Once upon a time, there was a Good Boy. His parents told him to be polite and obedient, and so he was, not just to them but to everyone. They told him to work hard and always try his best, and so he did. They told him to be modest, and so he was, in the self-deprecating way that looks false to many people and irritates the hell out of them. And he came to believe, without ever really thinking about it, that if he just stuck to these principles his parents had taught him, everything would always be all right.
Mostly, it was, because Good Boys who work hard and toe the line, showing just enough imagination to get a little extra credit but never too much, tend to accumulate qualifications and go on – this being Once Upon A Time fairyland, where such things still happened with a degree of predictability – to get PhD funding and then a job. The Good Boy had had no expectation of any of this, as he was still modest and self-doubting; he felt very grateful to his new employers for giving him the chance to be obedient and hard-working and get paid for it, and so he vowed to work extra hard in return.
This irritated some of his fellow workers even more than the interminable self-deprecation.
“For heaven’s sake,” they would say. “You’ve read Marx. The worker feeling grateful to his or her employer for the opportunity to be exploited is False Consciousness 101. We need to band together to protect our interests.”
The Good Boy thought for a bit.
“I do firmly believe in collective solidarity,” he said at last. “But I don’t like not working, and I don’t like feeling disobedient. If I join you, I might have to do those things, even if I completely disagree with the rest of you about whether we should, so I’d better not join you.”
“You’re an idiot,” they said. “What happens if you need our support, if you’re threatened with disciplinary action or redundancy?”
“If I don’t stand with the rest of you on other occasions, I’m not entitled to your support when it’s about me,” said the Good Boy. “I shall just work harder and do everything that’s asked of me, and volunteer for extra things just in case, and then they’ll never have any reason to threaten me.”
And so things went on, for years and years. Until the day when they didn’t.
The whole point of a fairy-tale is to be non-specific, so there’s no point in going into detail about the Good Boy did wrong. Quite possibly he didn’t do anything; one of the obvious flaws in his view of the world is the way it ignores the possibility of events beyond his control, and there are so many of those – the disgruntled student, the difficult colleague, the assertive manager, the unexpected rule change – and in so many cases, the answer to the 3 a.m. agonising, what could I have done differently, is: nothing.
A chasm opens up beneath the Good Boy’s feet, as the realisation dawns that you can work yourself into the ground, going the extra mile and then another mile, doing everything asked of you, being consistently polite and obedient and modest, and this may still be no protection – and, still more painfully, that of course he has always known this in theory, but always assumed that it wouldn’t apply to him. A lot of people could, entirely reasonably, say: we told you so.
And they did not all live happily ever after – but you know that already.