The Moral Lesson in ‘Office Space’ Everyone Misses
Mike Judge’s hilarious 1999 comedy shows the danger of falling into “resentment traps” and reminds us of the importance of taking control of one's own life.
I have a friend who is pretty successful but works in a high-pressure job. Every few years, when the work grind is getting too tough, he has an antidote.
“I take the rest of the day off and go watch Office Space,” he says.
Office Space is that kind of movie. Written and directed by the legendary Mike Judge (of Beavis and Butthead fame), the 1999 dark comedy stars Ron Livingston as one of three disgruntled office workers who struggle to cope with the monotony of their jobs at a Texas-based software company. Though the movie did not break the bank at the box office, it has become a cult classic and iconic representation of cubicle life and corporate bureaucracy.
Peter Gibbons (Livingston) loathes his job, TPS reports, and his many bosses, particularly his martinet supervisor Bill Lumbergh—hilariously portrayed by Gary Cole—who has a habit of asking rhetorical questions before piling more work onto Peter.
“Hello Peter, what’s happening? Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmk... oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay. We ahh lost some people this week and ah, we sorta need to play catch up.”
‘It’s Not That I’m Lazy, I Just Don’t Care’
It’s a relatable problem, and a frustrating one. Peter’s company, Initech, is canning people. This not only has everyone freaked out about losing their job, but now Peter is being “asked” by his boss to work on weekends to make up for it.
Peter naturally feels powerless in the situation. Telling your boss no is hard. And his inability to push back on Lumbergh compounds his misery at work.
Peter’s life takes a turn, however, when he goes to see a hypnotherapist named Dr. Swanson with his girlfriend (who all his friends seem to think is cheating on him). During the session, Dr. Swanson has a heart attack while hypnotizing Peter. But before he keels over we see his hypnotherapy, which was designed to relieve Peter’s work stress, has worked—but a little too well. Suddenly Peter doesn’t care about anything. He sleeps in, misses work, loses his girlfriend (who indeed was cheating on him)—and he couldn’t be happier about it.
We expect this is going to cause problems for Peter. Instead, his life improves in every way. He’s more relaxed and better rested. He picks up the beautiful waitress at Chotchkie’s, Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), and they start to fall in love and watch Kung Fu together in the evenings. He renovates his cubicle and impresses “the Bobs”—two consultants hired to assess which employees are expendable and should be fired—with his candor.
Peter: The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.
Bob Porter: Don’t—don’t care?
Peter: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?
Peter: Eight bosses.
Bob Slydell: Eight?
Peter: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.
Instead of getting fired, Peter gets promoted.
‘Lumbergh Is Not My Problem’
Things can’t stay this good, of course. Especially when we learn Peter’s co-worker friends—Michael Bolton and Samir—are among those slated to be axed at work. The three devise a hair-brained scheme to get back at Initech by stealing from the company in a plan that is foolproof. Except it’s not. And that’s when things begin to unravel. First, Peter is told Joanna slept with Lumbergh, his boss. She didn’t, but they get into an argument when he confronts her about it. They break up. Worst of all, it looks like Peter and his friends are going to prison because they were not laundering from Initech as discreetly as they thought.
This is where the moral that everyone misses in Office Space comes. “You were right about that computer scam. That was a bad idea,” he tells Joanna, explaining that he’s returning the money and going to take blame for the illegal scheme.
Taking the blame is of course the right thing to do and a sign of Peter’s growth, as is his admission that he had no right to get angry at Joanna when he mistakenly believed she had slept with Lumbergh. But what he says next is the single most important sentence in the movie demonstrating Peter’s change.
“Lumbergh is not my problem,” Peter says.
Office Space is a comedy, so naturally Peter doesn’t go to prison. Through a funny turn of events, Initech burns to the ground. The evidence that could implicate Peter, Michael Bolton, and Samir is incinerated. But the arc of the story and of Peter Gibbons comes from his realization that Lumbergh is not really his problem, which helps him discover his own agency.
The best-selling author Robert Mckee, author of Story, says the purpose of a story is to “express how and why life changes.” And these five words—“Lumbergh is not my problem”—represent Peter’s change moment. He leaves Initech, finds a new job, and tells Joanna how he feels.
In a sense, Peter is taking the advice of Jordan Peterson, the best-selling author of 12 Rules for Life. The primary lesson of Peterson’s book is that, in the words of Norman Doidge, “you must take responsibility for your own life. Period.” As I wrote a few years ago, this lesson is embedded in Peterson’s philosophy and best-selling book.
“When Peterson says stand up straight, make good friends, set your own house in order first, tell the truth, make your bed, be precise in speech, etc., he’s not really concerned about how clean your room is. He is instructing readers on how they can take control of their own lives. He’s reminding them of their power. Their agency.”
This is what Peter Gibbons ultimately learns: how to take control of his own life and stop blaming his unhappiness on Lumbergh and Initech.
This is the lesson many people, particularly younger ones who see America as a “capitalist hellscape,” can take from Office Space. It’s not that Lumbergh and Initech weren’t awful. But the truth is, you’re going to encounter awful people in life. What’s important is to not give one’s power and agency over to others by seeing oneself as a victim of external forces beyond one’s control.
This is precisely what Peter was doing at the beginning of Office Space. He turned Lumbergh into his personal boogeyman. Instead of directly engaging his pushy boss, he was hiding from him (quite literally) and feeling sorry for himself. This was making him miserable.
Peter had walked into what Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel, calls the “resentment trap.”
“It is probably the worst mental prison in the world,” says the bestselling author. “It is the inability to let go of anger and the perceived or real injustices we suffer.”
Note that Ali says “perceived or real injustices.” Like Peterson, she’s not saying injustice isn’t real. It is. But we must not allow injustices to consume us, or allow them to strip us of our agency.
The truth is, there are plenty of Bill Lumberghs in the world. (In fact, there are people much, much worse.) Sometimes we have to deal with these people, and that can be difficult. We’ve all had to work with and perhaps report to people who are challenging at one time or another.
But the point of Office Space is an important one: do not relinquish your power to the Bill Lumberghs of the world by seeing yourself as a victim. That is a path to misery.
This piece was originally published by FEE.org, you can find it here.