One’s Origins: A Journey from Adoption to Identity – Part Eleven

As Part Ten came to close, I was a new (albeit older than the others) graduate from Villanova University with a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering. After years of a diminished social life devoting myself to school and work, not having to give my full energy to two important areas of my life was not as easy a transition as I was expecting.  Sure, I was relieved from the time-squeeze of non-stop activity. I nonetheless was thrust into a new existence – one with discretionary time. I think most would agree that discretionary time is just as valuable as, and sometimes more valuable than discretionary money. Who wouldn’t enjoy extra hours some days even if we had to pay for it?

I am inclined to assume that parents who suddenly find themselves with empty nests feel a sense of what I was feeling, but with even higher intensity. Not unlike newcomers to being empty nesters, I too was emotionally engaged with what held my attention twenty-four hours a day. Letting go of a big piece of it is just not that simple. Once it was over, I was certainly left with a hole. What awaited me would not let that hole remain unfilled for long. In the song, “The Day That I Die” country music artist Zac Brown reminds us that “Time has a way of reminding us that we are running out of it.” I assert, albeit sans melody, that time also has a way of consuming itself when we fool ourselves into believing we have ample amounts of it. I would soon have a life that would not only be full but also no less fast-paced then the previous ten years of my life. This time however, I was not in training camp. This was the show. I was in the big leagues of a sport I simply rolled into. This is where Part Eleven resumes.

In my new role with the company, I was learning new technical skills in database design and management. This would keep me further away from a career aligned with my degree, to which my reaction was one of indifference. I was making money and most importantly I was finding my new environment invigorating – and that was all that mattered to me.
In the months leading up to the completion of college, the individuals who headed up our team of database technologists were seeking a new future for our group. The company’s core focus was on traditional design of hi-tech buildings such as pharmaceutical and chemical research facilities. The integration of the technology that controlled the processes inside those walls was less of a focus of the company, but it was at the heart of the work with which my team engaged. This led to differences of opinions in strategies for our growth that became insurmountable. After a few conversations that were at the time far above my pay grade, we all took a vote about our future as a group. The results were that about two-thirds of us opted to resign from the engineering firm together and take our skills where they would be better utilized and supported. We landed at the world’s largest and oldest accounting and professional services firms whose name hitherto I had never heard. Moreover, knowing now what I did not know then, I am certain that if I had been on my own after school in finding employment, I never would have walked through the doors of this new company. Engineering graduates do not pursue employment with accounting firms and accounting firms do not court engineering graduates.

Eventually I came to observe that people who join the ranks of professional services firms at this level generally fall into two camps. In one camp, there are those who sacrifice greatly (often dragging their families into their sacrifice) to ascend to the upper echelons of their respective organizations. In the other camp, there are those who gut their way through two or three years of very long hours and frequent travel to get the company name on their resume. They then move on with a wealth of experience in search of greater balance in life. I, true to my nature, did both – or neither – depending on your perspective. Sure, I stayed much longer than many[1], but I was not seeking ascension to the executive ranks – at least not early on. As we are seeing a pattern emerge, I merely was going with the flow. In adherence to Newton’s first law of motion, there was nothing providing any resistance to my remaining there, so I stayed. For a single high-energy guy, it sure was one fascinating ride.

In the spring of 1997, I celebrated the beginning of my fourth decade on earth. Also, in the spring of 1997, I along with several dozen new hires, were shipped off to a week-long new-employee orientation seminar. It was the first of many new experiences for me that would become a normal way of life, not the least of which were fraternization and business travel. After eight or nine hours of sitting in a conference auditorium, many of us would convene to dine and socialize. Networking became a new concept to me. It was also the first time I became aware of my sense of inadequacy among a group of esteemed professionals. They appeared to be pretty dialed in to everything being discussed while I was still wondering what the heck has happened in my life since walking off campus for the last time. The same two questions seemed to me gnawing at me like a dull chronic pain. ‘Where am I?’ and ‘How did I get here?’  Don’t misunderstand. I certainly was enjoying the energy of it all even though I felt I was in over my head. All indicators told me that I was in the minority. This wasn’t freshman orientation where everyone was pretty secure in knowing that their peers all shared similar degrees of cluelessness. Here, I dared not reveal to anyone just how clueless I felt. I suspected there were a few others like me, but I was not aware of any secret handshake for us to identify ourselves to each other.

This would be the first of many countless nights I would find myself in a hotel over the course of the next several years. The more remarkable observation through the eyes of this young man who grew up not seeing himself in the white-collar world as a child, was the lavishness of it all. Earlier, I mentioned the growing need for employees in the throes of the information revolution and Y2K. Things were just taking off then. Apparently, lavishness was a way of luring talent – and talent was quite broadly defined. At the conclusion of one multi-week internal training I attended, the employees who were in the class were all provided individual limo rides back to the local airport to return home. I was truly conflicted. Sure, the ride was borderline luxurious, but I could not reconcile in my head the expense being spared to haul a few young professionals home from a training class – especially me, the clueless kid. Afterall, we were the underlings, not top brass movers and shakers. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with a company spending its money the way it sees fit so long as there is transparency with the owners. In the environment in which I was raised, any scenario of me in a limo would have assumed my spot to be behind the wheel, not out in the back with my legs stretched out with a complimentary copy of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal.[2]

Once I left school and followed my colleagues to a new employer, my career began to move at a pace far greater than that for which I was mentally or emotionally prepared. Moreover, I learned quickly that the unity of the team that migrated from the engineering firm would dissolve as we all became cogs in an enormous wheel and assigned to projects as the new powers deemed fit. The esprit de corps we once had remains today in that many of us reunite for a lunch every year or two. It was an amazing group with whom to begin my career.

I was beginning a life of many more nights on the road than at home. My gypsy soul was being nourished. The energy of it all remained the lure for me but the gnawing questions from earlier were evolving. I believe I was developing some sense of where I was. The ‘How did I get here?’ was still vague. The new gnawing question was about purpose. ‘Why am I here?’ What greater purpose was I serving? It’s that new question that was to remain unanswered for years to come. In retrospect, the elusiveness of an answer to that question was a message to me that this path was meant to be a but a bridge to a place where I would not be besieged by trepidations about my own presence. It was a message to which I was blind and deaf. The implicit signals escaped me. If things were moving along at a pace that fit my personality and I was making a decent living, I knew no other response than gratitude and acceptance. The question “Is this aligned with my life’s goals?” seemed irrelevant to me. In my pursuit of convincing myself and others that I was much more than the dumb kid who made so many foolish decisions nearly fifteen years earlier, I had no idea how to live this new life of mine. I did not have a term to describe it then, but I was experiencing what I recently heard referred to as ‘success panic’. I never expected I would actually end up where I was. It was just one big WOW! I’d actually succeeded in something society values and I did not know how to respond. I had met and surpassed my perception of the expectations of others without consideration for my expectations – because I had none of my own.

For the next 11 years I would be shipped off to-and-fro for various projects. My sense of how things worked began to sharpen so I could eventually focus on the fun of learning again. As long as I was learning, my lack of understanding why I was on the path I was on was less bothersome for me.

One thing about working for a global professional services firm that I believe is undeniable is the amount of experience one can gain in such a short period of time. As a young consultant at a top tier firm, you get to see how the big pieces fit together for a larger whole, and you see it early and often. Underwhelming self-confidence, a charlatan’s complex and an elusive greater purpose all remained a struggle for me. That did not stop me from enjoying the experiences and the learnings (most of the learnings were about myself and my capabilities). Moreover, I also cherished the experiences I shared with so many other people, many of whom were from other parts of the world. It was these relationships more than any other experiences in my life that have enriched my world view in some very powerful and often unexpected ways. From the many conversations (during the workday and socializing in the hotels at night) I learned quite a bit about what it’s like be born and live in other cultures. I recognize that I was limited by my interpretations of their portrayal of their experiences. The best way to learn, though often less practical, is to spend time living there. I admire greatly those who do that.

There is a bit more to share. However, I see that I am quite a bit over my target word count, so I think I’ll draw this one to a close. In Part Twelve we will continue on to new crossroads, new decisions, and further evasion of the question “What does Matt want?”
See you then!

[1] Of the several of us who opted to leave the engineering firm for the consulting firm, I was the only one remaining after about the first four or five years. I was there for eleven.
[2] Shortly after the return from the dark days of my teens, I assisted my Dad with his little chauffeuring gig for folks in a nearby wealthy retirement community. From this, comes a few short experiences that influenced the view I held as to my place in the world. These were omitted from the blog but will be shared in the book version.

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