The smoke and mirror behind year-end bonuses

It’s that time of year. The leaves have turned, the Halloween decorations have been replaced by candy canes, menorahs and inflatable Olafs. And with the arrival of Black Friday comes Frozen 2 – lord help us all.

Meanwhile in board rooms, conference rooms, and Zoom calls another high-stakes corporate ritual has begun. Kings, queens, emperors (and new Goldman Sachs partners) will be made. Hearts will be ripped apart. Some via an unfair roll of the dice; others due to politics, sabotage, and back dealings typically reserved for Game of Thrones.

It’s time. Time for the year-end review. Promotion announcements. And for many of you, the one number that makes it all worth it: the bonus.

Whether the outcome is elation – or devastation – it’s guaranteed to be emotional. Some may go from sweaty palms to sweet nectar (“Welcome to the partnership”). Others from shallow breathing to shame and surrender (“Maybe next year”).

But consider for a hot second that this entire rigmarole might be one giant misdirection. An obfuscation of your True North. A distraction from the truth.

Is there a pebble in your shoe?

I participated in this annual tradition for nearly two decades. Yet towards the end of my time on Wall Street, I began to feel like I was off-center. One of my spiritual teachers (the legendary Andrew Taggart) refers to this feeling as the pebble in your shoe.

Nagging enough to notice the discomfort; but not painful enough to take action. So instead of removing your shoe, examining the contents, and then putting it back on, you just grin and bear it. Endure. Cope. And hope that nagging feeling goes away.

The promise of bonuses and promotions provide a respite. Like a Gatorade and Ibuprofen when you’re hungover. Or like the promise of “three palaces and forty thousand girls” to keep your mind anchored to your pre-existing vision of the world.

The story of the young Buddha

No, that’s not a quote from the Wolf of Wall Street or a Rick Ross track. It’s from Joseph Campbell’s 1949 classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Amazon affiliate link) and our latest RadReads book club selection. Campbell dissects mythological structures (both Pixar and Star Wars follow it “To a T”) and evaluates the archetypal journey of the protagonist – or the Hero.

And in describing the awakenings that lead to The Call to Adventure he tells the story of the young prince Gautama Sakyamuni (the Future Buddha). Heir to the throne, the young Buddha had been “protected by his father from all knowledge of age, sickness, death, or monkhood” to keep him hyper-focused on succeeding him and continuing the family’s royal tradition.

Hence the “three palaces and forty thousand dancing girls to keep his mind attached to the world.” But the Future Buddha had other plans. He wanted to escape his palatial compound and discover what the world had to offer; in Campbell’s words, he was “ripe for the other experience.”

He boards the Land Rover of the times (“a sumptuous and elegant chariot with four state horses (…) as white as the petals of the white lotus”) to head to the park.

But the gods have another plan for the young man, so they show him a sign. A man. A “decrepit” old man who was: “broken-toothed, gray-haired, crooked and bent of body, leaning on a staff and trembling.”

It wasn’t just the man’s appearance that left the young prince agitated. It was his ominous declaration of the precariousness of life. “Shame on birth,” the old man said “since to every one that is born old age must come.” These chilling words sent the young prince racing back to the safe walls of his father’s compound.

But he had seen too much.

You can’t unsee the truth

His father was incensed to learn that his kin’s idyllic world view had been punctured. He summoned more resources “some plays to be performed” a “guard to half a league in each direction” to protect him.

He sought to protect. To distract from the truth. “If we can but get him to enjoying pleasure,” the king proclaimed, “he will cease to think of retiring from the world.”

But no amount of opulence, wealth, and protection could shield the young prince from what he had seen. The truth he had seen pierced right through the smoke and mirrors.

Campbell calls this the “call to adventure” in which the protagonist finds himself summoned, transferring “his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.

Should you heed the call to adventure?

Not necessarily. That’s an intimately personal decision.

The young prince renounced the life of opulence in favor of that of a wandering ascetic. I walked away from Wall Street with no real plan. These are not proclamations of truth, nor are they recommended next steps.

But as you traverse the land of bonuses and promotions and feel the pebble in your shoe or the deeper call to adventurelisten to it. The pebble is a sign of agitation. And behind the agitation lies a kernel of truth.

Don’t let the smoke, mirrors, opulent palaces, and bonuses obfuscate this truth.

Think your bonus is a “call to adventure?” Learn how to re-think your relationship to money and status in our Financial Independence course.

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