A former client of mine skyrocketed into the executive ranks when both his boss and boss’s boss suddenly quit in the middle of a high-stakes marketing project. He was 28 at the time.
He changed. Previously a self-deprecating man who wasn’t terribly ambitious, he began to dress and act like a caricature of a confident, successful executive, peppering his conversation with stories about power lunches, bonuses and stock options.
But he never quite grew into the role he was trying to project and didn’t develop the emotional depth one would expect of someone at his level. It finally caught up with him 10 years later when he was dismissed. He drifted into a deep depression. Always the golden boy, he had never failed before. It took him a long time to find new employment and it was at a much lower level.
The stellar success early in his career was the worst thing that could have happened to him. Just as I worry about the long-term impact on young people who miss out on crucial work experiences through unemployment, or being marginalized in service jobs, I also worry about people who have too much too soon.
We frequently hear stories about one-hit wonders, such as pop stars or writers who initially appeared to have great promise and a few years later drop off a cliff, mentioned only in “whatever happened to?” features. The same thing can happen to people in the business and professional worlds, whether they are brilliant young scientists, brokers or consultants – except that few people wonder where they are now.
Those who succeed too soon miss critical formative experiences in building a career – the rough and tumble of being in your 20s or early 30s and trying to make sense of the irrationality and politics of organizational life: dealing with bosses who treat staff like dirt; being asked to perform seemingly insulting tasks such as making photocopies; working with a mixed salad of personalities, some difficult, over whom you have no power; having your ideas not taken seriously. And, of course, dealing with the angst of wondering: Is this what I want to do with my life?
These experiences lay the foundation for later success and socialize people into corporate life. They also provide the necessary fodder for learning to deal with rejection and failure.
It is not easy to hit the career jackpot when you are young. As one woman who built a company in her 20s, and sold it in her 30s, described it: “You are the recipient of all kinds of passive-aggressive comments, such as, ‘How lucky for you that you were in the right place at the right time’ and condescending remarks from older people about being pretty. It was as if skill and talent had nothing to do with it.”
And it can be lonely, especially for those who make it today. This generation’s crop of twenty- and early-thirtysomethings are tribal in bonding with people their age; they treat work relationships much as they did student friendships. Making the transition to being a boss of pals can lead to self-consciousness at a life stage when you’re still trying to fit in, gauging personal success in relation to that of friends.
Significant differences in income can also lead to petty resentments. As one whiz kid put it: “When you go out with friends, you always wonder if they expect you to pay. Or if you go to a cheap bar people say things like, ‘I guess this is slumming for you.’”
Relationships often take a battering. For example, I know several highly competitive couples who met in their 20s and used income as a means of “keeping score.” Their relationships unravelled when one of the high achievers hit career gold.
Another challenge is what to look forward to mid-career when you feel you have achieved it all at an early age. One very successful client of mine, who had been fixated on career advancement at the expense of everything else, fell into depression when he was offered a six-figure bonus at the age of 39. It raised the question for him: Was the singular pursuit of money what really mattered? He also said he felt hollow because he had scaled the mountain and there wasn’t anything else to accomplish. The worst thing? He couldn’t talk about his problem to anyone because it would seem like “a problem most people wished they had.”
Becoming highly successful at a young age is the result of a mixture of talent and good fortune. For most, talent is the major contributor. For a smaller number, luck contributes more.
Those who attribute their success purely to luck, whether accurately or not, suffer from imposter syndrome. They may continue along a successful path but they are chronically anxious, worrying they will be caught out. As a result, they never enjoy their success.
At the other extreme, people with big egos who attribute their success entirely to their own efforts don’t mature well, and are ill-prepared to handle reversals of fortune.
So who is most likely to build on and sustain early career success? Those people who are humble enough to understand the positive circumstances which contributed to their good fortune, but at the same time recognize their accomplishments, are the ones with the right foundation for capitalizing on a great head start.
DOING IT RIGHT
Some advice for how to finesse it if you hit the career jackpot at an early age (or, for that matter, at any age) and you are fortunate enough to be significantly more successful than friends, family and colleagues.
Manage the passive aggressives: You will be the recipient of some nasty comments. Develop a thick skin and shrug them off. Do not become defensive or apologetic, making personally dismissive statements such as, “I was just lucky.”
Know who your friends are: Shed those friends who make mean comments or expect you to subsidize them. But cherish those who are truly happy for you. And be generous if you have more money than your friends do: Pick up the tab more often.
Find mentors: Seek out emotionally intelligent people who can advise you on how to handle a range of difficult situations, from business to personal. Recognize when you are in over your head. Don’t be shy about asking for help.
Be smart about money: The gravy train may not last forever. Start saving now. Be sensitive to others’ incomes, relative to yours. Friends still sharing a cheap apartment may not appreciate hearing how expensive your cool new condo is. When you suggest getting together with others, choose less-expensive venues.
Attribute your success correctly: Understand the relative role of good fortune and skills. Don’t attribute everything to either luck or talent. If you suffer from imposter syndrome, take inventory of your accomplishments and feel good about them. On the other hand, if you believe everything that has happened to you is purely the result of how amazing you are, take a look at how good fortune has thrown in its hand.
Barbara Moses, PhD, is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and the author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life. Website: bmoses.com