• Advice

The cake is a lie: Breaking out and finding a new way to work

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Okay, so not everyone has played Portal, and therefore won’t get the whole cake thing, but we’re gonna run with it anyway.

In the teleportation-based video game, a post-apocalyptic AI controlled facility motivates your character to go through a series of deadly puzzles by promising that there is cake at the end.

In a similar manner we, the product of the American education system, were promised something which was not delivered. More and more people are turning to freelancing, remote working, and the gig economy to try to find that cake for themselves.

What is the cake?

To put it simply, adult life is the cake. Not the fact that you live as an adult, but the child-like notion of freedom that adult life brings.

Let me explain.

Before going to college, you are indoctrinated into a strict system, namely school. Nearly everything you do in your life revolves around school. Most of your friends are your classmates, forming in little groups based on shared interests. Most of your time is spent at school. While you are at school you are under constant watch from the instructors. You may not leave school until the end of the school day, and you must be back promptly at the start of the next.

As a child, you know your parents go to work, but that’s about all you know about what they do. You just know that you go to school for 6 or more hours a day and it’s dull and boring and tedious. You know that once you’re out of school you will be free and you can do what you want.

If you aren’t required to be in school, no one can force you to do anything you don’t want to do. It’s gonna be great!

Message Reinforcement

The message of impending freedom gets thoroughly reinforced in the atmosphere of higher learning. College is the vision of “the cake." Yes, you have responsibilities, but you always knew you would have some responsibilities, work for example. But they are manageable, you go to class for 15 hours each week, you do your homework and prepare for tests. Maybe you have a part time job that you have to contend with. But the rest of your time is yours. You can do with it as you please.

Most of all, in college, you learn new things about yourself and how you cope with your responsibilities. Maybe you like to do your work outside, or while listening to music. You learn to be self reliant and self sufficient. Your instructors give you an assignment, no one is going to remind you to do it other than yourself. You become self motivated.

The only thing necessary to drive you is your own desire for a successfully completed assignment. You become a fully functioning member of society, free to conduct yourself as you see fit.

The Cake is a Lie

It comes time to leave college. You have learned so much, not only in your field of study but also about yourself. You have had a taste of the real world and are eager to jump in and take a bite out of that cake.

But that cake is a lie, like the proverbial carrot on a string it has been dangled in front of you for you to chase and never achieve.

Unfortunately, when you get to the real world you find that your freshly perfected methods of completing tasks do not comply with company policy. You must show up to the office every day at 8am and you can only leave at the end of the work day, after 8 hours of work not including lunchtime.

One day you look around the office during your strictly allotted lunch hour and notice that the same groups of your colleagues always seem to eat together. You already know that most of your time is spent at work, and that your boss is always hovering over you to make sure you’re not browsing the internet or listening to music too loud.

And then it hits you: this is just like being back in high school.

Breaking out

At the end of the game Portal, the main character finds her way out of the AI controlled space. And, while there is not cake, she is free.

In a similar manner, many people are finding a new way to work. Whether they are starting their own businesses, performing contract work, freelancing, or just working remotely, people are becoming fed up with the traditional 9 to 5 standard. Millennials, such as myself, have seen the paradox of college life versus adult life and started to question it.

Why, if we value higher education so much, do we chose to ignore the most valuable lessons it teaches? Self sufficiency, self motivation, time management, problem solving abilities, etc. These are all qualities that companies look for in their prospective employees, and as soon as they are hired they shackle those qualities and force upon them the same old structure that we all know from school.


If you are someone who has found themselves shackled by the structure of the traditional workplace, constantly frustrated by its tight rules and routines, know that there is a way out. The only thing that you need to find that exit is the motivation and determination to go out and find it.

Thousands of people have already found it, maybe you can be the next.

Chris is a Mechanical Engineer and Designer. He is one of four owners of Design Build Consulting LLC, an independent design firm in Raleigh NC.

Chris Sturgis Chris is a Mechanical Engineer and Designer. He is one of four owners of Design Build Consulting LLC, an independent design firm in Raleigh NC.