I badly wanted to be a partner. There were a lot of things I was unsure about, but when it came to my career, I knew this much: I wanted to be a partner.

I remember talking with this guy about how important it was to me. We were standing at the bus station waiting to go to work. He was an architect in a firm downtown whom I had befriended since we took the same bus every day. He couldn’t understand why in the world I was so obsessed. “Well,” I said. “For one thing, partners have a free parking spot! You don’t need to take the bus!” 

It later turned out that the parking spot was not free but was included as income in the partners’ K-1 and was taxable. I must have been 28 or so at the time and had no idea of what a K-1 was.

I knew that partners were special. They made money. They had retreats and other special meetings where they made strategic decisions, the kind spoken about in my MBA program. We had lunch meetings where I ate an embarrassingly large amount of food. The Vietnamese sandwiches were my favorite. The food was good. The meetings I don’t remember.

Partners had offices. Partners could sign documents. I have no idea why, but I wanted to sign documents.

I talked a lot about being a partner with my closest friend at work, who also wanted to be a partner. We used to hang out with colleagues for happy hour after work. None of them wanted to be partners. My friend and I did not understand why.

Some of those friends left. We had to fire a couple of others. That’s a lesson we learned—partners have unlimited time off because they have no friends at work.

Eventually I went to “new partner training.” The firm called it leadership training, but everyone knew what it was. I don’t remember much from it other than that it had to do with some personality profiling tool. It categorized people in yacht terms as “sails” or “rudders” or “keels.” I can’t remember what each did. But partners probably have boats and they know what the keel does.

The other thing I remember from the training was that a lot of my future partners were bumming cigarettes from me. I still smoked. I was the only one to smoke openly, but after a couple of drinks I found more company than I could have imagined. It seemed I could make some friends with my new partners. I did quit smoking in the same year I made partner.

And I did make it—I got the call that I had been approved by the committee vote. Yay! I called my parents. I was 32. I don’t remember if I spoke to my wife. How can something be so important to me, yet I remember so little about it? Why do I not remember talking to her about it?

I went to my first partner meeting at the Fairmont Olympic in Seattle. It was luxurious and large. I was excited. Even more so because if you lived in Seattle and did not stay at the hotel you got an extra $500 in your paycheck. We had two mortgages and two kids, so $500 really moved the needle. They warned us that the $500 would be on my K-1.

Toward the end, they took the 30 or so new partners to a smaller room in the basement. The president of the firm stood in the middle and asked, “Do you feel that you know how this works? Do you have any questions?” We all nodded. “Oh yeah! We got it!” He smiled and left. We looked at each other:

“Do you know how this works?”

“No idea at all!”

My friend became a partner first, so she was my travel guide into the strange land. She told me she had “incorporated.” I was not sure what that meant, exactly, but I wanted to incorporate too. It sounded very sophisticated and the kind of thing a partner would do.

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