The alarm rings. You wake up, eyes bleary with sleep. You roll over and pick up your phone. No notifications. You open Instagram and spend the next half an hour swiping through stories of random people getting married, vacationing in exotic locations, and doing everything you’d dreamed of. You sigh and ask yourself if the life you live is worth anything.
I’ve been here.
I remember reading an article where this writer spoke about how social media apps today, especially Instagram, amplify our insecurities. They mentioned that comparing our lives to the highlight reels of others, without the nuance of everyday life, was a key reason why social media was making us a sadder populace.
I worry the same thing is happening with our careers today.
Replace Instagram in the first paragraph with any work community app (Blind, Grapevine, Together) you’re on. Replace the vacation photos with ‘success’ stories about work (earning 4X your CTC, three promotions in two years, one million dollars in savings). The odds are high, you sigh and ask yourself if your career is worth anything.
Welcome to the great Instagrammification of our careers.
So how did we get here?
As much as I’d love to blame social media for the mess we’re in, I believe it’s a symptom of a deeper problem – the benchmark for success has always been other people, and the metrics have always been materialistic.
From our school tests to college CGPAs to our salary packages, we’re always compared to someone else. Our lives have been reduced to the status games we play, where we pander and posture to the crowd about how ‘successful’ we are. We’ve been on hundreds of bell curves that aren’t even of our choosing all our lives, and that’s the only way we can identify and understand our own worth and value.
All this merely manifests in our conversations – either on social media or otherwise.
I’m reminded of Will Storr’s interview on Vox.
“Facebook and Twitter haven’t helped, but they’re not responsible for all this. They haven’t invented from the ground up what happens on social media.
In my last book, Selfie, I write about the selfie camera. It’s exactly the same story. At the time, people were saying, “Oh, the selfie camera has made us all narcissists,” but the selfie camera was not dreamt of by Silicon Valley as a selfie camera. It was supposed to be a business meeting thing, like Zoom.
They thought that’s what you’re going to be doing. They didn’t think we were going to be taking pictures of ourselves and uploading billions of them a day. It’s the same with social media. Social media has by instinct worked out how we play status games, and kind of wrapped itself around status games and encouraged them with the follow accounts and blue badges and all that stuff. So yeah, like capitalism, it encourages it, it worsens it, but it didn’t create it.”
And if this isn’t bad enough, the only metrics we have to talk about success are materialistic. I’m reminded of Three Idiots, where the entire plot exists only because a character (Chatur Ramalingam) is obsessed about proving to the protagonist (Rancho) that he won the ‘race’. On what grounds? His job, his six-figure salary, his house, and his car.
This obsession with materialistic success has reduced our careers, and our lives, to arbitrary numbers. You could be doing the best work of your life, you could be curing cancer, you could be impacting lives – but in that minute you see that post about a random stranger earning an eight-figure salary three years into their career, you’re reduced to a number. Nothing else matters. And like everyone else, you sigh and ask yourself if your work is worth anything.
For many of us, our entire idea of identity and self-worth stems from our work and careers. Our personal and work identities are absolutely enmeshed, and it’s a pity all we have to show for it is materialistic posturing.
So why is this bad?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for pay transparency (read Hamsini Ravi’s piece). I believe it’s an important first step towards pay parity in a world where the balance of power tips heavily towards the employer. I also feel communities like Grapevine and Blind are doing an incredible job of normalising these conversations.
All I ask is for us to take them with a pinch of salt.
Reducing our jobs to numbers doesn’t do justice to all the other factors that come into play when we think about the work that we do.
Numbers don’t offer nuance.
Reducing your careers to numbers fosters an environment of toxic comparison. Suddenly, your impressive achievements feel minuscule when you see a larger number attached to someone else's name. Our salaries and CTC numbers hide more than they show. Where we are in our lives is a factor of so many privileges – the net worth of our families, debts and liabilities that curtail our appetite for risk, the connections we make by virtue of our social standing, and so much more.
They also don’t speak of the hours of family time sacrificed, the personal projects put on hold, and the health toll of air miles. They don’t account for the sacrifices, the sweat, the tears, or the immense joy one might find in their job.
For example, take Shravan, a software developer. He logs into one of these platforms, only to find out that Raj, a fellow developer he met at a conference once, is 3x of his salary. But what the site doesn't show is that Raj doesn't have to take care of an ailing parent like Shravan does. The numbers don’t capture the late nights Raj has spent refining his skill set, or the weekends he gave up to work on passion projects.
By comparing yourself to a stranger’s salary, you’re not accounting for their journey, privileges, and sacrifices – and discounting your own achievements.
You don’t control most of the variables here.
A lot of this goes down to dumb luck.
Many factors are at play – the market, the timing, the industry. Someone hired in the middle of a generous bull market is likely sitting on a higher salary than someone looking for the same role today. These numbers are set by the market and other macroeconomic principles that nobody can predict, or have control over.
Therefore, when you’re ascribing your worth to an arbitrary number you have little to no control over, you’re being unfair to yourself.
Where do we go from here?
I don’t know what the right solution is here. Maybe that’s a story for another day, by someone more equipped to tell it.
But I’ll leave you with this – can you truly put a tangible value towards your contributions at work? Shreyas touched upon this when he wrote about the cost to individual – but ask yourself if that person with the ‘best life ever’ truly enjoys their work.
Your peer might have a 6-figure salary, but that doesn't mean they have job satisfaction, a good work-life balance, or even mental peace. Your other peer might earn less than the ‘market average’, but they probably get time to go home to their kids, aren’t crippled by a commute, and have time to pursue other passions.
This extends to different careers too.
- Is the contribution of a customer support agent less valuable than a product manager?
- Is the work of someone in the healthcare industry not as meaningful as someone in deep tech?
- Is doing groundbreaking research at an educational institution any lesser than working at a high-paying startup?
On paper it shouldn’t, but it does if we go by tangible metrics like pay. And by tangible metrics, there’s always going to be a ‘better’ job, or a ‘better’ salary, or a better ‘career’. Maybe what should matter is whether you love the work you do right now, and that can only be measured in intangibles. Or maybe there is a need for a more comprehensive, tangible framework to measure value. Only time will tell.
I’ll leave you with this – by the end of 3 Idiots, it was fairly clear to me who was living a healthier career.
The next time you find yourself being reduced to a number, remember that people, and careers, are multitudes. It’s important to acknowledge it’s okay to not have the privilege or aspiration to hit FIRE, and it’s okay to want to hack your career to hit financial stability at any cost – as long as it is what YOU truly want.
Don’t let others set your milestones for you. Introspect a little – are you content with the work you do? Does it align with your goals today? Are you happy with your growth? And finally, is the balance between the cost to individual and cost to company tipping in the direction you want it to?
Optimise for these things and perhaps, everything else will follow.