Life & Wisdom

What Working for Two of the World’s Greatest Companies Taught Me About Life

When I originally began writing a novel, I had not one but two job offers from interesting companies. Neither had anything to do with my creative pursuits, not directly. One was from a top IT consulting company. The other, a hedge fund, run by a geopolitical-economist billionaire and meditator known as the Steve Jobs of the financial world. At the time, I remember thinking that anyone who meditates probably sees the need for compassion in the world the way I do, and I hoped that those who held the keys to the kingdom knew something profound about creativity and productivity that allowed them to weave lives together toward progress rather than extinguish it. I also had this hypothesis that, if given the opportunity to work in an environment of radical truth and hyper transparency, the guiding sales pitch of the organization, nothing could blindside me the way layoffs in advertising and publishing had (though I had been fortunate to withstand publishing layoffs and, in fact, gained substantial experience as a result), and of course, there would be a lot less “things are the way they are around here because that’s the way they always are, the way they always will be” whenever I asked the eyebrow-raising questions of “why” and “can we change it so it makes more sense?”

I knew if I took the job in finance, I would be challenged. I knew I would add stronger management capabilities to my arsenal of life experiences. And I felt that, in order to have meaningful impact in the creative realm, I needed to understand how the world actually worked. What is art if not science? What is science if not art?

I’m not going to hide that there was also an ego thing involved. The odds of being hired at the most prestigious hedge fund in the world was something like 1 out of 400, and that’s of the resumes they bothered to look at, which in and of itself made it more enticing. Now, let me tell you; I don’t have an ivy league diploma or a PhD, though I do hold a degree in English, and for a good part of my developmental years, my stepbrother, who I adore, playfully nicknamed me Tarda, mostly to torment me, but he said it enough times that I believed him a little. Up until high school, I had been one of the smarter kids in the classroom. Upon my mother’s remarriage, I lost my sense of identity and confidence and my grades plummeted, partially due to transitioning from schools with fairly diverse student bodies into a top high school that frankly lacked diversity, while, at the same time, adjusting to my new role as hormonal teenage stepchild/sibling. This demise in my grades came as a surprise to some people because, as one person so boldly put it, “I thought that since you were pretty, high school was easy for you.” Of course, this sentiment did not help the situation. In fact, it only fed into the otherness that I experienced during that time period and acutely belittled my achievements and ignored the constant male aggression and violation of me personally and many of my beloved female friends.

Now, despite not having been a top academic performer, I was donned by my classmates with superlatives such as “most likely to succeed in the music industry,” “most musical,” runner-up for “most attractive” (obviously an important life skill), and something along the lines of “most likely to wear a turban around her head and open a Quicki Mart.” (Perhaps one of the more modest racist remarks I’ve encountered over the years.)

But I did have a few other important things going for me. Namely, I was and am a fairly observant person fortunate to have an arguably pleasant personality and a genuine curiosity and caring for human beings that some find refreshing and disarming and others find unsettling and exposing. I have always questioned the way things are to see what’s true, and I am very hard on myself. The other thing I had (and have) going for me is that I am brave.

As an immigrant born into a regime change that forced my family to move across oceans and continents and from state to state, I constantly was changing schools, and hence I grew particularly excellent at handling first impressions. Likewise, as a child from a hated middle eastern country whose family once had everything and then had it taken away, I knew the meaning of humility and gratitude. I knew what it meant to depend on free school lunches, and the kindness of neighbors who looked after my little sister and me while my single mother was in school, and what a toggle coat from the Salvation Army could do for a child through a Michigan winter. I knew what it meant to hold my mother in her arms when there was no one else for her to cry to but her oldest child. ( I love you mom) And believe it or not, this gave me strength; it gave me grit. It gave me a sort of understanding that everything is temporary, but that there is a sort of immortality to compassion.

It also made me want to be liked, as I assume all people do, and I believed that if I could just follow the middle path, I could connect with people from all races and backgrounds and they would find a way to let me into their hearts. And that is how I learned bravery. If you could hand out PhDs for open-mindedness, likability, and picking yourself up by your bootstraps, you may wish to consider me a viable honorary candidate. Okay, back to the job situation …

I assumed that a financial firm that warned the government of the ’08 financial crisis long before anyone wanted to listen and that was capable of managing 200 billion in assets probably had a little insight into the creative vitality I so desperately craved. I always believed that to create great art, one must understand how the world actually works, how business works. Plus, mindfulness in finance just seemed like a good idea, and I figured that, as a do-gooder type, which I still believe most people are, I had a responsibility or the way mom puts it, “the ability to respond,” to the growing need of putting trustworthy people into a shady industry.

So I took the job as a referrals program manager in recruiting for the god of finance. I thought, here is a figure looking to create a new environment of civility and honesty, and we need more companies who are willing to be this way. I want to help. I want to create a pipeline of smart, open-minded people who make excellent life choices, and know how to auto-correct their mistakes because they are relentless self-improvers. Who wouldn’t want to be around people like that?

Also, what would I learn about radical and hyper truth and transparency that I did not already know? Would I gain a deeper understanding of self? Would that which I assumed truthful actually be truthful in application? Would the tenants of hyper truth and hyper transparency actually feed our universal consciousness in a way that created a better world? I wanted to see the wizard in action. I wanted to know how the world really worked.

There were some disadvantages to the position. The hedge fund was in Connecticut and I resided in New Jersey. I had an open question about whether if I loved everything about my job, would an annoying commute matter? Or would my smitten lens merely shift away from the pain and zoom in on the pleasure?

I concluded that if I loved whatever it was that I was about to take on, I would eventually move closer, or it wouldn’t matter. I was also quite fortunate because I had, by this time, immersed myself in the company of my soon-to-be-family, for I was engaged, and my soon-to-be-made mother-in-law (a smart and savvy business mogul with a prestigious MBA under her belt; three successful children; and a coveted executive recruiting firm, among many other grand achievements) chauffeured my 29-year-old arse to and from work; as did a taxicab driver by the name of Nancy, who grew so fond of me that each evening she checked to see where I was, and would continuously ask “are you the only one there again tonight?” Not to mention a generous pregnant woman whose name I wish I could remember, who worked for the firm and sometimes picked me up in the mornings. Here’s where I’d like to point out that women are already helping women; we always are and always have been helping each other, though sometimes people like to ruminate over the baloney of how women keep other women down, which basically just distracts us from the issue of how to get to where we want to be.  

Unfortunately, I quickly learned I was not cut out for the job. Why? Actually, it’s fairly simple, but as many simple things go, they seemed complicated at the time.

One. The commute was killing me. It sounds extreme, but have you tried traveling three states on a frequent basis and upon your journey had to stand under the neon lights of 42nd and Eighth Avenue in the dark wee hours of morning next to Times Scare, across from the peep show place? It is a shock to the soul. Yuck.

Two. There is a difference between truth and transparency and running your mouth like a petulant child, which, as it turns out, is neither completely truthful nor is it actually transparent. In fact, it extinguished the creative energy in which I so excitedly expected to manifest into my own being. The environment I experienced was one part truth; one part transparent; and the other ninety-eight percent was unprocessed, often irrelevant un-amassed data that you or others were vomiting out into the world, either onto yourselves or onto each other, and in many cases this completely buried that one part truth—I found myself constantly holding a shovel, and wondering if I should just go forth and bury myself. I suppose if meditation was a requirement and not merely a suggestion, there would’ve been a lot less of that. My guess is that the company did not want to seem cultish, but they probably should’ve risked it. What is meditation if not the ability to reduce mind garbage?

Three. Transparency is not always appropriate. Sure, I would like to know there’s ketchup on my face. I would like to know I’m walking around with my fly down. But I don’t need it announced over the loudspeaker. There is a spectrum of transparency that either creates fairness or, without tact, creates fear. We spent so much time reviewing videos of people’s utter failures before I even started the work that by the time I began working I was already afraid. Now, I wouldn’t call it a “cauldron of fear” the way recent articles claim. That’s pretty darn dramatic. But, because I’ve been told, and I believe this to be true, that I am quite brave, and because I felt I needed to be too brave all the time, and because sometimes I couldn’t even muster the desired braveness necessary, I knew something was off. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely made mistakes. I’m not perfect either.

So what did I do? I went back and took the job with the IT consulting firm. And my next role, in some ways, was a perfect fit—help people make sense of boatloads of data, also known as “media asset management.” Only, this time, the data was the exact opposite of garbage; it was treasure. And the people that I loved—my clients—knew how to love me back. And this was a win-win partnership.

I stayed for over a year. I learned things about diplomacy I don’t think I ever would’ve learned had I not been surrounded by such intellectual, compassionate people. I learned that transparency is a card you play when the timing is right. That truth is sometimes useless. That dedication to excellence and precision requires the revelation that what you are and what you create is and will always be imperfect, and that imperfection is what gives life purpose. I learned that at every moment exists an opportunity to create the conditions for productivity, to create the life that you want—the world that you want. I learned that too much diplomacy is a giant waste of time and that it can almost permanently destroy curious minds. I learned that there always exists two games: the game of Creation and the game of Perception and that your temperament, genetics, upbringing and communication skills can make you better or worse at either of these games. I learned that what works is not usually this or that, but rather a combination of this and that. But only up until a point, where again too much and dilutes creation and renders us useless.

And then I left. Why? Well, that is a post for another day.