“The best revenge is living well”
I never understood that phrase until very recently. I always thought I did but in the spirit of my “let it go” 2015 mentality I thought I’d share how I came to realize what this really means. I apologize for the length of this post but most of us can relate and this is the last, final release of this whole thing!
In November 2012 I left a job with government I had been in for 9 years. It was my first full-time position and though the pay was low I often convinced myself it was worth it due to the laid back atmosphere and a lot of the personalities there. I met some of the most interesting people working there. When I first started right out of college it seemed like a great place. Chances for growth, good benefits, and caring leadership. Over the years there was a subtle, then a not-so-subtle shift. The pay stayed low and with the increase in benefits prices (benefits that started to get worse) I actually netted less in 2012 than I did in 2011. But from when I started in 2003-about 2010 it felt mostly ok. We liked to complain about processes and personalities, and we could goof off a bit (paperwad wars that lasted a few weeks) but overall it was just work that could be done then left at the office.
Sometime in 2009-2010 things really started to change. The leadership had a shakeup and new people came in. One of my friends actually became a second-in-charge, and there was talk that even I’d get to move up. I’d already gone from entry level, to mid-level, to project management and committee chair so it felt like things were proceeding ok.
My last year there all my illusions were suddenly and violently ripped apart and reality became clear. I was named “co-head” of a new department. I was kept at my previous salary despite essentially managing other employees and still chairing and budgeting for my committee. I considered it ok, it was still a move up and into better things. Then came the yearly evaluations. The other co-head and I were asked to provide these for our direct reports. I wrote honest but well-tempered evaluations, pointing out where things could be improved but always measured this by how what could be considered “defects” were often bonuses. Yes some of us took extra time to perform a task others might do in a fraction of the time, but the end result of that individual’s work was often subtly far superior due to her training, experience, and natural eye. Yes some of us might take some time to have non-sequiturs and discuss movies, video games, or kung fu for a few minutes but that kind of atmosphere is the reason we were considered to be the “best” department to be around by visitors. We were all friendly and morale was high, even when hitting roadblock after roadblock in our work.
During my evaluation (I was one of the first to be evaluated in my group) I was told I received one of the very few (I’d heard less than 5 out of 100 but that could’ve been untrue) perfect scores and was told by the big boss “we can’t do what we do here without you.” When I inquired whether I would qualify for any kind of extra compensation based on my performance I was told “you aren’t qualified.” This despite money spent in this organization on PC replacements every two years, iPads for directors, and catered food for some ivory tower departments.
When the rest of the team was evaluated I discovered that many of my comments were edited and only the negative focused on. It turned out, according to the bosses, people were wasting time (and cruelly told they wouldn’t be replaced when they left) or talking too much. Parts of what was intended was taken out of context and used against them.
I felt awful that something I said could have been used this way. That I should’ve been more careful. And that I’d been used as an unwitting spy against my colleagues. I fired off an email the following day to the staff involved and the leadership saying as much. I received a minimal response, but at least one employee did get his evaluation amended.
It was at this point that I went from being so valuable “they couldn’t do what they do without me” to being a pariah. Simply by speaking out against what I saw was an injustice I wasn’t included in meetings. Duties shifted to the other co-head (who was far more “compliant”) and any talk of my performance (which was universally regarded as exemplary) resulting in further advancement silenced.
More importantly the management had proven themselves to be willing to do anything, sell anyone out, and use anyone in order to get the side of the story they wanted. There were people they didn’t like and they used others to hurt them.
Given that environment I started looking for a new job. A friend of a friend turned me on to a startup department in a private company. It wasn’t in my field but given the chance to move up and out I interviewed. I liked what the manager had to say about being involved from the ground up and teamwork and when I got the call I was being offered the position I took it. This surprised essentially everyone I knew as we all assumed we’d be in our familiar “ruts” forever.
I turned in my two weeks’ notice and not one person in management seemed to care. They seemed only to care if I agreed to stay in my current job at my current salary (doing supervisor work for 26k pretax yes 26k after NINE years of perfect evals and TWO promotions…). So I turned in my two weeks and got ready to leave.
Even in my last two weeks I spent full days finishing an exhibit I was working on to make sure it was done in time for a media event planned for the political boss of my organization (which entirely by consequence was held on my last day). I finished it just in time and one of my best friends managed to get food and the press there for the guests (it was for veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.) I was even to say a few words to the crowd about the importance of this display.
Before I got up to talk my organization boss stood up and made some comments. One of which announced it was my last day and added, “well money talks.” After everything that had happened that comment was shocking to me. Everything I’d done, almost anonymously there, all the extra time I put in, all the hard work I’d done right up until the end was put into the light that I’d left them because I was unappreciative of them. Given the audience I ignored his jibe and stuck to my comments about how important the exhibit was (one of the veterans highlighted called it “the best day of his life”). And with that I left that place.
The new job was strange. My new manager made it clear we all are needed to follow the same procedures and made us feel appreciated for doing good work. In my off time I built a database for fun. Word about it apparently got out and other department managers came by to see it saying “I’ve heard you did something cool.” In less than two years I was given the opportunity to move into supervisory and leadership roles twice. I wasn’t the only one. Other great performers were also given their due. And every step of the way our sacrifices and good work weren’t just appreciated but often we were given kudos publicly so others could see what the team could do and their morale increased as well. I’d never been in a place like this. It’s not perfect but a good manager goes a long way. Someone who is there to teach you, assist you, and defend you rather than steal your ideas and throw you under a fleet of buses.
So back to “the best revenge is living well.” I’ve heard that phrase my entire life but always misunderstood it. To me it meant that you can get revenge on those who have wronged you by living well and doing so to show them how well you’ve done; to really rub it in that you’ve succeeded and you no longer need their approval or assistance. How wrong-headed that kind of thinking is…by being spiteful you are validating that they still have sway over you. The best revenge is living well because once you get to the “living well” part you no longer care about the wrongs done to you. They don’t have any meaning. I have no desire to go back to my old job and rub my success in their faces (clearly as I haven’t named anyone in this narrative) it’s enough just to be satisfied.
Recently another friend left and she confirmed that all the anger and sadness she felt working there essentially evaporated upon leaving.
I’ve said it before but we all can find ourselves in poisonous and negative relationships. They might be coworkers, friends, or relationships but by getting out of them and finding your own way you can take your revenge better than any desk-flipping, profanity-laced tell-off might. Anger takes effort and energy. By moving on and living well you do them the worst damage: you forget about them. And with this post, and my realization of what “the best revenge is living well” I’m forgetting that place forever. It’s just a thing that happened now to get me here.
So here’s to living well in the new year!