How Your Employer Leeches Your Brainpower (And How to Stop it)

In the sci-fi comedy cartoon Futurama, there’s an alien species called the brain slugs. The brain slugs are green, jelly-like creatures that sit on a person’s head and hijack their brains for their own evil ends.

Your employer, particularly if you work in a corporation, is like a brain slug riding on your noggin.

First, they steal your brainpower. Then, they waste your time. And finally, they kill your independence and autonomy.


I bet there’s something you’ve been wanting to accomplish. Either at your job or in a side project. But the power of the brain slug has kept you from taking action.

By the end of this article you should learn:

  • How employers are wasting your brainpower, and
  • How to stop it

The Paradox of Intelligence: What They Don’t Warn You About

At Early to Rise, Clay Collins says there’s a battle going on for our minds. This battle is at the heart of the myth of the 9 to 5. Highly intelligent people (like you!) are pushed into careers that require increasingly more time and attention, way beyond 40 hours a week.

Hence, the paradox of intelligence (POI) says that in general, the more intelligent you are, the less brainpower you’re likely to keep for yourself … [and] the greater the probability that an employer owns too much of your brainpower.

If your employer were using this brainpower effectively and towards a goal that matters, you might be okay with this trade. But by and large they are squandering your attention and time.

Your precious brainpower is being used to support inefficient structures and reinforce the status quo.

When Coordination Kills Agility

Lisa Bodell in an article for Fast Company discusses the ways process is killing productivity:

In a study of U.S. and European companies, The Boston Consulting Group found that “over the past fifteen years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed…has increased by anywhere from 50 percent to 350 percent.”

What’s more, in the most complicated organizations, “managers spend 40 percent of their time writing reports and 30 percent to 60 percent of it in coordination meetings.” No wonder people feel like they can never get any real work done.

Lisa’s article focuses on the effect of corporate bureaucracy on productivity. But I’d argue the negative effect on agility is more important than productivity.

Organizations build up layers of process and approvals to resist change. Bureaucracy is status quo reinforcing. It keeps rigid hierarchies in place.

It ensures that the top-down leadership doesn’t have to consider the ideas of its employees unless the idea has passed through a thicket of managers, lawyers, and VPs, at which point the original idea becomes so watered down that it’s useless.

You’ve had this experience if you’ve ever worked at a large company where 80% of projects die on the vine. Having to “go get VP buy-in” is practically a death sentence for an unproven project.

As a corporate attorney, I was a part of this process!

The corporate maze of approvals steals your brainpower, and also conditions you to stop thinking for yourself.

Owning your idea or project takes a back seat to the “Cover Your Ass” (CYA) mentality that pervades large companies.

After all, if a dozen people above you had to sign-off on an initiative, why should you take the blame if it fails?

Over time, this attitude kills your sense of personal responsibility.

Instead of looking at the reasons you fail in order to iterate a better version next time around, you cast about looking to shift blame.

CYA is an organizational cancer caused by lack of autonomy. When individuals are empowered, the cancer goes away.

Time to Fight Back

In our lives and our careers, we have to stop looking to other people’s expectations and asking for their permission. Leo Babauta, minimalist activist and super-blogger of Zen Habits and mnmlist, has this to say about living for everyone else:

I am all for living to help other people, but when we live our lives to the expectations of other people, we end up living lives we don’t want. And what do we get when we live up to the expectations of all these other people? They really don’t care — they just don’t like things different because they are uncomfortable with change.

Stop asking for permission and go do it. If you must, work on your project in stealth and only bring in people you trust. Whatever you do, exercise that autonomy muscle in your body by pushing back against managerial interference.

The worst thing they could do is fire you. But how long do you want to be at a crappy job that doesn’t take your ideas seriously anyway?

Realistically, the project might fizzle and you’ll be back to doing what you were doing before: working “up the chain” in endless “coordination” meetings where you get “VP buy-in.”

But at least you tried.

And there’s always the possibility that your project will be wildly successful. And you’ll get the career responsibility or flexibility you wanted. Or be able to quit your job and work on your second stream of income full-time.

The brain slugs in Futurama were ultimately pretty harmless. The solution was just to pull them off your head. You can do the same, but it starts with one rebellious act.

Will you take it?


I want to hear from you! Tell me about a time you didn’t stop to ask for permission and how it turned out. Leave a comment below or ding me on Twitter. Thanks!

Image by Guillaume Brocker.
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