To the outside world, today is just a normal weekday in January. On Wall Street, today is anything but normal. Today is Comp Day, the day that annual bonuses are announced.
8:30am. Matt, the most senior trader on the team, receives the first call. The caller ID on the phone dashboard blinks, Conference Room 5. No one ever calls from Conference Room 5. Except on Comp Day.
On most days, the junior team members pick up the phone for the senior members. On Comp Day, everyone picks up their own phone. Especially if the caller ID says Conference Room 5.
There is a collective gasp from the team as Matt looks down at his phone. “Hello,” Matt says sheepishly into his headset. “Yes, on my way.” Matt, who flies business class with his family of five to Hawaii four times a year, gets up from his seat like his 3rd grade teacher just whispered in his ear that the principal would like to speak to him in her office.
As Matt disappears into Conference Room 5, we get a peek at Nick, the Partner who runs the team, sitting behind a stack of papers. Everyone pretends to go back to work, but no one is doing anything. Except thinking about Conference Room 5.
After three minutes that feel like 13, Matt walks out with a look on his face that communicates he was expecting an additional zero.
Another minute of silence. The phone rings. Conference Room 5 on the caller ID. This time it’s Taylor’s turn.
The process will continue most of the morning. Eventually, it’s my turn.
My heart jumps into my throat when I see the blinking light next to my name. “On my way,” I say in the same robotic tone as those who came before me. I feel the eyes of my co-workers pierce my physical body. My heart has returned to my chest, but it is now beating at the same speed it did in the moments before my first kiss.
Nick greets me with a nod and a quarter smile. “Take a seat.” I know not to expect any pleasantries.
He starts in with the canned qualitative commentary about the firm’s performance. I don’t catch what he says. My mind has blocked all qualitative parts of the conversation.
And then the moment of truth. The quantitative part. “Your P-A-T-C is …”
P-A-T-C stands for “per annum total compensation.” It is the total of base salary plus bonus, and is colloquially referred to as your number.
After my number is revealed, Nick communicates how much of the bonus will be paid in cash and how much in company stock. None of this information registers. My mind is playing the part about my number on repeat.
My access to my emotional temperature at this moment is non-existent. All I know is that I need to appear both gracious and disappointed. I need him to know I am mature enough to act like a decent human being, but that I am unimpressed by my number. To admit satisfaction or to offer sincere gratitude would be equivalent to acknowledging I had been paid too much. Dissatisfaction is a strategy to be paid more next year.
I give one final nod and walk back out onto the trading floor. The eyes of the legions of traders, sales people, and strategists again pierce my body. By the time I get back to my seat, the caller ID is already flashing, Conference Room 5.
It’s hard to know how to act the rest of the afternoon. Some people are ready to quit. And some are thinking about what color Ferrari to buy. I don't know which person is which. Better to keep to myself. Everything feels like a blur anyway. Everything except my number.
Today is the start of a year-long relationship with my number. It is a very intimate relationship because my number sticks in my head. It marinates. It stews. It consumes me. And it becomes me. I start believing everything that it represents.
As the chorus from Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” goes: They've given you a number and taken away your name.
But this is not about them. This is about me. This is about how I have surrendered my self-worth to a number. A single number on a single day communicated to me by a single individual.
During each of my 11 years at Goldman Sachs, two months before Comp Day, I would send a list of my accomplishments to my boss to give him ammunition to pay me a higher bonus. When my number was eventually revealed, my ego’s internal algorithm would compare it to my list. The number always fell short.
Externally, I would act like I had been betrayed. “It’s so unfair that they paid the sales people more this year!”
The ego feels entitled. It loves to use the concept of fairness in service of its agenda. Especially on Comp Day.
Internally, my inner critic would beat the crap out of me: “You’re not quantitative enough. You never deserved to get promoted to MD.”
The inner critic is the mouthpiece of the ego. It had known all along that I was an imposter and here was proof thrown back in my face. The shame from feeling “not enough” would become extremely unpleasant.
To provide temporary relief from the shame, I responded with disengagement (“I never wanted to be a part of this greedy profession in the first place”) and angry resentment (“Those greedy assholes kept it all for themselves!”). While these responses offered me an illusion of power and control, they also left collateral damage in my life. Professionally, I wouldn’t put in as much effort, wasn’t as enthusiastic about helping others, and would overcompensate by finding subtle ways to show just how valuable I was. In my personal life, I would get grumpy, wouldn’t be as present, and would indulge in validation-seeking behaviors such as name-dropping and humble brags.
This whole cycle is problematic, and it is entirely because I surrendered my self-worth to a number.
Comp Day is not about the money. It is about the meaning that our fragile egos create about the money.
And even if you don’t get a bonus in the same dramatic fashion as an investment banker, what number do you let define you? Is it your company’s valuation, the price of Bitcoin, your brokerage account balance, your hourly wage?
When we surrender our worth to something extrinsic, it will never be enough. It will never be real worth.
Fast forward to the present…
So now that I no longer work for an investment bank, has this tendency to define myself by a number gone away? Unfortunately not.
As a team of four at Upbuild, we have tried to disassociate our worth from our compensation by basing our compensation on collective earnings, rather than on individual contributions. It does change the mood, but it doesn’t mean the link between compensation and self-worth has gone away.
Even with this more equitable system, and even as I do the work of excavating egos for myself personally and professionally with my clients, it’s hard. My conditioning is intense. I experience insecurity about my value that comes from wondering if I am doing enough to earn my share. And I feel the insecurity of questioning if I have less value because my number these days is a lot smaller than it used to be.
But just because something has been one way doesn’t mean that it is destined to be that way forever. By bringing awareness into my life about my fragile ego, I am starting to detangle the link between my number and my worth.
Contrary to what my ego wants me to believe, worth does not need to be earned. It does not need to be proven.
These numbers are not us. They are not indicative of our real value. We know this because even when the number is good enough, the insecurity that, “I’m not enough,” persists. This whole system of relying on numbers to tell us our worth is flimsy. It doesn’t stand the test of time. We need to find something with a longer shelf life and something that is closer to the core of who we are.
We can ask ourselves the question, “Who would I be if I lost my money, my job title, and my status?”
Think about it. Who would you be?
This question has always plagued me because I have never been able to answer it with conviction. I have also been so addicted to winning that I didn’t have the time or desire to come up with a sincere answer anyway.
More recently, as I have transitioned to become a coach and built a greater awareness of my ego, what I am finding is that there are certain qualities of character that run deeper than my ego identifications. These qualities — humility, gratitude, and empathy — are not easy for me to access, but in my more peaceful moments, when I am less prone to worrying about my worth, they seem to arise with a sense of ease. It is hard to put into words, but they feel natural and right. I believe these are my core qualities, the ones that truly define my worth.
It’s not that other people would describe me as humble, grateful, and empathetic. In fact, they rarely do. But that’s because my fear about a lack of worth gets in the way of being able to offer my real worth.
What I am also finding is that the inner work that is required to tap into and live these core qualities takes time, consistency, and effort. Eleven years on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs does not unwind itself so easily. But from my experience thus far, it is only when I make a sincere effort to separate myself from the extrinsic measures that I use to give me a sense of worth, that I can walk closer to my real worth and be who I really am.
Michael Sloyer is a leadership development coach at Upbuild and a former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs. Find out more information about his work at www.upbuild.com.
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash
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