Knowledge Isn’t Always Power

Posted: June 21, 2014

The Friendly City Files

I once worked for a big company. I started at the bottom, climbed the ladder — I was thrilled by my salary increase when I was promoted to a leadership position.


I came in early, stayed late, started projects, volunteered for cross-departmental teams, took on additional responsibilities — I worked hard and was happy to do so. Life was good.


Then, I found out another supervisor — a lazy, argumentative, culture-killing supervisor — made about 50 percent more than me.


I tried to put that knowledge away, and kept telling myself all that mattered was I was happy with what I made. I kept telling myself what others earned was irrelevant, that nothing had really changed. But, of course, everything had changed, because I knew.


To my discredit, I never got over it. I couldn’t change how much he earned, but I could change how hard I worked. I still worked hard, but not that hard.


There’s a scene in Alison Elwood’s fantastic “History of the Eagles” documentary about the band’s 1994 reunion. The first time around, the band members formed a corporation called Eagles Limited, which, as Don Felder put it, “ … was all for one and one for all.”


When they reunited, Glenn Frey decided on a different approach. “I’m not going to do it unless Don (Henley) and I make more money than the other (three) guys,” he said. “We’re the only guys who have done anything career-wise in the last 14 years. We’re the guys that have kept the Eagles’ name alive on radio, television, and in concert halls.”


He had a point. Frey and Henley had both scored a number of Top 10 hits while the other erstwhile Eagles enjoyed comparatively less success.


“So,” Frey said, “we came up with a deal I was happy with, Don was happy with, Timothy (B. Schmitt) was happy with, Joe (Walsh) was happy with …  and Don Felder was not happy with.”


Still, Felder eventually decided to sign on and the Eagles reunited, cut a new album and performed sold-out shows around the world.


Yet according to Frey, “Don Felder was never ever satisfied …  never ever happy. A rock band is not a perfect democracy; it’s more like a sports team. No one can do anything without the other guys …  but everybody doesn’t get to touch the ball all the time. Time went on and Felder became more and more unhappy. He couldn’t appreciate the amount of money he was making, [he was] more concerned about how much money I was making.”


Which, of course, is exactly what happened to me — or what I let happen to me.


Odd things happen when we start to compare. I was happy with what I earned as a supervisor until I learned what another supervisor made.


Then, I was unhappy.


Yet all that really changed was the addition of one small piece of knowledge. My pay hadn’t changed, my duties hadn’t changed, my opportunities hadn’t changed — I was the only thing that changed.


According to Frey, the same happened with Felder. If he’d been offered the same money as a solo artist, he might have been thrilled; my guess is the amount he made reuniting with the Eagles far exceeded what he had earned in the intervening years.


Yet comparisons and emotions apparently colored his perception. Great money no longer seemed so great, because it wasn’t as great as what others made.


Are comparative salaries a real issue to some people? Absolutely — especially when we compare our relative compensation to the relative output of others.


And that’s why it’s often better not to know. If you’re happy with your role and your level of pay, you could argue that knowing what other people make is irrelevant. You could argue that ignorance, in that case, truly may be bliss.


In some cases, a little knowledge does a lot more harm than good. At least it did in my case. I wish, instead of finding out — and learning something I could do nothing about — I had just walked away.


But maybe that’s just me. What about you?

Jeff Haden lives in Harrisonburg. He is a ghostwriter and business columnist for Inc.com. He can be reached at blackbirdinc.com



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