by what is happening around him that he takes drastic measures. We learn that working so hard at your job doesn’t necessarily mean that things around you will take care of themselves.
At the time these movies were released, I was working for a “mom & pop” movie store in Geneva, Illinois. Just after I graduated high school, Blockbuster took over the movie rental market in town. So, it should come as no surprise that my employer (the small neighborhood movie store) was force to close. The suburban sprawl that I frequently talk about affected me at an early age. Seeing on film that older generations didn’t feel happy with the path that “mindless” living took them down, something had to change.
Each of these movies also provides a lesson of how not to change your path – laundering money, blowing up buildings, and having chaotic relationships isn’t the way to do it – but it did sell a lot of DVD’s. I may have hit my breaking point with materialism, driving mindlessly, and working hard so that my company’s shares might go up a couple of cents, so I needed to change my path.
Before leaving Texas for Illinois, I started my own company in which my goal is to build a better environment. Making a better place matters and the everyday people in such places matter. In the words of Lester Burnham, “I have lost something. I’m not sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this sedated. But you know what – it’s never too late to get it back.” I encourage everyone to join their local Main Street organization, drive less, pay attention to how and where you spend your money, and most of all, get involved.