Corporate account

Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts

BENJAMIN GELMAN describes a shocking – but salutary – first foray into the ruthless world of work

It was my first relaxing summer weekend. I had been toiling away at one of America’s ‘Big Four’ accounting firms as a consultant for ten months, and felt I needed a break. I received a negative COVID test, took off from work on Friday, and drove a couple of hours for a peaceful few days in the woods with a friend. I was about five minutes into my return journey when I got phone service again. Alone in my car, I pulled over to see if I’d missed anything important on my work phone. There were the Friday newsletters and a few emails I was CC’d on. I also noticed I now had A Conversation With the Talent Leader on my calendar for Monday midmorning, which I knew wasn’t the protocol for getting a raise. Sure enough, within 24 hours I had been fired.

Once COVID-19 sent the United States into full-blown lockdown, my firm claimed its employees were its number one priority. It would limit promotions and raises, reduce discretionary spending, and contract the partnership payout pool, all to protect employees during these tough times. The higher up in the company, the more you’d feel the impact – the logic being that higher-ups are, quite literally, able to afford it. As an entry-level analyst, this sounded quite fair, if not altogether redemptive for Corporate America.

Then COVID survived its first news cycle unhindered, and it was pretty clear we were dealing with a radically different kind of event. All bets were off. The Big Four entered survival mode, and would do whatever they had to. I was just one of thousands of employees left to fend for themselves.

My family and friends have assured me that these are unprecedented times. It wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t beat myself up. And to some extent they’re right. If COVID hadn’t ravaged the world, I probably wouldn’t have had The Conversation put on my calendar. However, while COVID was the catalyst, my downfall began long before. If I’m being honest with myself, I deserved what came my way.

Even if the impetus was unforeseen, like all things done at the Big Four, the selection process was incredibly structured. The firm didn’t part with 50% or even 25% of their workforce. I was on the left-hand side of the bell curve. I fitted right in with the auto-generated list of lower-tier professionals to terminate. Given the circumstances, I would’ve fired me too. And yet…

It wasn’t always like this. In high school, I scored a 36 out of 36 on the college placement exam. I graduated from a prestigious undergraduate business school with just about the highest honours available. Several of my professors made it seem like my career success would be a given. But it turns out that academic success does not transpose so neatly into professional success.

It’s worth revisiting the university business structure at this point. To keep the lights on, private universities in America charge students hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also rely on alumni remembering their university days fondly enough to donate years later. These schools, therefore, have a strong incentive to keep their students happy and satisfied. Put another way, students are consumers. They pay money and expect an experience that’s ‘worth it’.

Much of my achievement has taken place within this quasi-consumerist framework. The institutions and people I knew were typically on my side, helping and rooting for me to succeed, conspiring alongside me. So I learned to work with understanding and patient stakeholders. When it took me longer to read than my sixth-grade peers, I was given extra time on my exams, which, astoundingly, lasted through the end of university. If I had too much on my plate during finals, I could almost assume one professor would allow me to turn in a term paper late. And even my summers spent in professional environments manufactured a sense that the intern had special privileges and status. Rules tended to feel more like guidelines. Accommodations were boundless.

Older people often tell my generation (I am 24) that we feel an undue sense of entitlement – we expect much more than we deserve. I have to admit I was a very fortunate child. My parents worked tirelessly to provide me and my brothers with all the opportunities they’d never had – private education from kindergarten to the age of 18, carefree summers, a debt-free college experience. If my laptop or phone broke, I knew I’d have a replacement soon enough. My family didn’t go on lavish vacations, but I struggle to remember a time when I didn’t get something I really wanted.

At the same time, though, I do not feel wholly responsible for the charges held against me. In fact, those who complain about the young are themselves at least partly culpable. Children and adolescents react to what they see, absorbing and digesting what’s around them. And if ‘the culture’ is responsible for cultivating this sense of entitlement, who made that culture? I’m not sure of the answer, but if you let children eat candy, they’ll do it till they’re sick.

I don’t mean to offshore responsibility with this logic. I could spend time dissecting who’s to blame and why, or harping on what I would’ve done differently. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Shifting the blame doesn’t shift the reality. Part of growing up is owning what’s yours. I thought I already knew this from books of ancient wisdom and modern psychology, which said essentially the same thing. For example, in Jewish culture, once you become Bar Mitvah’ed, and thus a man (at the respectable age of 13), you’re accountable for all your deeds, good and bad. Victor Frankle, a Holocaust survivor with all the reason to resent and crumble to his environment, credits his survival to the

…the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

More recently, J.K. Rowling counseled

There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.

My ten months at the Big Four was a proper lesson in accountability – making me confront and internalize my failings.

When I started at my firm, I discovered immediately that a boss wasn’t the same kind of authority figure as my parents or professors. Bosses are not necessarily invested in your personal success or happiness. Moreover, I was receiving money, and others had their expectations of me. All my naive assumptions were flipped on their head. My belief in myself and benevolent cultural, even cosmic, forces was shaken to the root. I’m not sure all those carefree summers had prepared me properly.

I bumped up against my project manager almost immediately. Our personalities clashed head-on, and unlike many of the people I had known, he was unwilling to accommodate himself to me. I sought consensus and hoped to know my new colleagues on a personal level. He had more of a ‘Get Shit Done’ philosophy. When I asked about his weekends, he’d answer in a breath, “It was good,” then smile in a way that said this-is-the-end-of-this-conversation. In one feedback session over a firm-sponsored trendy coffee, he told me I wasn’t “hungry enough.” My other advocates and mentors scoffed when I unpacked the feedback with them. What the hell, they asked, does that even mean?

I did what was asked of me. I got my work done. I dropped the ball once in a while, but not markedly more than the other First Years. And I knew I was capable of persistent, strenuous effort. Maybe my mentors were right – he was speaking in vague terms because the subject of the feedback was subjective. We simply didn’t get along. But even if I couldn’t follow the exact calculus, in a way I understood my manager was picking up on something more profound than working styles. Eventually, I’d come to understand what he meant.

The first reason had to do with entitlement and expectations. Through recruiting pitches and conversations, I had developed a rather glamorous picture of consulting, and my reality simply didn’t match. For the entire, albeit short, duration of my employment, I was working on a long-term, internal project. That meant while my peers were flying around the country, rotating through different industries and teams, solving real-world business problems for Fortune 500 companies, I was maintaining internal programming for the Big Four. Furthermore, the “cross-functional” aspect of my project meant my superiors tended to be auditors or financial advisors instead of consultants. Almost none of the things I had expected to find in consulting were present. I was disappointed, unhappy, and unmotivated. I didn’t want to work myself into the ground on something I hadn’t signed up for.

So I tried to get out. I spent a lot of energy and brainpower ruminating on the shortcomings of my project and wondering how to remove myself. I dabbled in corporate politics. I even entertained an attempt to ‘fail out’ of the project (1). I thought I was being responsible – taking ownership of my situation, changing my environment. In hindsight, I see all this mental energy would have been better aimed at helping my project, succeeding where I was. I was wrong to expect my situation to adapt to my strengths and preferences, or to believe the onus was on the firm to find me better opportunities.

The second reason for my apparent lack of hunger had to do with why I entered consulting in the first place. For the easily compiled laundry list of gripes, I am extremely grateful for my childhood. I cherished the Jewish education I received from my private school, and I loved that my mom was always around to pick me up from the bus stop. I grew up with an air of love and support. When thinking about myself as an adult, I consistently return to these standards. To raise a happy, successful Jewish family, I must ensure there’s a yard on which to play and sound finances, including a near-bottomless education fund. Because I’m a man, tradition dictates financial responsibility falls mostly on me. Although my girlfriend says she cares about having a career of her own, the communal indoctrination of Man as The Provider lives deep in my psyche, kept alive by anxiety and responsibility.

Business schools espouse and reinforce similar values. From what felt like the first days of our first year, students were already preparing themselves to secure prestigious, high-paying corporate jobs. In many schools, students have an end-of-term practice, calculating precisely what scores they need on the final exam to secure an A in the class. My business school peers, meanwhile, would congregate to project the financial returns of various career trajectories. For a college student concerned about paying his bills as a 45-year-old, I found a strange satisfaction in the ritual. However, watching my talented friends filter into the same handful of jobs raised concerns. These were young adults who would succeed in anything they put their minds to. I had trouble believing half of my graduating class was so interested in investment banking.

When I got to the Big Four, I found myself doubting my motivations and decisions. I still felt acute pressure to ascend to the upper-middle class. If I wanted to raise a family like that of my childhood, the Big Four was certainly the place for me. On the other hand, I kept wondering why I felt the urgency to enter corporate life. I didn’t grow up dreaming of having a career in consulting, and could see enough of the industry to know it wouldn’t really stir my passions. Perhaps, I started to think, having a contented father was more important to a happy family life than money. While my childhood had been glorious, thanks to my parents’ self-sacrifice, maybe there were other possibilities. And yet, it’s possible – even probable – I wouldn’t be enamored of any job, so I might as well choose one with a large salary. Maybe I shouldn’t risk everything on account of a post-college existential crisis. Consumed with such doubts, I found it hard to exert myself to my true potential. I wasn’t “hungry” because I wasn’t fully bought in.

As I continued to ponder my manager’s feedback, I started to see myself more objectively. I developed a new attitude based on a simple fact – my project wouldn’t last forever. Even if this particular project, or this job for that matter, was not how I wanted to spend my energy, it was where I was. When I moved on to whatever was next, I’d be taking something with me. The demanding and unsympathetic nature of the corporate world had shocked me, but I had begun to realise the very discontinuity and discomfort could offer life-lessons richer than any business skill. But if I wanted to learn these lessons, I would need to exert earnest effort – a feat near-impossible while keeping a tally of what’s ‘fair’. Perhaps, as clichéd as it sounded, if I worked hard, was persistent, and stayed humble, things might even themselves out.

My performance slowly improved. I ended conversations by asking how else I could help, kept assignments and timelines organized for my team, and volunteered to do grunt work for my managers. I took notes and formatted documents. I drafted emails and double-checked instructions. But I’d left it too late. When my firm decided to terminate employees en masse, they didn’t look at my last month of work. That fell outside the firm’s fiscal year-end, and therefore outside their evaluation parameters. Truthfully, even with my new attitude I still had a long way to go. Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate; I would have loved to get an honest second chance, a tabula rasa. But that’s not the way things work.

My current challenge is parsing through my experience. Our culture often speaks of ‘resilience’ after a disrupting or shocking incident, but the way it is commonly described is misleading, if not altogether wrong. You tend to hear metaphors like you get hit and you have to pick yourself right back up, or when you fall off the horse you have to get back on. These suggest the incident from which you must recover happens in an instant. Sure, with proper traumatic experiences there might be a focal point of resilience. But there are many other categories that demand a different type of resilience.

I experienced a slow, steady mental rewiring. I willingly submitted, even conspired, in my own downfall. Over the course of ten months, I came to accept the hierarchical truth that I was replaceable – a nobody at the bottom of the food chain. In trying to play my corporate-assigned role and listen, I forgot what my voice sounded like. I forgot my drives, my passions, and my capabilities. I let the Big Four prey and when it was done, I found a neglected self. Even so, I’m resisting the urge to hit the reset button. Although I’m left with a larger sense of self-doubt and a greater risk-aversion, I also feel more grateful for – and less entitled to – the good in my life. My Big Four experience, though leaving psychological turmoil, has stimulated tremendous growth that I would dare trade-in. So I’ll continue to sit with my pain to (hopefully) make sense of my experiences.

From where I stand now, I see glimmers of hope. I remember that I’m smart and capable. I tell myself I don’t need to have my 25-year plan mapped out. I don’t need to hold myself to a preset standard of success, which is bound to cause stress and restrict some of life’s excitement. With good principles and the right amount of luck, I trust I’ll figure something out. It will take time for me to come to terms with my deflation, and rebuild confidence. But I know this confidence will be built on things more real and stable. Besides, all over the world, COVID has disrupted countless lives and forced millions to rethink all kinds of assumptions. I’m just one of many. This is the hand I was dealt. I might as well try to play with it.

Author’s Note

  1. In the back of my mind was a story Malcom Gladwell told of himself where he once purposely flew into the wrong Carolina to avoid the work he didn’t like. His editor told him to cover a story in XYZ town. But there was an XYZ town in both North and South Carolina. Instead of clarifying, like a normal person, he got on a plane to the wrong town, guessing (rightly) his editor would never book him on a similar project