"Its employees often work long, hard hours yet enjoy just about the most comfortable office environment around—call it a velvet sweatshop."
So ended (as memory serves) an article about Microsoft that appeared one day in a local Seattle paper. Whether the reporter's colorful analogy was meant to express admiration or not, we proudly took it as our hallmark. Within weeks someone had made up and distributed several hundred "Velvet Sweatshop" T-shirts.
These aptly portrayed what Microsoft looked like on the inside, but it didn't do justice to the energy. For this, one might choose from many good adjectives: creative, dynamic, driven, and so on. But one word, in particular, stands out—a word that, to my recollection, was once and only once given its full, proper expression.
The unique historical event took place in the year 1990 at Microsoft's annual company meeting. Microsoft's revenues had just surpassed the highly symbolic $1 billion level. Everyone was thrilled. The late Frank Gaudette, Microsoft's well-loved Chief Financial Officer at the time, presented the news and, in his usual soft-spoken manner, repeatedly mentioned just how much he liked the sound of that word "billion."
Frank then turned the podium over to one who was, vocally speaking, his diametric opposite: Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's number two man behind Bill Gates.
It was Steve's usual form to come sprinting onstage and immediately turn the meeting into a boisterous pep rally.[*] We usually heard him, in fact, before seeing him. Today, however, he was clearly in a rare mood. He approached the podium with a deliberate, even dignified gait, and just stood there, calm and quiet, gazing about him with penetrating eyes until the thousands of geeks, nerds, and techno-weenies present were utterly silent.
Then with a quick inhalation he thrust his mouth at the microphone and thundered I N – T E N S E ! ! ! In an instant we were all on our feet, simultaneously startled and inspired by Microsoft's principal cheerleader into the kind of celebratory tumult that the occasion demanded. I can't think of anyone who wasn't magnetized by Steve's enthusiasm! We all carried it back to work with us for months.
For most of the time I worked there, Microsoft's very halls radiated an intensity that I've rarely experienced anywhere else. You could just feel that it was alive, a place where new and wonderful things were being born every day. And you could see it in the people—the light in their eyes, the determination in their wills, and the joy in their hearts. They were the engines that powered the Microsoft Machine.
Of course, an engine that burns too hot will eventually seize up. Where people are concerned, the fires of enthusiasm and aspiration must be kept in balance: working for months with minimal sleep, little exercise, a poor diet, and literally no life to speak of outside the office is a sure recipe for burnout. It goes without saying that many employees in the Velvet Sweatshop suffered this fate.
At the same time, many others went on for years and even decades with few signs of strain or fatigue. Why? Thriving within Microsoft's radioactive aura, they realized that intensity—that is, being "in tension"—must be balanced by periods of relaxation. They intuitively understood that tension—a by-product of all striving—is not in and of itself a bad thing. Prolonged tension, on the other hand, has to be checked, for it invariably leads to over-exertion and exhaustion. Naturally, then, one must take an occasional break from one's professional responsibilities.[†]
However, the solution here is not to just collapse on a couch and watch television for a week. Passivity is only the negative counterpart to intense activity. Sure, it might feel good for a time, but in the end it serves only to deaden one's energy altogether rather than regulate it. Regulation is the key. As many of us at Microsoft discovered, the trick was to balance the intensity of one's work with equally energetic fun. Instead of fighting against the dynamic flow of energy that permeated our work hours, we willingly allowed that flow to energize our leisure activities as well. In doing so, we found that all of life became radiant with a certain zestful vitality.[‡]
Indeed, many of those I knew at Microsoft could be truly classified as artists, even geniuses, in the field of creative relaxation. The born-and-bred programmers among us actually relaxed with "recreational" programming—they dreamt up new computer games (like those that some sharp product manager turned into the profitable Windows Entertainment Pack) or hacked existing ones to make them more interesting. For example, there was a popular 3-D shoot-em-up adventure game called Castle Wolfenstein (progenitor of many modern first-person shooter games). Apparently unsatisfied with its original gothic setting, someone changed the graphics so that the walls, doors, and hallways looked just like Microsoft's.
Those who were slightly more athletic in temperament were quite inventive with games situated in Microsoft's real hallways. Swing Around the Wing, for example, was an after-hours golf tournament held inside one of the original two-story X-shaped buildings at our corporate headquarters. Given a pitching wedge and a putter, the goal was to send a golf ball, in the fewest number of strokes, around a complete circuit of both floors, including the stairwells and elevators. Another game was a variant of indoor lawn-bowling for which we used the rolls of masking tape and white-board pens that were readily available in the supply rooms.
Outside the corporate hallways, the truly physical sorts had a reputation for getting into the extremes of sport, including but not limited to bungee jumping, unaided rock climbing, helicopter acrobatics, and simulated aerial combat in private jets. Others who weren't quite so daring (or wantonly rich) stuck to the more traditional forms of volleyball, softball, and soccer, played on Microsoft's own full-size fields. Other perennial favorites included hacky-sack, Ultimate Frisbee, and team juggling.
There were also those who indulged in the more cultural pastimes of art, music, and theater, more often as participants than spectators. Some joined the Microtones, our company choir, or were involved in the on-campus chapter of the Toastmasters. Others formed an art committee that browsed galleries and selected works to grace the halls and reception areas of every Microsoft building. Others independently sang opera, acted in plays, or danced ballet.
Then there were those of us who, lacking stamina, taste, and the natural instincts of the recreational programmer, took to the more intellectual forms of play. These included complex strategy games played over the corporate computer network along with the late-night favorite of geeks and nerds everywhere: Dungeons & Dragons. This well-matured role-playing game was my personal choice. I first got into it during middle school, then picked it up again during my summer internship at Microsoft when I could play the game with what I assumed were more sophisticated adults.
Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D for short, is oriented around the typical milieu of fantasy fiction inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien: pseudo-medieval worlds full of dwarves, elves, wizards, warriors, evil lords, mysterious mystics, and an endless variety of creatures both benevolent and malign. Originally published a few decades ago as a small set of basic rulebooks, its steady popularity has since produced an Alexandrian library of new tomes, each adding another dimension of minutiae to the game. Far from being burdensome, however, the sheer intellectual complexity of it all was the very thing that attracted us!
Playing the game generally requires a group of four to eight people. One of them takes the role of Dungeon Master, the omnipotent creator and sustainer of some make-believe world. The creations of the DM, as he's called,[§] are limited only by his imagination and often go far beyond the basic town and dungeon settings to include time-travel, space ships, and adventures in the subtle planes of the astral cosmos.
The others in the group, the "players," each create a character with varying proportions of physical strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. Like many other parts of the game, these attributes are determined randomly using dice. The resulting strengths and weaknesses determine the roles that your character can assume in his or her incarnation, be it a mighty warrior without a shred of common sense or a haughty intellectual necromancer who likes to talk but is a complete milksop where any real action is concerned. Or it might be like an immensely muscular tree-hugger type I once had who, though enormously wise in the ways of nature, was so uncivilized that his speech—and thus my own as the player—was restricted to fewer than fifty single-syllable words.
Everyone's characters are then set loose in the DM's world to make their fame and fortune or meet their doom. The players, not knowing what to expect, try to act according to the personality of their characters throughout each adventure. If your character survives long enough, he or she gains new skills, new powers, or in the case of my sylvan ranger, a larger vocabulary. From there one is ready for even more challenging quests.
The popularity of D&D (and other role-playing games that followed its lead, including online creations like World of Warcraft and Second Life) is due, for the most part, to its ability to accurately simulate the mechanics of real life without any of the dangers or constraints. In a world where so many people feel trapped by their bodies, their minds, their obligations, or various cultural expectations, games like D&D provide an attractive escape, allowing one to live out, to some extent, another life. In fact, players often create characters that reveal their own deepest yearnings. As my own hidden aspirations were essentially spiritual, for example, I gravitated toward characters like monks, yogis, and others who relied primarily on their own inner strength. When, in my last year at Microsoft, I gave up playing the game altogether, it was because I finally decided to stop fantasizing about such roles and actually start living them!
A fascinating aspect of my experiences with Dungeons & Dragons was how often the players—myself as much as anyone—altogether missed the point. An essential ingredient in any adventure is the unexpected; what made the game truly fun was having to use all our skills and resources to overcome the challenges dropped on us by the DM. Like good movies, the best adventures were so intense that they pushed both players and characters to their absolute limits. Is that not where we experience the most growth, and even the most exhilaration? Indeed, it was the DM's job to create such situations. He was supposed to try his best, for example, to bring characters uncomfortably close to the brink of destruction before achieving a major victory, or contrive to strip a character down to his britches as a prelude to some fantastic reward. In these ways the DM hoped to make the game enjoyable—which was, ostensibly, the whole reason we played it in the first place! And all the DM sought in return was a little appreciation for his creative efforts.
However, we players often got it in our minds that the "world" was under our control: we constantly sought to alter apparently unfair circumstances by arguing with the DM. How we howled in protest when our characters lost some favored possession! How often we begged to go back in time and re-roll the dice when a pet character was killed in action! How often we threatened to quit the game entirely if the DM didn't make his world a little more favorable, even when all our (make-believe) problems were created by random chance or our own sheer stupidity!
The DM, of course, wasn't worth his salt if he gave into such childish antics—he was in control, not the players, and unless he was downright cruel he almost always had some special blessing hidden beneath the surface. Admittedly, some DMs were cruel, forcing characters to fight their way through the nine layers of hell for a handful of pennies. But usually the DM simply wanted the players to have the courage and faith to look for the treasures he'd planted amidst the worst possible situations.
What usually happened instead was that the players, lacking such courage, just got mad at the DM—as a person, not the role—for his lack of fairness, giving him not love and gratitude but accusations and anger. Worse yet, players sometimes took things personally: friendships that were once shared outside the game itself became irreparably marred. And all of this over the roll of dice in a made-up fantasy land!
This is perhaps the clearest way that role-playing games like D&D successfully simulate our so-called "real world." Life certainly has its share of seemingly random tragedies. It has no lack of apparently unjust circumstances that we so desperately wish we could change or reverse. And we usually feel so powerless that there's little left to do but get angry with the whole mess and with the God who allowed it all to happen in the first place.
It's certainly how I felt in the summer of 1990. Where I had once prided myself on beating the odds, my coveted career as a Big Important Software Design Engineer was now decimated beyond any hope of recovery. Precious dreams had been taken away by forces that I didn't understand. I was stripped of an identity with nothing left to fill the void. And the timing of the whole incident seemed the worst possible—I was only a month away from graduation and all the while I had confidently expected to just slip into a full-time position at Microsoft. I hadn't even once thought about making back-up plans.
Yet in this desperate situation was a hidden grace: I simply didn't have the luxury of wishing or worrying. I had no time to deny the problem, nor did I care to even think of God, let alone argue with him. No, my only choice was to accept my circumstances as they were and to work with them, not against them. I had to immediately stop thinking about my problems and to start looking for solutions.
I once had a rather formidable warrior in a Dungeons & Dragons game who lost his favorite possession, an enchanted sword, without which he became quite vulnerable. But instead of backing off and contenting himself with a meeker role, he took it as an opportunity to renounce weapons altogether in favor of the martial arts. In doing so, he ultimately found that he became even more powerful—quicker on the attack, nimbler on the defense, and unburdened by what were once his "necessary" accoutrements.
Many of Microsoft's development groups have also turned a temporary setback into an unexpected victory. The most notable example I can remember is that of the Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC), the set of programming tools mentioned in Chapter Two. The MFC team initially set out to match the features of a rival tool called the Object Windows Library offered by a company called Borland International.[**] They accordingly based their core design on the same fundamental assumptions. After a year or so, when the team had produced a full working prototype of that design, further development was put on hold for what was called App Month. For one month everyone on the team used their new tool to create working applications, just like their future customers eventually would. But whereas they started App Month with unbridled optimism, they ended the month with the depressing realization that their creation was a bomb. Things that were supposed to be easy weren't. Things that were supposed to simplify tasks added only complexity. The list of flaws went on and on, and the whole year they'd spent on this dud seemed a total loss.
But the MFC team refused to see it that way. Instead of weeping over what they'd done wrong, they took it as an opportunity to question their basic assumptions. With the understanding they now had, they discovered entirely new ways to approach their goal. What they ultimately produced simply had no rival.
This is the consciousness of opportunity: instead of focusing on problems, focus on solutions. Every unexpected difficulty, every failure, and every seeming injustice are then merely stepping stones to eventual success. It might not be the success we thought we wanted, but always a success nonetheless. It's a simple yet profoundly powerful practice.
You see, we like to think that we understand the "big picture." We like to think that we're in control. We like to think we know what's best. But who among us can truly make this claim? Who among us truly knows what's best even for ourselves, individually, let alone for the billions of other people and countless other forms of life on this planet? The universe simply resists such presumption. As a result, life seems to deal us an endless stream of "challenges" to which we normally respond with our own (often angry) resistance.
But these challenges are not challenges at all: they are invitations. They invite us to expand our vision. They invite us to set aside our cherished opinions about "the way things ought to be." They invite us to open ourselves to possibilities that we might never have imagined. The simple question is: do we accept the invitation? Hopefully we do, because just as the universe resists our presumption, so also it supports our willingness to live in harmony with a greater purpose.
For me, total acceptance of my situation helped me let go of what I thought my career should look like, and once I let go, the right things started happening almost without effort. It wasn't long before I was able to look back on my "failure" and know that I just wouldn't have had it any other way. Indeed, as I continued to see the greater purpose of my experience unfold, I came to also feel that one sentiment that all invitations deserve: gratitude. For life's trials and tribulations are neither random fate nor divine punishment, but secret gifts from the Great Cosmic Dungeon Master, lovingly given to us for our joy. It is what God eternally wishes for each of us if we but have the courage to see it and the faith to embrace it.
The main sign on the corner of Microsoft's campus, installed after Microsoft acquired
the remaining land in the block that was originally occupied by a few other companies.
[†] Steve McConnell, a well-known author and software management consultant, reports that one of Microsoft's development groups asked that a washer and dryer be installed in their building so that they wouldn't have to go home to do their laundry. Though it was clear that these people wanted to work, it was probably wise that this particular request remained unfulfilled. [Return to text]