Caption: NYCs The Hungarian Pastry Shop in summer.
In my prolonged youth,
whenever I went to New York City I’d stop at the Hungarian Pastry Shop located in Morningside Heights, the Columbia University neighborhood. I got to know a couple of the regulars there – I met them through a mix up over the poppy seed and cherry cheese strudel. The two were pensioners, recent retirees, and long-time friends, Jack and Joe. On the job, they’d both been at or near the top, inside the “corridors of power” – no Willy Lomans these.
One winter’s day we were having coffee at the back of the store. They got to reminiscing about the world of work and what defines personal success and failure. While each had some career episodes they’d do differently, for the most part there was plenty on the positive side and enough in the bank account to keep the wolf from the door.
“I’ve been thinking, Jack, about life and how things turn out or not. You’ve done pretty well. A long career, maybe some downs but mostly ups. You got started early did you not? I mean right out of school you went into management. How’d that come about?
“Looks and luck! And, no getting around it, gender still mattered in my business in the mid-60s. I looked good in a suit and that made me an automatic candidate for managerial jobs, at least in my field. My “good looks” got me noticed and opened a few doors. And, fortunately, I met some people who seemed to think I might go somewhere – even though there was hardly any academic evidence of that! But they saw something in me, in spite of my rough edges, and were willing to encourage me. You know, they trusted me. Of course, there were always others who saw me as an empty suit. Hell, I probably did more than a few things to confirm that impression. I’m not blameless. Overtime, if you stay in the same job, poor decisions can mount up and erode support. Maybe if I’d been more of a diplomat, a better communicator…?
As I think about it, maybe I moved up too fast, that I “peaked” too soon. If I had wanted to I could have lain low – like some of my peers - and laid out a trajectory with a big job at the end. I could have been like Gilbert & Sullivan’s, “… the very model of a modern major general”, a prissy bureaucrat!
But, I guess, I never had the discipline or the desire, really. How about you?
Well, no Adonis, I did get credit for having brains, but that was not an automatic pass into management! (For that matter, I really did not want to be a manager – I loved working with the customers.) Regardless, I did my job well and moved up in position and salary. And, eventually the bosses saw that I could lead. I probably could have kept on moving up – in my immediate field or even other fields – I was pretty good, you know, (smile).
But, I had a family, kids and a wife with an established career; why would I want to move, to the west coast or to some university center in mid-America? And, I had plenty of opportunity where I was to do what I wanted to. Much of the time, I had excellent support – my ability to get grants was better than average (“I’ll say!” exclaimed Jack).
I had a pretty good run. Then, when I thought I was really hitting my stride, new leadership showed up and began to change things. The new leader initially was supportive, but then less so. You know whom I’m talking about. He was all about teamwork (“There’s no ‘I’ in team”, he loved to say). We were supposedly equal members of "his" team, but I think he wanted more obeisance than I could offer. His definition of team captain was closer to “THE boss” than mine. Hell, I think I scared him because I had ideas. This guy was on record for wanting innovation but he really was a traditionalist at heart and if it was not his idea, it was not a good idea.
So, I had to leave, a very scary time. Luck was with my family and me; I landed on my feet and found another institution and new challenges.
I had a somewhat different “finale”, Joe. The daily grind came to an end sooner than I wanted – or so it seemed at the time. But being forced out actually freed me up to do things I wanted to do. There are times when I think I should have gotten out long before I had to.
Anyway, you know I am still doing what I want personally to do. That’s me – going well beyond the job description and pursuing my own, job-related questions. My questioning annoyed some people, of course. If you are moving, there’s going to be friction when you brush up against the unmoving. If there is such a thing as an incremental enmity among the people resentful of change – those with the ruffled feathers – I was able to avoid it until near the end of my career.
When my luck did run out – there’s no denying it, I was in a funk. But, the gloom lifted and rarely returns.
Like you, Joe, I’ve discovered there’s always more to do, more to offer, more to explore, so in a way, I am happy to be free of the endless meetings – gad, some of that routine is awful!
I still get excited in following through on my own ideas; if I fail, it’s largely my fault. If I succeed, well, it’s never just me; invariably it is someone else who says, “Hey, I like that idea. Let’s do it.”
It may sound trite, but I’m happy to focus on family and in sustaining the relationships from my career, the folks, like you, I want to stay in touch with – it’s friendship. And, you know I still teach. I want to keep doing that as long as I can. It’s a confirmation of my expertise and the school wants it and the students see it as relevant and of interest. So, I guess I am like you in wanting that confirmation.
“Hey, Junior (me), pour me some more of that coffee!”
@Copyright John Lubans 2014