The happy news came over Twitter: Ellen was going to work at Kickstarter. All I could feel was anger rising in my throat.
Ellen and I met through mutual friends in 2008. At the time, we were studying at two different colleges in the same city; I was one year ahead. We learned that we’d both grown up in Michigan. Cast on similar paths by our shared interest in technology, we both interned at Microsoft and took jobs there as program managers after graduation. For a summer, we even worked on the same team in Mountain View. We both applied to the same business school; we both got in. Our paths were symmetrical in the extreme.
And now Ellen was going to work at Kickstarter, just months after I’d finished an internship there. Because Ellen had deferred business school for longer than I had, she was available for full-time work. Meanwhile, I was halfway through a two-year program, and committed to finishing in spite of myself. Yet the happy news still sent me reeling. I had always been a year ahead, but now Ellen had caught up—and in one important way, surpassed me. My face burned.
It took me weeks to write a measured note of congratulations. It took longer for me to come to terms with the implosion. As I wrote in a journal at the time, “I feel threatened by what we have in common. I don’t want to be replaceable.”
I knew my anger wasn’t about Ellen. I knew that. But my face still burned, my throat still tightened. My insecurity was unbecoming. I just didn’t know how to unmake it.
All of that happened in 2012. In time, the intensity receded. I graduated from business school; I took a job at SoundCloud; I moved to Berlin. And then one day in early 2014, I saw on Twitter that Ellen had written a blog post about how she came to work at Kickstarter. Interested, and sensing in myself the necessary calm, I clicked through.
Right there, in the second paragraph, I learned something I’d never known: Ellen came to Kickstarter through me. “I found out that Kickstarter had a Product Manager opening when Diana Kimball tweeted about it on April 25, 2012,” she wrote. That tweet kicked off a six-month quest to work at Kickstarter, which ended in an emphatic yes. Reading Ellen’s story, I felt foolish, deflated, uplifted. All the old anger, long settled, drained away.
Ellen gave me one more gift. Days after her blog post, she sent an email to thank me, at several years’ remove, for being the way she found out about the opening at Kickstarter. And then, she said something surprising:
I’ve always felt a little bad about how similar our paths are—between Michigan, Boston, PowerPoint, Kickstarter, HBS. I’ve never been really sure what to do about it, because I think we just happen to have similar interests/skills. I’m not sure why it makes me feel guilty, but I do hope you don’t view it negatively.
She felt it too! Heartened by the revelation, by the symmetry of our perceptions, my reply tumbled out:
I feel I can be very honest here—you’re not wrong! In fact, when I first heard that you’d taken the job at Kickstarter in fall 2012, I experienced a highly-charged heart-sinking sensation. After sitting with that for a few hours and talking it over with Erik (who happened to be there with me), I realized that whatever I was experiencing was important information, but that it was absolutely not about you… Today, I feel no twinge about the similarities in the paths we’ve taken. Your choices are so fully your own, and I’m just happy to exist in the same orbit, collecting experiences that we’ll be able to compare and contrast and chuckle over whenever our paths cross, as I hope they keep doing for a long long time.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown writes: “Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it—it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy.” For a long time, I’d kept my unbecoming reactions secret. By sharing her side of the story spontaneously, Ellen made room for me to unearth mine. The truth was embarrassing; a thrill; a relief.