Size Matters: A Girardian Tale of Burnout

A totally fictional — but simultaneously true! — portrayal of one Irish elk’s experience with uncertainty, mimicry, envy, and burnout in an alternative Silicon Valley

Antlerz’ updated marketing collateral. Illustration: author

“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind.”

— René Girard

In a universe parallel to ours, there was an Irish elk named Jim.

Jim graduated from a small liberal arts college in the midwest with a degree in economics. And — surprise! — he has no idea what he wants to do. Following friends, he moves to Chicago and gets a studio.

One day, Jim goes to a coffee shop. He runs into an old family friend, Max. The two of them grew up together. Jim asks Max what he’s doing in Chicago. Max mentions he got a job via a posting on Indeed. The company is called Antlerz.

Jim trusts Max, so he opens his laptop and finds the posting. He applies to be a customer success associate at Antlerz.

Antlerz gets back to him immediately. They say they like his resumé. He briefly pauses to thank the CDO (career development office) at his alma mater for their advice on it.

Two days later, Jim interviews. Antlerz offers him the job on the spot. The company seems great, and he needs a job, so he accepts.

Max likes it, he thinks. How bad could it be?

On Jim’s first day, he notices something. Not only is everyone’s fur white, but everyone at this all-male startup has short antlers. Because battles over mates favor bulls with large antlers, everyone there has the same problem: they’ve all historically struggled to find mates. Seeing a market opportunity, they’ve banded together to change their luck.

Their mission is simple: develop a product that lengthens elk antlers. One look around the office makes it apparent that everyone — Max included — is bought into the mission.

Jim, to his credit, isn’t so sure.

An economist by training, Jim is wary of unintended consequences. But his parents are happy he got a job, so he puts the concerns aside.

“Just give it some time!” His mom says on the phone. “I’m sure it’ll get better. Also, how’s Max?”

“He’s really bought into this whole thing,” Jim replies. “Like, in a competitive way.”

“That’s Max for you,” his mom says. “Don’t you remember how competitive you two were as kids?”

Like many startups, the hours are long, the pay is bad, and the CEO — Corey Adams — is an asshole.

But because everyone believes in the mission — “so that all bulls may find their mate,” per the marketing brochure — Jim is willing to toss the rest aside.

Antlerz’ early marketing collateral. Illustration: author

Years, however, pass without progress.

Further, Jim’s salary doesn’t increase, and in spite of expressing interest in an individual contributor role, he’s ushered towards management.

Made to feel as if his career hinges on assuming responsibility he doesn’t want, he accepts promotion after promotion, eventually ascending into a directorial role alongside Max. Jim oversees customer success; Max, sales. But neither department matters when there’s nothing to sell.

After years of false starts, Corey announces he’s firing the VP of product. The position is up for grabs. Jim isn’t sure he wants the responsibility. He catches Max’s eye, though, and it’s clear Max does. At that moment, something within Jim snaps, some relic buried deep in their shared past, and suddenly Jim is feeling something he hasn’t felt towards max since childhood: envy.

Jim isn’t sure why, but he wants the job.

Months later, after countless all-nighters and even a few efforts to undermine the quality of Max’s work, Jim gets a slack from Corey.

“My office,” it reads. Jim gets up from his desk. His antlers shake as he walks. He can feel Max’s eyes on him the whole way. He steps into the office, expecting the worst. Corey, though, is smiling.

“I’ve seen how hard you’ve been working,” Corey begins. “I know how much this company means to you. That’s why I want to offer you the VP of product position.”

Caught between joy and relief, Jim accepts. Corey announces the promotion at the company all-hands over a catered lunch — all vegetarian, per a new company initiative. Jim sees Max from across the room, but can’t catch his eye.

Whatever, Jim thinks. If he doesn’t support me, he doesn’t support this company.

The next day, Max quits.

A pit of regret forms in Jim’s stomach, but it turns quickly to anxiety as reality sets in. Antlerz still doesn’t have a product. Investors, wary of a Theranos repeat, are getting antsy. Corey tells Jim that if they don’t crack the code on inorganic antler lengthening soon, they’ll all be out of a job.

Like any good liberal arts graduate, Jim doubles down on his work. He starts ordering Freshly to save time and taking Adderall for focus. He even brings in a blowup mattress so he can sleep in the office a few times a week.

But the hours get longer and his health — like his and Max’s relationship — deteriorates. He puts on ten pounds, then twenty. His blood pressure rises. He stops checking in with friends. His parents start worrying.

Just when he’s not sure he can continue, his team makes a breakthrough. They’ve cracked the code on inorganic antler lengthening! For a price, any bull can now lengthen their antlers by eight feet!

They call the product “Syze,” an ode to what its creators never possessed.

News gets out, and Syze starts flying off the shelves. Surprising approximately no one, every male wants to lengthen their antlers.

The internet calls the process “syzing.” TikTok explodes with videos of bulls showing their antlers growing in real time. Irish elk Drake comes out with a song called “Syzed.” It sits atop Spotify charts for six months.

“Syzed” album art. Illustration: author

In a few short weeks, the average male antler size goes from four feet to twelve.

Antlerz, too, is flush with cash. But Jim’s only been there for a few years, so his options haven’t vested. Corey also refuses to give him a raise.

“Our mission isn’t over,” he says. “It’s time to double down.”

Jim doesn’t know what “doubling down” means. To him, the mission appears to be over. They’ve cracked the code. The product is selling. But Corey has other plans.

“More species than just elk have males who struggle in competition over mates,” he tells Jim. “Bullfrogs. Elephant seals. Buffalo. Do you have any idea how big this could be?”

Jim reluctantly admits Corey is right. The mission is worth it. His parents implore him to quit, but he’s unmoved.

“I can’t quit now,” he tells them. “I’ve already put in so much time. Also, did you know we’re not the only species whose males struggle in competition over mates?”

“Since when do you have time to compete over mates?” His mother replies.

More time passes. Syze continues selling. Jim makes progress on new product lines. Horn-strengthening for Buffalo. Croak-deepening for bullfrogs. Steroids for Elephant seals.

Corey has the marketing team put a neon sign up behind the front desk with Antlerz’ new mission, expanded beyond Irish elk.

“Find your mate,” it reads.

Some bulls, however, point out that this mission doesn’t characterize their lived experience with Syze.

Their antlers are objectively larger now, yes. But objective size doesn’t matter in battles over mates; relative size does. Lengthening every bull’s antlers by eight feet didn’t do anything to help bulls with relatively short antlers to begin with, who are still losing battles with other bulls over mates.

Further, syzed antlers are kind of heavy. They’re hard to sleep with. AirPods don’t fit as well. Also, they make it easier for predators to kill you by making it harder to maneuver in densely-wooded areas.

Antlerz does its best to play this down. Jim is tasked with hiring a PR team, who puts out some new marketing. They come out with a dating app for males with short antlers. “Syze Me Up,” it’s called.

In spite of it all, the bad press intensifies. The Verge writes an article. Taylor Lorenz retweets it. Casey Newton puts it in The InterfaceBen Thompson includes it in The Daily UpdateDavid Perell throws it in Monday Musings. Vox, Vice, Slate — and eventually even Medium — publish op-eds.

In the meantime, Jim puts on more weight. His blood pressure creeps higher. He buys a new pair of pants.

The team is crestfallen. They realize the mission was a sham. The Irish elk population is now under attack from predators. Non-partisan watchdog groups predict the species will go extinct within the next decade.

Corey calls Jim into his office and tells him to head up a team to come up with a way to reverse Syze’s effects.

“The market opportunity is even bigger now!” He exclaims. “Given the existential threat that resulted from Syze, we can charge even more!” He also promises more equity, but tells Jim that because of the lawsuits, he can’t afford to give him a raise.

“Finally,” he says, “because you were technically responsible for the breakthrough that led to Syze, you kind of owe me.”

Suddenly, Jim realizes he can no longer justify the long hours, poor pay, and corporate mistreatment.

So he quits.

After a few years, the Irish elk population sits at just twenty percent of its peak.

Because those with the largest antlers relative to the rest of the population were first to go, the Antlerz team is left entirely intact, albeit scattered throughout the countryside. Zoom calls and remote perks replace the buzz of the office as the team scrambles to find a cure.

Jim, now separated from the company, remains in touch with colleagues. A few tell him that Corey illegally unloaded millions of dollars worth of stock before fleeing to Canada. Jim isn’t surprised.

The news goes public a few days later. The public is outraged. Predators begin targeting Corey, offering bounties for his antlers.

Peter Thiel’s company, Palantir, earns a government contract to track Corey down. Less than 24 hours later, he’s in custody.

The next day, Jim’s phone buzzes. He looks down to a message from Max.

“Hey,” it reads.

“Hey,” Jim replies. It’s the first correspondence the two have had in over a year.

“Did you see Corey’s in custody?” Max asks.

“I did,” Jim replies.

“Wanna grab a drink?” Max asks.

“Where did you have in mind?” Jim replies.

The two of them meet at the Shamrock Club, not far from where they used to work.

It’s 5pm and the sun is just visible through the front windows, readying itself to dip below the skyline. The sounds of glasses clinking are gone, replaced with a dead silence, echoes dissipating on the scuffed linoleum. Max is perched at the end of the bar facing forward, his head bowed.

“Hey,” Jim says.

“Hey yourself,” Max replies, continuing to stare forward while sipping his drink. Jim takes a seat next to Max and orders a beer. The two sit in silence for the better part of a minute.

“You know,” Max finally says, “I really did think we were changing the world. I really thought we’d make things better.”

“We all did,” Jim replies. “Corey had that effect on you. He had that effect on everyone.”

“You didn’t fall for it though, you know?” Max says. “Like I know you; you didn’t ever really believe in the mission.”

“I stayed, didn’t I?” Jim says.

“Yeah…” Max trails off.

“At a certain point, I think it stopped being about the mission,” Jim begins. “Honestly, I’m not sure it ever was. Like I just had no idea what to do after college and there was all the pressure of finding a job, like the pressure to just not graduate with six figures of debt and do nothing, you know?”

“Yeah,” Max replies. “Corey actually said something similar to me once while we were drinking, like I don’t think even he believed in the mission, it was more a tool to motivate people to keep working for nothing. Like did I want larger antlers? Of course I did — I mean, who wouldn’t? — but I think even Corey saw the writing on the wall, he understood what would happen once everyone had access to the tech. He saw it coming.”

“That fucker,” Jim says. “And to think I basically renounced our friendship over that promotion.”

“Yeah man,” Max says, “Kinda felt like we were kids again.”

There’s a long silence as the sun drops out of sight and specks of red appear in the sky.

“You want another drink?” Max says.

“Yeah,” Jim replies.

A few months later, Corey goes on trial. He’s convicted of insider trading and is sentenced to 20 years in prison. On his first night behind bars, he hangs himself.

In the wake of his death, Silicon Valley reorients itself around sustainable business models. Government funding and oversight give way to a safe and usable Syze vaccine, which saves the Irish elk from extinction. The vaccine is successfully repurposed for species like the Elephant seal, bullfrog, and buffalo.

Even as his behavior in life was deplorable, pundits credit Corey’s death with a subsequent era of sustainable prosperity in Silicon Valley. The era spawns new job openings. Jim becomes an antitrust attorney; Max, a tech lobbyist. Both spend the next two decades battling one another in court, each becoming wildly successful in the process.

Today, Jim and Max acknowledge that Corey’s hubris was at least partially responsible for their success. With entirely different career objectives, their friendship has never been closer.

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