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People who are paid a lot either feel they are worth it, or find ways to stop feeling guilty. (Hemera Technologies/Getty Images)
People who are paid a lot either feel they are worth it, or find ways to stop feeling guilty. (Hemera Technologies/Getty Images)

LUCY KELLAWAY

Wildly overpaid? Stop complaining Add to ...

Recently, while Prince Alwaleed complained to Forbes about not being high enough up its list of billionaires, a different sort of complaint was being made in an industrial tribunal in east London. Stella English, a former winner of Lord Sugar’s The Apprentice show, claimed that the £100,000 ($156,000 Canadian) job she had won as a prize had been previously done by someone on a salary of a mere £35,000, making her feel like an “overpaid lackey.”

Prince Alwaleed’s protest might be unseemly but at least it’s is psychologically straightforward. If Mr.Forbes says you’ve only got $20-billion (U.S.) , when you think you’ve got more, I dare say it is quite annoying.

But to complain about earning too much is more outlandish. No one does it. If you type “I’m overpaid” into Google, all you get is RBS chief executive Stephen Hester saying “even my parents think I’m overpaid” – which isn’t the same as thinking it himself. And Bono saying “I’m overpaid, so shoot me” – which is the sort of thing uppity rock stars say simply to wind up annoying journalists.

To winkle out a few better examples, I asked on Twitter if anyone would admit to earning too much. The response: zero. Chance would be a fine thing, someone tweeted.

Yet I refuse to believe that it’s as simple as this. My own dysfunctional relationship with money and self-worth (which I will try to explain later on) tells me it can be quite complicated.

At a party at Claridge’s recently  to celebrate the launch of the Lunch with the FT: 52 Classic Interviews book, I went on a fact-finding mission. The event was perfect for my purposes both because half the guests were bankers and chief executives – who the rest of the world deems to be excessively overpaid – and because teams of waiters were diligently lowering guards by refilling glasses.

The first man I cornered was someone who has made a lot of money in the City. “Are you overpaid?” I asked. “Yes!” he replied at once. And how did that make him feel? His face lit up. “F***ing terrific!”

He then told me that there was a moment as a younger man when he looked in the shaving mirror and wondered how come a boy like him was earning so much. “But then you stop thinking about it, or you cut yourself.”

The next man I asked had made many millions as a chief executive. He also admitted to being wildly overpaid. But he didn’t feel bad either, as he gave most of it away.

Then I talked to a young banker who said – disarmingly honestly, I thought – that his head told him he was paid too much, but his heart could only see that other colleagues were getting even more.

Eventually I tracked down one of wealthiest men there, to whom I had to repeat the question several times before he got the drift. Overpaid? No way. He had created jobs and delivered value.

Only one of the poorest guests, a journalist on another paper, said that she felt grossly overpaid when she thought of the interns doing the same work for nothing at all.

My impertinent cross-questioning left me with two tentative conclusions. First, the more money people make the more they think they deserve it. And second, people are extraordinarily skilled at finding arguments to stop them from feeling bad.

My own story (which I’m still sure is more common than people admit) is that I feel vertigo when my estimation of my market value is far less than is being offered. I once turned down a job with another company mainly because the size of the salary filled me with terror.

I’ve done some unpacking of this pathetic, girlie response and think there are four reasons for it. The first is a general sense of: because I’m not worth it. This is a version of the imposter syndrome, which I’ve flirted with for decades though recently seem to have shaken off. It has nothing to recommend it.

The second is that earning too much is a burden, as it sets the bar too high. When you pay footballers more, they sometimes get so stressed by what is expected of them that they forget how to kick the ball.

The third is feeling that you don’t want to be disliked and resented by worse-paid colleagues.

And the fourth is not wanting too much now, as it’s nice to feel there is more for later.

Even though reasons two to four are fairly sane, in describing them I am talking myself out of the whole thing. Increasingly, I’m wondering if the man with the mirror didn’t have a point: get over it.

Though, as a P.S., I was right about that job. The organization quickly fell on hard times and all the tall poppies got cut down.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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