The Right People

How to do what you should and like it.
  September 27, 2003

At my old job, a couple of months before I quit, my boss had called me into his office and told me to close the door.  I did as he said, heart beginning to beat a little faster, sensing trouble.

He looked me over with a frown and told me with his customary bluntness that I shouldn't count on a big bonus that year.

“Not that we're disappointed with you,” he said, a small Chinese man with a big voice that leaked even through closed doors, “but your performance has, ah, slackened since you started with us.  You used to have intensity.  In the first three months, your work was excellent.  Now we feel that you have less enthusiasm.”

Actually, it was zero enthusiasm at that point.  I spent my days gazing out the window or reading blogs and magazines on the Internet.  Projects fell behind schedule.  Billable hours plummeted.  I had trouble focusing in meetings and couldn't trace the flow of conference calls.  The most difficult part was interacting with clients.  Pretending that everything they said was interesting; faking a smooth, likable persona to secure their trust and business; projecting the impression of knowledge and competence where I felt there was none all set my teeth on edge.  It spilled into my interactions with other people in the office.  I felt a brief stab of misery every time I had to make small talk.  It made others feel bad.  It made me feel bad.  It sucked.

When I was a little kid, seven or eight years old, they still had communism in the Soviet Union.  Every day in school, they would tell us about Lenin, and Marx, and the proletariat, and the great revolution, and our great state, and our great future, and then some more about Lenin.  He was a wunderkind, getting all 5's in school (except for one 4, in Logic, which secretly amused us to no end).  He had never lingered in bed on a lazy Sunday morning when he was a boy.  He thought of suffering workers in all his waking hours, which I suppose included times on the john.  (An old joke: the Party manufactures a triple bed, advertises it as “Lenin is always with us.”)  If it were politically correct to discuss his sex life, they would have made him outfuck Casanova.  They turned a twig hut he had constructed during one of his political exiles into a national monument.  They took his corpse and let it rot on display in a massive stone tomb.

After a day in school, I would come home, lock myself in the bathroom and whisper fiercely into the mirror: “Lenin is a moron!  Lenin is a turd!  Lenin is a stupid bastard!  To hell with Lenin!”  This was not an expression of precocious dissident spirit.  At age seven, I thought I lived in the best country in the world.  I just hated being bombarded with mindless propaganda every day.  If they told us with the same relentless vehemence to brush our teeth, I would be cursing out toothpaste.

Now in a different country, trying to navigate local workplaces, I have run into the same problem.  They preach different tenets here, but the preaching still borders on mindless and lack of devotion is still punished.  The tenets are better, I think, or at least more practical, but I still have a problem adhering to them.  In part, it's a simple matter of temperament.  For instance, I hate the blather about teamwork.  I prefer to work alone and be alone, responsible to no one.  I hate being told what to do, or maneuvered into doing it.  This puts me at loggerheads with bosses, political activists, and women cadging drinks in bars.  I also dislike leading others.  The inevitable frictions test my patience and seem to me like a waste of time.  Neither a follower nor a leader; neither a borrower nor a lender of goodwill.  This makes me an autarkic entity, the proverbial island, and—currently my worst fear—it makes me unemployable.

Thinking this gloom and doom, I went to the city a week ago to “network” with a girl I know from grad school.  She's an acquaintance rather than a friend.  On some level, I dreaded the meeting, the social pleasantries and congenial bullshit that no doubt would be required.

We spent two hours imbibing beers and talking in Old Town Bar on East 18th Street. It was effortless.  It was pleasant.  It was fun.  It was, I realized, the complete opposite of the bleak social future I had imagined, where I spend the rest of my black misanthropic days crushed by unrecognized genius, bitterly denouncing the world to a pair of shaggy cats.

Something malfunctions in me, some immunity to polite lies that must be received or dispensed.  This is bad news.  The good news is, in the presence of the right people, politeness turns into genuine emotion, and lies turn into truth.  The task then is to surround oneself with the right people.

Easier said than done, as usual.

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