The Slowest Queue: Why Do Careers Always Seem To Be Progressing More Quickly Elsewhere?

I recently passed a long queue of kids outside the Supreme shop in Soho. I was at once disdainful of the young people’s insatiable appetite for tee shirts and trainers; and envious of their collective cool and camaraderie.

I have always been ambivalent about queues.

On the one hand I’m rather fond of them: the obligation to pause for a moment’s reflection; the opportunity to observe what’s in other people’s trolleys; the quiet satisfaction that there are others waiting behind me. Queues can be social, communal. They suggest inherent value; something worth waiting for. But then again I rather resent queues: the wasted time; the sense of injustice; the fear of missing out; the ‘quiet desperation.’ And, of course, the conviction that the other line is definitely moving along faster than my own.

So why am I always in the slowest queue?

There is a whole branch of science dedicated to ‘queueing theory.’ Firstly, the experts offer a simple statistical explanation for my sense of my line’s sluggishness. If there are three queues in a shop, the chances of my line being the quickest are only one in three. So it’s not just me: another queue is probably moving faster.

Secondly there is a psychological explanation. Experiments have shown that people only tend to notice the queue when their line is progressing slowly. So queue awareness is closely aligned with queue slowness.

Moreover, when I’m in a slow queue, it feels really slow. The minutes dawdle; the seconds drag. Time is elastic. We tend to experience time differently while waiting.

Although queue theorists have established that a singular serpentine line is fairer and quicker, more competitive types would rather take their chances with separate lines. But it’s hard to game the queue: you can’t predict when a customer ahead of you will be more talkative or troublesome; and sometimes a shorter line indicates a slower salesperson.

A recent University College London report (The Guardian, 19 February 2017) observed that on average people wait for only six minutes in a queue, and they are unlikely to join one with more than six people in it. Scores vary according to the appeal of the end experience and the availability of distractions (smart phones and mirrors, natch). Nonetheless, I’m sure that in previous, less pressurised, times we would happily have fallen in with longer queues and put up with them for longer. In the accelerated age our patience is wearing thin.

I wonder if we suffer something akin to this queueing dilemma in our careers. We see our peers and juniors progressing at pace at other companies. There always seems to be another business, another industry, at which career advancement is more rapid. And our own progress feels so slow. So we are propelled to look elsewhere; to try our luck in another queue, at another employer. With variable results we endeavour to game the queue. And the frequency with which we switch lanes or jump ship increases with the passing years.

Queueing theory suggests we may be deluding ourselves somewhat when we job hop: responding to the sensation of present slowness, rather than to the reality of speed elsewhere.

Of course, careers are not queues. Though there is always an element of waiting in line, career progress depends on the talent and hard work of the employee; and the opportunities and environment provided by the employer. We should always be prepared to move on when the opportunities are markedly better elsewhere; when the alternative environment is decidedly more conducive to learning, growth and good work.

I’m just sounding a note of caution. We should be alert to the psychological forces at play when we're frustrated at work. We should move for positive, not passive reasons; in order to seize real opportunities, not just to escape a seeming lack of them.

I confess I’m something of an irregular case. I happily stayed in the same company for some 25 years. I found that every time people ahead of me in the career queue departed, my own career moved on a step. And perhaps there is a lesson here: sometimes it makes sense to stay exactly where you are; to stick, not twist; to keep your place in the queue of life. Not all waiting is in vain.

‘I don’t wanna wait in vain for your love;
I don’t wanna wait in vain for your love.
From the very first time I rest my eyes on you, girl,
My heart says follow t’rough.
I know, now, that I’m way down on your line,
But the waitin’ feel is fine.’

Bob Marley, ‘Waiting in Vain’


No. 142