This post was last updated 9/26/2012.
Have you ever felt a sense of insecurity or superiority when announcing your job title? I suspect you have felt both feelings at one time or another.
According to Alain de Botton, we live in an age where our lives are regularly marked by a career crisis. One of the reasons we may be suffering from this is because we are surrounded by snobs. A snob is anyone who takes a certain part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are as a person. The dominant type of snobbery is job snobbery. You encounter this at parties and networking events when you get asked the most iconic question of our times: “What do you do”? Based on your response, people are either incredibly excited to meet you or look at their watch and make excuses to exit the conversation.
I’ve met truly interesting and outgoing people who suddenly become subdued when asked about their job. Even if I express interest in their occupation, they disregard it as me simply being polite. One woman I highly respect told me that telling people she sold business forms for a living was a conversation ender! It was as if the person couldn’t identify with her career, and therefore couldn’t identify with her. Worse yet, they would not make the effort to get to know her beyond the job title. Greg Smith, an executive who recently resigned from Goldman Sachs stated in a spectacular fashion why he was resigning: “Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.” I’ve learned from my own experience that job titles are unreliable short cuts to assessing the character of a person.
“Remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives contains a strong element of the haphazard. ” ~ Alain de Botton
IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT THE MONEY
We are often told we live in a very materialistic society, but this is not necessarily true. Instead, society has linked certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It’s not the goods that we want but the emotional rewards. It’s a telling sign that once the bank scandal erupted, the title of Investment Banker lost some of its glamour, although, the average investment banker’s salary never decreased. It’s the power and prestige associated with the position that is most desired. The monetary reward is an emotional bonus due to the esteem that it brings.
I have noticed that although criminals like Bernie Madoff are vilified in the news, there’s still a level of thinly disguised admiration in the tone of the press when recounting the outrageous scale of his deception. Even Madoff’s expression of smug superiority in photos shows the emotional reward he received from the world-wide recognition. He was the ultimate example of our culture’s motto of “success at all costs”.
IS MERITOCRACY REAL?
Another reason why we may be feeling more anxiety about our careers is our trending towards a meritocratic society. The theory of meritocracy is based on the idea that everyone gets where they are because they’ve earned it. This could be a mansion in Malibu or a card board box under a bridge. Meritocracy does not allow for the common occurrence of human tragedy and random events (ie. family status, accidents, illness, lay-offs). As a result, the natural conclusion is that those who are wealthy or successful are obviously better human beings as evidenced by their achievements. If asked directly if this is the case, we would all say of course not. That is foolish. But in actuality, we all believe this to a certain degree.
Ask yourself, how many times a political candidate has obtained high office who as not from an influential family or obtained wealth of their own? Not many. If you found an ideal candidate with unquestionable values and a history of strong leadership through community service, would you vote for them? Most likely not. The candidate’s credibility, character and ability to lead would be called into question at every turn. The fact that the well-meaning candidate has not achieved a certain level of wealth and status brings their very honor and value as a human-being into question.
Our lack of compassion stems from our inability to see deeply into the nature of things. ~ Lama Surya Das
Harsh judgement makes personal and professional failure much more crushing as it does not offer the hope of understanding or support. Only the fear of ridicule and shame. Unfortunately, people are willing to go to extreme lengths to avoid the fear and shame associated with the appearance of failure. America is experiencing a rapidly growing backlash evidenced by:
- An ever growing level of organizational and individual corruption in the pursuit of wealth and power at all cost.
- Increased career dissatisfaction due to people seeking jobs based on perceived status instead of personal and professional fulfillment. Some occupations are generally disdained in society. Unfortunately, this often applies to professions which are categorized as blue collar or public service.
- Destabilization of entire organizations due to the ruthless “slash and burn” leadership style characterized by haphazard organizational changes that include drastic budget cuts, rolling lay-offs, lack of and/or miscommunication and finally a blatant disregard for the individual, team and overall organization. In the “slash and burn” management style, leadership hires a team, then burns them out, then hires in a replacement team for the next project. After 3 or so years of this, the organizations become inherently unstable.
- The increasing dehumanization of employees resulting in staff burnout and the mass exodus of many talented and previously highly engaged resources. Studies have shown that employees often feel a higher level of anxiety and stress when working within organizations where they do not feel valued or respected. Afterall, who wants to work for leaders they do not trust?
IT’S ALL ABOUT TRUST
Penelope Trunk thinks the next decade will be about trust. A survey from Deloitte ushers in this decade of trust. Deloitte reports that most people who are job hunting are doing it because they don’t trust their employer. And most Human Resources executives think the number-one factor in turnover right now is transparency—less transparency means more turnover.
IS YOUR PLAN REALLY YOUR OWN?
To paraphrase the words of Alain de Botton, by all means let’s aim for success but let’s also examine our ideas of success. Let’s make sure our ideas of success are truly our own. It’s bad enough not getting what we want but it’s even worse to have an idea of what we want and to find out at the end of the journey that it’s not what we wanted all along.
p.s. Read this hilarious post about the look that slowly forms on a person’s face when the author announces they are a librarian. Just think, how would you react if someone you met told you they were a stripper, librarian or a dog walker?
- Post was inspired by Alain de Botton’s video on TED: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success.
- Trickle-Down Distress: How America’s Broken Meritocracy Drives Our National Anxiety Epidemic (Atlantic Monthly, July 3, 2012)
- How to answer the question of “what do you do?” (Penelope Trunk, January 17, 2011)
- The Coming Decade will be About Trust (Penelope Trunk, January 21, 2011)
- 2010 Ethics and Workplace Survey (Deloitte, Last updated
Fri, 25 May 2012)
Categories: Professional Development