In Defense of the Underling
Ambition ain’t everything.
“So, what’s your five-year plan?”
This question was a common ice-breaker on my college campus. It was a given that, after spending four (or more) years getting your degree, you intended to hit the ground running, with the aim of becoming a millionaire in record time. If you didn’t already have a job and a side hustle lined up, you were behind the times. Work hard, play hard, etc etc.
And then we graduated, and yes, many of my classmates did indeed set the world on fire with their ambition and hard work. They started businesses. They got promotions to VP in record time. They maxed out their 401Ks.
But plenty of us didn’t, and you know what? That’s fine. Because if we had all been forest fires of accomplishment, the world would have burned and we would all have died.
Just like we need your Steves Jobs and your Bills Gateses, we need the nameless, the unremarkable, the unassuming drones who do all the work behind the scenes that enables people like the Amazon guy to launch themselves into space. We need the Wal-Mart greeters, the babysitters, the janitors.
There’s an episode of the You’re Wrong About Podcast where the hosts Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall talk about the nobility of the people who spend their lives going about their business being quitely competent and not attracting attention to themselves.
Those are the people I’m interested in — the ones who get a job, maybe a promotion or two, and then spend forty years as mid-level employees, keeping the gears of someone else’s company running smoothly. I don’t care about the CEO at the press conference announcing the latest gadget his company is releasing. He’s probably an asshole. I want to talk to his receptionist. Where is her magazine profile?
In my industry, and particularly at the company where I work, ambition is assumed. When someone is hired, they’ll strive to move up the corporate ladder as soon as possible. Won’t they?
Promotion means more money, more responsibility, a staff of your own to supervise, and (of course) the expecation of overtime — however much it takes, for however long, to get the job done.
Personally, that sounds like a wideawake nightmare. Seventy hours a week at the office? There isn’t enough money in the world to entice me to strive for that.
For over a decade, I’ve been resisting the current that tries to pull me upwards to responsibilities and committments I’m not interested in. If everyone moves up, it’s going to get very crowded at the top, and very lonely at the bottom. The entry level jobs will turn into nothing more than a churning mess of inexperienced children, all trying to climb over each other to get ahead.
We need people who know what they’re doing at every rung of the ladder, especially the lower ones, because those people are the ones who’s work fuels the entire machine. If they’re incompetent, their work will be bad, and like a case of stomach flu, it will spread to everyone who is exposed to it.
Could I be earning more money? Yes, of course I could. But the secret, the thing that makes upper management look at me as if I’ve sprouted a second head, is that I don’t want more money.
I make enough to pay for everything I need, and most of what I want, and without mandatory overtime or graduate school to earn myself another promotion, I have the time to enjoy myself.
When I drive away from the office at five, I leave behind all the tasks, the responsibilites, the emails. (So many emails.) Nothing follows me home from work. Work is at work, and my life is everywhere else. My ambition is to spend time with the people I love, doing things that make me happy. And I can’t understand what people can’t understand about that.
If you visit my company’s website, you will not find my name in any of the press releases or blog posts. My picture is not on our Facebook page. As far as anyone outside of my office is concerned, I do not exist. And that’s perfect, because I am not expected to be an ambassador for the company in public. I’m just me. I am anonymous.
And odds are, a lot of you are as well. I don’t see you, just like you don’t see me, but I know you’re there too, and I think you’re doing a great job. Here’s to you, and to me. Hats off to us, the folks who get things done, day in and day out.