[2 April 2003]
“What about your work?
It’s a crock and then you die.”
Meatloaf, “Life is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back”
AAs seems often the case for folks who work closely with others in an office, I have a co-worker who hates me. Though his job is head journalist at our newspaper, he seems to consider one of his responsibilities to do everything in his power to make me look bad.
“He’s a control freak,” they tell me. “He’s jealous of you,” they say. “He sees you as a threat.” “He’s just a complete asshole.”
He may very well be all of these things, but his devious (and childish) antics pushed me so far that I recently handed in my four weeks notice. When my boss asked me why I wanted to leave my rewarding, easy-going and well-respected position, I told him it was time I found myself, moved on and up. What I wanted to say was, “I’m leaving because Finchy’s a control freak, he’s jealous of me, sees me as a threat and is just a complete asshole.”
Though, I’m already excited at the prospect of finding a new job, after reading Paul Hellman’s Naked At Work and Other Fears, I feel I now have a significant hoof up in knowing how to survive such a situation if ever it should arise in my new job (should I find one, fingers crossed). If only he’d written it two years ago.
Hellman’s book is honest and confronting, while at the same time, refreshing and devilishly funny. With a Masters in Management from MIT’s Sloan School and “several degrees in psychology”, Hellman takes his knowledge of the working mind and blends it with his obvious experience in the workplace. This is a man who knows the office. His descriptions of everything from dimwitted bosses to employees’ desire to always carry “enormous bottles of water” into company meetings are so utterly flawless, you’d be mistaken for thinking the odd-looking man beside you at the AGM giving you sideways glances as you attempt to stay awake isn’t Mr Hellman himself.
Hellman’s major workplace philosophy is that every rough situation faced can be “reframed” to make that situation a lot easier to deal with. He believes there’s no need to get so strung up at work, so stressed, or so ragingly mad at those working around us. It’s all a matter of rethinking the situation and making light of it by challenging three straightforward, “irrational beliefs” concerning Circumstances, Ego and Others.
Circumstances: The universe should never discomfort or inconvenience me. It should always give me what I want, never what I don’t want.
Ego: I must always perform well and be approved of by significant others (in order to prove my worth as a human being).
Others: Other people should always behave nicely toward me.
Counteracting his CEO non-ideal is the basis for the first part of Hellman’s book. He explores each of these “irrational beliefs” by reminding us that life doesn’t always comply with our desires. According to Hellman, inconvenience is a part of life, so much so that the two go almost hand in hand, and though we may complete every task set us to the best of our abilities, we’re not always going to do it well. As for other people, well, they’re often just downright strange.
In order to get his numerous points across, Hellman chooses not to dictate, opting for a much more relaxed style of convincing. He does this by recounting small anecdotes, funny little stories that not only office workers can relate to, but anyone who’s ever had so much as a passing thought. Many of these anecdotes are separated from the main text in groovily framed boxes:
Anecdote #20: Traffic Item in the paper: A union debate whether to block rush hour traffic to “draw public attention to worker’ gripes.” Is there a connection between rush hour traffic and workers’ gripes? I think yes! I’m a worker, and one of my main gripes is—rush hour traffic. Maybe the union’s motto should be, “We’re not going anywhere and neither are you.” But I doubt the public would react favorably: “This traffic is driving me NUTS!!! And yet—it’s also increasing my sympathy for workers’ gripes!” Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. You can’t block rush hour traffic. It’s already blocked! That’s the whole point of rush hour traffic. If the union really wants public support, they should figure out a way to unblock it.
And so it goes. Hellman’s observation slices throughout his book are an absolute gas. Not only is he right on target with obvious workaday issues such as rush hour, he’s just as cluey when it comes to mysterious resignations, company mergers, jet lag, falling asleep at your desk, urine tests, empty elevators, productivity goals, the pleasures of receiving voice mail and the horrors of “casual day”.
His CEO vibe slyly works itself into each of these situations (and about a hundred others) with Hellman constantly reminding us—forcing us to recognize, even—that life is inconvenient, we are not super-human and that other people often suck.
The final part of Hellman’s book outlines his strategies to overcome these issues. How to change them is not Hellman’s job—all he attempts to do is give the reader a few simple tactics to help them become less bothersome. They’re out of our control, after all. CEO is again applied:
Challenge your assumptions.
Energize your thinking.
Hellman devises ways to take control of our thoughts (we have 60,000 of them per day, you know) and to make them work for us. What we believe to be true isn’t always, we must challenge the way we see things, reframe situations with a positive spin. Or at least one not so irrational and negative. A simple example would be, Hellman says, that just because your boss grunted at you does not mean he hates you and is about to fire you, sending your world spiraling into the toilet—he may just be having a bad day. This technique is surprisingly basic, but can work wonders when put into practice.
After reading his strategies, I sat at my desk at work and opened my eyes for the first time in ages. Listening to the sounds of the office, the voices, the conversations, watching people as they struggled with ridiculous questions, fumbled easy answers and made walking down the hallway seem the most important job of the day for once didn’t make me want to tear my hair out. It made me smile, laugh even. I didn’t feel happy to be where I was (it is the rare child who is happy in their workplace), instead making me feel enlightened. I know the copier never works (PC load letter!?), but I needn’t let it bother me. Who really cares? I’m outta here in (for example) three hours and fourteen minutes.
It’s a lesson, Paul says. Everything in the workplace that bothers us actually challenges us, molds us, and teaches us very definite, very important lessons. Even asshole co-workers.
With his sharp wit and even sharper eye for even the tiniest of details, Hellman’s simple and clever ideas on surviving your job not only make the workplace a lot more tolerable, but can also make it seem like a wonderland of hilarity. I miss the place already.