In 1998 when I packed my belongings and moved to California, I really entered Corporate America for the first time. I had worked sales jobs up to that point, but this was the first time I was given a lot of responsibility with a company that was growing rapidly and had a true corporate atmosphere. We were a small-ish start-up in the San Francisco area, and it was and is still my favorite career experience. The company grew, as did my career, and I learned more there in a short time than I probably learned anywhere else. I loved my coworkers and looked forward to every day I worked there, even with some struggles with strong personalities along the way.
As I moved on in my career, climbing the corporate ladder, I progressed to new companies-with a higher salary each time, and more responsibilities. I was managing departments, hiring and firing direct reports and overseeing marketing for entire companies- something that was so hard for me to believe at times. I remember so many times looking at my paycheck and being astonished at what I was making…not because I didn’t work hard for it- but just because I had never really believed in myself enough. If I counted the hours I was working and the pure passion and worry I put into everything, even my highest salary wasn’t enough.
From the years of 1998-2009, I lived inside the corporate world. Through layoffs and promotions, moves back across the country and up and down the east coast, I kept finding positions where I had a ton of responsibility and was able to use my creativity and marketing smarts to my full potential. At times, I felt like I had accomplished so much, and was at the top of my game. At other times, I could be reduced to rubble, feeling low and as if my contributions meant nothing. A small part of that was my own self doubt, but most of it came from working with some challenging people—a lot of them my bosses. Many of my coworkers and I would throw the term “bi-polar” around when describing some of our superiors, and we were only half joking.
There were several jobs that I held where the people I worked for drove me to hate coming to work, and eventually, drove me away from the company. Recently, an article from NPR was circulating, A Psychopath Walks into a Room. Can You Tell?, and in reading it, I could completely relate. Basically the article states that “you're four times more likely to find a psychopath at the top of the corporate ladder than you are walking around in the janitor's office”.
Many of the troubled bosses I worked with were extremely manipulative and verbally abusive, as well as living in some combination of arrogant and insecure that I can’t adequately describe here. But a day at the office with someone like this can be pure hell. What I started seeing as a pattern in almost all the places that I worked is that people with this type of personality were promoted again and again—and held high positions in the company. Sometimes it seemed as if they were promoted because no one knew what else to do with him/her. Giving him or her a title and an office seemed the last best choice, while other employees most more qualified, and all better equipped to lead- were left in the lower to middle management roles, trying to hold everything together- including their sanity. I have watched as entire departments cleared out based on one person in management, and no one seemed to care to make a change. And while a few people would report to HR what was going on, most people didn’t out of fear, and instead would leave the company without saying a word.
Still, I loved the work I did, loved marketing, loved being a part of a team. I loved managing and mentoring my direct reports, and I loved the intellectual and creative challenges. I worked nonstop for many years, traveling constantly, rarely sleeping, holding myself to incredibly high standards for my work, and worrying over all the details. So, for about ten years, work was my life. I was ok with that. But the truth is, no company, no matter how wonderful, is ever worth that kind of sacrifice.
In my last truly corporate job several years ago, I was heading up the marketing department—which I had really helped build. I did my best work here, I truly felt I changed the way the company was seen in the marketplace, and the literature and events I created and managed are still some of the best work I have done- especially considering the workplace I was dealing with.
I lasted for two years, and looking back, I don’t know how I did it. I am not exaggerating to say that every single day in the office I received emails laced with profanity directed at me in such a hateful way, I was constantly shocked. And for those of you that know me, you know I curse like a sailor, and am not easily shocked or hurt by anything. It was above and beyond what anyone should deal with. Every accomplishment was met with degrading words from my supervisor and others in the company. I had some supporters, but they weren’t at a high enough level to bring about change. Expressing my concerns to HR only seemed to make matters worse. I tried to tell myself that my very large paycheck was the price I was paying- that to make that much money, things had to be tough.
But after two years, all parts of my life seemed to crumble. I wasn’t making good personal decisions, and frankly, I was mentally exhausted. I can’t blame my job for everything bad that happened to me, but with some hindsight, I now really believe that my work environment, plus the insane hours I was working and the constant travel, led to an emotional breakdown for me in all areas of my life. Something had to give.
I hated myself for being so weak that I couldn’t handle the ridiculous work environment, no matter how abusive or inappropriate. When I left, I didn’t have the satisfaction of feeling I had made a strong decision, it instead felt like I had failed and was crawling away.
I was actually out of work for a bit, and struggled to pay my bills. I honestly had days where I couldn’t eat, and were it not for my friends helping me, I would have gone under. But even in those moments of terrible financial worry, even on the days I worried about ever getting my life back together, it was better than the days in my office at that last job.
In that time, I discovered that I needed to get a life—have real time to dedicate to friends—and to myself. It took time, but I did just that.
I decided I would never take another job with that much responsibility or in a corporate setting. In doing that, I have had to readjust my priorities and my lifestyle.
And to me, that’s sad. I know that I have expertise to bring to a company; I know I was really good at what I did. I am sure there are great companies out there where the atmosphere isn’t like the ones I dealt with. But several of the companies I worked for had these issues, and I cannot count the number of friends that have gone through the very same thing. A healthy work environment seems to be more of the exception than the rule.
I am so thankful for the experiences I have had -both good and bad- in my career. I have learned so much, and have done things and gone places I would have never dreamed were possible for me. Part of all this was me realizing that I could be a workaholic, and I needed to find work where I could keep that part of myself at bay, and concentrate on having my life, love, and happiness first.
And although I sometimes miss the paycheck, the benefits, and the frequent flyer miles, my sanity and self worth are far more valuable. I just hate that it took me ten years to learn that lesson.