Current Affairs

The Royal Jelly Problem of Modern Workplaces

In which predetermining the success of a few leaves the vast majority neglected and bound for failure.

“What if I’m not actually good at anything?” For many working people, this thought lurks like an eel in one’s brainsoup. Even if you’ve spent years in a particular field, it’s easy to feel like whatever skills you possess are the equivalent of being proficient with Microsoft Word. Such doubts gnaw at your soul even harder if (or, sorry to say it, when) you get laid off, furloughed, right-sized, or otherwise informed by your employer that your services are no longer needed. This sucks. Nothing you can do will make it not suck. However, you may find some consolation in the story of Draymond Green, power forward for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

If you saw Draymond Green on the street, you would correctly assume he was a basketball player. He is a very large man by normal standards, standing 6’6” and weighing 230 pounds. By Green’s professional standards, however, this is nothing special. The average height of an NBA player is 6’6”, and it’s common for Green to guard opponents who are 7 feet tall. Green’s statistics—his quantifiable production metrics—are similarly meh. In his eight-year career, he’s scored 9.0 points per game. The average NBA player scores around 8.6. He’s never been the speediest guy, and his career PER (the stat that claims to measure someone’s overall value) is just 15.1. The league average is 15.0. Judging from both the numbers and a quick eye test, Draymond Green looks extremely replaceable. 

Except he’s not. There’s a reason Green’s coach calls him “a future Hall of Famer” (a claim that, predictably, draws the ire of data-worshippers). His team has won three championships since he joined them, and Green’s contributions have been crucial. He’s a three-time All Star who was named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. His skills as a passer enabled his team to “crack the code of modern basketball,” as one sportswriter put it. He’s consistently mentioned as one of the toughest and most versatile players in the entire NBA.

Just in case it isn’t clear: Draymond Green is really fucking good at basketball. But if he hadn’t had the good fortune of playing for Golden State—widely regarded as one of the NBA’s best-run franchises—there’s a solid chance he would’ve already washed out of the league.

The Royal Jelly Theory of Career Paths

For over a decade, the renowned basketball trainer David Thorpe has advocated for a “royal jelly” approach to player development. According to Thorpe, royal jelly is the stuff that’s fed by bees to an exclusive group of  larvae who will become queens, and whoever receives the royal jelly is destined to be special. The gist of his theory is that a tiny handful of players, like LeBron James, possess such overwhelming talent that they can thrive no matter their surroundings—but the vast majority of players (like Green) need a nurturing, supportive environment to achieve their full potential. Thorpe’s grasp of the science may be shaky—royal jelly is actually fed to all larvae, just in different amounts—yet his broader point is still valid. Not just for basketball players, but for people in general. 

Being stuck in a job where you don’t get a chance to show what you can do is one of the most universally frustrating human experiences. In David Graeber’s excellent book Bullshit Jobs, the late anthropologist describes how “the pleasure of being the cause” is fundamental to both our happiness and our sense of worth. What is meant by “the cause” differs from person to person—a tailor may take pleasure in being the cause of a beautiful dress, an event planner might find similar satisfaction in being the cause of a conference that gets rave reviews from attendees. Regardless of your occupation, it just feels good to use your various talents to cause something you consider cool.

Too often, however, workers are denied the opportunity to be a cause for anything meaningful. This is especially true in the service industry, which is driving most of what passes for “job growth” in the pandemic-wracked United States (and has been for years). Your role is set in stone from the first day you’re hired. You’re expected to bring the customer their food, rub their feet, or provide some other service to them. It’s usually not forbidden to have ideas about better ways to provide that service, but it’s not encouraged much either. There are other people who get paid to do the thinking. They’re the queen bees, and you’re a drone. The company-colony is simply not structured in a way that would allow you to be anything more than that. 

Basketball teams and other companies typically have rigid hierarchies that determine who gets the royal jelly. Feeding the stars is Priority A. In basketball terms, this usually means giving opportunities to high draft picks and big-name free agent signings. There’s an understandable if crude logic to this. The organization has invested considerable resources in such players, and it makes management look stupid when those investments don’t pan out. This means stars (or would-be stars) get chance after chance to stretch their metaphorical wings, even if they shit the bed every time. There’s always team willing to give the benefit of the doubt to “assets” like former No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins, despite the disappointment that always ensues. 

In the conventional working world, royal jelly is typically reserved for people who fall into one of three categories: 

1.    Fancy degree holders: If they have an MBA from an Ivy League university, how could they not be good at business stuff?

2.    Veterans  of big companies: If they were good enough for Apple to hire, they must be something special.

3.    Relatives of the boss: Authority is just in their genes, baby. 

To be fair, some companies have more enlightened ways of determining who gets the royal jelly—just as the Warriors gave Green a chance despite his lowly status as an undersized second-round draft pick. After all, one of the American business media’s favorite stories is “CEO started at the bottom and worked her way to the top.” But it’s worth considering why these stories are considered newsworthy. Why is it so surprising to learn that the guy who runs Wal-Mart once loaded the company’s trucks as a teenager*? 

“Because,” you might be screaming at your screen, “that almost never happens!” From your own experience, you know that the formula of Grit + Persistence + Loyalty = Personal Success and Fulfillment is one that exists only in the heads of billionaires and other wealth-fetishists. The odds of a non-pedigreed entry-level worker in any field getting a taste of the royal jelly is exceedingly slim. If you start at the bottom, you might make it to the upper-bottom or lower-middle with immense luck and hard work. But your odds of getting a chance to show what you can really do remain slim—unless, like Draymond Green, you manage to land in one of the rare situations that actually gives you a chance to succeed. 

*Wal-Mart’s current CEO earned the equivalent of $16.49 per hour when he was an inexperienced teenager loading trucks back in 1984. Today, he’d make around $11 per hour if he was lucky.

Royal Jelly and the Supply Problem

Back in 2012 when the Warriors picked Green in the second round of the NBA draft, few observers paid it much notice. Fast-forward a few years, and the entire league was obsessed with the quest to find the next Draymond Green. The appeal was obvious: instead of scuffling with 29 other teams over a handful of pedigreed studs (i.e. the type of player who always comes with a massive price tag), a savvy franchise that knew how to recognize and develop less-obvious talent could tap into a massive, under-exploited resource pool (while saving a shitload of money in the process). 

The conventional work world has had a similar epiphany in recent years. Publications aimed at business leaders now publish an unending stream of how-to guides for “discovering your employees’ hidden talents” and developing those skills to the max. In this case, the benefits are twofold. Companies can save money by promoting talented workers from within instead of paying a premium to lure them away from competitors. They can also avoid the public relations nightmares that occur when word gets out about discriminatory distribution of the royal jelly.   

Everyone agrees that the royal jelly should be distributed more widely, and yet… it is not. Not even close. Take the Warriors for example. Since drafting Green in 2012, the team has made an additional 11 selections. Only a handful of those players are still on the team, and none of them have achieved even a fraction of Green’s success (the Warriors’ abandonment of their previous royal jelly philosophy is something we’ll address in a second). Outside of the NBA, the story is much the same. Despite the constant assurances and multimillion dollar “initiatives” from companies like Google that claim to prioritize finding and cultivating talent from underrepresented demographics, there’s been little actual progress on that front for years. Organizations love to make noise about hiring diversity and inclusion executives, but they’re much quieter when talking about any tangible action that might spread the royal jelly more evenly.

Why is there such a disconnect between how we believe royal jelly should be distributed, and how it is in reality? Here, it might be helpful to define “royal jelly” in more concrete terms than we’ve used so far. Luckily this is easy to do. Green himself puts it best—it’s “the opportunity to fuck up.” In the NBA, this might mean bricking some 3-pointers early in the shot clock, blowing the occasional defensive assignment, or chucking an ill-advised outlet pass into the fifth row of seats. In the conventional working world, this could mean botching a presentation, messing up a big delivery, or failing to massage a client’s ego to their satisfaction. In either case, getting the royal jelly means knowing your next mistake won’t be your last. 

We can identify a handful of reasons why the supply of royal jelly is so constricted. First, there’s incompetent leadership. In many organizations the people in charge have little interest in or aptitude for cultivating the growth of the people they manage (Tom Thibodeau, the recently hired coach of the New York Knicks, might be the most notable example of this in the NBA, with one ex-player calling Thibs’ approach to development “a slap in the face”). Second, there’s an often-misplaced sense of urgency. Organizations that are bent on chasing short-term goals tend to devalue any action that doesn’t directly and immediately contribute to achieving that goal. This is why Green’s own team, the Warriors, has been unable to replicate the success they had with him—who cares about helping the next batch of young players hone their skills when there’s a championship to win this year? In more mundane terms, who’s got time to help a young graphic designer get better at Photoshop when there’s a big project due tomorrow?

A third reason for the royal jelly shortage is unique to the conventional working world, and it can be traced to the odious influence of the so-called “lean business model.” In theory, lean companies are designed to eliminate waste and inefficiencies by streamlining various internal structures and processes. Maybe that sounds like vacuous bullshit to you. That’s because it is! A lean company is really just one that has the minimum viable number of people working for it. There are no Miltons, in other words—no superfluous humans drawing unnecessary salaries, no bipedal drains on company resources who can’t pull their own weight or, more realistically, several times their weight. Fewer fixed expenses means fewer mouths to feed with the pie of profit.

Even more traditional-style companies have embraced lean business principles, and the end result is that professional development has now been outsourced to the employees themselves. It’s no longer the company’s responsibility to give you the help you need to hone your skills (and make them more money in the process). It’s up to you, the dubiously motivated employee, to do your own developing on your own time. Like if bee larvae were expected to feed themselves their own royal jelly.

Why Everyone Should Get a Taste of the Royal Jelly

When Draymond Green entered the NBA, expectations were low for a number of reasons. As mentioned before he wasn’t particularly tall, and basketball is a sport where height confers obvious advantages. He was also old, at least in relative terms. Green was a 22-year old rookie in a league where many top draft picks are teenagers and careers are measured in dog years. Perhaps worst of all, he was a tweener—a player stuck in between positions, without an obvious A+ skill that would allow him to thrive in a specific role. 

Green could dribble, but he wasn’t a top tier ball handler. He was willing to shoot from distance, but his accuracy came and went. He was quick but not exceptionally so, fast but not remarkably so, agile but not exactly a gymnast. Every good thing you could say about him came with an asterisk. He wasn’t terrible in any particular area, but talent evaluators doubted that a dude with a bunch of B-/C+ attributes could succeed at the highest level. Each team in the league (including the Warriors) passed on selecting Green at least once. 

A few years later, Green had become an indispensable part of the Warriors’ title runs. To use the lazy sportswriter’s favorite clichés, he was the glue that held his team together, the Swiss army knife who did a little of everything, the key that unlocked the Warriors’ full potential. Meanwhile, players who did have that single A+ skill prized by scouts—like the sweet-shooting Kyle Korver or the defensive dynamo André Roberson—were rendered increasingly obsolete in the playoffs. Their lack of versatility made them a liability when the stakes were highest. Green, meanwhile, was balling out. 

The same principle of “better to be pretty good at a bunch of things than excellent at just one” has been applied successfully outside of pro basketball. Books like David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World have made the argument for letting kids dabble in a variety of pursuits, and such views are now quite popular among parents who might have once steered their kids into focusing obsessively on a single sport, musical instrument, or area of study. Kids are happier when they get to explore the full range of their abilities, and they also tend to be better at whatever job they end up doing. This is an important point, and we’ll get back to it in a moment.

For now let us return to the conventional working world, which sadly still has little clue what to do with “tweeners.” Despite the fact that job duties are now broader than ever (Sell the company’s products! Run its social media accounts! Manage your boss’ schedule!) on-the-job training has been declining for decades. In 1996, over 13 percent of employees received such training—by 2008 that figure had dropped to 8.4 percent. While more up-to-date statistics are not yet available, since they’re collected only sporadically by the U.S. Census, economist Timothy Taylor makes a strong point when he says it seems “pretty unlikely that [the numbers] have risen in the aftermath of the Great Recession.” 

Thus, at a moment when workers are expected to wear more hats than ever before—while often being paid much less than their predecessors—companies are showing an astounding lack of interest in sharing the royal jelly. Instead of taking the time and energy to develop raw-but-talented personnel into well-rounded All Stars, organizations in almost every field are gambling they can find a desperate, over-qualified part timer to patch the leaks in their boat and keep it afloat until some deep-pocketed dumbass bails them out big time. There’s a reason why stock in “freelancer platforms” like Fiverr keeps soaring: you can wring more short-term profit out of a company when you can invest the bare minimum in the people who do the actual work. Such a strategy makes deeply depressing sense in theory, if not always in practice. 

This is a terrible way to run an organization, and an even worse way to organize a society. There is simply no excuse for failing to share the royal jelly. From the conservative, “business-friendly” point of view, it’s a waste of resources. If your company has a longtime intern who’s pretty good at strategic planning and can whip up solid press releases and even knows a bit about marketing, it’s ridiculous to pay outside consultants inflated retainers for basically the same services you could get for the cost of a decent pay raise and a change in title. From the left point of view, hoarding the royal jelly is immoral and unethical because it pampers a few people while making the majority depressed, hopeless, angry, and unfulfilled. Neither of these justifications is likely to prove persuasive to those of the opposite perspective, but who cares? Either is fine on its own if it leads to the broader distribution of royal jelly.

At this exact moment, there are millions upon millions of Draymond Greens walking among us. Imagine! What an enormous number of interesting, talented humans, each of whom could take their teams to new heights! Who knows what incredible things they could do? All they need is the opportunity to fuck up and try again.

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