Somebody v. Nobody
I’ve spent most of my life as a somebody. I was somebody that went to Harvard and Stanford, who worked on Wall Street and Silicon Valley. I was somebody who led teams and hired people. Somebody who had titles that started with words like “Director” and “Head.” Somebody who had meetings on the West Coast on a Monday afternoon and grudgingly flew red-eye to make it back to my trading desk by Tuesday morning. I was somebody that was considered “crucial” to that day’s project, agenda, or meeting. Somebody that drove P&L, made important decisions, and received generous compensation. Until the day that I was not…
Then I become nobody.
In a lot of ways, being nobody is a lot easier than being somebody. There are no google calendars filled with neat blocks that define a nobody’s time. As a nobody, I have no conference calls, no unreasonable sales quotas, no inane peer reviews. And surely nobody cares when a nobody does a load of laundry on a Wednesday afternoon, after wandering the empty Whole Foods aisles that morning, picking out a choice piece of halibut for that night’s dinner. Nobody can also Netflix at any time. Go for a walk. Finish a book a day for weeks on end. Nobody has an unencumbered life, really. It’s almost fun being a nobody. Except for the times when it is not.
Now please understand, being nobody doesn’t in any way diminish the many other titles I hold: Wife, Mother, Daughter, Sister, Aunt, Friend, Cousin, Caretaker, Volunteer, Mentor, Confidant, to name but a few. In fact, many of these roles come with more than their fair share of sleepless nights and early mornings, back-breaking work, and emotionally draining demands. And I thrive in these roles. I cherish them. But the simple fact is there is no economic compensation for being a great sister. My kids don’t send me glowing performance reviews. My parents don’t expect me to help them meet any quarterly sales targets. There is no way to brag on my LinkedIn profile about the Coq au Vin I made for dinner. No Business Insider article will mark the splendid organization of my linen closet, nor the clutch way I remembered the birthday of a prickly friend who refuses to be on social media.
Being nobody means that Corporate America will not compensate me for my time and efforts. So I stand alone, outside the machine. Bereft of the accolades and the attention.
When you are somebody, it’s hard to identify with a nobody. What do they do with all their time, you ask? Because as a somebody, your days are just. so. busy. Meetings, meetings, meetings. Sending four emails back and forth just to set up time to talk for a few minutes a week from now. Never making a dent in your endless to-do list, with a crises brewing around every corner. “I’m just swamped,” you croon when they ask. Or even when they don’t ask. Nights bring no respite. Spreadsheets appear behind your closed eyelids. Slack pings incessantly, messages from a global workforce that truly never sleeps. But underneath all the exhaustion, there is also a well of pride. Pride of being needed, being essential, being crucial to the success of something much bigger than yourself. Of being handsomely compensated for your hard work, of being rewarded with bigger offices, cooler titles, and more and more people to manage.
“They need me,” you say to yourself, as you check your messages for the 11th time that night. “It’s urgent,” you explain as you duck out of your daughter’s piano recital. “Just give me a minute to deal with this,” you whisper, self-importantly, as you step away from dinner for the fourth time that week.
When you are somebody, it’s easy to believe that you are valued. Especially since your value is so clearly defined. Your “value” arrives as a dollar amount every two weeks into a bank of your choice. And with that value you can buy cool things: A home. A car. Strange clothes with labels that make them inexplicably expensive. The latest iPhone with a screen that is ever so slightly crisper. Dinner at a restaurant with tiny portions covered in foam. And best of all, you can make donations. Lots and lots of donations. Save a child in Bangladesh. Build a well in Rwanda. And, of course, Harvard should have a new library, 70 is hardly enough. Okay, I’m jesting on that last bit, but donations are wonderful, indeed. A great reason, if not the best, to want to be somebody.
The thing is though — when you are somebody, you never expect that at any moment you can become nobody. That, without the slightest heads-up, the funding for your tech start-up will dry up, forcing it to lay off its entire U.S. work force. It doesn’t even seem feasible that just a few days ago you were working 13-hour days, and now you are expected to not work at all. Slack goes down. Emails dry up. Those leads that you and your team spent excruciating hours cultivating are as worthless as the unopened box of business cards that proudly display your now irrelevant title. To become a nobody, so suddenly, is dizzying. A forced, ugly divorce from the co-workers you used to speak to daily, if not hourly, but now propriety demands you only reach out to occasionally, as their lives fork away from yours.
And then there are the questions:
“What do you do?” asks a well-meaning new friend.
“What are you up to these days?” wonders your business school classmate while hitting you up for an annual donation for a school that has mountains more money than you ever will.
“When are you going back to work?” demands your father, having himself never worked less than 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, for the past 50 years.
Sure, it’s easy to dodge and weave through these questions. “I’m in between opportunities right now,” I can say coyly. “I’m taking some much needed me-time,” I’ll muse. Or a simple: “I’ll be back to work any day now, any day.”
What’s harder to convey, to others and to even myself, is how disillusioned I have become at being somebody for the past 25 years. How time and again, I have seen Corporate America take the best years from somebody, slowly sever their ties to friends and family, only to cast them aside at the slightest inconvenience.
A long time ago, as a bright-eyed associate at Morgan Stanley, I was enamored with our Head of Fixed Income, an exalted position at the bank. It felt so great to come to work each day and see the biggest office on our crowded trading floor occupied by a woman, a mother, a wife. Except, of course, it didn’t last. I’ve come to learn it never does. She went down with the subprime crisis. A few years later, the NY tabloids delightedly reported on the end of her 30-year marriage. Whatever her faults may have been, personal or professional, I still wonder to this day if the grind, the stress, the rise and the fall she endured were worth it for her? Hell, if they are worth it for anyone?
Look, I get it. Many people have to work to feed, shelter, and clothe their families. And it’s not a choice. It’s a necessity. But that’s not the case for everybody. For some people, the grind is a decision. A decision we make daily, no matter the quantity of commas in our bank accounts. In my experience, it’s rare to meet a rich person who doesn’t want to be richer. It’s rarer still to meet a rich person who doesn’t want to be somebody.
Even I, as disillusioned as I am, with the full knowledge that we are all disposable to Corporate America, still ache to be somebody.
And that is not an insurmountable goal. Opportunities abound even for nobodies like me. I am sure I will become somebody again soon. I will rejoin the race, repopulate my Slack, ping, ping, ping my way into the bottom of an email avalanche.
When that happens, all I can hope for is that I somehow retain some of my lessons from these months I have spent as a nobody. That I will be less likely to step away from dinner, from a school play, from the joys of a mid-morning grocery expedition. That I will covet less, and paint more. That I will remember that ultimately no bank will come cry at my funeral. And my iPhone will certainly not mourn for me, no matter how dear I hold it.
I need to find a way to be somebody who remembers that becoming nobody is but a single breath away.
And that, that’s okay. That’s more than okay. It’s downright liberating.