One of my favorite video games of all time is a game called Portal. It’s primarily a puzzle game, where you are running through a series of “experiments” using teleportation. The puzzles are fun and challenging, but what makes the game particularly memorable is the artificial intelligence that is directing you through the process, named GLaDOS.
When you first enter the game, your character wakes up in a sealed chamber, with no memories, and no choice but to follow directions as given by GLaDOS.
And in the very beginning, GLaDOS sounds like a typical computer, describing the technical requirements of each test. However, as you progress, she begins to express more personality, and talk directly to the player. As the danger increases within the tests, she starts to make promises about what will happen when the tests are over. And one of these promises is cake.
“Cake, and grief counseling will be available at the conclusion of the test. Thank you for helping us help you help us all.”
Midway through the game, when you’ve completed the “official” testing portion and are no longer useful as a test subject, GLaDOS attempts to kill you. Fortunately, your teleportation abilities give you an opportunity to escape, at which point she starts to try and lure you back. Once again, including a promise of cake.
“Uh oh. Somebody cut the cake. I told them to wait for you, but they did it anyway. There is still some left, though, if you hurry back.”
As you travel through the rest of the testing facility, it’s possible to stumble upon a particular piece of graffiti left behind by a former employee.
“the cake is a lie”.
Many people who have never played the game know this phrase. It’s a phrase that has gained tremendous popularity, and has even become a meme, used to convey the idea of a promised gift with no intention to deliver.
In designing this game, the company Valve clearly was going for humor above all. GLaDOS makes numerous jokes at the player’s expense, and mocks your escape attempts.
“Neurotoxin…[coughing] So deadly…[coughing again] Choking…[deep laughter] I’m kidding! When I said “deadly neurotoxin”, the “deadly” was in massive sarcasm quotes. I could take a bath in the stuff, put it on cereal, rub it right into my eyes. Honestly, it’s not deadly at all… to me. You, on the other hand, are going to find its deadliness a lot less funny. Who’s gonna make the cake when I’m gone? You?”
But I suspect that there’s another reason that “The Cake is a Lie” resonates. I doubt the subtext is intentional, but it’s there all the same.
Because we live in a culture that exists on the promise of cake. That it’s ok if you are at the bottom of the ladder, because if you do what you’re supposed to, follow the rules, don’t question, don’t fight back, then at some undefinable point in the future, you are going to get your reward.
But if you don’t follow the rules, and you do question those who are on the ladder above you? Well, whatever happens is just your own fault.
“This is your fault. It didn’t have to be like this. I’m not kidding now. Turn back or I will kill you. I’m going to kill you, and all the cake is gone. You don’t even care. Do you? This is your last chance.”
Today I saw a post on Twitter, showing a video from Simon Sinek. Sinek has done some good work around leadership, and there’s some great videos from him that I’ve used in trainings. But this video gave me pause.
It’s part of a piece by Business Insider with the argument that millennials are hurting themselves by job hopping.
And here’s what Sinek says in the video: “One of the challenges that millennials face is impatience, which is after being at a job for a few months, if it’s not their “dream job” they bump and find a new one. The problem is you won’t know that in a few months, especially when you’re entry level. So if you’re going to just take a job, at least use it as an education. If it’s not the job you love, then learn, learn from the bad leadership you’re experiencing.“
With all due respect to Sinek, this is a bad take.
There are countless articles complaining about millennials these days. A number of them seem to use the term millennial synonymously with “young person”, which is funny considering that the oldest millennials are approaching forty. There are a number of people in our society who are deeply resentful that millennials want to change things. They lable them as lazy and entitled.
But you know what I think? I think that many millennials are realizing that the cake is a lie. That doing what is expected of you for that promised reward is a bad proposition. That after seeing parents and other family struggle, get laid off, lose their pensions, and be treated badly over and over again by their corporations, millennials are less willing to bet their lives on the promise of cake.
I’m technically Generation X, but in many ways I share characteristics with millennials. I’ve never stayed in a job longer than two years. I was fortunate in that I was able to find promotional opportunities within my agency, but I was always ready to leave long before I would get the chance.
And yeah, I did learn a lot from the bad leadership, but after a while, you get tired of seeing the same lessons over and over again. You get tired of being treated badly. Bad leadership isn’t just an annoyance. Bad leadership can destroy people. And to act like choosing something better for yourself is entitlement shows a fundamental lack of understanding of just how much our workplace is hurting people.
People should be able to walk away from a workplace culture that doesn’t serve them. The only bad thing here is that more people can’t.
At the end of Portal’s credits, the camera reveals that hidden deep within the facility, there is actually a cake. In a place that the player never truly had the option to go.
And it’s much the same for our real world’s cake. Sure, it technically exists. A small number of people will get it. But for the vast majority of us, there are systems in place that ensure we will never see a slice. And we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our own health and happiness to try.
So don’t try for the cake. Don’t do what the voice coming from above tells you to do. Jump off the path. Make them worried. Make them scared. Do things for yourself, for your own reasons. You don’t owe them a thing. They were never going to give you the cake. The cake’s a lie.