Successful people don’t steal the soap

Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day and you should know what that means: Nigeria flashback.

Back in 2010, when I was working for one of the country’s leading HIV/AIDS advocacy groups, one of my colleagues told me that a television crew was coming to the office to film a segment that afternoon to mark the day.

This was news to me – and not particularly good news, in my opinion. A broadcast interview is something that I normally would have planned long in advance and meticulously prepared for with messaging documents and prep sessions and maybe even press kits. But like so many things in Nigeria, the wheels were already in motion and my choice was simple: get on board or get run over.

“How did you even get them to come?” I asked one of my colleagues as we spread out some postcards on the table in the front room of our office.

“We promised them lunch,” she told me.

Ah, free sandwiches. From Nigeria to New York, some tactics are the same.

The interview that day went exactly how I expected it would, which is to say that the crew arrived two hours late, no less than five people from our organization lined up to take questions and the answers were often delivered not by the person who had the best understanding of the topic, but rather by the one who started speaking first, or more often, the loudest. Everyone in the office packed into the small room to watch the interview and sometimes shouted their own personal opinions, even when – no, especially when – we asked them not to. In other words, if a three-ring circus had rolled into the office that day, it probably would have been less disruptive.

But in the end, I had to admit that the event was a success. The enthusiasm of the speakers came through and perhaps the most memorable part of the day was when a young woman spoke up and said, “No, I don’t think HIV testing should be mandatory to enter college. I have AIDS and I’m afraid they won’t let me in if they know.”

I ate my words that day. Which wasn’t so bad because I happen to like the taste of success and I had the added benefit of washing it down with a free meat pie.

Almost four years to the day later and I couldn’t be further from that Nigerian office. In fact, today I spent the majority of my time at a conference at the Four Seasons in Manhattan. My job was to accompany an executive who was speaking on a panel and maybe sit in on a media interview.

Things were different today: the event started on time, the speakers politely took turns answering questions, their answers were well-thought and if the audience had opinions to share, they must have voiced them on Twitter. I should also note that the lights stayed on, the water was running and the bathrooms were stocked with all the soap you could ever want. (Though I should also mention that the decorative bottles were bolted to the wall, which I noticed because I considered stealing one.)

There was also the food. All the food. When I arrived, I had a bagel with cream cheese and lox, a bowl of fresh berries, and coffee. For lunch, filet mignon, mashed potatoes and vegetables. I didn’t like the dessert – a chocolate and banana tart – but not to worry, every table also had a three-tiered tray of macaroons, mini fruit tarts and truffles. More coffee. Tea. Who requested the vegetarian option – because they offered that too.

Somewhere in between the panels, just as I was getting done stuffing my face with a croissant, I noticed a woman who looked very much like someone I worked with almost 15 years ago in Philadelphia. I was an intern at the time and my single responsibility was to answer a media hotline and direct calls to the appropriate person, or – more likely – listen patiently to complaints from customers who got tired of calling the regular service line. I cannot stress this enough: they could not have picked a worse person for this job and I think everyone – myself included – was glad that the position only lasted for six months.

But despite that background and the fact that I really wasn’t sure that I knew the woman I was approaching, I introduced myself anyway.

“Wow,” she said. “I never would have recognized you.”

Fair point. I mean, here I am – 32 and all cleaned up. I might still be acting like my employer is an all-you-can-drink coffee bar, but at least I’m not wearing sneakers and I can say things like “I will send you that research” with a fair amount of conviction. There was no way for her to tell if I’m any good at my job just by our short conversation, but I suppose I’ve come a long way at looking the part.

“Well congratulations on all your success,” she told me.

Because apparently, this is what success looks like: escorting executives to an event, drinking unlimited orange juice at the Four Seasons, not spending more than 60 seconds figuring out how to steal the soap – all while wearing expensive shoes and carrying a laptop. If this isn’t the picture of success, what is?

I actually have no idea. But of this, I’m certain: I don’t like it.

Maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to trade places with my 2010 self and return to Nigeria for World AIDS Day because that place was far tougher than me and I wouldn’t be able to hack it any better today than I could four years ago. But what I wouldn’t give for things here to have just a touch of that energy. For the stakes to be a little higher. For the scenery to be a little less manicured.

What I wouldn’t give for a little more shout.


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