[From the unpublished drafts folder, 06.2018.]
Have you ever thought about what you’ve been taught to think? What you’ve been indoctrinated to do?
During the last decade, I’ve been struggling a great deal with “the way things are supposed to be.”
In high school, we were taught that a college degree would lead to a good job and a comfortable life. Higher education became my albatross. The first degree I completed was an associate degree no one acknowledged. It rolled into a seven year pursuit of a four-year degree that also went largely unacknowledged. Fifteen years later, I completed my Masters in International Affairs while working in the executive office of a global bank. When I began my master’s program, my manager rejected my request for tuition reimbursement, which HR claimed was approved solely by manager’s discretion at my level. My request was denied because my role as her senior executive assistant (she was a global head of litigation at the bank) would not receive any benefit from anything I could learn in a graduate program, so she said. She didn’t need me to have a master’s degree for my role, therefore she was not going to approve tuition reimbursement. Despite being stunned by he reasoning, I managed to say, “No one goes to school to stay in the role they’re in.”
Fast forward four years to a follow-up conversation with another manager about career opportunities. I told her I had hit a wall. I had been with the company for over ten years and worked with senior level executives for over eight years. I had spoken with a few senior executives and managing directors (all division heads with global reach at the bank) about acquiring my M.A. and wanting to transition out of the senior executive assistant role into a project or program management role. Many I saw daily and had some history with – they began to avoid me, despite assuring them my manager was supportive of my search. Our neighbor on the floor, global head of risk and operations, actually had a job posted that was a match for my skills and experience, when I asked him directly about the position, he refused to answer my questions about what he was looking for to fill the role.
After summarizing my lack of progress to my manager, she coolly said, “Your initiative and confidence are admirable, but in this case you’ve over-stepped yourself.” This is a woman I openly admired. I had asked her to mentor me when she hired me. I had been completely honest about my career and life goals. She told me to come to her if I needed help. This follow-up meeting was me asking for help after six months of getting nowhere.
“You may not want to hear this,” she continued, “but if you want a different career, you’re going to have to start over.”
“Start over for what?” Was my incredulous response. “My ten years with this firm don’t mean anything? Or because my advanced education was a waste of money? You’re telling me that my experience and education are worthless?
“No, not quite worthless, just not worth as much as you think.”
“Really? I’ve been working for over twenty years and you’re saying I need to compete with college graduates with no real world experience??
“If you want to change careers. You don’t have the experience in the area you want to transition to.”
“I’m a quick learner and most of my work as a senior executive assistant is project based. I’m not reaching here. I’m seeking opportunities that align with my skillset and interests, which I am more than qualified for.”
“That’s not the point. This firm does not have a corporate structure that supports training people. We hire people who know what they need to do.”
“My learning curve in any new role in this company would be much shorter than anyone coming from outside. No matter who is hired for a role, they are going to have to learn their new job.”
“That may be true, but that’s not how it’s done. I’m not trying to be mean here.”
I had reached out to one of her legal colleagues before he began with the firm. He was in a newly created hybrid role overseeing government affairs based in Washington DC. I emailed him to introduce myself and asked if he had considered creating a project role in his new organization. If so, I asked to be considered for the role. I mentioned my eight-year tenure in the legal department, ten years with the bank, my good working relationship with the senior executive offices and global legal teams, my flexibility to travel between DC and NYC as needed, and the projects I had been responsible for for the general counsel (his boss) and my managers. He never responded. But he had obviously spoken to my manager. When she introduced us for the first time, he dismissively said, “We’ve already met.” When I mentioned my unacknowledged email query, my manager became scathing.
“I wouldn’t hire you for that role.”
Completely taken aback, I stiffly asked, “Why not?”
“Because you don’t have any experience on the Hill. In a role like, an intern with two to three years’ experience in DC would be more practical. They would already know how to get around.
“So an outside person with two to three years’ work experience beats my internal ten years? A recent college grad trumps my overall experience? Despite my skills and experience being completely transferable?”
Moral of the story: as long as I was okay being led by the nose in circles, life was good from the outside. When I confronted the bias (what amounts to corporate racism), all I could see was the outline of the matrix and the box I was stuck in.
Career mobility was not intended for me. Non-support roles in the executive office were not intended for me. My “superiors” would decide which opportunities I would or would not have access to. It was not for me to impose my career objectives on them.
I was relatively content as a senior executive assistant until I realized management had decided that’s all I would ever be.
What are we rethinking here?
That last conversation was the beginning of the end of my time with that bank. It took place right before my three week year-end vacation. I had closed on my home in Southern Arizona six months prior and planned to spend the holidays there. During my time in Arizona, I rethought my life. I only had an air mattress and a tv in the house but I preferred it to everything I had in New York. That was eye-opening.
Starting over has never scarred me. But starting over to fit someone else’s narrative in a system I no longer wanted to be part of, was not appealing at all.
My practical self outlined a plan to phase myself out of New York City over the course of one to two years. Build up my savings, perhaps rent out the Arizona home to cover those expenses. Suck it up and stick it out to better position myself financially. Unfortunately, my heart and spirit rebelled at the being somewhere I was obviously not respected. It also hurt that someone I so admired had so little care for me that she set me on a course she was intentionally sabotaging. Upon my return in the new year, I handed in my resignation. I felt as if I had liberated myself completely. Perhaps foolishly, but mostly happily.
When your adulation yields nothing, is it really worth it?
Thinking of adulation, men come to mind first. Men who adored being adored but didn’t reciprocate any interest. Yet, children taught me the magical beauty of mutual admiration. The four precious children of family I rented from for six years in New York City. From the first time I knocked on their door to answer the studio vacancy ad, they were all over me and I was beyond smitten. Every time their eyes touched on me in greeting they became screeching jumping beans. Their excitement was palpable. They brought me so much joy, I can’t even articulate it. They jumped, I jumped. They screeched, I screeched. They recalibrated how I view people. If you’re not jumping out your skin to see me, don’t expect me to jump out of mine to see you.
My admiration of my managers, colleagues and company got me nowhere. My availability, interest, eagerness, planning, preparation – none of that was worthy of promotional opportunities. Working long hours, logging in on vacation, being ready and available for whatever were expectations of the role I had and the salary I received.
I received occasional treats and pats on the head. I was the recipient of the occasional “thank you” and “you’re the best” and quite honestly I was paid extremely well to do a job that kept me seated in front of a computer most of the day. But none of that was fulfilling for any amount of time.
I wasn’t growing or advancing. I was on a hamster wheel running in place. For the first six years I thought I was working towards something, yet the reality was I had plateaued my second year. When I finally saw I was running in circles on a hamster wheel inside a box placed in a larger matrix, I decided to step off the wheel, climb out the box and attempt to claw my way out of the matrix.
Stepping off the wheel
One would think that running in circles within a confined space would make one dizzy. However, it’s when one comes to a full stop that confusion sets in. While doing what is supposed to be done – what is expected of us – there is a system in place to support expected actions. The system in place suppresses a mind that wants to think, a consciousness that wants to wake, a heart that wants to love, a soul that wants to spark life and lungs that want to breathe.
There is no support, no system, no back-up for those who resist conforming.
I’ve been flapping in the wind for five years now. Starting over has become a reset and rethink of every area of my life. Everything I thought I ever wanted, any vision I had for my adulthood, all the things I’ve formed beliefs about – all of life has been questioned, reevaluated, re-edited, re-organized and revisited in different ways.
This isn’t a lament. It’s a reflection of the things we chase in life that provide no sustenance, growth or fulfillment. As much as I would love to have a partner and family, I’ve been grateful for my relative mobility due to the absence of such. I have picked up my life and changed course without destabilizing anyone but me. At this stage of my life, I’ve pursued all the things society laid before me, to the point that society itself has become undesirable.
What fulfillment does life offer that isn’t connected to other people? Meaning, fulfillment that isn’t contingent upon someone else’s approval, agreement, admiration, interest, commitment, integrity, support or anything else? Whatever that is, that’s the fulfillment I seek.