Sometimes, I feel like I’m on the show “Silicon Valley,” the fictional HBO show about “bro” life at a startup. To be honest, I haven’t watched the show. I feel like it would just be too painful and traumatic for me. A little too real. Like this lunch.

I like to keep in touch with former co-workers, so it’s typical for me to invite people to lunch just to catch up. This time, I invite two male co-workers – one white and the other Chinese-American – to a pho place near my work. All three of us have known each other for a few years, having worked for the same company. Just recently, we have all gotten new jobs and are transitioning to new work environments.

We first exchange information about what we do now. They ask me about my job which I describe vaguely as I never know what to say about what I do. But quickly, the conversation turns to people they know – other men – and how much money they’re making. It feels like an auction where people keep yelling out numbers to outbid each other. White guy shares what Mr. so-and-so is making. Chinese-American guy follows suit with someone he knows (another dude) with a higher salary plus better stock options. They go into excruciating detail – this guy they both know, who’s now a founder at a startup gets this type of funding, and the company’s projected to be successful in two years based on x, y, and z factors. This goes on and on as I quietly eat my pho, waiting for them to change the subject due to my (obvious) disengagement.

Good news is they do eventually change the subject, this time though they start talking about networking and who helped who get a great job at which company; and how they (all men) help each other advance in their careers.  It becomes clear to me they know a lot of people, mostly men, who look out for each other and will recruit and recommend each other when a prime position becomes available. They are all a part of this invisible, middle-aged men’s club.

The Secret of their Success

It’s clear from the conversation these men help each other get jobs. As they’re talking, I connect the dots in my head. When so and so got that job last year, it wasn’t necessarily because of his qualifications, it was because someone from the inside knew someone and personally recommended him to that person. Though there is nothing wrong with referring people to jobs, the difference here is the exclusivity. These men recommend other men from this small circle, and they do so for the top leadership jobs. And this isn’t a one-time thing, it happens over and over. Like the gift that keeps giving, they take turns referring each other.

This means those on the outside can’t get in, no matter how qualified they are. They’re not part of the club.

The Things that Matter

I say it’s often not just what we talk about, but what we don’t talk about, that reveals our values. They talk about what constitutes success for them: career advancement, excellent pay, and benefits. They compare cars and other investments (houses and education for their kids). But what they don’t talk about: their wives, community, and other relationships.

Back to Work

As we leave the pho place, the Chinese-American guy asks the white guy about his new car, a used Tesla.

“Do you want to see it?” the white guy asks, with more than a hint of excitement in his voice.

“Sure,” the other guy responds.

“No thanks. I have to get back to work,” I start to say, but realized they have already started to cross the street toward the car.

This must be what it’s like to sell one’s soul. These men have bought into lies about success, money and what matters. They have spent most of their working lives chasing after these things. They have hoarded treasures for themselves, excluding those who are not like them.

For the first time in a long time, I regret having lunch. I wish I didn’t know these things about them. Ignorance might have been preferable. I feel dirty – working in the same world and knowing some of the same people. I feel angry – learning about their circle, and the values that drive them. But most of all, I feel sad. Because this is not how it’s supposed to be.