34 Comments
Apr 12Liked by Rachel Katz

Rachel, this was a great read, thank you. I particularly admire the pointed self awareness.

I did undergrad at Stanford and saw many friends take the McKinsey/Bain/BCG in SF route, often with the caveat of building skills, now and using them to create impact, later. Somewhat predictably, ‘later’ hasn’t quite come to fruition and has been replaced by the need/desire to ascend in those firms.

However, what I think is fascinating is that no matter what we pursue, there seems to be self-delusion and self-aggrandisement sprinkled throughout. Those who work in impact think they are bettering the world and that gives them moral superiority; those who work at name-brand companies think they are excellent and that gives them prestige; those who go to top-ranked grad schools think they are wonderfully intelligent and that gives them intellectual superiority. Those who aren’t quite doing any of these, find intellectual justifications to reject these hierarchies and models of life and work (sometimes probably rightly so, other times not so much).

Perhaps a leap, but is the problem more so that of human fragility and our need for self-importance. We play all sorts of psychological mind games to feel we are special, justified through the work we do, the friends we keep, and the ideas we espouse. Is humility, genuine humility (not the faux language of progressivism) the answer?

The other thought I have is how do we create a structure where the majority of prestige and reward comes from doing good — defined, for example, by which elements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights our careers contribute to? How do we assemble a social system that rewards morality and virtue rather than profit maximisation? So even if people do it for self-interested reasons, at least the outcome is a better world!

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author

Super interested comments here Rizina, thanks for taking the time to write. Your thoughts remind me a bit of Alain Botton's writings on status, which he says is (I'm paraphrasing) widely thought, but rarely acknowledged, to be the finest worldly good.

I'm very interested in the answer to your final question. What cultural changes would have made me choose a different path out of college, even if out of self interest, even if I were just doing it to impress the people around me? I don't know.

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Apr 12Liked by Rachel Katz

For sure - my experience of a more “save the world” type job also came with the same sickening level of stress and almost addictive validation of my self worth. No business class flights though!

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This hooked me right away. I recall those days, so very similar. Took a heart attack to break the vicious cycle. The shame lingers though. The regrets over the time lost, the friends lost, love lost. I paid a huge price for something that only temporary. Sadness...

I was recently asked what my four pillars of life were. I explained that I had only three pillars at this point - faith, hope, and love. My questioner, young and ambitious, wrapped up in the world (as I was), seemed disappointed in my response. "Why are those your pillars?", she asked. My answer - "because those are the only things that truly last."

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Argh I'm sorry it came to that for you, it's incredible how extremely loud our body has to scream at us before we stop. Your pillars sound...very solid, to say the least :)

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Apr 11Liked by Rachel Katz

This is outstanding. I, too, felt the meanness emerge in small ways, in not having time for family and friends. I want to say it was a feeling of desperation, of survival. "Can't you see if I don't get 7 copies in the next five minutes, my life as it is, is over? and if you don't, you're in the way."

Obviously none of that is/was actually important. But I think there's something about the structure of the system that often goes unexamined. If you want to get into a top school, you need to have perfect grades. If you want to make partner, you have to do x, y, and z. One can spend their whole lives jumping through hoops in scenarios where missing a single hoop means you're out. I'm sure some people are able to do this and still be perfectly kind, but I think the "don't you know how hard this is? Why aren't you helping me??" feeling is--as you said--is the natural off-gassing of the toxicity of the system. That doesn't excuse the entitlement but I think it does explain it.

I think the most important takeaway is that there are many paths to the good life, and anything that says "if you don't jump through this hoop, you're done" isn't one of them.

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Sigh, I'm sorry to hear you relate, but also I'm glad I articulated the experience in a way that resonated :). I think "explaining the entitlement" or rather, the whole phenomenon, is a really interesting project. Like you said, it doesn't excuse it, but I am fascinated by the question of why and how this same story happens to so many smart people.

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Apr 11Liked by Rachel Katz

I forgot to mention the very weird phenomenon that, if you do the right thing and get off this kind of track that's making you and world ill, people will often try to get you back on, for your own good, supposedly. I had someone tell me recently I should be a patent lawyer because that would let me "combine my interests." lmao. The idea that you might be intentionally not "living up to your potential" is very foreign to people.

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Your interests being law and inventing things? Oh yes, being a patent lawyer would really scratch that invention itch! lol

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This is brilliant writing, thank you.

I don’t know anything about these ivory towers but I do know human behaviour and you should be damn proud of yourself for getting back to your true nature. Most folks would not do that.

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Agreed. Choosing ourselves, even though the system makes it SUPER hard to opt out, is a really beautiful thing.

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CHEF'S KISS. I worked at Amazon for 10 years, and finally found the courage to leave a year and a half ago after realizing I was stuck in this awful cycle. I still am struggling to give up my stupid, expensive platinum AMEX card because it makes me feel important; it's like I'm hanging on by this last thread. There were so many one-liners that hit me right in the gut. Thank you for articulating this very experience. Thank you for giving us all something to think about. I really think this can help a lot of people, and the way you articulated it was so engaging. WELL DONE!

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Oh wow. I had a long temp assignment there many years ago, between overseas experiences. It was one of the most stressful places I worked in SF.

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Wait, at the SF office? That's where I was!

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The one and only. Would have to check dates but it was awhile ago, a decade or more....

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This is great! I never worked in a place like this, but I spent years being the hardest little worker and prioritizing that work over everything else

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Wowowow. This made me physically uncomfortable in a way that makes me love you and want to hug you.

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“How could I stay for so long when the job made me sick and mean?”

Rachel, I became so mean. Ruthless, even. I remember one meeting where a woman I worked with had not incorporated whatever random idea I had given her into her slide deck and so I proceeded to annihilate her argument in front of the entire company with a fucking smile. At the time, I thought it was just how things were. Looking back, it seemed like it happened slowly — like you said, I want to say I wasn’t that person and it happened to me, but I did it myself with intention and determination.

I’ve been researching it because even after I got out of the worst job (the one with the biggest title, the one where I was on the cover of Money Magazine) I was just as sick and broken trying to work for myself trying to fill that hole of Being Important.

I did some research about the tech layoffs last year because I saw the pain of getting kicked out of the One Place That Proved Your Worth splatter all over LinkedIn and it broke my heart.

There are some good insights about how our cultural obsession with success starts early and shovels us into jobs where our every whim is taken care of, ultimately robbing us of the ability to take care of ourselves.

https://onpurposeproject.substack.com/p/whats-lost-from-winning?r=f96pn

Thank you for sharing this!

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founding

Hi Rachel,

So sorry you had that awful experience and I applaud you for trying to make sense of it all in such a powerful way.

I know the stress that can come with that job as both my sons (33 and 30 now) worked at McKinsey straight out of school for enough time so that their tenure could cross three calendar years––October 2016 to January, 2018. Yes, they hated it that much.

My younger son hated it less. He was at first amazed that he was billed out––"Dad, I don't know anything!" Then he was amazed at all the client corporate dysfunction he encountered––"Dad this company is going to go bankrupt; sales is hiding information from marketing!"

Anyway, he found a junior partner he really liked and his last six months was much better.

His last assignment was at a a company that made colonoscopy equipment. So when I was about to be put under for my colonoscopy, I impressed my GI doctor by asking her if she was using the TR-170 scope or the TR-190.

Best,

David

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You're brave to be honest and I respect you for that. What matters is what you're doing now. Capitalism colonises people's self-doubt, need for parental approval, fantasies of being powerful, etc etc etc and it's not a surprise that so many get dragged into it. Question is how to break the cycle and support our upcoming generation into healthier, humane, sustainable and sustaining ways of living and building societies.

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I luckily never felt “smart enough” for the firm, only to see college friends deal with the stress of it. I went the nonprofit international development route. There was less stress, but I still had some disillusionment at white northern hemisphere folk setting out to “save the world.” Eventually, I pivoted to nonprofit work focused on the country I lived in. The impact felt more tangible and less savior-y, though that can still come up.

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Resonant. As a 'pure academic' I was taught to despise the 'save the world applied science people who aren't smart enough to do *pure theory* '. Still, I always tried to do academic work with good wider political intent. But in the end, there was a lot of bollox in it all. I'm still unpacking and unpicking the bits. And still unsure whether writing things that reframe how people think is, as academics like to claim, a form of useful activism. I guess I do still hold a bit of that - otherwise why do I keep on writing? (Albeit in a different register and with more hyperlocal goals).

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Rachel, I loved this. You articulated this cognitive dissonance brilliantly. For some, too, there's the pressure from family who feel they sacrificed for our education and feel we should aspire to being "successful" spouses who expect us (It was the 80s) to "provide". The system coopts our families to help entrap us. I quit corporate life and that marriage in 1990. The shame still burns.

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Overlapping in SF, but in startup tech, I feel this deeply. Definitely a flip-side of "The Firm" that trades the established elite perks of business class (McKinsey) with badge-of-honor heroics (shame-suggested all-nighters at your desk, binge drinking, folk stories of company victories, etc.). Very self-destructive behavior all around. I really appreciate you sharing your story - sometimes we carry these old programs with us. Your story of breaking the skyline and seeing the carpet of clouds, for me, was a CEO buying a supercar and taking me for a ride through sand hill road, at high speed. I wanted to be him for a while, until I didn't. I wrote about this topic as it relates to my story (posted yesterday) if anyone would like to read a poem about leaving the hustle dream of VC-based SF behind. Here's hoping we can all give ourselves grace for the people we almost became.

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I spent three years at The Firm, and experienced all of those physical sensations, including the pit in my stomach that only started to go away when I left corporate during the pandemic. I’m so glad that I ran away from the whole track when I graduated business school and purposely took a job that was not in NYC/SF/LA/CHI.

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Thank you for vocalizing what I replay in my mind, ad nauseum. I came from advertising (“ad nauseum” - title of a future post?)

This is the essay I’ve been wanting to write for years and am one step closer thanks to your version. The intention to gain some good skills for better use later is so very relatable.

I’d remind colleagues that we don’t work in the emergency room of a hospital inside the White House - we’re just trying to get people to hate their insurance company a bit less. But no one wants to hear that sorta thing, obviously. It’s a very dark place to navigate and I appreciate you putting this out there to make others in the same position feel less alone.

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