“This book may upset you if you don’t like being told that with hard work and a different approach you can build a different life and career for yourself.” Those bold words of resolve appear at the beginning of The Escape Manifesto, a book written by the founders of ‘anti-corporate’ movement Escape the City.
In late 2009, Dom Jackman and Rob Symington were working in management consulting at Ernst & Young in London when, feeling uninspired and trapped, they found themselves asking, ‘What does this have to do with the real world?’
“You get caught up in this cycle of spending money at the weekends to make up for the terrible time you’re having during the week. Then during the week you’re working to pay for the fun times on the weekend,” says Dom. “It was rubbish.”
One morning, crippled by Mondayitis, Rob sent Dom an email that read simply, “I want to escape.” But instead of the word ‘escape’, he’d used an image of the ‘Esc’ key leaping off of a keyboard. That was the ‘aha’ moment they needed to, at the very least, do something differently.
Without an easy way to find interesting job opportunities online, they took matters into their own hands. After spending hours on a Sunday scouring the internet for interesting job listings, the pair sent the first edition of their now famous email, The Top 10 Opportunities (To Do Something Different), to 50 of their similarly unhappy friends. Within a month they had around 1000 subscribers.
“For the next four years, that’s essentially all Escape was, just this ‘Top 10’ email. And instead of [just] trying to find the jobs, people were paying to have their jobs listed,” says Dom.
Those jobs listed on the Escape the City website now number in the hundreds and each receives just as many applications. Current opportunities range from a horseback trail guide in Botswana’s Okavango Delta to a mentor accountant in Guatemala and a private chef in France.
So what makes a job ‘different’ enough to appear on the escape job board? It must fulfil at least one of the following criteria: entrepreneurial, exciting brand, exotic location, or have a positive social impact. Of course the more out-there jobs are usually the most popular.
“It’s unrealistic these days, especially in our target market, for people to find a job and that’s it for life, they’re going to be there forever,” says Dom. “We always see these jobs as stepping-stone opportunities. You learn, you’re working for a cause you care about and it’s a more pleasant environment, it’s a better worklife balance.”
So is it difficult to practice what they preach? Amusingly, when we get on the phone with Dom, he’s running late.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, “I’ve been stuck in a meeting.” Even the escape artist himself isn’t immune to the pulls of the working world.
“My actual job, what I do day-today is, you could argue, pretty boring,” confesses Dom, who now works on Escape the City full-time. “I spend a lot of my time in the detail with accounts and structures. There are lots of menial tasks that get done, but it goes back to purpose, to feel like you’re having a really good influence on people and those people are improving the world.”
The irony certainly doesn’t fall short on Dom, who is in no way unrealistic when it comes to running a business and having employees himself.
“We’d be lying if we said every job was going to be incredible 100 per cent of the time. What’s driving people when they have a bad day has got to be the mission they’re working toward. That’s got to be the thing that fires them up. Secondly they’ve got to think, ‘Yeah actually I’m really good at this, my skills are being utilised and I’m having fun with the team.’”
This is where the corporate world is going wrong, says Dom. Escape the City’s 2015 members’ survey found 51 per cent of professionals experience mental or physical health issues as a result of their jobs, 50 per cent feel they can’t use their strengths or skills in their current jobs and 34 per cent say they don’t have any role models in their organisation. In response, Dom and his team published a letter in August: ‘Dear Corporates: A quarter of a million of your workforce are escaping… And they’re running to us, here’s why’.
It continued in what was an open challenge to employers: “Perhaps, dear Corporates, you might wish to ask yourselves the questions that your employees are already answering: What is my purpose here? What difference am I making in the world? What positive mark will I leave behind after I’m gone? In a world where I could spend my days any way I choose – why should I spend them doing the work I’m doing right now?”
To date, Escape the City has helped hundreds of thousands of unhappy workers find new career paths. In May 2012 the company raised £600,000 from 395 members – a world record at the time – to help fund the next stage of the business. Despite initially turning to corporates for backing, Escape the City turned down two venture capital offers and instead sold 20 per cent of their company straight to their members (shares were just £1 each). The company has now expanded to short courses and meetups the world over.
“There have been a few kinks in the road where we’ve tried to overcomplicate it but ultimately the lesson has been just to keep it really simple,” says Dom, adding that when it comes to individuals they need to stop looking at the mountain they’ve got to climb and just take a small step each day. “The human need to have a fulfilling job has always been there, that hasn’t changed. What people have now is way more in the realms of possibility. Just by using technology, someone’s idea can create change and have purpose.”
Find this story in Issue 29 of Collective Hub, on stands now.