I Don’t Care


I recently read a fascinating New York Times article about following what you love in life.

The article, by the authors of Freakonomics, started out by asking why it was that the best soccer players all seemed to be born in January, February and March.

It turns out that the reason has nothing to do with the Zodiac, seasons or school holidays. When young boys and girls are moving up in the soccer systems in their respective countries, they are all subject to age group requirements, and it turns out that the requirements coincide with calendar years. For example, to play Colts football (under 14), the players must have been born in 1992 or earlier.

Naturally, players born in early 1992 are larger (on average) than those born in late 1992, and therefore would have received that little extra encouragement from early on that the others would not have received. They would have been encouraged to develop whatever talent they had more frequently. In other words, if they had a dream to be a footballer, it would seem to those around them that they would be more likely to follow the dream than the rest.

It brought to mind a conversation I had back in 1992 with a new boss of mine. Her name was Norma, if I recall rightly.

I had just changed managers, and we were having an intro meeting, to really get to know each other. During that meeting, I told her that I really did not care about performance review, as others opinions of me just didn’t matter to my career.

This was plenty big talk for a 25 year-old.

But it was true. I had been doing a lot of growing and reading up until that point, and had very recently read a study that said that the difference between the largest and smallest raise in the typical department was some $2000. I was stunned.

I considered myself a high performer, and to learn that the difference was that small made me think that those who busted their butts to get to the top were separated from those who were lazy and did no work by a mere… $5.58 per day after taxes. That worked out to some 70 cents per hour.

This was clearly ridiculous.

I was in a rat race for a 70 cents per hour difference? That worked out to a Coke back then, or a candy bar.

A friendly supervisor could not believe it either, and he checked the numbers for our own department, and the numbers were almost exactly what I had read.

I felt like a fool.

And I stopped competing, as my dream was not to be promoted, but to leave and start my own company.

Even as I was telling Norma that the review does not matter to me, I could tell that she did not believe me.

Until, that is about six months later when it came time for her to deliver the review. I kept putting it off and putting it off, until it finally was overdue and we sat down to speak in a cafeteria in Bedminster.

She started in, and I could see that she had forgotten.

She continued, and I interrupted her by saying “But Norma, don’t you remember? Performance review does not matter to me.”

She stopped and stared at me. Her world and my world paused… I explained that it was not personal, no reflection on her, it was just that I was not interested as I found that it made no difference. The people who were evaluating me, I explained, have no idea what I am doing here, and I knew that nothing they said was related to what I was doing.

Poor Norma. She was flabbergasted. I was a bit surprised that she had forgotten, and also nervous because I was basically upsetting the status quo by not pretending that this mattered.

From my recollection, we went on to talk about other interesting things, unrelated to the review, relieved that the pretense was finally over. I can’t say that we became close after that, but I would say that had an understanding from that moment.

It was a turning point for me and my career, and when I did eventually resign to go my own way several months later I was stronger for having dealt with my fears in a straightforward way — by telling the truth.

At the same time, I do understand what it was like to be caught up in a rat race. AT&T Bell Labs was, at the time, not only my employer but one of the best places in the world for a scientist or engineer to work. Getting fired was almost impossible back then. And, I remember vividly an old-timer telling me that I should not think of leaving, but instead should stay until I was vested in the pension plan… at the 30 year mark.

Many AT&T veterans were skillful at one thing — staying an employee of AT&T.

In the years since I left, AT&T split into several pieces and my department was disbanded. The company was recently acquired for very little, and the number of employees before the acquisition was at a very small fraction of the 100k+ men and women that I remember being on payroll.

I’m unsure as to why the soccer article reminded me of Norma, and the conversation. I guess that I am grateful that even though she was shocked, she did not try to talk me out of my thinking. In fact, she applauded it, which gave me some assurance that I was not mad. Just different.

Just like those January-March soccer players got some encouragement to later become world stars, I also benefited from the same. What a workplace it would be if people could only be encouraged to follow their hearts.