What I learned and didn’t learn in 20 years of work

DSC_0200My boss asked if I could help pull together information for a report. The report was going to the then CEO (Starbucks, 1997). I was young, 26, eager to help. There were about a dozen people who owed me content and I showed up on their doorstep demanding it. I took the job seriously, I dropped Margie’s name, dropped Orin’s name (he was the CEO), took notes like a reporter. I showed it to Margie and she’d say go back sometimes and I would, I’d interrupt meetings and stand outside offices and one guy (there’s always one guy) was always late and he’d laugh at my intensity but I didn’t laugh back, and then his face would change and he’d say alright, when do you need it.

I didn’t know anything about corporate politics, didn’t want to really. I had a direct report who mentioned it once, the politics, and I said don’t use that word around me againI thought if I didn’t believe in the politics I could make it go away, but I was wrong about that.

I didn’t know how to attach documents either, it was my first time. I figured out the paper clip icon did it, and thought how smart! The first time I attached something I don’t know, it was like magic. I had no idea what I was doing with my hands but it felt powerful. I was supposed to work 40 hours but wrote something proving I could do it in 20 and asked what else they had I could do. Margie offered me a different role called roll-out specialist and we joked about rolling out of bed but I declined and announced I was leaving, moving to France, couldn’t seem to find a girl in Seattle, done.

But I got lonely and came back. When I did, it was like I never left. Some people didn’t even notice (it had been 10 months). My extension was the same and somehow, it remembered my internet Favorites. Margie suggested I should get another job, leave the nest. I’d gone from being a coordinator to administrative assistant—more pay and prestige, but not as exciting as coordinating, really. When you coordinate, they’re like mini-projects but the work was kind of droll. One time when Margie was away I wasn’t feeling well and napped on the carpet beneath her desk but it made a pattern on my cheek like a waffle iron. They had wellness rooms but took the locks off because people were abusing them, which makes sense when you think about it.

I’d just gotten a professional certification for project management and was really pumped up, 10 years later. I’d been reading a lot of books and geeking out over processes and tools, calculations: it seemed you could fit every problem in the world inside a box just perfectly, with project management.

I was in a new department and led a two hour meeting, a kind of intervention with two teams under the same VP who weren’t playing nice or talking enough and me coming in to define the OCM impacts (which were overlooked) was viewed as a discreet way of identifying any gaps in scope or places we were out of alignment. It was like getting under a car and poking around, looking for leaks.

I guess I demanded a lot of answers and clarity and did a good job managing the clock, and someone got it in her mind I should lead a bigger project and nominated me, and then six weeks after I took it she left the company and I got a different business owner, and their view of me or the group I represented wasn’t the same, my help didn’t seem as welcome, and in my first meeting someone asked for the dry erase marker and I handed it over and sat down, and that’s when it all started to turn, right then.

But I had that persistence still, that started as a reporter’s persistence but shifted to a mountaineer’s push-through-it persistence, the same attitude I had about certain yoga poses, the reason my knees give out now, I ruined the ligaments. And though two peers had been on the same project before but managed to get off (and then got promoted), I refused to leave. I thought if I stayed on and pushed through it would resolve itself, but I was wrong about that too.

Dawn says she thinks it’s a tribal thing for us, with work: we want to feel like we’re of use as part of a tribe (an instinct that goes way back) and when we don’t, when we let other people remove us of our use or marginalize us, it feels really bad. It’s because we’re looking for human acceptance I think, validation, it’s the same feeling that starts when we’re young on the playground and it never stops, it’s not much different than what we need from our parents to make us feel like we really matter.

But the mistake we make is giving that power to someone else, when it’s ours, and only ours, to keep.



Categories: musings

Tags: , , , , ,

26 replies

  1. Where did you get that picture? My dad was a butcher. Excuse me…meat cutter. He didn’t like the word butcher, although it fit him like a hand in love.

    I’m trapped in a dull, corporate hell. They have a lactation room for new mommies. Sometimes, I lock myself in a have a good weep. It’s humiliating but cathartic. How did you escape? How do you do that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The picture is from the largest collection of swine relics in the world, outside of Stuttgart, at a swine museum (on the former grounds of a slaughterhouse, fitting). I found the picture especially macabre, and accurate.
      Hey, sorry to hear about the situation with you. The escape thing, well: I left a big company intending to go to work for a smaller one and now I’m contracting at Microsoft, which is going really well, though not what you’d call small by any means.
      I like contracting for a number of reasons. The escape thing, to answer more directly, came with the chance we had to move to Europe so we acted on that as a kind of mid-career halftime thing. Being back to work for me feels terrific. No need to cry, not for now.


  2. “Meet You in the Wellness Room” would make a good song.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. My wife is in the midst of corporate-dom at this very moment, and I think she’s given up being frustrated about politics. Sure, she’d like to see them wiped from the map and just have people operate openly and honestly, maybe even have everyone work approximately as hard as everyone else. Instead, she started paying attention and, as far as I know, has learned to both “play the game” AND maintain her integrity (e.g. she stays honest, works hard, is genuinely friendly and cooperative, takes the higher ground in little people and big people drama, etc.). I’m incredibly proud of her, because my minimal exposure to that world was vaguely soul-shattering.

    For my money, I devoted myself to my dream job: being a high school teacher. HA! For most, that’s a special circle of hell all on its own. For me, I’d rather work with “real” high schoolers than all of the “fake” ladder-climbers and ass-kissers I’ve ever met. Sure, they are moody and hormonal, but they are straight up about it.

    Find that dream job, everybody, or find your way of coping that keeps the job genuinely enjoyable. As a wise man once said (more or less): everybody’s got to take a bit of the shit sandwich; do you want a shit sandwich that you hate, or a shit sandwich that you can tolerate with maybe an olive on top?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Teachers are gods. Not much more to say beyond that, except good advice about the sandwich. Read that Melville story about Bartleby, have your students read it, perplexing to consider that (we don’t work, we don’t exist). Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Amen, Bill. I like your wife’s theory that the need to feel useful and valued is tribal instinct. If we don’t get that at work, the job is hard to go to. I also like the analogy of wearing your ligaments out in yoga (but not that you did this). As we get older, I like to think that dog-like eagerness calms down. The validation comes from within and maybe we start to give it more generously to ourselves and others.


  5. There does seem to be a biological imperative for males to explore and conquer, whether it’s a literal frontier or a metaphorical one. There’s not much left outwardly anymore is there? Perhaps that’s why the collective psyche seems so out of balance of late. Perhaps the final frontier is not what Captain Kirk promised, not external, but internal.


    • I like that you put it in those terms. That’s kind of the book I started writing, that internal quest. That’s relatable and universal and not gender-bound. But I’ll admit to a kind of machismo there, that “hunt it down and kill it” attitude with going out and getting stuff done. I had a great boss who used that exact phrase with me. Hunt it and kill it, more or less. Funny…we are SO far from truly wild times like that. Our new killing and eating relates to the abstract, to cutting through corporate clutter, getting people’s attention.


  6. did you share this with Margie, Bill?….she’d love it! best,


    gregg s johnson cell: 206.399.3066 email: gregg@greggsjohnson.com



  7. This makes me glad that I didn’t go the corporate route. You sound like you were in the place you needed to be, but I’d have been canned inside a year! Luckily I found my way to nonprofits, which, though kind of corporate, had a looser feel.

    I wonder what leads people where they wind up? Astrology?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I for one didn’t care much for contracting, but then I was never independent. As such I had to play politics at two levels, the consulting firm and the client. As for giving away power, with two bosses I never had much to speak of – I guess it wasn’t an issue.

    But persistence is important, the trick is knowing how hard to push.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting, and the power thing, and pushing, such an art. I’m loving it so far but it’s early days. I like the flexibility and the feeling of independence, no strings attached really, deliver immediate value or beat it. Kind of like that!


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