Sunday, December 14, 2014

Obstreperousness as a Virtue


I am sometimes a giant pain in the ass at work.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not always a giant pain in the ass.  Often I’m quite pleasant.  Sometimes I’m even agreeable.  But occasionally I lock into stubborn mode and I won’t let go of a point of view, even when I’m hopelessly outnumbered.  When one is younger, one can look upon one’s obstinacy as persistence, can see refusal to compromise as being a bastion of integrity.  Of course, as one gets older, one realizes that they’re really both the same thing.  And, once you realize that every good quality you have is also a bad quality, sticking to them no matter what because they’re “the right thing to do” doesn’t fly any more.  You need better justifications than that.

Thus I keep examining my own motives in an attempt to figure what makes me tick, even though I know that’s doomed to failure.  In fact, on this very topic I’ve already waxed authorial not just once, but twice.  I’m not saying either of those posts are wrong now ... just that I continue to look for something more, even more to help explain my behavior.

The first time I concluded that I hate seeing people make what I think is a mistake, and that’s a part of it.  Maybe a smaller part than that post made it out to be, but it wasn’t a completely useless observation.

The second time I talked about my number one source of frustration in the corporate world.  That’s still relevant too; in fact, at work this week I trotted out that very same story to tell my coworkers.*  But I still think there’s more to be teased out here.

After quite a bit of reflection, I’ve come up with this:  I figure if you’re going to hire someone like me—by which I mean someone with this much gray in their beard who is this much of a pain in the ass—then you do it for two reasons: you want my experience, and you want me to vocal about it.  If you didn’t want my experience, you could hire someone younger.  And if you didn’t want me to be vocal about it, you could definitely hire someone who was a lot easier to put up with.

Hiring someone for their experience means hiring them for their mistakes.  As a popular quote tells us:

Learn from the mistakes of others.  You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.**


So, if you’ve hired me, and you’ve kept me around for a while, and you genuinely seem to value me, then I assume that you want the benefits of my mistakes, and you want me to let you know in no uncertain terms when you’re about to repeat one of them.  And to keep on letting you know if you continue to keep on trying to make that mistake.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you always have to agree with me.  In fact, I think it’d be pretty disastrous if everyone always agreed with me, or always agreed with anyone.  Difference of opinion, as I am fond of saying, is what makes the world go ‘round.  Which is to say, the world would be a pretty boring place if we all agreed on everything.  And how would we ever learn anything without other people challenging our assumptions?  No, if I’m saying that me disagreeing with you is a good thing (which is what I seem to be saying, if I’m saying that my pointing out that a plan of yours may be a mistake is valuable), then I have to accept that you disagreeing with me must be an equally good thing.  In the big picture, I mean.  On any given point, I’d really prefer you stop disagreeing with me and just do as I advise.  But, overall, I can accept that, some percentage of the time, you’re going to disagree with me, and, some percentage of the time, I’m going to lose that fight, and, overall, that’s good.  But I think there are different ways to disagree.

For instance, if I say “if you do this, things could go wrong” and you (“you” in this scenario are my boss, remember) say “yeah, they could, but the rewards outweigh the risks” ... well, that’s a tough argument to beat.  Maybe we can debate the value of the rewards a bit, or the seriousness of the risks, but in general if you know the dangers and you’re willing to risk them for whatever the upsides are, I can’t argue with that.  Business requires risk.  Opportunities have costs, and sometimes you just have to pay them.  You roll the dice, pray the worst never comes, but, if it does, you just deal with it.  Because it was worth it.  If you don’t take risks in business, you get left behind.  Rapidly.

On the other hand, if I say “if you do this, things could go wrong” and you say “nah, I don’t think they could,” or perhaps “well, they could—after all, anything could happen—but the chances are so low it’s not worth worrying about” ... if you say that, then I may just have to dig in.  Because what I’m telling you is, here’s a mistake I’ve already made.  I’m not talking about some theoretical consequence here: I know it can happen because it already happened to me.  I’ve lived through this, at least once (and, the older I get, the more likely it was more than once), and the resulting unpleasantness is burned into my memory, and I’d really prefer not to suffer through it again, thankyouverymuch.  This is why I also tend not to accept an answer of “yes, that could happen, but that’s okay; we’ll just deal with it.”***  ‘Cause, trust me: if it was no big deal to just deal with it, I would not be doing my giant-pain-in-the-ass impression.

Now, let me stress that I’m not unhappy with the way the these sorts of debates are unfolding at my current job.  In fact, curiously, the fact that the discussions have been so reasonable has been the impetus for my meditation on why I get so stubborn.  In past jobs, the pain of beating my head against a brick wall has somewhat dulled my capacity for self-reflection.  In this job, I have some confidence that the folks who hired me can and will take my obstreperousness in the spirit in which it is intended.  Still, I think it’s worth exploring why I feel so passionate about some of these positions, and examining which circumstances trigger my response and why.  Even it’s only for myself.  Because I think that understanding ourselves is one of the hardest things to get right, but one of the most worthwhile endeavors we can undertake.


* If they would just have the good grace to read this blog I keep telling people not to read, I wouldn’t have had to retell the story.  But one can’t have it all, I suppose.

** Like many quotes floating about the Internet, this is attributed to a bewildering multitude of people, including Martin Vanbee, Sam Levenson, Hyman Rickover, John Luther, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Groucho Marx.  Most of whom I have no idea who they are.

*** This was the favorite tactic of my previous boss.