A 10-year college reunion is a hell of a thing. Sobering, fascinating, fulfilling, a little awkward, nostalgic— a whole mess of nervous small talk interflowing with a stream of serious life updates and memories of cherished teachers and mentors, some of whom no longer walk our earth.

A dominating theme of our conversations ended up being our (members of the class of 2012) nagging inability to define and contextualize professional success. Maybe it’s because so many of us are struggling financially, clawing toward a lifestyle we think of as belonging to the missing middle class. Maybe it’s because so many of us identify as autodidacts, possessing the usual feelings of imposter syndrome that accompany the lack of formal credentials. Maybe it’s because we are less likely to want careers that focus on hyper-specialization and expertise. Maybe being generalists makes us happier! Maybe well-rounded work is more ethical work. Perhaps making money in more than one way is simply more rewarding than slouching toward burnout.

It also could have been the periods of unprecedented political turmoil or the psychic devastation caused by the pandemic, but whatever the causes, I learned that some of us have felt a little lost at times.

Something I’ve learned recently in my professional life that has helped me combat my raging sense of unbelonging amongst peers and leaders is that when we— meaning, what, people of my generation? people who think like me or come from a similar background? people who went to my college? I’m unsure— conceive of professional success, we most often only compare ourselves to those who seem to be much better off than we are by some arbitrary metric (salary, followers, political or artistic successes, etc).

Perhaps this is obvious to a lot of people, but it hasn’t always been obvious to me. We are, in fact, trained to do what I am talking about. We’re told not to punch down (generally good advice), told to make ourselves the best we can be without causing friction by comparing our performances to those of our peers. We’re told to mind our business. You’re perhaps more likely to hear these things if you’re a woman in a career field like mine (computer science, broadly speaking).

Recently, though, I’ve unlocked a new perspective, one that’s been difficult for me to pin down through years of freelancing and consulting. I came to this perspective during a couple of contract software development projects. The work was this: to analyze codebases that were in some state of disarray because of iffy development practices, lack of discipline, or lack of experience. Note: I don’t intend to throw stones here— one of these codebases was a legacy project that I originally coded years ago.

What this work taught me was that we probably should find some charitable way of acknowledging to ourselves when our skill has progressed beyond whatever level was used to create the messes we are expected to fix with increasing frequency as we acquire more seniority and responsibility. In other words,

we know more than we think we do,

but sometimes the only way to understand this is to look at people who know less than we do and sagely (privately, modestly) recall the times when we, too, blinked in the shadows of unknowing.

It was good to be reunited with my classmates. We took up our old corner of the quad, making fun of ourselves for becoming the weird alumni we promised ourselves we’d never be when we were in school. We met new babies and kids. We talked about books, since that’s what we did for 4 years as undergraduates. We fell so quickly into old patterns, but brought to our reunion different habits and modes of being acquired in different of life’s forges — darker, sadder sometimes, but richer, more self-assured, more determined than before.