Some acquaintances of mine have adopted a curious outlook on which I want to comment. Although I work in a fairly high-powered and well-remunerated field, I’m at a low level of responsibility, and accordingly, a low rate of pay (at least compared to my bosses). I’m in the middle quintile, whereas they’re all in the top quintile (sometimes well into it). The degree of that imbalance poses a few ideological problems for me with regard to social justice, but that’s not really the subject of this blog post. What concerns me here is the perspective that one’s friends, often drawn from one’s workplace, are only worthwhile to the degree that they’re capable of advancing one’s career prospects.
I’ve known my share of climbers in professional life — the sort who can’t imagine a world that isn’t organized around a dog-eat-dog meanspiritedness. These folks see no problem befriending (on the short term) and then selling you down the river to get ahead. Indeed, they would give up their mothers if it were necessary (read: advantageous). While I do sometimes get blamed for problems that are not my doing or truly my responsibility (blame-shifting), my larger finding is that I’m simply not of any particular interest as a person to most of my bosses (with one notable exception) except for the functions I perform on their behalves and perhaps some idle workplace banter. It’s tacitly assumed that I have nothing to contribute to their personal happiness, and worse, no possibility of enabling them through things such as landing a big account or referring someone from within my network. Further, since I can’t keep up with their rate of spending and living large, I’m regarded as a conspicuous drag on their prerogatives and am omitted from invitations to lunch, dinner, drinks, golf, poker, parties, etc. If I’m entertaining company and a good guy, they won’t find out because first and foremost I’m not professionally useful except in the routine performance of my job. In fact, they’re conspicuously blind to that in situations where it’s apparent to others more inclined to make friends based on laudable personal characteristics such at humor, wit, generosity, etc.
This self-reinforcing bubble of power lunches and cross-referrals and country clubs is the domain of the professional class, and indeed, much of this maneuvering makes companies and economies work. It’s a convincing mode of operation for the 30+ years of professional life most of us endure. However, despite being handsomely enriched by operating that way, climbers are often surprised to learn how quickly they are abandoned once their own usefulness to others has waned. Basing friendships on less craven values and learning how to be happy among people is frankly antithetical to professional advancement. So managers and CEOs and power players may end up surrounded by sycophants and themselves become asshats and perfect shits in the course of their professional pursuit. Later in life, if they make it past the round of heart attacks visited upon so many stressed-out professionals, they often end up alone and ignored, since no one values them as people, either. Yeah, I want that life.