How do you define success?
It was an easy mistake.
Everyone in the office knew my boss was a big wine aficionado. So when a box from a wine shop was delivered to the reception desk one day, they didn’t even look at the address label. They just carted it over to his office.
But he didn’t order it. I did.
He walked over and plunked the box down on my desk with a Cheshire cat smile, and we spent the next half hour chatting about our latest discoveries in the world of wine.
He had only been my boss for a few months, and we were still figuring each other out. So suddenly finding that we had a common interest outside of work seemed like a good step forward in our relationship.
A couple months went by, then one day he stopped by my desk with a proposal. He explained that he was an “executive club” member of a renowned boutique winery in Napa. Their wines were always highly rated but hard to find in even the best wine shops. For an annual subscription, they invited him to buy their wines months in advance -- wine futures, in other words. Then he handed me their price list and offered me a chance to piggy-back on his upcoming order. I thanked him and went back to my work.
My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I took a look at the price list. There wasn’t a bottle under $100! For me, anything over $10 was a splurge.
This was going to be tough, I thought. How can I possibly turn him down?
Two things were going on here, and neither made it any easier.
First, he wanted to nurture his newfound connection with me. He wanted my loyalty and my respect.
Second, he wanted to increase his status. By buying more wine -- with my help -- he would get more “points” in his club and get even better access to their most coveted offerings.
Part of me saw it as a great opportunity to curry favor with someone who had my future in his hands. Why shouldn't I mimic him and aspire to be like him? He was a corporate titan, after all -- a master of the universe -- while I was just a cubicle-dwelling drudge.
But we were still worlds apart.
He drove home in a sleek German sports car while I took a crowded commuter train home.
He had a beautiful home in the hills, and one of the Kardashians lived on the next street. I shared an apartment with the occasional cockroach.
He probably made ten times what I did, not even counting stock options and bonuses. He thought nothing of spending $1,000 on a case of wine, but for me, that was a month’s rent.
Then I realized I needed to stand in my own truth.
For me, wine wasn’t a status symbol. I was no wine snob. My favorite glass was often a cardboard carton I shared with a buddy over a campfire in the mountains.
My few splurges were thoughtful and purposeful. Contrarian, even.
I loved Chablis at first because no one else did. It was unpopular and unfashionable -- which meant I could afford the best of it more easily than the best of anything else. There were only a few hundred acres in the whole world that produced the best kind -- Grand Cru Chablis. And the names of those few vineyards alone were enough to savor.
Valmur. Les Clos. Vaudesir.
Then there were the manzanilla sherries of southern Spain.
Like Chablis, they were hugely out of fashion, so even a skimpy budget went a long way in getting the best of them.
I was never one to put much faith in the flowery descriptions that wine reviewers wrote -- hints of chocolate and tobacco here, or notes of plums and blackberries there. But with manzanilla sherry, the tripe was spot-on. Anyone could taste the salt-spray of the Mediterranean in manzanilla.
These were the wines I loved. Not because of their price. Or because they made me look good.
They were just good.
And that was what I was all about. That was my brand: quality and value. Efficiency and excellence.
I would pass on the $50 bottle of wine. I would buy the $15 manzanilla instead, then invest the $35 left over in a stock I really believed in.
I wouldn’t taste the difference, but I would definitely feel it.
Did I make the right decision?
My boss was disappointed when I told him I couldn’t take him up on his offer because I was saving for a down payment for a home of my own. He never mentioned wine to me again. It was strictly business between us from then on.
It even cost me my job.
A few months later, he threw me under the bus when a rival made a play to lead my signature project. He moved me to the sidelines and reduced my staff from five to zero.
But in the end, I certainly did make the right decision.
It clarified for me that what was most important to me wasn’t the status symbols of someone else’s generation or situation, but rather my own sense of meaning and beauty.
That was my value offering. That was my brand.
Filling work with meaning and beauty was how I defined success, and there was nothing to apologize for about that.
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