Circumnavigation of My Arrogance

I have noticed a disturbing trend in myself in the past few weeks: I’ve been losing patience and I’ve been kind of a jerk to my friends and coworkers.

What’s new is that I’ve been under a bit more project load than usual. This is fantastic because I have been wanting to sink my teeth into something nice and meaty for some time. However, I’ve found some bad old habits resurfacing from the white-hotness of the old 2001 Internet Bubble. I have been arrogant and self-serving under the mistaken belief that I was just being proactive and responsible. I’m lucky that the people that I work with are understanding and strong enough to stand up to me, so I can see what I’ve been doing wrong. I just feel awful about it, though.

ARROGANCE

First, the positive: my default mental stance is to believe that everyone has a knack. That is, everyone has some kind of incredible potential that, if we can but unlock it, will result in an explosion of empowering happiness.

When I am in the position that I can help someone come into that potential, that makes me feel incredibly happy. This is a mission that I’ve recently accepted as being one of my primary life goals. Because of this, I am a patient and nurturing teacher, free with my knowledge and my time. I can trace this tendency back to when I was trying to learn the BASIC programming language in the 7th grade, and this older kid named Donald Dimitrios took the time to show me the ropes. He put up with my blank-eyed questions and endless confusion when it came to understanding PEEKS, POKES, and the mysterious FOR-NEXT loop. This generosity of knowledge was particularly notable because in junior high school, there is such stratification between grade levels that even TALKING to a 7th grader was grounds for ruthless taunting. He didn’t give a crap though, and as a result I had a positive introduction to computing that not only helped set the course of my career, but imprinted me with the values that lay the foundation for a strong community of practitioners. I am forever grateful.

That said, you might find it surprising that this patient gratefulness dries right up when I am working with someone who is already an equal. The reserve of patience and understanding gets put away for the next student, because I’m excited to gird on the armor and the sword. I’m not exactly Leeroy Jenkins when it comes to group projects, but I must admit there is a certain LET’S GO OUT AND KICK ASS! YEAH!!!!! vibe. I want to drink the blood from conquered skulls of bad interactive media, reveling in the lamentations of the corporate tools who inflicted such point-and-click monkeyware upon the world in the first place! Ok, I am exaggerating a little here, but I really do feel that it’s a moral imperative that must be followed through.

I believe that this is arrogance masquerading as the belief that quality and skill are most important for a professional project. That’s not to say that quality and skill are not the point; it is the basis of business trust after all. What is arrogant is my belief that valuing quality and skill entitles me to say and do whatever I think. I never fully calculated the human cost in terms of lingering hurt feelings, lowered morale, and confusion. I think for the first time, I am ready to concede that this cost is unacceptable when it is exacted for my own standards. It is only worthwhile when everyone benefits for their own reasons, and they want to be in the room.

WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN

The last time I experienced this form of personal hubris was in 2001. I believed I knew exactly what should be done, how it could be done, and was incredibly blunt about it. The net result was that I drove away a lot of good people, and it took four years to rebuild both myself and real relationships with people. I learned that I did have this dichotomy of expectation between my mentoring and collaboration modes. My solution? Go freelance…obviously, I had trouble working with others in a company context, so maybe the freedom to put up or shut up on process was my destiny. Problem solved! This path resulted in the start of this blog and the freedom to build many new relationships with people. I have never been happier or more excited in my life by the possibilities before me.

There’s just one problem: I really do want to work with people. So for the past year, I’ve been slowly building up to the point where I can start working with people more closely.

What’s different now is that I’m aware that it’s much easier to attract similar people than it is to find them, if you are brave enough to put the vibe out there. One reason that I write so broadly on my blog is that I like eclectic people; I figure that if someone is intrigued by the types of topics I write about, they are probably more likely to be someone I’d like to work with. If they like the way I write, that is an even closer potential match! I think this is a good example of finding your niche; it’s more important, particularly at first, to find a few people who deeply connect and enrich you than thousands who you superficially encounter but form no bond whatsoever. The reason I think this is important is that when we’re getting started, we all need additional sources of energy to push through our fears, uncertainties, and doubts. Having even one person who really believes in you can make all the difference.

I’ve also thought that maybe it was the style of collaboration or scheming that was the crucial relationship element, which is just a special case of attracting similar people. People that have similar values and interests are more likely to have a harmonious relationship. In general I’ve found it to be true…for establishing friendships. Extending this principle to a working relationship has so far eluded me. My weird arrogance regarding competency and process rears its ugly head, and drives away the people I want to work with.

DIAGNOSIS

I hurt a few people today who are important to me, which is why I’m trying to work through this and fix it because I apparently did not achieve closure before. I think there are probably others out there who have gone through—or ARE going through—a similar cycle. Here’s a few warning signs, based on feelings that I’ve had before:

  • You believe that people around you just aren’t willing to understand the value of what you’re doing.

  • You believe that you are doing more than you are supposed to with regard to your job or role.

  • You believe that there is a lack of definition and direction in the workplace, with no apparent end in sight.

  • You believe that if you take responsibility for conveying the importance of these issues, matters will improve if people are willing to listen. Through education and persistence, you can effect a change.

There are two responses to this that I’ve tried in the past:

  1. Step up and lead until someone makes you stop: When you don’t have authority to make changes directly granted to you, you can apply personal leadership to the situation. Though it’s not strictly part of your job description, bringing clarity and vision to the people around you is often appreciated if it’s not perceived as a power trip. Being willing to take punches, go the extra mile for your peers, and create recognized excellence within the organization can be the beginning of a new era of solidarity. However, this approach requires a lot of energy with no guarantee of recognition or reward. It can pay off big, or you will burn out in about a year.

  2. Withdraw and cut your losses: Situations in which you do not have the authority to change culture and process are difficult to win overnight. After you assess the amount of effort and luck required to remedy matters, you determine it is too much work. You can stop caring and restrict your role to the smallest unit of responsibility that won’t get you fired. Or, you can leave.

I’ve practiced both responses half a dozen times with various companies. The typical patterns is to lead with “stepping up” and try to last long enough to achieve whatever goal was set before me. Very draining, but rewarding when we pulled off something kick ass. Eventually, though, my energy stores are drained so thoroughly that I become very moody and depressed. I ask myself am I really going to be happy doing this forever and come to the conclusion that it’s time to move on. So I close off things as cleanly as I can, and enter a new phase of my life. The current phase of my life, which is this blogging/design thing, has been sustainable because I’m generally working on shorter projects. With shorter projects, I can work hard to get the thing out, and then count on some downtime to replenish my store of energy. Shorter projects also tend to be very well-defined or limited in some way that makes them much easier to tackle comprehensively. It’s the longer-term projects that require more of a marathoner’s approach to energy management: the pace is necessarily slower, because you need to maintain energy for the entire project track. And it’s these projects that are the ones with the most need for collaboration between peers. I also think it’s these projects that are the most rewarding due to the larger scale of the accomplishment. I need to develop a third option that doesn’t involve total withdrawal or total sacrifice.

IDENTIFYING THAT THIRD OPTION

What I need to confront is my ego and sense of entitlement. I thought I’d dealt with this years ago, but they both live on. I also need to resolve that sense of responsibility that tends to exert itself when I think I can help clarify things. Here are my thoughts on the matter:
  1. I should acknowledge that I’m really good at some things. And that’s as noteworthy as someone having hair because everyone is really good at something. Even exceptional skill, I think, is just a tiny aspect of a person’s place in the universe, no sense in kicking up a fuss about it. Also, embracing one’s talents without feeling embarrassed is a necessary step to performing on the broader world stage; if I really want to do cool stuff on a bigger scale, I need to get comfortable with offering what I can offer.

  2. There’s no need to “awaken” or “educate” people all the time. What’s funny is that I believe that I already believe that expressing ideas in tangible form is most effective in creating positive change; so me merely telling people things and expecting them to follow without some kind of concrete example is just foolish. I’m amazed that I did not see this before.

  3. Forgot job boundaries, assigned responsibilities, and appropriateness of action. Just pitch in and help. It’s the right thing to do. And this is the path through which quality may be attained with much less friction. I’ve just realized that assigning distinct responsibilities to people is a form of zero sum thinking; the implication is that if people don’t do what they are “supposed to do”, the project will go horribly awry. Well…maybe not!

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p>So that’s my amended course of action, and I am hopeful that this means that I’ll finally get the hang of collaborating with people more closely. I don’t think clients will necessarily notice a difference (it’s quality and skill that they’re paying for). However, I think these new guidelines will help me come to a more comfortable work-life balance that includes everyone, not just me. It’s a moral imperative!