My Descent Into and Rise From Team Hell
Ever since I’ve been a kid, I thought I was unique. My skills, personality, likes and dislikes, attitude and dreams combined to make me the person I am, unlike anyone else. It turns out that I was right, but I spent years of time and energy trying to become someone else. I do, however, take solace in the fact that millions of people have likely done the same thing for thousands of years.
Grade school was a mixed bag of good education and budding friendships that was too frequently tainted by aggressive physical bullying and the fear it generated. Very quickly I drew two clear conclusions about life that seemed deadly accurate when viewed through the eyes of a young boy. First, it was really important to be liked since a group of friends, particularly POPULAR friends, seemed to act as a buffer to insulate a person from the harsh realities of life. My second epiphany, related to the first, was that there were certain people that were so different from me that there was no way we could get along. They had views about the world that were, well, wrong. Catering to them would do nothing good for the fabric of society.
As the years passed it dawned on me that, while there was very little I could do to completely eliminate the people that rubbed me the wrong way, I could definitely increase the number of people that liked me. So, in my mid-teens, I set out on a course to do just that.
Now, I’m no psychologist. Not even close. So, I didn’t infuse my plan with any sort of intelligence that may have actually helped. Instead, I took a look around at what seemed to make a person likeable. I did have the distinct advantage of knowing what it took to be disliked and shunned, to be pushed out to the outer rings of the social circle, so I figured that to be liked I merely had to do the opposite of what I had been doing.
Progress, if it can be called that, happened incrementally and was not always guided by a conscious intent to ratchet myself up the popularity charts. It was often difficult to determine in advance if doing any particular thing would enhance my social status, but it was always blindingly obvious when that status improved. It seemed that the adoption of bad behavior attracted a larger crowd than anything else, so I had my first cigarette (of many), my first beer (of many) and sidled up to the crowd that welcomed that kind of thing. Even though I was an athlete in high school and pursued sports aggressively, which created another invitation to the “in” crowd, it was the bad boy stuff that made me feel the most accepted.
The next several years were spent refining my craft, although being the life of the party doesn’t have a formal curriculum or apprenticeship. That said, I became good at it. Mr Fun. The last guy still standing when the lights came on in the nightclub. I probably don’t need to add more detail; you get the picture. I was “that guy”.
It did make me the go to guy for the next party, but it was remarkably ungratifying. I had plenty of partners in crime, but few solid relationships. I was accepted, but it was unclear if I was actually liked. I sought their approval but most often was rewarded with only a hangover.
Old habits die hard and the party life continued, but after a few years working in a factory and as a carpenter it was time to go back to school, to get on with “real” life, one filled with more stability and promise. Being Mr. Fun was enjoyable at times but it wouldn’t qualify me for a mortgage. My wife, being the responsible person in our relationship and who had been encouraging me for years to rise to
my potential (sometimes translated as ‘Keith, grow up’), urged me to go back to school, so we quit our jobs, picked up our small household and moved to the city for a higher education.
At this point, it’s important to provide a bit of context. I grew up in a small northern town and had spent most of my life to that point living in other small or smallish places. The majority of my beliefs about the world flowed from that life, and my personal views were less than cosmopolitan and definitely not urban. Being dropped into the middle of a large city was a bit of a culture shock, and I now intermingled with people from all walks of life, diverse backgrounds and a spectrum of political views. It didn’t take me long to assess my fellow students and instructors and quickly pop them into suitable categories. Some were quite likeable, mostly because we shared a common world view and personal habits. Others were nice enough but held wildly different views than I, whereas still others had beliefs similar to mine but were not my cup of tea personally. And a few I just didn’t like at all.
A couple of weeks into my training the concept of a “group project” was introduced to me. At the time I didn’t know that it had apparently been devised by either the world’s greatest sociologist or worst psychopath (Note: I’m still not sure), but in any event the idea seemed pretty straightforward. A group of students is assigned as a team to perform a project of some sort. The group was required to figure out how to get it done, who would do what and to make sure the project was successful. Which sounded easy enough, until I realized who was in my first group.
Of the five people on our team, including me, three fell squarely outside the “I Like Them” category and were scattered equally across the other three columns. We were all to receive the same mark for the project, but in my assessment, it was going to be tough sledding ahead. I quickly categorized the remaining team members. OK, #1, he’s fine. #2, she’s a bit loopy but is a good writer so she’ll be OK. #3 is a deadbeat, lazy as a summer day is long. #4 is a wingnut and I want nothing to do with.
Not much to work with, in my humble view. So in my brash way, I started to direct traffic according to my assessment, defining who would tackle which piece. No one asked me to, there was no diplomacy involved, I just started to dictate. And a fight ensued. We argued. “Who made you boss?” said one. “I’ve got other stuff to do, I can’t do that piece of the project” another chimed in. One just sat there quietly. It was a mess, organized by yours truly.
I wanted (actually, needed) to get a good mark, so in the end the guy in my Like column and I ended up doing the lion’s share of the work as I figured the rest had limited use and I essentially muscled them out of the way. There was very little team work as we (or I) stripped the ‘group’ out of the group project. Never shy about hard work, I pushed my way through the effort and we ended up getting a decent mark. Which unfortunately reinforced my views about the other team members. ‘See?’ I told myself ‘I knew they weren’t going to perform’. Not once did I see that I had prevented them from being part of the team.
The days and months blurred, the school workload being heavy. Inevitably, another group project was thrust upon us. While the team composition was different, I feared the same outcome; mainly that I would have to do most of the work. So, this time, while still assuming the mantle of team lead (OK, I took it before anyone could grab the gavel) I started by asking who would like to do which piece. Hands shot up as people volunteered for their favorite parts. I’ll write. I’ll do the research. I’ll present the findings. Which made things easier to be sure.
One of the group members was a sweet, demure, fairly young woman who had shown technical talent but was terrified of public speaking. Eventually we all had to tackle each project role, so I suggested she make the final presentation to the class. Her eyes widened as her head shook ‘no way’. But I and another student (in the Nice Guy but I Disagree With Your Views category) persisted and she finally agreed.
On a few occasions the reluctant soon to be presenter asked me how to best prepare for standing up in front of the class and pitch the merits of our project. At first I didn’t understand the concern. ‘What’s the big deal?’ I thought. ‘You just get up there and start talking’. After years of being Mr Fun I had no problem being in the public eye. In reality, I’d made a public fool of myself on numerous occasions, which wasn’t anything to be proud of but did have the effect of knowing a person can screw up, embarrass themselves and still recover. For me, standing in front of a group and rattling on was easy, but I soon saw that she was sincerely terrified.
So we talked about it. What worried her? How to best prepare? I offered a few tips but mainly reinforced the idea that she would survive and be fine. Add a bit of her personal history. Tell a story. Practice in front of our small group. But mainly to just do it, because the fear would haunt her forever if she always shied away.
Project complete, the day of the presentations arrived. I felt refreshed and glad I hadn’t been saddled with the extra workload of presenting the project. She on the other hand still looked horrified at the thought of speaking in front of the rest of the student body, but to her credit had prepared furiously and practiced relentlessly in front of a mirror and in front of us. I continued to believe that she would falter, stumble and look wooden, and at best be mediocre, but we both knew she would be standing in front of the class in few moments, and nothing could stop it from happening. Trembling and holding her cue cards, she stepped to the podium and…
…did remarkably well. Her practice had paid off and while she lacked polish, she did a credible job. I was impressedbut no one was happier than she was. She beamed, as if she’d broken through a barrier that held her from claiming a prize. Which of course she had. She thanked me profusely for the help, to which I sincerely replied “Not a problem, happy to do it.”
That night I reflected on the day. She was in my Nice Girl But I Disagree With Your Views column, and despite our differences she pulled it off. And survived. In the process she helped us all to succeed. Even though we would undoubtedly continue to spar about who held the superior world view, we could find a way to work together. And most importantly, had I stuck to my old dictatorial ways we all would have been worse off for it.
Over the past decades I, like many of you, have worked on a variety of teams. Sometimes I was able to select my comrades while at other times they were foisted upon me, forced to work towards a common goal. Most times the goals were realized, but on a few occasions, we crashed and burned. These many experiences have taught me a few critical things:
· Being the life of the party and on display doesn’t mean you’re liked. You’re merely the entertainment. Don’t worry about being liked – focus on being useful, on getting things done. You achieve more and you’ll feel better.
· It’s OK to disagree with another person’s views and even dislike them. Just realize you might not be their favourite person either. It’s a big world with lots of disparate views. You’re just as right
or wrong as they are, no better or worse. We have many differences and can still find ways to work together to get things done.
· Don’t be a dictator, bully or jerk, even if you think you’re right. It just makes everything worse.
· If someone needs help and you are able to provide it, do so. A little effort on your part can make a huge difference in another person’s life. It might not seem like a big deal to you, but to them it might be life altering.
I have little doubt that ever since people have existed, most sought the approval and acceptance of others. It may have been for reasons of survival (“Hey, let me into your cave, it’s cold out here!”), validation (“I’m a good person, right?”) or to offset poor self-esteem (“I’ll feel better if 100 people say I look good in this suit”). But like I said, I’m not a psychologist so I’ll leave the questions of why we do it for the professionals to figure out. I just know I’m not alone.
I also know that I have spent way too much time seeking the wrong kind of acceptance from and adoration of people. Then dictating to others as a means of imposing my views on my colleagues and the world, merely to discover it got me nowhere. I’m more at ease with who I am now – the original legitimate me.
If you choose to be a social media diva, politician or career ladder climber, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to be popular and think that’s the ticket to the top. And if the quest is pursued at the expense of being helpful, you’ll be wrong. Yes, your social status and capital may rise. But it won’t help the world, in fact just the opposite. Think of your own life. Who do you remember? The popular Tik Tok star who made that cool video and whose name escapes you? Or the neighbour who helped you learn to skate. The uncle who took you fishing on weekends. The boss that had enough faith in you to give you the job you never thought you could do. After it’s all said and done no one cares how popular you are, how many ‘likes’ you garner on Instagram or how you issue commands to others. Just be helpful. The rest will fall into place as it should.
If you are looking for someone to celebrate, watch the ‘nerdy’ kid who quietly wins the science fair. The mother who shepherds her kids to school and takes them on field trips. The cook in the restaurant kitchen working hard to feed their family. Your co-worker who is a workhorse and makes everyone look good but never expects any praise. Send them a ‘like’ or even a smile. They’re helping us all move forward and making the world a better place.