One’s Origins: A Journey From Adoption to Identity – Part Thirteen

Welcome back to One’s Origins! What a couple of months it’s been. Technical upgrades coupled with a lot of reflection. Let’s jump back in.

In Part Twelve, I marveled at the wild ride I was living. I do not apologize for any of it. In fact, I am rather grateful for it. It truly was an amazing experience. I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of consulting in the big leagues. I was traveling extensively with allowances for any expenses deemed reasonable for making life on the road comfortable. I was learning a lot and working with very smart people from all over the world which exposed me to fascinating perspectives. The hours demanded consumed my personal life and I did not mind. It validated for me that I was important to least to someone and even if ephemerally. I was being paid a salary that was many times greater than I ever imagined I would earn. The company holiday parties were black-tie held at upscale venues. I even bought my own tuxedo and began to scout out other events to put it to good use. I felt like I was beginning to fit in the world. I was feeling like the fish in Albert Einstein’s endearing quote about genius that had finally learned how to climb a tree[1].

As Part Twelve came to a close, I mentioned that I was losing a sense of authenticity and humility. It is this experience that I wish to share with you in Part Thirteen. In Part Fourteen I will talk about my experience with a different form of PTSD (Post Traumatic Success Disorder) also referred to as Success Panic.[2]

Apart from the grind of balancing school and work in my twenties the only effort I had to put in to keep moving forward was simply to show up and do my job. That was it. Fast forward ten years and now I had to do much more than show up, but I had no idea what. The fraternal (and sometimes paternal) environment during the growth phase of my career had diminished significantly. There were certainly project teams where almost everyone bonded and socialized outside the office. But now I was on my own to make my own success. This meant working relationships strategically if I was to continue enjoying that with which I was becoming accustomed. Relationships in the workplace, I was learning, were about maneuvers and manipulations to get desired outcomes. Bluntly, relationships were mere means to other ends. We should expect to be both predator and prey in this jungle. In this environment distinguishing between friend and foe was a survival necessity[3]. Once I began to recognize this, I struggled intellectually and emotionally. I grew up trusting people. I certainly met and associated with very seedy people in my late teens who were as lost as I was, but I assumed getting away from them meant that I could once again assume the best in everyone. Certainly, nothing in my twenties instructed me otherwise. I never had any coaching or mentoring on the fine art of networking and building coalitions. I did not observe, and therefore never learned, politics in small groups. Knowing now what I did not know then, I am certain it was happening all around me. But I was naïve, and no effort was made to unhinge me from my naïveté. It simply was not in the operating system of the environment I observed growing up.

I recall a conversation I once had with a colleague who told me that a partner in the firm once confided in her that they ‘could not figure out my angle’. What angle? Better yet, what is an angle? It sounds like something I am supposed to have. I just wanted to keep learning new and exciting things and give an honest day’s work commensurate (or more so) with the salary I was being paid. That’s how I was raised. Having an angle is not something I ever contemplated. Referring back to Albert Einstein’s quote, was I indeed only a fish and should not be trying to climb a tree?

On more than one occasion something would happen that further diminished my interest in politicking. That something is called the WIIFM. (Pronounced wifemWhat’s in it for me?) This is how WIIFM works. You have something you wish to accomplish, and it requires the assistance of someone with whom there is little or no pre-established working relationship. (It might even happen in established relationships too.) Before assistance is offered, it was common to be asked, “What’s in it for me?” Basically, people will help you if, and often only if, they will get something out of it. I would find this deflating and downright appalling. Call me old-fashioned, but if someone asks you for help and you are able to provide it without undue burden, then you offer the help. It’s that simple. This establishes something between two people and the future will hold an opportunity for reciprocity. It does not need to be artificially created on the spot. If not reciprocity between the same two people, then it gets paid forward. It never needs to be more complicated than that – WIIFM operates on the belief that people have little value for each other beyond their ability to provide utility when needed. For me, the WIIFM mindset sucked the joy out of work.

I am humored by the irony that I see in all this. My early success is largely attributed to others inviting me to become part of what they were trying to accomplish. So yes, there is, of course, the lens through which this can be viewed as me being used by others to help them achieve their objectives. If I declined, someone else would have been offered the same opportunity in my place. I am grateful that people took a liking to me. It meant they felt I was capable and was trustworthy. Nonetheless, my success was not their primary motivation. When I tell you I was naïve, I am not mincing my words.

My own success was now becoming solely dependent on my own actions and I could no longer rely on serendipity and others alone as I had done for so long. Others who were able to grasp how this game is played began to advance in responsibility and salary while I began to languish. My reliability was second to none in getting done what was expected of me and that helped me maintain my value. In Wall Street parlance I might not have had a ‘buy’ rating, but I was able to maintain a ‘hold’ rating.

I tried new things within the company but eventually, my growing feelings of insignificance began to permeate my whole being. I was having withdrawal from all that had elevated me to where I was. I ached for the recognition of my efforts by others. If I was to get my career mojo back, I would have to play a little leapfrog. I had become impressed with those who held post-graduate degrees, so I began to explore options. I sat for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) thinking business law would make me a hotshot and also the General Management Admission Test (GMAT) for an MBA and did respectably on both tests. I would land on an MBA.

Back then, I was not prepared to scale back my lifestyle to accommodate full-time day classes and I needed to be able to maintain flexibility for business travel which ruled out evening classes.[4] My best option was an Executive MBA. These are weekend programs that are very demanding and designed for up and coming business professionals with leadership potential. It was a powerful learning experience. I learned as much from and in some cases more from, my fellow students than I did from the professors. Most importantly I learned a lot about myself and my capabilities. However, these executive programs carry a hefty price tag. They market to companies that sponsor their employees to attend. I was not so lucky. I graduated nearly thirteen years ago and paying off the loans is still a dream.

Armed with an MBA I was now beginning to feel rather proud of myself. Perhaps a little too proud. In the years that followed, I assumed a slight air of superiority. Not an obnoxious one. I still sought to be liked and would never do anything to lose favor with anyone. However, I did believe for a while that my recently acquired knowledge from academia had prepared me to serve others by sharing with them my wisdom whether they wanted it or not. This might seem like self-righteousness. In most cases, that is exactly what it is. In my case, it was also a passive display of a low sense of self-worth. In my mind, if I could develop the skills to quickly assess things taking all that I had learned in my undergraduate and postgraduate schooling and someone else couldn’t, it would frustrate me. Basically, I was saying, if stupid me can figure this out, anyone should. If not, they’d have to be really stupid. That wasn’t being self-righteous. It was a low sense of self-worth and appreciation for the opportunities I have had.

Eventually, I accomplished something that, in a very public way, was recognition of my efforts in something very positive. Unfortunately, I squandered an amazing opportunity to show gratitude and humility and instead, I shamefully massaged the daylights out of my ego.

My employer was the title sponsor of an annual bike-a-thon for a large non-profit organization focused on cancer research. I had served as our company team captain as well as on the volunteer board planning the bike-a-thon for a few years. After a few years, I was nominated for and was elected to receive, their highest award for individual volunteer effort. I was expected to give a brief acceptance speech. Today, I cannot think back on the words I said without regret and embarrassment. The entire organization lived and breathed to fight the war on cancer. Everyone attending the awards banquet was involved in supporting this fight. Most, if not all, had their own painful story where cancer was the villain. As a volunteer, I had attended this annual banquet for the previous few years, and every time someone got behind the podium, you heard heartbreaking stories of lives lost and torn apart because of cancer. I was being recognized for my contributions, so I wrote a speech about me.

Leukemia is a broad term for cancers of the blood cells and we learned in Part Seven how leukemia had decimated my will. Why the hell did I not share that story? Or that both my grandfather and aunt both died from complications directly related to cancer? I’ll tell you why. My damn ego! That, along with my propensity to censure my emotions. I had a very moving story to share. Instead, I opened with the story of me buying my first 10-speed bicycle and how that sowed the seed for what would become a near-obsession with cycling as a hobby and a sport. Nowhere in my speech did I even mention how cancer affected me personally. In fact, I don’t recall the word ‘cancer’ ever passing my lips other than to mention the name of the nonprofit organization when thanking them for the recognition. That sure spoke volumes about what was important to me in receiving this award. I delivered my speech without any regard for sorrow or gratitude. As I was leaving the podium, I heard deafening silence for a full second before a few people had the compassion to begin clapping as to encourage the others to begin doing so. At that moment, I knew I had just blown it. Thankfully a senior member of our firm was in attendance and she delivered s few words far more appropriate for cause and the event.

For the next few years, the fragility of my ego would be bruised now and then, and I sometimes would respond defensively. These were symptoms of Post Traumatic Success Disorder of which I spoke earlier. In Part Fourteen. I will talk about this a little and then share an experience that was so transformative it rivals the influence my mom’s aneurysm had on my life-saving turnaround in 1986. In Part Fifteen, I plan to share with you some more fun things that have happened with my newly found relatives. Part Sixteen, I expect I will be tying everything together and discuss what all this means for the future. However, with regard to the previous two sentences, I refer you to footnote 2.

Thank you to all who continue to encourage me to keep moving forward.

[1] “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by Its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that It is stupid.”  – Albert Einstein. (Editorially speaking, I find this quote as profound as I find it potentially controversial. There is, of course, the evolutionary doctrine which holds that all land-based lifeforms came from the sea.)

[2] I acknowledge that I have not always kept my promise when I reveal in one part what the next part will contain. New thoughts rise to the surface of consciousness on their own schedule. For further reading on this topic, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat Pray Love) is sure to please. Post Traumatic Success Disorder is just on the horizon at this point of my journey and I feel confident I can keep my promise this time.

[3] I am using hyperbole for dramatic effect. There is a lot published, with which I agree, instructing us that modern-day stress has little in common with our ancestors’ stress over the fear of the saber tooth tiger lurking around the corner. Unfortunately, our amygdalae are atrocious at distinguishing between the two. If the reader is inclined: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2882379/

[4] The on-line classroom was only a budding idea in academia and virtual classrooms were a long way off from becoming mainstream.

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