In the early 1980’s, between high school years, I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked—and that includes what would later be a long stint on Wall Street followed by a writing career.
Still, I got fired.
The job was at a McDonalds in New Jersey where I openly gave my manager unwanted opinions about how the place could be better. The inefficiencies wore on me, the tripping over one another as we employees scrambled for special orders, the grease burns we subjected our forearms to at the fryer — it all seemed unnecessary.
I didn’t get fired outright; I was given a ‘special job’ that included me wearing a bright orange and red leisure suit that I had to wear while biking to work. Five miles I’d ride on the side of a highway, robed in chemical fibers that worked like a weight-loss plastic suit and dried in disturbingly few minutes.
In my new position as the McDonalds hostess (I swear) I played “Ronald Says” with the birthday kids and encouraged customers to take a chance on the ice cream sundae.
I dressed like a flag on Flag Day and a chicken when the nugget made the scene. Even in this new position, I brimmed with thoughts about how to make employees and customers happier until my manager responded with, “When you talk about changing things, you’re acting like you know more than other people and that makes people not like you.”
And then with some mumble about an energy crisis and Iran and runaway inflation, he fired me. But his words hurt and shaped my career. I thought of them all the time.
And so, I learned to fit in and flow with the current, which allowed me to thrive in a Wall Street workplace of fraternal misbehavior. In my 20s and 30s I excelled at looking the other way.
But something happens once you’ve gotten older and brought children into the world and get financial stability and perspective on your side.
You think of those coming behind you, and you worry that the legacy of your generation will be no legacy at all. Why, exactly, was I doing all that fitting in?
I asked (nicely) for a meeting with my CEO, the head of a major investment bank. I shared my observations and ideas with him, telling him why I thought we couldn’t hang on to female executives. And just like my McDonalds experience, my disregard for fitting in was a career sideliner. I showed my colors, and they weren’t with the team of dysfunction.
That time I showed myself the door.
Trying to become a published writer in my 40s wasn’t easy. Gone were the structure and dependability of a big firm. Gone were the other employees I loved seeing every day. My days of nonstop talking were replaced with silence. And while there was much more time to be efficient (no commuting or office chatter), and while I thought I could better control my outcomes (no boss), I hadn’t counted on the ego-splat of rejection emails and how they could send me into a several-week tailspin of negative thought.
I waxed nostalgic for men having a burping contest at lunch. It was just easier to fit in there. It’s easier when you have a title.
But there’s been a freedom in writing I’d never considered. When my own children showed an interest in New York City history, I wrote a young adult novel I thought they’d like and Harper Collins graciously published it.
And when many and varying Wall Street firms were sued for the very worries I had earlier discussed with my CEO, I wanted to document the details that are never made public.
So I tapped the same lack of decorum that landed me in a polyester orange suit in 1980 and wrote my first novel for adults. Opening Belle published last February and blew open the male-dominated Wall Street world that remains private, sealed and vilified.
My McDonalds manager warned me that nobody likes the girl who talks about changing things, and maybe he was right.
But she sure gets to like herself.
Maureen Sherry is a former managing director at Bear Stearns and author of “Opening Belle,” a novel that is being adapted as a film starring Reese Witherspoon about a successful female Wall Street banker .