Last spring I took over a new work team. A virtual team, they came together in real-life to integrate the systems of a newly acquired company. I had been connecting them into our team meetings using technology, but I worried that it would be hard to meet them face-to-face. So, I was ecstatic when I learned that the next site they would be integrating was only an hour and a half away from my home. I made plans to meet them for lunch and then work with them for the afternoon.
When the day came I jumped in my car and headed off. I got turned around once or twice in construction, but still managed to pull into the parking lot just as everyone was arriving. Popping out of my car, I caught the confused looks in their eyes. “What,” I asked, “you didn’t expect me to drive a Ford Focus?” The group chuckled and then someone explained that there had been active speculation about which luxury sedan or SUV I would pull up in. No one had guessed the corporate executive would drive a car loved by college students.
Walking toward the restaurant I shared my story. I told them that after working for seven years at Ford I didn’t know how to buy another brand of car. I told them that my husband and I had been nervous moving to Chicago because of the higher cost of living and I wanted to keep our expenses low. I told them that I like small cars and high fuel economy. It’s hard to say how they felt hearing me prattle on but in that moment I didn’t feel like an executive, I just felt like a person.
I’ve had a hard time articulating my desire to stay true to my roots as I’ve progressed through my career. There is this balancing act to appreciate what you’ve earned while pushing back against unnecessary trappings and unearned privileges. I worry incessantly that I’ll start to feel entitled to special check-in lines or upgrades or perks. I don’t want to forget the little girl who was happy trudging barefoot through a woodland path to swim in a community pool or sleeping on a ratty couch in someone’s basement. The young woman that was happy in a crappy one bedroom apartment eating Hamburger Helper and seeing second run movies at the dollar theater.
After all, she’s the one that got me here.
Recently, I heard Humble and Kind for the first time. Tim McGraw identified my struggles so well that I found myself singing along and remembering the lyrics, especially the chorus.
Hold the door, say please, say thank you
Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie
I know you got mountains to climb but
Always stay humble and kind
When the dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride but
Always stay humble and kind
Of course that is easier sung than done. Our culture is ready and willing to put people who have climbed mountains upon a pedestal, telling them they are more deserving of respect and admiration. In the face of messages that equate financial success with goodness, I remind myself that humility and kindness are the currency of a well-functioning society. I remember that I drive a Focus.
Or at least I used to drive a Focus.
Last weekend my teenage daughter got her driver’s license and the Focus passed to her. For two months I have been trying to find a new car, oscillating between feeling like I deserve a really nice car and feeling like it is a wonton luxury. The night after we bought the most expensive car we have ever owned I lay in bed worried about what I had done. Was this the tipping point? What if it changed me? And then I realized something.
As long as I am worrying about it I am probably going to be ok — no matter which car I drive.