Play your own game
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The first time I was passed over for a promotion, I received the news while eating lunch in my car on the side of the road in Cañon City, Colorado. Cell service was terrible west of I-25 in those days, and I could barely hear the hiring manager on the other end of the phone. I picked up just enough to gather what was happening.
Nothing you could’ve done . . . you interviewed well . . . went with someone with more experience . . . just need more time in the field.
I remember hanging up the phone and calmly putting my half-eaten turkey sandwich back in the cooler. Then I reclined the driver’s seat of my 2005 Nissan Altima, and cried.
In retrospect this is embarrassing, but at the time, that promotion was everything to me.
I was a field auditor for a commercial finance company, a fancy way of saying I drove around Colorado looking at serial numbers on manufactured homes, RVs, farming equipment, pianos, and hot tubs. I compared what I found at a client’s business to a list generated each morning by the home office, and if a unit was missing, I marked it sold and collected payment.
Or at least I tried to. Plenty of grizzled business owners gave 24-year-old me the runaround.
The farming equipment guys had the most fun with it. “Oh the combine harvester? You must’ve missed it. It’s on the back acre, just past the moldboard plow. If you get to the manure spreader you’ve gone too far.” I could hear them chuckling as I trudged back out into a field full of equipment that all looked the same to me.
The hot tub dealers were the worst—we had to use invisible ink and a blacklight to secretly mark serial numbers on the tubs before they pried off the data plates and switched them around in an elaborate shell game designed to delay payment.
I took the job without ever having stepped foot in Colorado. I packed everything I owned into a small U-Haul and drove across the country from Nashville. It was my first job in the business world, having previously only done things like substitute teach or write for a newspaper.
The job was entry-level, always presented as an opportunity to get one’s foot in the door. Every quarter, those of us in the field would converge at a company office for a big meeting. Here, higher-ups delivered presentations, outlining how, with enough hard work on the road, we might someday earn a promotion into the office.
I remember one guy telling us a version of this as he slowly waved his arm across an expanse of cubicles in Golden Valley, Minnesota, as if to say, “Behold the spoils that await ye select few who conquer the challenges of the field!”.
There were dozens of us vying for every in-office promotion, and competition was fierce. Once, when word spread that someone had been fired for fraudulently recording audits he never actually completed, we rejoiced. He had been a top performer (or so we thought), and his termination meant one less candidate to contend with.
Deeply competitive by nature, I was immediately enthralled by the promotion game. Rumor was, no one had ever been promoted with less than a year of field experience, so naturally I made this my goal. I strived to have the best numbers possible and became known for sending unsolicited reports and ideas to managers. (If this sounds like I was kissing up, it’s because that’s exactly what I was doing.)
I was paid to visit some of the most scenic landscapes in the United States, where I met interesting people and learned about the businesses they built. I had a company car, autonomy over my schedule, and a modest salary that comfortably met the needs of someone in their early twenties.
Rather than enjoy any of this, my singular focus was on winning the promotion game by landing a job in the company office located in a northern suburb of Atlanta, my hometown.
There was at least one guy in the field who steered clear of the promotion game altogether—my mentor, Kevin.
Kevin (a pseudonym, since I didn’t tell him I was writing this) was ten years my senior and had been doing the job so long that in addition to conducting audits, he flew all over the country training new hires. He lived about an hour north of me in Fort Collins and I didn’t know anyone else in the entire state, so we hung out quite a bit. He not only taught me how to do the job, he was kind enough to teach me how to fly fish and ski. He invited me on hikes and camping trips with his friends, and he didn’t make fun of me when I once expressed shock at the “weird creatures” staring at our car at a stoplight (they were prairie dogs).
I was ten months into the job when I received my crushing roadside news and the first thing I did was call Kevin. He cheered me up by taking me to dinner at a “cool new burrito place they don’t have in the South yet” called Chipotle.
He couldn’t understand why I was so upset—after all, there’s no skiing in Atlanta—but he did his best to make me feel better. Despite this, I remember feeling sorry for him as we sipped rounds of Fat Tire. “How in the world does a guy get stuck doing the same job for a decade?” I thought.
It would take years for me to understand that Kevin was playing a different game than the rest of us. He was indifferent to promotions because he found deep satisfaction in his daily work. He loved roaming around Colorado, spending time outdoors, and interacting with customers. That was his game, and he was good at it.
I don’t know that Kevin's chosen path was superior to mine. But I do know that Kevin chose the game he was playing, whereas I let myself get swept up in a game that management was telling me to play.
Playing the game wasn’t my biggest mistake, it was failing to recognize that I had a choice in the matter.
I would eventually get my promotion. It was announced, to my great pleasure, in front of everyone at a quarterly meeting. Beaming, I stood up and soaked in the jealously I felt emanating from (most of) the field auditors in the room. The game was over; I won.
After taxes, the whopping $5,000 raise came to about $300 a month. For this, I traded views of the snow-covered peaks of the Front Range for the eyeball-melting glow of Excel spreadsheets. But my business card now said Account Manager and I felt like I was well on my way to the top of the corporate ladder.
A few weeks later I was sitting at my desk when the face of a coworker appeared above my beige cubicle wall. Also freshly promoted from the field, she was someone I considered one of my closest office friends and fiercest rivals.
“Did you hear about Tony? He’s only been in the office six months and just got promoted to Senior Account Manager.”
I leaned back in my cheap swivel chair, staring up at the fluorescent lights.
I felt like crying.