The freedom of knowing that someone else's behavior is not about you.
Three years into my first job on Wall Street, I was ready for more responsibility.
I had done well in my junior role, and it was not uncommon for high performing juniors to get promoted after 3 or 4 years.
Confidentially, I talked about it with my boss, we’ll call him Dave. I knew he didn’t have the ultimate power to give a promotion. But we had a good relationship, trusted each other. He had been a great mentor to me, and taught me so much about our industry. I knew he would understand.
He did. After our discussion, Dave talked to some “higher ups.” He told me that I would get a promotion. The details weren’t yet clear. But I needed to be patient. Wall Street lives and dies by the end of the year bonus. And this conversation was in October. So I knew that I had to wait until December or even January, once the dust settled.
Early December came along, and Dave’s boss, Larry, called me into his office. I was excited. I hoped this meeting with Larry would be the confidential heads’ up on what was coming next.
Larry started yelling at me almost before I sat down. I understand that you think you’re getting promoted, he said. What gave you that impression? Who do you think you are? According to Larry, they had no plans or intentions to do any such thing. Bottom line, he told me I was completely misguided.
It was a pretty short discussion. I was so stunned that I’m not sure I said much of anything. I left his office in a daze. I spent the better part of the next hour staring blankly at my computer screen, ignoring the ringing phone.
But wait, there’s more.
A few hours later (that’s right, the exact same day), Larry called me back into his office. He told me that he just finished performance reviews for our department. And I ranked in the top 5 out of 70+ associates. That I was very important to the investment bank, to the department. They had a few things in mind for me but couldn’t tell me yet. Would I please be a little patient?
Truth is stranger than fiction.
My head was spinning.
Two opposing thoughts played out in my head:
Why did I ask for that promotion? I screwed up.
Larry is a total asshole.
I could have picked one of those thoughts and stuck with it.
Let’s face it, Larry’s behavior was erratic at best. I couldn’t see straight from the whiplash.
But, after the dust settled, I realized that I shouldn’t make his behavior mean something about me, or even about him. I could have made Larry’s behavior mean that I did the wrong thing for asking for a promotion. Or, I could have made it mean that Larry was, in fact, an asshole.
The fact is, Larry behaved that way for reasons that are none of my business.
I will never know what was going on in Larry’s mind. Maybe he was getting pressure from his boss and yelling at me was a release valve. Maybe he was angry at my boss, Dave, for making promises that he shouldn’t have. Maybe he was, in fact, stunned that I had the courage to ask for a promotion.
I have no idea what was going on in his head. I’ll never know. And I can’t control someone else’s thoughts, anyway.
What’s more, I bet that his behavior was a lot less about me than it appeared.
If he yelled and flip-flopped at me, a junior member of a large department. Someone he had barely ever spoken to before. What are the odds that he had never done that to anyone else, ever? That in his 20+ years at the firm, he had never made a rash decision and then changed his mind? Zero.
Again, his behavior had nothing to do with me.
Bottom line, no matter what the circumstance, I can only focus on my own thoughts and my own actions.
I couldn’t change Larry’s behavior. And blaming myself for asking for the promotion, or Larry for being an asshole wouldn’t serve me in any way. What would that get me, in the end?
The only question that mattered was, is this worth it?
I spent three great years at that firm. I learned so much and had a great mentor. For some people, the right choice would have been to accept an erratic department head. That the promotion was worth it. That the money was worth it.
That wasn’t the choice I made.
Instead, I decided that, for me, I was uncomfortable with that kind of treatment. Not to make a statement about the firm, or about Larry.
It was a statement about what felt right to me.
I still loved Wall Street. But I knew there was a place that would treat me in a way that aligned more with my values. Where I could stay in my industry, kick ass at my job, and not experience such large swings in the whims of management.
And I was right. I ended up at a firm that was a much better fit for me. I had a great department head and stayed there until I left Wall Street altogether.
No hard feelings, Larry.
But I don’t regret it for a single minute.