The literature of exhaustion

Fast Company isn't just a magazine -- it's the workaholic bible for manic white-collar types too wired -- and scared -- to slow down.

Published May 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Tech-fluent, community-oriented, untiringly committed to work, work, work, the white-hot business magazine Fast Company is one of a handful of artifacts you would have to put in your cultural time capsule of the 1990s. If you had time to make a time capsule, which -- silly me! -- of course you don't. You're too busy Building Your Brand, Creating Your Wow Project, Joining the Free-Agent Nation.

Fast Company understands this. And that's why Fast Company is one of the smartest -- and scariest -- magazines around.

The National Magazine Award Fast Company received last month capped off an incredible first three years. The month before, Advertising Age named it Magazine of the Year; its ad pages jumped more than 50 percent in a year, and its circulation jumped from 100,000 to over 250,000. And like any hot start-up nowadays, it may cash in while the cash-in's good; owner Mort Zuckerman is reportedly shopping the magazine around, possibly to Condi Nast or another empire.

Many of the reasons are no doubt old-fashioned: snazzy design, sensitivity to trends, solid, unflashy writing, inventive regular departments, talented artists and (especially) cartoonists. But what really distinguishes Fast Company from older business magazines like Business Week, Forbes and Fortune (disclosure: I'm a contributor to Fortune) is its relentless emphasis on what's new in business: the effects of technology and reorganization on the pace of business (hence the name), the blurring of the lines between work and leisure and, especially, the changing relation and waning loyalties -- dramatized in the last recession -- between the individual and the company. And it knows how to speak its readers' highly upper-cased, consultant-ized lingo: In the May issue alone, we read how to Overcome Our Strengths, to move Beyond the Learning Organization, to Write Our Money Autobiographies.

Above all, FC realizes that its readers want a buddy, a partner, not a sage counselor or detached journalistic observer. The magazine's core support comes from intensely dedicated readers, thousands of whom have joined "Circles of Friends" -- Fast Company local reader groups that have become the Rush Rooms of the end of the century for the committed new-economy businessperson. They want to know how to motivate workers in a tight labor market, how to work in teams without becoming invisible. They'd rather hear success stories than post-mortems. And they want their magazine to cheer them on -- preferably with catchy slogans they can take back to their project teams (even if they're contradictory: "Be a gardener, not a mechanic!" but "Don't let your job run out of gas!").

There's good and bad in this relentlessly sunny, can-do attitude. Fast Company has actually carried out the idea of "creating community" that other mags pay lip service to. But its articles -- particularly its attention-getting cover stories -- sometimes romanticize disturbing aspects of the economy, taking a pile of lemons and pretending they're lemonade. In 1997, former Al Gore speechwriter Daniel Pink christened America "Free Agent Nation," heralding the spread of self-employment by noting the success of a slice of highly skilled, wired professionals -- doing yoga by day in their nice living rooms -- with scant attention to temps, the downsized and the uninsured. ("If there's one place where these solo workers -- these free agents -- feel comfortable," Pink writes in a recent Slate dialogue, it's a high-end coffee shop.")

Yet among its plugged-in target group, Fast Company is doing right. The surest measure: Its own name has become consultant-speak. "An expert at retaining and developing employees" told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel recently that at a "Fast Company," managers "guide, energize and excite" (rather than boss around) employees. "A Fast Company creates a place employees call 'home,'" he says. Fast Company the magazine, concludes the Sun-Sentinel, is "more than a magazine ... [it's] a metaphor."

Not just a magazine but a metaphor: That's the sort of thing you hear about Fast Company. It's not just a magazine, it's a community, a movement, a philosophy. You could dispute these descriptions, but the mag has the good sense to make sure people say them. For while these may be the better of bad times for publishing, one thing the wise periodical damn sure does not want to be called today is "a magazine."

But the key to Fast Company is really this: It's not just a magazine, it's a consultant. (Ironically, one of its best features is the "Consultant Debunking Unit" column, which zaps a different consultant catch phrase each issue.) The May issue trots out a classic business metaphor, quizzing chess master Bruce Pandolfini for 10 deep-sounding slogans for the conquering king. "To gain space, you usually have to sacrifice time." And "When you can't determine whether to accept or decline a sacrifice, accept it." (Inexplicably, the magazine omits "Don't surround yourself with yourself" and "Take a straight and stronger course to the corner of your life.")

This sounds like a throwback to the Sun-Tzu-ism of yore, but really Fast Company's philosophy is more egalitarian, less Great Leader-centered. Its game is more about teaching each pawn to move itself (uh, teaching each rook to castle itself? These metaphors are harder than they look). It's an unlikely mix of every-brand-for-himself mercenariness and team spirit: advancing your company's interests by advancing your own. At least in theory. The subtext, as in business guru and FC poster boy Tom Peters' famous cover story, "The Brand Called You," is that the company would just as soon gut you as look at you; remember that, and everyone's happy. Peters contributes the mag's current cover story, "The Wow Project," approaching project management in the same vein. The point of a Wow Project, Peters says, "is not to do a 'good job'" -- love those scare quotes -- "of managing the project that the boss dumped into your lap. It's to use every project opportunity ... to create surprising new ways of looking at old problems."

In other words, polish your resume first and do the assignment second. Live each work day like it's your last. I can't say that's bad advice, but articles like this drive home just how shitless the early-'90s recession scared the white-collar work force, how the aftershocks affect even the most Pollyanna-ish assumptions of the boom era. After that brief, scary game of musical desks, we take every minute of work available, like guilty happeners across an overturned money truck, guiltily (or not) snatching up every stray dollar bill we can, not believing our good fortune will last, stuffing our pockets and scraping our knuckles until the cops come and shoo us away again.

Thus the 24/7/365 work-o-rama captured in an ad from the issue, for something called HotOffice 2.0 software: "Scott and Lisa are in the office working on the Johnson report ... Ron's in Miami Beach [working on a laptop] wishing he wasn't working on the Johnson report." This is a selling point -- this is what someone has determined will make a Fast Company reader want to buy: Get HotOffice and you'll never take a real vacation again!

Well, it's only an ad. Fast Company didn't make this world, any more than Fortune or Forbes did; it just identified and responded to it better than anyone else. (Even its leisure section is called "Neoleisure.") And this hell-for-leather outfit does recognize the costs; last year it ran a cover package on "Getting a Life" and this spring included a section on balancing personal and professional life. But don't expect all its readers to sign on that quickly: Though the section obviously touched a chord, one reader shot back, "To succeed today, you've got to become a maniac!"

"A Fast Company creates a place employees call 'home.'" Increasingly, we're turning home -- and everywhere else -- into a place employees call "work." More power to Fast Company's highly motivated followers if they enjoy it as much as they seem to. But it'll be interesting to see what becomes of the magazine if the market tightens, if the readers ever weary of constant self-invention and of the prospect of 50 years of job insecurity, if its wired begin to grow tired. If the Free Agent Nation is put on waivers. If an economy of Fast Companies starts getting -- God forbid -- slow.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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