I don’t usually like to prepare a straight-up reaction piece to other bloggers’ posts, but this one just got me thinking so much that I decided to bump my planned post and go with this one instead. Lazy Man talked about professional jealousy yesterday in the context of finding out one of his former college classmates was now a VP at a major financial institution. Read his post first.
Some background: I stepped off the corporate career ladder about two and a half years ago. My travel load was heavy, the politics were getting awful and I was increasingly unhappy about my job duties and future prospects. I decided to make a radical (for me) shift to full-time contract consulting. I ended up taking a halfway route by working for a company that provides some back-office support but basically leaves me out on my own as far as the work’s concerned. I don’t have a supervisor or staff or a computer or anything provided to me by my company, other than the marketing and payroll. So while I’m not completely on my own, I’m about as much on my own as you can get and still get a W-2.
A lot changed for me over the last few years. I was formerly a senior manager and had been managing staff at a succession of companies over the last decade. I probably supervised hundreds of people, and even at times supervised other managers, who in turn supervised their own staff. Some of the staff were wonderful people, who I have stayed in close touch with. Others were forgettable or downright unpleasant. Most of them, however, have continued as employees. I only know of one person who left the corporate fold altogether to establish his own company, and it’s doing very well. But in general most of my former staff have clung tightly to the corporate bosom.
Some of the good staff people have surprised me beyond my expectations. About 10 years ago, a young woman was assigned to my audit team at my major Russian client in Moscow. She was straight out of university, and was extremely shy and tentative. I worked with her for a couple of years, and was very pleased to see her come out of her shell and become more confident. Now she is a finance executive for a major European airline company. I don’t kid myself to think that I played any significant role in her development, but I do give myself credit for not derailing her, at least. Other staff have gone on to similarly fantastic roles, and I’m always pleased to hear about it. Some are CFOs of representative offices. Some are partners in small CPA firms. Some are happily zooming around the world as management consultants. Some are simply mid-level managers, but confident and successful at that level. I could name a half dozen who were junior staff working for me who are now skipping right up the corporate ladder and managing staffs of their own, and I am very proud of all of them.
I mention these stories because I suppose I should be jealous that staff I managed have gone on to equal my professional status, or in a few cases surpass it (and in a few cases, GREATLY surpass it) – but I’m not. I don’t feel any jealousy, and I think it’s because I like to feel some of their success is due to me. Probably no more than .000001%, but I hopefully provided a tiny bit of wisdom and maybe more than a tiny bit of positive feedback and mentoring and coaching, and I’m glad it helped. I don’t begrudge them their victories. Life is not a zero sum game.
However, I think the difference in Lazy Man’s case was that he was talking about a peer of his, and I identify with that, too. I see coworkers who I have never liked; who are less competent, more annoying and simply (in my opinion) worse people than me move ahead and it kills me. Sometimes it’s because they have discarded their personal life. Sometimes it’s because they stayed in the corporate race while I dropped out, so it’s just stick-to-it-iveness. However, sometimes it’s just luck, and that makes me angry. It shouldn’t, but it does. I left two companies at exactly the wrong time – in both cases, had I stayed the perfect position opened up within a year and I would have been the first choice for those positions. But I left, and someone else got the role. I know that the past is past, but it is hard to know these people are in those roles. I get sick when I think of some of these people moving ahead in the world.
It’s easier for me if it’s friends of mine rather than just colleagues. My roommate from my early years in New York, who only had about two years’ experience on me has gone on to international high finance and is dramatically successful, and has done it without (apparently) wrecking his family, and I’m very happy for him. Other friends of mine have reached high levels in their companies (big and small) and I’m happy for them, too. One has done well with his own business. But I don’t feel badly, and I think it’s because we were never in competition.
Lazy Man’s final point in the article sums it all up. Don’t worry too much about how others are doing career-wise, because it’s not the whole picture to a life. Just because someone is a VP at a financial institution doesn’t make them happy, or fit, or well-adjusted, or even financially comfortable. Personal finance blogs will always tell you that "keeping up with the Joneses" is a recipe for disaster. Keeping up with your friends’/acquaintances’ careers is a recipe for disaster. I have a different goal than keeping up with Co-worker X. My goal is eventually to leave my corporate consulting gig while I’m still young and sane and fit, rather than leaving it feet-first in an ambulance or hearse. My personal goal is to have a business card one day without a title at all. Hopefully if that card says anything about me, it will say "financially free writer." That will mean more to me than being CEO of Lehman Brothers or Chairman of GE or Yahoo!-in-Chief would, I think. I can be happy for everyone who chooses to race up the corporate ladder, because I got off – hopefully before it was too far to jump.