“When you start your career, you might think you’re setting out to change the world. But the world is far more likely to change you. … One moment they’re young people: They have young people’s idealism and hope to live a meaningful life. The next they’re essentially old people, at work gaming ratings companies, designing securities to fail so they can make a killing off the investors they dupe into buying them, rigging various markets at the expense of the wider society …” How Not To Lose Your Soul: A Handy Guide for Young Bankers, Bloomberg Businessweek, Sep 29, 2014.
I had a friend in college who was studying to be a petroleum engineer. I was a computer science major and had been enthusiastically programming computers since I was in high school. I loved the potential and creativity in working with computers. I asked him what was the fun and exciting part about being a “PTE.” He looked at me quizzically and said “they have the biggest salaries.”
Not everyone enters higher education looking to change the world. Some do it for the same reasons many people are celebrated and raised up for: fame and fortune. That is the American dream to many people.
The problem is that not everyone gets to be the CEO, the general, the billionaire. Some of us never get that high. Are we all failures then?
I recall a story of the Air Force officer who rose up to the highest rank one can attain in the Air Force: a four star general. However, the highest position one can attain in the Air Force is the Air Force Chief of Staff. The Air Force Chief of Staff is a four star general but he or she is the senior four star and is in charge of everyone else. The boss. The CEO.
The story goes that this individual was not chosen to be the next Chief of Staff and so had to retire. This general felt depressed and embarrassed. Not getting to that next (and last) rung, meant he had failed.
I feel I’ve been pretty successful in life (no, I didn’t achieve any of the highs above). But one will notice that there’s a lot of room below those most exalted positions. I also never had to compromise my ideals and resort to questionable practices to achieve personal success.
There is no doubt in my mind, unfortunately, that the height of my success (or at least position and recognition) was limited by the fact I wouldn’t participate in borderline ethical behavior. I’m also sure there are many people that never had to condone nor practice questionable behavior and they still far exceeded me. I just admit that I’m simply not as good as they were and wish them all the more success.
In my career I was able to attain some distinct achievements. I was able to do some things that no one else before me was able to do (typically delivering software intensive projects on time with such good quality that the test organizations freaked out). I personally believe that not giving in and doing “what everyone else was doing” was the central reason I was able to do this.
Quite logically, if I gave in and did what everyone else was doing, I was logically going to get the same results that everyone else had achieved (e.g. late, buggy, costly, etc.). The dilemma was that these people would still go on and get promoted and move up in the organization in large part — it seemed — because they had at least failed in a conventional and typical manner following the culturally encouraged practices.
“Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money
It is also the case that while I did what was often the unconventional (but otherwise logical) thing to do, not all my feedback was negative. In fact, I like to say that while half my bosses hated what I did, the other half loved what I did. Even those that hated what I did and often sought to get me to change during the midst of a project, ultimately they ended up — sometimes reluctantly — thanking me and asking me to stay with them when we finished (I generally moved on in those situations).
The key to all of this was I came to understand that I could “be myself” and still do just fine in life. I might not get all the fame and fortune I might if I took a different path, but I could at least do well and be able to look back with a sense of accomplishment beyond my own self enrichment.
How are you doing at achieving your goals while not losing your soul in the process?