Today is the 20th anniversary of Office Space hitting theaters, and in celebration of that milestone, I reflect on how the movie altered the course of my life forever.
Twenty years ago today, Office Space debuted in theaters. I didn’t see it then (very few did, as low theater attendance is a requisite step in the lifecycle of any Mike Judge cult classic), but I would see it roughly a year later. Little did I know how much it would affect me. I’ve racked my brain and find myself unable to come up with any movie that ever affected me more. (Although Little Big League did get middle school me to shoot my shot at becoming head coach of the Cleveland Cavs.)
Office Space warped my brain.
I saw Office Space in early 2000 when, coincidentally, I was working at my first-ever internship. Every morning, I would wake up before 7:00 A.M. (an ungodly hour for a college student, especially THIS college student). I’d scrape the ice off my car, drive to the train station and head to downtown Chicago for my internship.
In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad internship at all. I was at a dot com, a Web 1.0 job website, and I was an editorial intern. The internship was one of the requirements at my school toward getting a journalism degree. I sat in a cubicle, working on various articles and doing other assorted light editing and “web journalism” tasks. Most of the employees treated me quite well and one coworker even became a lifelong friend. The hours were reasonable, working in downtown Chicago was cool, and the dot com-era company had an indoor putting green and free soda. (Those were basically table stakes for a dot com at that point in time.) Really, as far as internships could go, it was a pretty good setup.
But I was miserable. Miserable. Something about the entire enterprise — the entire office work ecosystem — felt so existentially futile to me. I had to drag myself out of bed in the morning. While I could handle, and even sometimes excel at, the work, it didn’t excite me at all. It felt like everything I was doing, and that the company was doing, was so insignificant in the grand scheme of the world. (It was a job website, but when it had a job opening, the bosses would post the job on Monster, which tells you just about everything you need to know.) I was 20 years old, one month into corporate work life, and found myself wholeheartedly burned out. I couldn’t imagine graduating from college and doing… this. Any of this.
Enter Office Space.
My roommate (also named) Sam got the VHS tape and we watched it one random night. We’d always put on a movie at night when we went to sleep (often Good Burger, randomly, as I’ve mentioned on this site before). But I couldn’t fall asleep to Office Space. It spoke to me too much.
I identified so much with Peter, trudging to the job he didn’t like, doing work he felt was generic and unimportant, answering to several bosses, feeling totally unfulfilled. And even, sometimes, going to lunch at chain restaurants. Our building in Chicago had a Houlihan’s and a Bennigan’s.
Office Space is, at its core level, an insidiously powerful piece of anti-corporate propaganda. Sure, it’s laugh-out-loud funny and dogmatically over-the-top, but that only strengthens the power of the propaganda.
Everything little nuance of the movie underscores the most cynical possible take on corporate life, from the banality of coworker small talk to the obsession over claiming the right office supplies. Its suggestions of the exit scenarios from corporate life are equally bleak. Your means of escape are either to get hit by a car, commit a white collar crime, or go into blue-collar labor — otherwise, like Michael and Samir at the end of the movie, you’ll just float from one faceless corporate job to another. Forever.
(Today, with decades in the real world under my belt — plus a family to support and evolved priorities and maturity — I don’t feel that way like I used to. But when I was 20 years old? Mike Judge was the pied piper and I was a dutiful snake following him. Or child? Where have we landed on what the pied piper story is really about?)
As part of my internship, I was required to keep a journal. And after watchingOffice Space, in an uncharacteristic moment of candor (I was normally just putting on my best face to get through the internship and back into regular classes), I wrote that the job was making me rethink my career plans.
The thing was… at that point, I didn’t really have career plans. I’d gotten into making websites in high school, so in college, I latched on to the journalism school’s nascent web journalism program. There were only a few of us, and we were kind of making it up as we went. Web journalism was like print journalism, but, you know, on the Internet. So in the late ’90s and early 2000s, that meant adding Real Player video and audio and stuff.
I guess I figured for a career, I’d get into web journalism, whatever that meant (and obviously, now, it doesn’t mean anything, as “web” never became into its own standalone branch of journalism). But the combo of the dreary feelings from the internship and inspiration from now-almost-nightly Office Space viewings drove me down another path.
It was sometime during that stretch in 2000 that I decided I was going to move to Los Angeles and get into the comedy business. I know this because I wrote it in my journal, a journal I’ve long since lost, but re-read a few years into my stint in L.A. as I tried to remember the origin of my decision to plunge into comedy.
And to date, my entire career has been a winding path with only the briefest of stops in office environments. I’ve made almost a 20-year career out of doing stand-up comedy, getting remote and telecommuting working jobs as a writer, making comedy videos, making board games, writing books, and, of course, doing this website. I’ve spent less than five months total unemployed in nearly 18 years, yet I’ve barely gone into offices.
That’s all Office Space. My path since the day I saw the movie has, essentially, been running away from the corporate quicksand as established in Office Space. Because that movie altered my brain. It’s kept me eternally chasing that feeling that Peter has when he stands at the construction site at the end of the movie, that feeling of freedom and purpose and satisfaction.
Have I achieved it? Sort of. I have a tendency to continuously move the goalposts on my definition of “success,” so it’s arguable if I’ll ever feel pure career satisfaction.
But I think that’s the much less explicit message of the movie: Even if you achieve your ultimate dream, it isn’t a guarantee of that life satisfaction you’re after.
Early in Office Space, Peter defines his dream: Doing nothing. That’s all he wants. And in the final scene of the movie (not counting the credits outtakes), we see what happens when someone achieves that dream.
We see Milton on an exotic beach, with enough money to never work again, living the ultimate fantasy life: Doing nothing. And… he’s still just as unsatisfied with everything in his life as he was before.
Meanwhile Peter’s a construction worker now, doing something — doing work that’s more demanding and more taxing than anything he did in his cubicle — and he’s happy. He’s found fulfillment in his relationship, in his job, in doing something that makes him feel like he has a purpose. He didn’t achieve his dream, and his life is better for it.
In other words, it’s okay to move the goalposts, because achieving all of your career goals isn’t the guaranteed path to contentment. The point of Office Space is to find fulfillment by doing something that feels purposeful and satisfying to you, and to be one piece — not the only piece, and not necessarily the main piece — of an overall purposeful and satisfying life.
So on Office Space‘s 20th anniversary, I salute it. Office Space influenced the direction of my life more than any other movie ever has. And I’m still trying every day to follow its lessons.