The posters started appearing in 1998 or so, parodies of classic inspirational motivational kitsch. They were sly, mordant pinpricks aimed at corporate America's healthily inflated self-image. Under a photo of two executive-class hands gripped in a manly handshake, there appears an aphorism — Consulting: If You're Not Part of the Solution, There's Good Money to Be Made Prolonging the Problem. Below a beautiful photo of a silvery salmon vaulting up crashing rapids into the open mouth of an awaiting golden bear, we see this legend — Ambition: The Journey of a Thousand Miles Sometimes Ends Very, Very Badly. Beneath a shot of a small circled group of race-and-gender-diversified workers performing a basketball team's traditional hands-in ritual, we read this reminder — Meetings: None of Us Is as Dumb as All of Us.
There are dozens of these posters, all of them dedicated to the proposition that the emperor is a lot nuder than he thinks he is and expressed in an unmistakably sarcastic voice — not of the goofy class clown, but of the smart, somewhat dangerous class malcontent. That voice is the product of three men: two brothers, Justin and Jef Sewell, and E. Lawrence Kersten, all now of Austin and its environs. They are the founders of Despair Inc., purveyors of novelty items of insidious intent.
The trio has carved out a profitable niche that services the subliminal resentments of silently seething office parkers. But Despair's next move is more than a pinprick at the workplace and its discontents; it's a shotgun blast. Based on their experiences, Kersten has formulated a philosophy for workers and companies that's incendiary to anyone who (still) believes that work is personal and that companies can bring happiness to their workers' lives. Kersten's manifesto is variously hilarious, outrageous, insightful, insulting, perceptive, and, from time to time, windy (or perhaps on those occasions, I've just missed the joke). In The Art of Demotivation (Despair Ink, 2005), which was just published, Kersten and Despair have unlocked what's at the heart of why so many people are miserable at work and unable to do anything about it. The reason? You.
With The Art of Demotivation, Kersten takes aim at books such as Who Moved My Cheese? An A-Mazing Way to Deal With Change and Win! (Putnam, 1998) and Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results (Hyperion, 2000). He doesn't parody them, perhaps because parodying books about mice named Sniff and Scurry and fishmongers named Lonnie seems like the sort of exercise that would be assigned to the Junior Satirists Club at your local high school. Kersten is bent on undermining the multimillion-dollar motivational industry — "Big Boost," one might call it — that every year persuades America's corporate managers to lay out big money to try to get employees to work harder, feel better about their jobs, and have a better damn attitude.
"What executives fail to realize is that the life-changing insights sold by the motivational industry are the source of their problems rather than the solution," Kersten writes. "The primary objective of the motivational industry is to stoke the fires of your employees' narcissism so that they fall in love with themselves all over again, just as they did when they saw their own beauty in the distorted reflection of their mother's adoring gaze."
For Kersten, the heart of the problem lies in what he calls the "noble employee myth," a product of what he dryly calls the "motivational educational-industrial" — or "ME-I" — complex. The central elements of this myth are that employees are good and productive labor is natural for them. Management is responsible for creating the circumstances that unleash employee motivation and should be blamed when employees fail. Profits should not be pursued at the expense of employee satisfaction. On it goes — the very kinds of things you'd expect to read if Jean-Jacques Rousseau happened to be unleashed in an HR department.
This is all a myth, Kersten argues, because employees aren't noble. In fact, they're the source of most corporate problems. Employees make bad decisions. "[They] possess a capacity for bad judgment that is beyond comprehension," he says. They alienate customers, lack maturity, exploit their employer's generosity, and steal ($21 billion in the retailing sector alone, he cites).
And if belief in this myth is bad for business, why, it's terrible for employees, too, causing them to suffer an elevated self-image that their abilities cannot support. The result: "They demand more income than they merit, more respect than they have earned, more autonomy than they can handle, and more leisure time than they need."
Kersten's solution is called Radical Demotivation, a systematic program that helps employees stop engaging "in ego-gratifying, autonomous failure and instead submit to a soul-crushing robotic compliance" with the shareholders' objectives. Now, this is wild stuff. Kersten pushes a high-rise elevator's worth of buttons. And that's before he gets into the hows of demotivating an employee, all with an augustly deadpan delivery. You can forget an employee's name, or at least pretend to. Or you can fixedly refuse to acknowledge the existence, let alone the competing needs, of a spouse or child. Or cast executives as the heroes of every corporate success story and workers as anonymous contributors. Or couch every acknowledgment of a worker's accomplishments with a review of previous errors.
Kersten signals his satiric intent by straightforwardly comparing his demotivation program with a "high-fat, high-sugar, no-exercise diet," whose existence you always doubted because "experts" said it couldn't work. And while all this is supposed to be funny, the reptilian chill that's felt when Kersten discusses the worker class calls to mind Joel Bakan and his recent book The Corporation (Free Press, 2004), in which Bakan points out that corporations, in their single-minded pursuit of profit, embody the clinical definition of a psychopath.
Yet just at the moment when you're about to break into "The Internationale," Kersten's observations about the modern worker's whininess and self-pity — his presumption that the world owes him a living — conjure up the faces of petulant colleagues past and present. "He wanted to write a book that was alternately pragmatic and absurd," says Justin Sewell. He has. All of these views make sense, perhaps, because we're all at fault. None of us, it seems, is as dumb as all of us.
Despair Inc. is a product of the great Internet boom of the 1990s. Twin brothers Justin and Jef Sewell were living in Dallas and working for an ISP startup, where they were soon joined by Kersten, a communications professor who had wanted to spend some time in the real world. All three had been lured by the prospect of being compensated for their long hours of labor with stock options, but when the blessed IPO day arrived, all three were stiffed. "This company was started by engineers, and we were part of the non-engineering culture," says Justin. "We were disincluded from the upside. It was pretty crushing for all of us who didn't become decamillionaires." No doubt.
As it happened, the three of them ended up bitching and moaning in Justin's office, where he just happened to have a catalog for motivational goods. "And we just started laughing at these products that celebrated all these virtues that were so utterly alien to the culture we were in," Justin says. They began cracking jokes, and soon started scanning images from a stock-photo catalog, making parodies of motivational posters, and hanging them in their offices. Soon they began making them for colleagues. When in the fullness of time a meager payout did wend its way into our sardonic heroes' pockets, they started a company to make and sell these posters. They had a bumpy beginning, but after Yahoo named its site "cool" and The Wall Street Journal did a story, the orders rolled in.
"I wasn't surprised that people liked the products," says Kersten, "but I was surprised at the intensity with which our customers expressed their displeasure with their jobs and the motivational apparatus. We got emails with the orders saying, 'I'm so sick and tired of seeing those blankety-blank motivational posters, and I'm glad you put out these.' There was vitriol. There was rage."
Today, Despair is a "few-million-dollar-a-year business," says Justin, one that is gradually growing. Not long ago, when Despair realized how much it was spending on fulfillment services, Jef set up a separate company to perform that work and to offer those services to others. Justin says that company is now bigger than Despair.
Undermining corporate America is still the trio's passion. Last year, Despair distributed the special-edition DVD of a short film called More, whose content they found simpatico with the company's general outlook. And now there's publishing. "We figure that if we can sell 50,000 calendars in a quarter, we ought to be able to sell 10,000 books," Justin says.
One field that the company is unlikely to enter is the motivational industry itself, even as the demotivational alternative. "At this point, I don't envision it," says Kersten. "You can't think you're bringing in a motivational speaker and then have me. That would be a recipe for disaster! I can imagine the 400 shocked faces! Whoever invited me would be fired. But even if they knew what I was up to, I don't think it would work. People would then expect to laugh, but I'm not a stand-up comedian."
Forget about the product; what about the problem? If the solution to worker unhappiness isn't a better motivational program, or even an actual demotivational one, what is to be done? "I don't know that anything can be done," says Kersten. "When I left academia for the private sector, I was very well-schooled in the cutting edge of management theory. And what I very quickly discovered is that many employees were impervious to even the best management practices. We did somersaults to make people happy, and even though many of them were in the best jobs they ever had, they still complained. The entire organization would have been better off if I had just lopped off the infectious branches the moment I was hired."
That was shocking to Kersten at the time. "I thought work could be redemptive and healing. But after dealing with problem after problem, it was clear that it would have been better if the people who were unhelpable had been fired. Which, eventually, I had to do. They were too immature. Later, I ran into some of them at a company reunion. They thanked me. They said it was the best thing that could have happened to them at the time."
So in some cases, demotivation with extreme prejudice is a helpful thing. But before getting too bleak even for him, Kersten acknowledges that happiness can be found in a steel-and-glass tower. "Look," Kersten says, "obviously some people can be highly fulfilled by their jobs. Doctors, for example: It seems like saving lives would be highly fulfilling. Building bridges, building businesses — a lot of careers can fulfill a person's inherent passion. But I don't know how passionate you can be about processing paper. The point is that most people should work to make money. They shouldn't expect a company to make them happy. A company can be friendly and good, but it can't really make you happy. At the same time, it shouldn't insult you. It shouldn't say, 'We're a family and have values,' and then act like Enron."
Kersten realizes he has written a book full of strong opinions that don't exactly conform with one another. "That's all right," he says. "The book is like a Rorschach test. Everybody will have different conclusions. "And that's fine. We're Despair Inc. We laugh at ourselves."
Jamie Malanowski is the features editor at Playboy. He's happy in his work.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.