On Gratitude

On Gratitude

May 25, 2022
An Overview:

Reflections on leaving McKinsey.

“It sounds like you’ve had a profoundly healing experience”

So said my therapist to me in one of the many conversations we had about my time at McKinsey in the year it took me to leave. I confess my first reaction was to laugh out loud – at the thought that I or any of my current and former colleagues would ever describe our employment as a “profoundly healing experience,” which sounds more like the sort of thing you’d say about your time at an ashram in India, or at least at a very expensive spa.

In the months since, I’ve had time to reflect on the truth of her observation. Because she was right. To my own surprise, I’ve had the incredible experience of finding deep personal healing during my time here. These reflections aren’t intended as a love letter to the Firm, whose imperfections are many (more on that another time, perhaps). Rather, I record them out of a wish that experiences like mine not be so incredible – in the original sense of being difficult to believe — because they are so uncommonly rare.

I know from speaking to many that my experience is the exception rather than the norm. But considering that each of us will spend an average of 90,000 hours of our lifetime at work, why is that, really? Whether you spend those hours at McKinsey, or one of the many organizations like it, and especially if you’re in a position to lead and manage others – I hope you will find in these words something that inspires you to make the incredible a little less so.

"Therein lies the surprise of my therapist’s observation: that I’m leaving the Firm healed into wholeness rather than ground into dust."

A teaching on interdependence.

Joining the Firm as a first-year Associate, I’d imagined that ascending the rungs of the partnership would require feats of individual genius and merit. I could not have been more wrong. Instead, my time here has been a humbling teaching on interdependence. I might’ve been prepared for the stress of having to deliver under pressure, but was wholly unprepared for how much I would have to depend on others to do so. It’s an understatement to say that I did not welcome that experience, having encountered little in my life up till that point that would’ve inspired in me an easy confidence in the dependability of others. In the face of so much vulnerability, my instinct was to shore up the self - more self-reliance, more self-sufficiency.

In many ways, this is a trivial observation – the fact of our dependence on others is characteristic not just of McKinsey but of all organizations; indeed, of all of existence. What’s not trivial is how supported and “held” I’ve felt throughout the five years of my utter dependence on my colleagues for everything I’ve been able to do at the Firm: the teams who sacrificed their sleep so I could seem like a more competent leader than I really was, the experts who generously shared what they knew so I could seem more knowledgeable than I really was, the EAs who quietly resolved hundreds of scheduling conflicts so I could seem more organized than I really was, the staff who kept the infrastructure of my days up and running so everything could feel more effortless than it really was. Whether you chalk this up to effective hiring, incentives, or the mundane fact of “people doing their job,” the truth remains that you have all made needing, relying, and depending on others  – these terrifying, vertiginous experiences I’d spent so much of my life avoiding – feel safe.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free”

I spent a great deal of my early days at the Firm searching for a handbook for success, some set of instructions that would clarify what advancement would require of me. However, each additional panel discussion or info session that promised to “demystify” the path to partner only left me more mystified. It’s taken me five years and two promotions to realize that I couldn’t be told what the journey would entail, only shown by those who’d successfully taken it. You could see in this vision of professional development a feature or a flaw –  flaw, because the terms of advancement aren’t transparent but gated behind a “hidden” curriculum, or feature, because consultants who struggle to win the support of their colleagues are likely to fare no better with clients. Feature or flaw, what it’s meant for me is that I owe every step I’ve taken on this highly improbable journey from getting a Ph.D. in English to advising the C-suite of billion-dollar health systems to the largesse of those who saw in me what I wasn’t yet able to see in myself.

It’s been fashionable for a time now to talk about the work of developing people in terms of “investments” in “human capital,” which I’ve always found to be a detestable turn of phrase. I don’t know if that’s what happened here. But what I do know is this: I’ve had the experience of realizing, months and years after the fact, how thoughtfully I’ve been positioned to succeed by those who’d anticipated what I’d eventually need even before I knew I needed it. I’ve had the experience of being advocated for and championed by sponsors who’ve always known that I was not long for the world of McKinsey, and who supported me all the same. If these have been investments in me, then their time horizon is infinity, and their rate of return incalculable. Equally incalculable is the debt I owe to every single one of my colleagues who’ve spent even more than five seconds thinking about how to help me grow, to say nothing of those who’ve done so much more.

There’s just no other word for it.

While writing these reflections I’ve had the repeated sensation of running up against the limits of our vocabulary for discussing our professional lives. How many ways are there to say that I was loved – because that’s what it was, that’s what I’ve been trying to say the whole time - without prompting cynicism, mawkishness, or awkward questions from HR?

I grew up in a privileged but chaotic household, one where I assumed the role of a “little adult” who would fix, repair, and take responsibility for others. By the time I arrived at McKinsey, I’d honed to a fine edge a belief system of which the label “insecure overachiever” only scratches the surface. I’ve often wondered how much of my professional success I owe to my flavor of high-functioning dysfunction. Who better for McKinsey to hire than someone with a compulsive need to do everything for everyone, and who’d set himself on fire to avoid disappointing others? Therein lies the surprise of my therapist’s observation: that I’m leaving the Firm healed into wholeness rather than ground into dust. It wasn’t always clear that I was going to avoid that fate, either – there were close calls along the way and several difficult situations that played a little too closely to my childhood patterning.

What fundamentally altered my trajectory at the Firm was my meeting the group of people with whom I ended up doing most of my work. Responsible to a fault, acutely conscientious about their impact on others, and apt to take on the work of several and still have time left over to clean up others’ messes – you recognized in me something of yourselves, and I saw in you better versions of myself I could aspire to, if I could only master the programming that had driven me up to that point. Where others would’ve been only too happy to let me continue sacrificing and people-pleasing myself into oblivion, you took me under your wing and protected me from the worst the Firm and the world have to offer to people like us. It was one of the very few times, up till that point in my life, that I had felt truly seen. We’ve never discussed any of this – not in so many words, and certainly not in these terms. Ours has never been an emotionally effusive relationship, but in your quiet, unassuming, and often thankless way – what Robert Hayden calls  “love’s austere and lonely offices”  – I have been loved all the same.


It would take a dissertation to properly thank every individual at the Firm who’s had an impact on me, and I think you’ll agree I’ve already written one too many of those for this lifetime. To all of you who’ve helped me on my way, I hope you know who you are and that you recognize yourself in what I’ve written. I would be remiss, however, not to thank by name a few very special people:

Neil: It’s been an honor of a lifetime working with you. I’m glad I stuck around long enough to see you make Senior Partner, even though there isn’t a reward rich enough they could give you that would convince me they understand just how special you are. As I said when I left, if being “Neil’s person” is wrong then I don’t care to be right. I can’t wait to see all you’re going to do from here on out, and if you ever need help with any of it, pick up the phone and I’ll be there. Until then, I’ll be heartened to know you’re just a Zoom bomb away.

Sarah: Thank you for caring so fiercely, authentically, and fearlessly, every single day that you’ve shown up for me and the rest of the chosen family you’ve assembled at the Firm. It was with your example that I first understood what it looks like to stand up for what you believe in with so much backbone that the world can’t help but rearrange itself around you, and what it means to connect to the power of my instincts. Having flown the coop now, I can only hope I’ll make you proud from afar.

Pip: Four years on, I’m happy to confirm that I would, indeed, still follow you off a cliff. Metaphor aside, you’ve never steered me wrong. Thank you for being the big sister I never had, and for having the courage to care so much it hurts. You’ve shown me what it means to believe in others so much that they grow to become what you see in them. Having been your Associate, EM, and AP over the years - it’s this final promotion to Friend that I’ll value the most. I can’t wait to see what (and who!) you’ll build and believe into being in the coming years.

Schedule a free 45 minute introductory session.