My career has not developed in the way I initially imagined. Let me explain: I started out in the arts and the entire time I used to proudly declare: “I’m going to change things! I’m going to make this business more sustainable and accessible for everyone!”
That passion drove me to work in an arts centre below minimum wage just so I could attempt to network. It drove me to do an MBA. But when I got out of school, social mandate in my back pocket, ready to preach as if it were gospel, nobody cared.
It’s a strange feeling – having dedicated effectively 8 years of your life (4 in undergrad, 2 working, 2 in MBA) to a cause, only to realize that society frankly cares about different things. When we think charitable giving, the arts are very much the fluff. Would you prefer to help find a cure for cancer, or help a talented child learn to dance? Treat dementia or help build a fancy new theatre?
The thing is: I wasn’t surprised when this realization became more and more apparent. I think I always knew, deep down. I just kept lying to myself that working for $10 an hour or getting an MBA to be offered a $30,000 job in downtown Toronto in a leading arts institution was something worth sacrificing myself for.
But pragmatism eventually won. I weaseled my way into a government job in the tourism and cultural sector at least. It paid more than double of any of the arts jobs I got offered, and I was welcomed into a world of seemingly infinite stability. Guaranteed raises between 3-5% annually. Defined benefits pension plan. Strict hours from 9-5. I knew if I simply waited around, I would probably end up with a six figure salary, regardless of my performance and heck, I could finally afford to actually buy tickets to shows! What wasn’t there to like?
Well – a lot. I would frequently stare through the window, feeling a sense of self-betrayal. Did I really work so hard to become a traditional public sector worker? Sometimes, if I focused deep enough into the eyes of some of my older colleagues, I could tell they felt they were meant for more, but never found the will to escape.
I feel bad writing this – government isn’t all that bad. There are really dedicated people there. There are people who genuinely want the best for the public and leverage their amazing educations to help. But the system is rooted in old views – none more apparent when I told my boss I was leaving to become a manager at a government agency, she said “You’re not old enough to be a manager.”
If she was trying to convince me to stay, it didn’t work.
So I moved. This time an agency, where things felt a bit more nimble and less rooted in committee over committee. The downside was that everyone there came from the places I came from, so the old views still persisted. Further discouraging me was the continuous decline of things that made public sector “special”. Pension reductions, benefits cuts and wage freezes. After a while, you start to think: what keeps people here any longer, especially when its core value proposition goes away?
Being a Bureaucrat
There’s a clear “us versus them” dichotomy that gets talked about a lot amongst public servants about the private sector, to a point where private sector employees exist in some strange mythological environment. Common refrains include: “They work you to the bone and then spit you out,” or “I prefer work-life balance, not being all-in on my career”.
These statements couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, there are consulting firms, some roles at major banks, and manufacturing companies that live these work-work-work values, but there are many who do not. Proof is my father, who worked in the pressure cooker of pharmaceuticals his whole life and still made it home at 6pm every night for dinner, and my accountant sister, who’s a new mother doing just fine raising her son and working at the same time. Both survived the recession too. I’m certain there was always stress, but if you’re good at your job and confident of the value you bring, what are you so afraid of?
Now I’ve never been afraid. My MBA classmates and friends were always shocked when I told them I wound up in government. “You? Of all people? Albert the bureaucrat?” I think they were disappointed in me.
Yes, Albert the bureaucrat. I became one for 3 whole years, and a good one at that. I really got a chance to work on impactful work, my salary almost doubled in that time, but if I can be frank, I got tired of being looked down on. Down by society, who believes public servants are leaches (again, generalization, many are not effective and still hold down well-paying jobs, where others should be given gold medals for the work they bring), down by colleagues who felt my style and ideas were too anti-establishment, and down by bosses who felt while I was talented, I needed at least 10 more years of seasoning before being given more opportunities to excel.
This is not being entitled. Just me believing that good employees deserve good incentives to stay. Better work. Better pay. Better growth. Having peered into the eyes of my high-performing colleagues at times, I could tell it was what was told to them, but there they were, still waiting and wanting, 15 years later.
The Private Sector.
I got an email one afternoon saying: “Are you free for a phone call? I have some good news for you.”
That line obviously meant job offer. I had finished 7 (yes, seven!) rounds of screening to get the job offer, which was the most rigourous recruitment I had ever experienced. At one point, I started to wonder: “Are these people ever going to hire me?”
But what the process made clear was the thoughtfulness they put in their hires and the commitment that they would work to retain you, no matter what. I mean, if it took 7 rounds to hire someone, how pissed off would you be if they quit?
The offer was also something next level. Better compensation, more time off, better benefits in some areas, greater flexibility, and not to mention, potential for high growth.
It’s funny: people have a belief that being in government means better work-life balance. Like I said before, sure in some cases, but private sector is catching up. Why else do you think the public sector is having such a hard time recruiting new, young talent? My roommate for instance works from home some days, goes to work at 11AM other days, but always gets the job done. I’ll take that over being there 9-5 every day with no wiggle room.
So a new journey starts. One that I’m excited about and one that I feel will help me reach my potential. It’s also strange to be working in an environment where the world is your oyster.
Shortly after, I got another email asking “For your workstation: mac or PC?”
For the first time in my career, there was opportunity for choice.