The Belly of the Beast: An idealist’s guide to managing the corporate world


To say that I am an idealist is an understatement. Ever since I can remember I’ve known that all I really want to do in life is help people. Like so many of my millennial generation counterparts, I deviated from my parents’ common sense conservatism and became one of those “flaming liberals” at a relatively young age. I studied Anthropology in school in the hopes that I would develop an understanding and empathy towards those of different backgrounds so that I could be more effective as an activist later in life. I remember the wrinkled noses and looks of shock and disgust that I received from my anarchist Anthropology peers when I informed them that I would be enrolling in business school after graduation. So much for cultural relativism, right? And yes, the culture shock of transitioning from classes in which “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” were required reading, to courses on business strategy and macroeconomics, was nearly debilitating for me. One day I was confiding in one of my former Anthro professors about my misgivings about the business world, and I’ll never forget the look on her face when she said to me, “Ellen, you have to understand. You’re in the belly of the beast now.” Are you rolling your eyes yet? Indeed, this all seems quite melodramatic looking back on it years later. But it’s important to note that I bought into this perspective for longer than I care to admit. I’ll be honest, although I love my job and the opportunities that it affords me to improve lives, I was afraid of taking part in what I considered to be less than philanthropic industries. It’s taken a few years of maturity and developing a clarity of perspective to realize that this kind of attitude is just as ignorant and dogmatic as the greed that it professes against. It’s been a difficult process of reconciling my identity as an idealist with my career as a business consultant. And I’m sure there are many people, young and old, who struggle with this every day. I’d like to share some nuggets of wisdom that I’ve acquired thus far that I hope will be helpful to likeminded people.

You have a choice: creation or destruction. When I was younger, I was told by (you guessed it) an Anthropology professor on the last day of class that we had a choice of either being a cog in the machine or a monkeywrench. That we had the opportunity to break the system, and we should take advantage of it. While this may have appealed in a way to my more militant sensibilities and caused everyone to leave the room feeling fired up, this never quite sat right with me. Some people are bent on destroying a system that they find morally corrupt. From my perspective, I’d much prefer to spend my energy creating something good, which has an uncanny tendency to crowd out the bad on its own. So while it may not have that adrenaline rush of righteous wrath that some activism has, in the end, creation is more powerful than destruction.

You control your impact on the world no matter where you are. So you work a conventional 9-5 job. You spend your days with your head down working on someone else’s assignment. You dream of travelling, making a difference, changing the world, saving lives, etc. and bemoan how powerless you feel in your humble career. If this sounds like you, here’s a wake-up call: You are not a slave. That attitude is so passive and uncreative, it drives me crazy. You are a human being possessed with the skills and power to change your environment. No, not leave your environment–change it where you are. If your company is underutilizing its potential to improve your community, chances are that with some planning and support, you can change that. The sad fact is that you’ll probably never change the whole world, but implementing something like quarterly employee volunteering, a pro bono service, or just switching to recycled paper is making an impact that is a hell of a lot bigger than daydreaming about the Peace Corps. Be proactive and take a stand. More often than not, people will follow you.

Always choose the path of learning and understanding over righteous indignation. As an idealist, you’ll likely encounter some situations that test your moral convictions. This is just the nature of life and will happen in any industry. But before you give into that kneejerk Holier Than Thou reaction, take some time to step back to understand the broader picture that led to this situation. Understanding where people are coming from and working with them to meet them where they are will accomplish so much more than throwing a tantrum. When someone does something wrong, most of the time it is from a place of fear rather than a place of malice. Cultivating empathy in your relationships dissolves this fear and creates and environment of honesty and integrity.

Very few people are actually evil Wait, the vast majority of pharmaceutical marketers are actually wonderful people who harbor enormous compassion for the patients their drugs are treating? Most people in any industry are kind and just want to do their jobs? It may sound silly that this insight came as a bit of a pleasant surprise to me. In fact, I remember sitting in on an interview with a doctor for a pharma research project who just ranted and raved about the evils of the industry, and he only succeeded in coming across as unkind and a little crazy. Of course, no industry is immune from criticism. But we need to stop demonizing each other. Had I truly realized that business professionals weren’t the mustache-twisting villains I had been told about, my misgivings about entering the business world would have all but disappeared. I’d go as far as saying that the world of traditional business is a perfect place for an idealist, because nowhere will you find more level-headed, productive, and creative people who want just as badly as you to make the world a better place. I have the privilege of working at a company like Vivisum that places enormous emphasis on philanthropy and improving lives. But even at a place like this I’ve had to learn that in order to “be the change,” I have to make that decision each and every day. I’ll always be an idealist, and I’ve come to understand that no matter where I am in my career, as long as I consciously choose to live out my values, I’m right where I belong.

Ellen Hart is a Director at Vivisum Partners. She specializes in in-depth qualitative research in healthcare and nonprofit fields. Email Ellen at ellen.hart@vivisumpartners.com