Tag: failure

Employers: Surrogate Parents

There are two types of people in this world.

How many times have you heard that one?

Well, there are.  Those who reject their jobs, and those who adopt their jobs.

Ernie is a job rejecter.  A job denier.  He shows up a little bit late each day, and leaves a little bit early.  He barely does enough of his duties at his job to get by, and will do even less if he thinks he can get away with it.  The work is a chore for him, every minute of it.  There are no joys to be taken.  Little or no sense of accomplishment when he does something well.  He moans and groans about going back to work after the weekend.  He finds petty excuses to call out, or flat out lies.

Annie is a job adopter.  She shows up early when she can, and stays late sometimes, just to finish up what she was working on.  She perceives her assigned duties as a starting ground, and does more as often as she can.  She takes special interest in understanding the jobs of the people around her.  She makes responsible decisions in her home life to make sure she has enough sleep and solid transport to work.  She builds work relationships because it facilitates the work environment.

I bet you have some defined feelings about these two types.  You may feel that you identify with one or the other.  I bet you know someone at your job that you’d categorize as an Ernie or an Annie.

What I have elected to relate to you today, in this entry of the Octopode’s bloggotron, is that I think both types are wrong.  I think they’re both improper ways of handling this ubiquitous phenomenon we all have to deal with, this….employment thing.  Why?  Because both of them take their job personally.

When Ernie’s supervisor tells him he sent a copy of the TPS Report to the wrong auditing office, Ernie gets mad.  He gets upset that he’s just been told he did something wrong.  If someone notices his lateness, if someone calls attention to his lack of output, it inspires anger.  If he is turned down for a promotion, he is insulted, and this may lead to anger as well.  His apprehension about how he is perceived at work may extend outward too, making him sensitive about other aspects of his presence there.

Annie’s output is higher, and like an overachieving child, she uses her good behavior to look for approval.  Her work is very important to her personally, and she thinks about it even when she isn’t at work.  She finds ways to improve, ways to increase productivity, and ways to improve the systems her workplace has in place.  Her ideas, and her effort to implement them, are the things she works hardest at in her life.  They represent the best of her.  When they are rejected, it hurts her.  She may react with deep sadness, anger, or by telling herself that the one who rejected her work doesn’t know what they’re doing.

The way their feelings are wrapped up in their jobs is the problem.  Their personal validation hinges on what they do in the workplace, and the way it is received.  Ernie wants to do as little as possible, but this is mostly a defense based on the explicit idea that he doesn’t care about his job and how he is perceived there, a lie he tells himself to protect himself from being recognized as a failure or as a fraud.  Annie pushes herself too hard and is far more productive than is called for at her job because she is desperately trying to prove herself, to herself, and to everyone else, particularly those whose opinion of her she values.  This is why when a negative opinion is expressed, she devalues that person in order to save herself from their disapproval.

They’re not opposites, these two.  They’re actually substantially the same:  Both of them need to be validated by their workmates/supervisors.  Both of them are using their jobs as one (likely of many) mechanisms to culture appreciation from others, which they need just to feel OK.  In short, they take their jobs personally.

And it’s not acceptable.

If I could reach into these two employee archetypes, which in my perspective are at least nine of ten employed people out there, I would switch their regard for their jobs from personal to business.  I’d make a third type of person, the type that I try to be.

The businessperson.  That’s what it is, isn’t it?  It’s business.  It’s employment; it’s a company paying a person for their time and effort, working on tasks the company needs done.  But this nonsense is childish bullshit, and no supervisor should have to coddle their staff just to keep morale up.  Since when are our jobs a daycare?  Forever, I’ll bet.  People walk into their jobs with all their issues in tow, and express them there as they do everywhere else.  And the bait is strong—you see a paycheck for what you do there.  A chunk of money is a big deal, its delivery on a regular basis is nothing short of life-sustaining, and it adds quite a lot of weight to what the employee who earned it is doing.

But this is not personal, folks.  It’s a transaction.  It’s buying groceries.  When was the last time the grocery store manager came up to you as you’re pushing your cart to the register, and with a sullen look on his face, said, “Were you okay with the selection of spaghetti sauces?  I tried to get the best ones but I don’t know….I guess I don’t really know what you want but I hope you’re happy with it.  I always try.  Sorry if it’s not OK.”

You shouldn’t have to make that grocery store manager feel better about himself.  And likewise, he shouldn’t have to make his employees feel better about themselves.  Yet he likely does.  And what’s more, he thinks it’s normal.

When you go to your job, there is an expectation placed on you.  You’re being paid to do X.  Not X minus anything, not X plus anything.  If you give more than is required, your supers won’t complain, but if your extra work is not accepted and you become unstable as a result, you’ve just failed to do X properly.  Further, anger over your behavior on the part of your coworkers may interfere with their ability to do their X.  And if you’ve got an office full of Annies and Ernies, that’s an even bigger problem.  Employees who are already validating themselves do not heap insecurities upon their boss.  They just do a good job and go home.

So, how to make it just business?

The goal is to meet what is expected of you, your X, at a level consistent with your own work ethic.  And that concept contains the key:  you are working for you.  You are earning money for yourself.  Focus on what you think is the appropriate response to the work that you are being prompted for, not what it feels like your supervisors will like.  Ask yourself, “What am I really being asked to do?”  Make a list.  That list might include going above-and-beyond, as some employers do look for that.  But this only means that going the extra mile isn’t really extra at all, it’s required.

Many employers are highly experienced at giving employees emotional validation for doing good work.  Be a foil (and likely sweet relief) to that.  Give them what they want, simply and easily.  They’ll quickly learn they can count on you.  And you in turn will receive job security.  But most of all, you’ll be at peace about your job and your performance there.  You’ll feel simple satisfaction, and you won’t worry about it anymore.

But, how to do this if you are naturally an Ernie or an Annie?  That’s hard to say, since one’s own security and self-validation are the things that lead to the negative behaviors they exhibit.  But there is one simple, mechanical thing you can do to help, in addition to making a list of your duties and adhering to it:  you can refrain from making personal connections with coworkers.

Stop making them your friends!  So they’re great people, so what?  So you want them to like you; overcome this feeling.  They are not your friends when you walk in, and hanging that mantle on them invites the kind of personal connection that will enable validation-seeking behavior.  Keep them professional colleagues.  Do not associate outside of work.  Do not trade phone numbers for any reason except work-related.  Do not send personal emails.  Do not confide about your personal life at all, in fact deflect questions about it.  Don’t be a dick about it, just hold your horses.  Find your friends elsewhere.  You and your coworkers are teammates, not friends.

Does this mean you can’t joke around?  Sign the birthday card going from desk to desk?  Of course not.  Participate in the office food event.  Use first names.  Encourage your coworkers in their work-related endeavors.  But draw a defined line.  Deflect personal conversations about others and absolutely about yourself.

One way to facilitate this feeling is to dress at least a little formally at work.  Dressing casual at work is a quick way to invite casual interaction.  Another thing to do is adhere strictly to your own work ethic, which means that you should explicitly define it (write it down).  Being lazy about tasks or producing subpar output is a gateway to perceiving disapproval in your supers, often that isn’t even there.  Another trick that I’ve found helps psych myself out about what I do, is to write down at the end of each day a short list of what I’ve accomplished at work.  Just brief notes that I can understand.  Then when I get a paycheck, look at the check and the list at the same time.  Get a visual of exactly what you’ve been paid to do.  It throws all the superfluous fluff that goes into holding down a job into contrast.

If you can manage to make your work less personal, you can only benefit, no matter your employment future.  In the immediate, what you will find is greater job satisfaction, better overall performance, and a quieting of worries.  In time, you’ll get praise from your supervisors (though you won’t need it), and maybe even opportunities to take your game to the next level.

But the big payoff is that you’ll drive home from your job every day feeling calmer, less stressed.  And the ridiculous games that Ernie and Annie play all day at work, and which infect and detract from their home lives as well, will stand out in high contrast.  You’ll be above that nonsense.  They’ll look up to you in time, jealous on a level they don’t understand.

It’s your job, folks.  It’s business.  Don’t take it so personally.

The Kitten’s Meow-surement

Greetings ladies, greetings gents
Spread your blankets, pitch your tents

I am in the business of measuring things. That is my job, I measure.  I  make money doing this.  I have been trained, I have performed feats of math and science sufficient of one who is charged with working in a lab where measurements are performed and the performer must do the mathing and the sciencing and the sleuthing and figure out what exactly a measurement is.

And let me tell you, no measurement is perfect. I look at precision instruments all day, and I use advanced technique to evaluate them.  Sometimes I put a stamp of approval on it.  Most often, I adjust the instrument before doing so.  And it’s always to a level of what they call tolerance.  This means that it can be inexact as long as it is within X units of perfect.  They designate this because nothing is perfect.  Nothing is ever exactly what it is meant to be.  If you look close enough, you can find how far off it might be.  Sometimes you don’t have to look very close at all.

So one thing I learn from this job is that though many things are “made to measure”, nothing really does it perfectly. Not even me.  With careful consideration, an uncertainty is derived on every measurement I might do.  So I take your one pound weight, and I use highly specialized equipment, training, and thoroughly vetted technique, and I tell you that it weighs 1.001963 pounds.  Plus or minus 0.000032 pounds, because that’s how much I might be off by, if you consider the accuracy of the equipment I was using, the standards I was comparing it to, factors that may contribute to error like air buoyancy, magnetism, and things related directly to me, like the training I’ve received, and my observed capacity for error.

It’s all a balance of how far off can it be. The goal is not to get it exact, because you can’t do that.  This foe is beyond any of us.  How like life, yes?  Damage control.  If you’re good at this game, you can play it and still stay focused on the good things without withering under the illusion of perfection.  And the damage control is a means.  You pedal the bicycle, but you keep your eyes on the scenery, the smell of the air, the things that come and go and the beauty of all of this stuff.  Most of us give in to some degree, however, to the urge to focus on the strain of pedaling.  Or, the more enchanting distraction:  the place you’re headed.

That one is truly beguiling. You’ve heard the questions.  What’s it all for?  What is the meaning of life?  And you see these people pedaling along, hearing that the journey and the wondering itself is the point and hoping that’s right, yet feeling emptiness from never truly internalizing this platitude as an answer.  Gotta wonder about those deathbed regrets.  The sadness for not achieving lifelong goals that were never set.  The continued blindness to the beautiful life that came, went, and is over.

But they don’t train you for that in school, do they? They don’t teach you to validate yourself.  They don’t instruct you not to idolize perfection.  They don’t teach you to work toward the impossible goal, yet somehow realize that the work is the real goal.

Of course they don’t. That stuff is orders of magnitude outside what they can do for you in school.  Even just the rudiments that begin you working toward understanding higher-order concepts like these are hard to successfully imprint.  And as any teacher will tell you, students are already being taught harder, deeper, more formative lessons at home.  And parents?  Forget about it.  Just the fact that the bromide “these things don’t come with instruction manuals” (in regard to having children) is a thing should indicate the level of expertise we’re bringing to the table when rearing a new member of a future society.  But why don’t they come with manuals?  Why don’t we have required primers for raising kids?

Anyone who has taken any psychology course has had to grapple with the unhappy concept that our psyches are largely composed of things outside not only our understanding, but our awareness as well. The amount that is going on behind the scenes in our minds would, I think, send us reeling were we to know its proportion.  How much of our personalities is unconscious.  How much of what makes John Smith John Smith is stuff John Smith has never known, thought about, or will ever consider.  And this stuff is learning, growing, adapting, updating, changing all the time.  Our consciousness is like a spotlit pinpoint on a vast stage, and though behind the curtains there is a constant din of footsteps and conversation, all we can see and hear is the one actor in the spotlight.

Acting. Well, that’s another topic.

But we think we are so aware! Our consciousnesses delightfully frolic through the world, smugly satisfied that it’s all within our ken, and all is well because we understand everything or are at least capable of it, and what we’re not thinking about at the moment, we somehow understand it all by extension (read:  categorize and ignore).  This is what we are programmed to do.  We see what we see, and attach all significance to it.  All the significance.  There is nothing else, nothing that transcends your understanding, says your ego.  Only things that fit into it at different places.

Yet, imagine a mind that is simultaneously aware of the thoughts of two people at the same time, to as great a level of detail as both those peoples’ minds. The sum of two minds.  You cannot.  It is outside our ability.  You understand the concept as I’ve described it, but cannot actually grasp its breadth.  Now imagine a mind that could do this for a hundred people.  A thousand.  All humanity.

We are so committed to this conceit, this concept that our understanding is universally definitive, that even our fiction, which should be as far flung as our writers can conceive, rarely depicts anything that challenges it. And when it does, it’s usually described as incomprehensible, because human minds do not brook such challenges.  We just categorize each new thing into the understanding we already have.  Perhaps this is best.  I mean, imagine if an author could create a description that could reach outside your paradigm and show you something truly uncategorizable.

If I ask you to imagine a squirrel that has been magically made self-aware, what level of understanding do you give it in your imagination? Something akin to your own, right?  Or at least measurable against your own.  You have some concept of what part of existence and the world you consciously understand (effectively all of it as far as you’re concerned), and you judge the squirrel’s against that.  And in that judgement is everything, because all significance is contained within your understanding.

So here we are, on our stage, carefully (such delicate, deliberate, detailed care!) manipulating the actor in the spotlight, while the vast majority of our minds/psyches are busy, developing, existing, and interacting with the world just outside our perception. Kids are doing this too.  Only they’re starting with an untrained stage crew, so they’re learning bigger lessons, more formative ones.  And they do this at home, for the most part.  Kids are programmed to learn from their parents.  You know this, but you don’t really understand how much they learn.  And they’re not aware of it.  It’s just happening while they’re asking for a cookie or mommy’s attention.  Ever had any really deep therapy?   Learn a few hard lessons about yourself?  If so, you know where I’m coming from here.

But kids are in the care of their parents and nobody in the whole village is helping them by showing them even the most rudimentary steps toward raising an emotionally effective human. Just the body language and subtle manner you exhibit when you respond to requests for attention will have dire consequences on the child’s ability to form intimate relationships as an adult.  But the parents don’t know that.  They don’t understand it.  What’s more, they were raised in a similarly dysfunctional way and are expressing those resultant deficiencies as adults.  Most of the time they’re playing their psychological problems off the kid.  It’s all considered normal, too.  How many of the stereotypical dispositions you have encountered are the result of severe emotional dysfunction?

As for the child’s raising, it’s a crapshoot. Even as we build a world where we are able to protect our families from the elements, disease, even lack of opportunity or insufficient stimulation, we are still taking the same chance that a mother wildcat does when rearing a litter in a shallow depression in the dirt of the desert plain.  We are grimly, totally, inexorably exposed to a harsh, brutal psychological battlefield, and we are all of us scarred, limping, barely escaping utter destruction.

And we do this by protecting ourselves. By categorizing everything we perceive (vast!) into the context of our purview (teeny!).  By attaching all significance to what we understand (thanks, ego).  By fearing, attacking, hiding, and acting.  Like the mother wildcat’s kittens, we play and growl and bite and feed when we can, because we are constantly beset by danger and the threat of injury and death.

You can see it, right? Those kittens, they don’t grasp that you understand more of the world than they do.  They have an understanding of it, and that understanding IS the whole world to them.  All significance is contained within it.  And it should be.  Without the conceit of a comprehensive worldview, no living thing would have the audacity to exist.

Now, and thanks for reading all that up there, now that you have just read it, let me ask you this: how important is where you’re ultimately going in life?  When do you think you’re going to die, and do you think you’re going to perfect anything you’re working on in yourself or your life by then?  What use is setting perfection, in anything, as your goal?  There are things you’d like in life.  What are you waiting for?  You really think it’s gonna get easier?  Or that there’s a better time than right now?

You constantly judge things in your life; you should be, that’s good. How else will you know the value or position of anything, along any standard or range?  You are in a constant state of measurement.  But let’s face it, you suck at it.  We all do.  It’s what we rely on, and we need it to exist.  But we aren’t very good at it.  It’s only useful in the context of our own lives.  The kitten on the desert plain feels proud that it killed a mole rat and thus it can eat.  That pride is a measurement, and it exists mostly to emotionally reinforce that kitten so it confidently attempts another kill.  By what rubric do you measure these values?

In regard to our own, personal goals, we’re all kittens ready to accept that killing that mole rat is everything. It is worth every ounce of our selves to accomplish.  But you’re afraid.  Maybe you don’t admit it, but you are.  Likely, you blame other things for getting in the way.  This is fear too.  Some fear is good, but some fear is paralyzing.  And here’s why:  you measure yourself against your accomplishments.

That same apparatus you use to measure the value of that kill is the apparatus you use to measure your value. And you confuse the two.  The kitten that fails to kill the rat does not do very well the next time around.  And the time after that?  It’s a downward spiral.  This is a helpful tool for wildcats and cavemen.  But like so many other evolutionary advances that once assisted us, in our world we have outgrown its usefulness, and it now hinders us.

Let what you do be your work, and what you are be what you are. Let your shitty, incredibly biased measurement system decide your value not based on the successfulness of what you do, but on the fact that you want to try, and you do try, and you accomplish some good things some of the time.  Because you are living in a world where the mole rats are already killed, and served to you whenever you want one.  But you’re still the feral kitten, battered by an unforgiving world, driven by a dire need to succeed, and ready to hinge the value of your whole self on the attempt.

I am in the business of measuring things. That is my job, I measure.  I know that the work is frightfully uncertain, but it only needs to reach a specified tolerance.  After that, the next measurement awaits.  And though I cannot achieve perfection, I can become quite effective at meeting tolerance.  So that’s the script for the actor in the spotlight.  Realistic goals, realistic valuation of a very limited grasp of the world, and the understanding that I will sadly, unavoidably, and appropriately, attach all the significance I can conjure to only the things inside it.

So, have I just taken a long-winded approach to defending setting low goals? Or defended the erection of some sort of psychological defenses?  Is this all a blustery huff-and-puff display, designed to ward off fear of failure?  Or perhaps is there a nugget of gold in there someplace?  Hmmm.  Well, thanks for reading it anyway.  Hope it gave you some ideas.

Until next time, kittens.