The lamb’s guide to avoiding the slaughter
Every major city in the Western world has some kind of financial district, and while no two are exactly alike, there are traits that run through all of them. They are filled with people who have come to these neighbourhoods with dreams of making it big, but healthy ambition can quickly morph into avarice. Many of the people you meet here are decent enough and possess sufficient moral restraint to not hurt other people in pursuit of money and accomplishments. At least not deliberately. But some people you meet have no scruples about stamping all over others to get their own way.
I have many pseudo-affectionate nicknames for Bay Street: the Shark Tank, the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the Penitentiary, Purgatory, the Asylum, etc. I was actually born just steps away from it, at one of Toronto’s oldest hospitals, delivered with forceps after a long labour. Yes, that’s right, I was literally dragged kicking and screaming into this world, with my head in a metal grip, in the early hours of a Thursday morning in the Financial District. The universe really is a master of metaphors.
I love the life I have here in the way you love a capricious parent or lover; it gives me identity, a sense of belonging, great writing material, and good stories. But it may in fact be eroding my soul from the inside out. It has been suggested to me by an experienced mental health professional that I’m drawn to this kind of life because chaos, stress, and the caprice of authority figures defined my start in life. High-stress environments where I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop are familiar to me, and humans are drawn to familiarity even to their own detriment. It is ingrained in my psyche that if I ever have a calm, quiet life with no more than the normal amount of stress for my demographic, everything dear to me will be lost. I’m working on undoing these mental knots which have been pulled tight over three decades, but it’s slow-going, ladies and gentleman.
For all the damage that’s been done to me over my years in this dark corner of the universe, I’ve become a master survivor. I have learned a lot of things that I wish someone had told me before I got sucked into this vortex, but it seems that most people either cannot articulate these things, or do not want to discuss them. Somebody has to, so it might as well be me.
Rules for Survival
1. Question everyone’s motives.
Trust is something that must be earned around here, for your own protection. You have to assume that everyone you meet is,
a) at best, more concerned with themselves and protecting their own jobs than they are with you; and
b) at worst, looking to fuck you over any way they can.
Most people fall somewhere in between those two extremes, and most people I’ve met in my work life are closer to “a” than to “b”. But even those who genuinely care about you will not risk their own jobs or reputations to save your job or reputation. In our personal lives, there’s nothing wrong with putting those we love ahead of us if we so choose, but save acts of self-sacrifice for somewhere other than Bay Street.
And something important to remember about those in the “b” category: do not think that their treatment of you is reflection upon you as a person or as an employee. If one of them targets you, it is understandably hard to not take personally, because they are coming after you, a particular person. But these people are monsters who will stomp on anyone who gets in their way, even if everyone else loves them. It happened to me, and it happens to people every day.
2. Always cover your ass.
This is something of a continuation of the above, but more relates to the nitty-gritty of our daily work. Whether it’s emailing a client after a phone call to confirm instructions, asking your boss’ permission for something that seems trite, or keeping copies of intra-office emails that could be used to protect you one day (hint: do this), always cover yourself. Make sure you can prove you have done your work correctly, and do not be silent when someone else tries to pass the buck to you.
3. Always be ready to look for a new job.
The perils of being part of the 21st century workforce include the lack of stability that previous generations took for granted. In the time of my parents and grandparents, many people were employed by the same company their entire working life, then retired with a gold watch and pension at a reasonable age. Now, pensions are rare, contract work is all-too-popular, and changing jobs is often the only way to get substantial pay raises. Throw in an unpredictable economy, and it’s good practice to always keep your resumé up-to-date, no matter what industry you work in.
But in cutthroat business like law and finance, which dominate Bay Street, you always need to be prepared to find yourself out of a job for political reasons. I was fired simply for refusing to take the abuse to which I was subjected by the lawyer for whom I was hired to work. I know someone who was fired because she was friendly with the managing partner’s wife, and after she found out that he was fucking his law clerk, she was fired under false pretences so he could protect his ass from an expensive divorce. I worked at a firm where women got fired on a regular basis, but when men made similar mistakes in their practice or demonstrated an attitude the partners did not like, they were merely reprimanded.
My point is, always be prepared to look for a new job, and be sure to network and keep up contacts with people who could help you find a new position. Send LinkedIn messages on birthdays, work anniversaries, or new job announcements. Take the time to write and mail adorable holiday cards. When recruiters come knocking your door, give them an updated copy of your resume even if you are not looking at that moment. Keep a list of people you can reach out to when you want help finding unposted jobs and getting interviews.
4. Deal with your emotions as they are, not as you or anyone else thinks they should be.
Before we go any further, let’s just accept and agree that human emotions are, by their very nature, not rational. You don’t have to be alive very long in this world to experience your head pulling you in one direction and the heart in the other.
I have heard it said ad nauseum throughout my working life that you need to separate your personal life from your professional life, and not get emotionally involved with the things of your workplace. Leave work at home, it’s just a job, you shouldn’t care so much…blah, blah, blah, blahhhhhhhh. Folks, the North American “work culture” that has so many of us working to the point of collapse is indeed a badly broken system in need of repair. Leaving our work behind the office, out of sight and out of mind, is a healthy thing, but the reality is that most people are not that good at compartmentalization. It is a well-known fact that work-related stress affects people in all other aspects of their lives, and it’s foolhardy to pretend any differently.
Whether you are dealing with pressures associated with the day-to-day tasks, an exceptionally important project, or your relationships with the people you work with, do not repress your emotions and try to pretend that they do not exist. There is of course a time and place to deal with your troubles, so I’m not suggesting sulking, shouting, or pontificating at the office about why you’re miserable. Find someone outside of your workplace that you trust to talk to about your troublesome emotions, and if that person tries to talk you out of feeling the way you do, find someone else who will actually listen. Unresolved emotions do not go away over time, they only fester and can turn into something even more troublesome.
This is a lesson that I learned in a very painful and personal way after the loss of my close working relationship and friendship with a character in this saga who I will call Artemis. (Artemis is a guy; the name has been used for men throughout history more often than women, although the most famous holder of the name is the ancient Greek goddess of the moon.) After two years of working closely together, learning our respective jobs and “growing up” together, I was forced to leave the firm due to economic pressures. The salary I was being paid was woefully in adequate for survival in our incredibly expensive metropolis, and my respectful request for more money was ungraciously shot down by the managing partner. Artemis was in no position to influence salary decisions, and I could not continue to put my entire future on hold, not even for him. He paid lip service to understanding that I had to leave, that I was leaving in spite of him, not because of him, and to preserving the friendship that had developed between us.
It was all empty words, and the friendship quickly faded away after I left the firm. Even though I knew on some fundamental level that someone who could so easily discard me was not worth the dust under my feet, I was devastated. But rather than letting myself grieve the loss of something that had been deeply important to me, I tried to repress my emotions, or at least temper them. I repeated to myself over and over again the usual tropes of about separating work from life, and the importance of letting go, of moving on. Blah, blah, blah fuckity blah. Finally, after a year and a half I sought professional help to deal with the grief that was going on far longer than was healthy or normal. The details of those conversations are for another day, but I at last gave myself permission to grieve what I had lost, and within a few weeks I felt better than I had in a year and a half. The fact that feelings don’t make sense does not stop them being real, and it is much harder to protect yourself around here when you are in a state of emotional turmoil.
5. (a) Know when to be the wolf instead of the lamb.
Playing a corrupt cop assigned to train an idealistic young officer in his Oscar-winning performance in Training Day, Denzel Washington says to Ethan Hawke, “To protect the sheep you gotta catch the wolf, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.”
I do not like hurting people or making their lives any more difficult than they already are; in other words, I think of myself as one of the benevolent sheep and prefer it that way. But sometimes you have no choice but to peel off the sheepskin and bite back in order to save your own neck. The first time I did that I had felt horribly guilty, although I cannot say I regret it in the long run. Back at the firm from which I was fired (the one where women are routinely tossed out on the street)I worked for a short time with a female associate who was the boss from hell. She was a nice person and never shouted or openly insulted me, but she was insanely demanding and diva-ish, and I hated every day I worked for her. It was so bad that when I got fired for something that had nothing to do with her, I was actually a bit relieved; it was certainly cumbersome to be out of a job, but at least I did not have to go back and work for that crazy woman anymore!
About a year and a half later, when I was well-established in my new firm, she applied for a position there, and it was likely I would have been assigned as her assistant. She had been fired from our old firm less than a year after me, and she had apparently been out of work for eight months. She was much more senior than what my partners were seeking in a new associate, so it was unlikely she would be hired, but I was not about to risk ending up working with this psychotic woman again. I took the initiative to tell my boss about what an impossible brat she had been, and made it clear that if she were hired, I would leave. To my pleasant surprise he took what I said in stride and to heart, saying “I actually remember her from when we were both briefly at [previous firm], and she seemed good to me, but if you’re telling me that she’s a nightmare to work with, then that’s it.”
The pre-Bay Street me would never have done anything to potentially stop someone who was long-term unemployed from getting a job, even if it would somehow make my life worse. Now, I was biting before I could get bitten, and it made me feel like a criminal. After a lifetime lived with no self-esteem or self-worth, always putting myself last out of fear of being labelled selfish if I did anything for myself, maybe this was a positive change. But if you spend enough time in this environment, anyone can become a wolf, although those who started out as wolves by nature become especially dangerous.
(b) Do not step on people, but do not step aside for them, either.
I made this rule in two parts because they are closely related, but one is more about self-defence, while the other is about non-destructive self-advancement. I learned this lesson when I refused to step aside for a co-worker who had recently quit her job at my office and then come crawling back. She had been hired to work for our managing partner after the early retirement of his long-time secretary, and left after just a few months. As is quite common with new lawyer-assistant pairings, they simply were not suited to each other, so she went elsewhere. My boss then asked me if I would like to cease working for his two associates and take over working for him. After a well-thought out decision, I had said yes, because working for a senior partner is good for a resume. When my predecessor asked to come back, the boss first proposed her to the associates, who very much did not want her. So, it was left to me to decide whether to step aside for her, allowing her to take back the position I had just accepted, while I continued in the more junior role.
I said no without a moment’s hesitation; she was a very sweet person who I liked, but I was not going to essentially demote myself because she was having seller’s remorse. She still had her new job, which she apparently was not liking, but that just was not my problem. (The fact that she still had a job to go to while looking for something that would hopefully make her happy spared me any feelings of guilt I might have otherwise had.) I had been through hell and back in the previous few years working to get good at my job and to have seniority and some command of respect. I paid for my new title in blood, sweat, and tears (quite literally, at times) and I would not give away what was rightfully mine to be “nice.”
I have been stepped on enough times to know that I never want put anyone through the shit I have been through, but I have accepted that self-preservation is often uncomfortable.
6. Protect and preserve your moral compass.
I believe that every human being is born with an inherent sense of right and wrong, and of how they should treat their fellow human beings. No child is born racist, sexist, homophobic, sadistic, or in any way inherently hateful towards others. The question of why some people are very decent and overall “good” people, while others are varying degrees of evil, is one of the oldest questions of civilization. There will likely never be a definitive answer to why human beings sometimes treat each other in despicable ways, but we do know that continued exposure to even the most atrocious behaviour can desensitise people to it.
As I said above, life in this cutthroat environment can turn ambition into avarice, and sheep into wolves. When you witness, day in and day out, people being pushed to the limit, exploited, disrespected, and underappreciated, these things bother you less and less. You may find yourself saying, “Well, that’s just the way it is, and you need to accept it,” and telling yourself that there is nothing you can do to change the status quo. The need for a paycheque keeps millions of people in situations where they are mistreated and see other people put through the same or worse. It is a terrible dilemma with no easy fix, but it is important to never lose sight of right and wrong, and to set limits on just how much you will stand by and watch.
Each individual person needs to decide where they will draw the line in the sand that they will not allow employers to cross. At what point will you decide that you simply cannot continue working for people who behave a certain way? I’m not saying that once that line is crossed you should walk out the door without another job to go to, but that is the time to start looking for a new position.
7. Know when it’s time to go.
All of the above rules can be tied in to this final one I will leave you with.
In the work world of today, where people change jobs on average every three to four years, saying goodbye to workplaces and colleagues is a regular life event. But it is surprisingly easy to get stuck in one place, even if you have stopped growing professionally, are not being sufficiently compensated, or are being adversely affected by the environment. The fact that job hunting is hell on earth for many people holds them back, while for others it is the fear of leaving somewhere that they have stability and a degree of job security. And sometimes, sentiment and misplaced feelings of loyalty will keep you stuck.
I experienced that in spadesful at my first firm, which was exceptionally familial in general, and where Artemis and I worked in such blissful sync. Despite how badly I was mistreated by some of the people there, and the criminally low salary I was getting, I felt indebted to the people who had hired me fresh out of school. I had spent months desperately competing for the few jobs open to new grads, and it caused me to put the powers that be in that place on a pedestal they in no way deserved. If they had paid me just a bit more — enough to meet my basic needs — I would probably still be there, learning nothing new, and emotionally married to my boss. At the next firm, where I was paid more (though still not enough) and had an amazingly happy beginning, I did not go running for the hills when Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde. Again, a misplaced sense of loyalty and of not wanting to “give up” when the going got tough kept me there too long, and I ended up getting fired anyway.
It is also very difficult and painful for someone in my position to give up a working relationship with a lawyer they like, respect, and with whom they have grown. And yes, sometimes it becomes personal, if not romantically (and that’s rarely the case) but on some different sort of emotional level. You are leaving behind a relationship that you know functions, for one that may or may not work, and if it doesn’t, you will likely be the one who has to move on. Fear and pain are a formidable combination.
But staying too long in one place where you are not growing professionally, are falling behind the curve of what’s going on outside your current office and are not making the maximum amount of money you could be making is detrimental to you. It is also possible, and I have experienced this myself, for you and your lawyer to grow resentful and contemptuous of each other as time goes on. The phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” can apply in some cases where one party is growing and adapting while the other is not, and though you may be fond of each other, you might not be long term compatible. Even if you are and believe you could be happy working for this person until you both go to the boneyard, that blissful bubble is a trap in its own.
In this shark tank, you are your own sole advocate, protector, and agent. Put yourself first. Protect yourself first. Build a solid foundation for yourself so you can enjoy the things that really matter in life: family, true friends, and all the beauty in the world that your eyes see.