When I was in third grade, my elementary school guidance counselor setup a meeting with my parents and I to talk about my behavior. I’ll spare you the details, but the gist is that “John has a high comprehension level and enormous potential but does not apply himself.” Whether or not that was or is actually true is debatable on some days and a ludicrous notion on others, but this interaction stuck with me, and possibly accidentally influenced the rest of my life, up to this point at least.
I’ve made it around the sun 36 times now, and in the past 28 revolutions since being told that my ability to grok how the world works was a super human ability yet to be seen in reality, I’ve identified several commonalities that boil down to one inalienable truth:
You’re difficult to work with.
I’ve been told this directly several times in my life, and twice recently, so let’s assume that it’s true.
- I’m stubborn; I get that from my dad who is always right even after you have definitively proven him wrong with factual evidence to refute his theories. I’ve always found this endearing in a way; “prove that I’m wrong” was a fun challenge growing up and learning how the world worked, and I also actively try never to operate in that capacity towards others because as an adult, it’s hugely frustrating.
- I’m observant; I get that from both of my parents who both were always living on the brink of poverty and needing to keep an inventory of every scrap, every opportunity, and every potential threat at what they had already accomplished or accumulated.
- I’m passionate; I get this from my mom; her heart is bigger than her head, and her head is growing increasingly fuzzy. I want to make sure that people and things are taken care of, and I actively put forth my best effort to ensure the most positiver outcome occurs.
- I “think too much.” I’m not sure when exactly this started or if it’s always been this way, or what exactly influenced my brain to work this way, but learning is my addiction and being fluent enough in everything to be able to hold down a conversation is a way for me to dodge any social anxiety I might have.
- I expect too much from people. I expect people to understand my perspective as much as I understand theirs. I expect people to be as patient with me as I am with them. I expect people to be polite, and communicative, and respectful. I expect people to be considerate, kind, and compassionate. I’m constantly disappointed when they aren’t any of these things.
(Edit: I should note here that I think my parents are both amazing individuals. They’re brilliant in their own unique ways. They are savants that sacrificed their opportunities so that I could have mine, and I love and appreciate them immensely.)
This last one is (in my self-diagnosed opinion) ultimately the issue that makes me difficult to work with. I try not to offer unsolicited advice, but I desperately want to be helpful so when someone does ask for my opinion I have a well thought-out perspective to offer. That requires an education, which requires research, and doing this at scale with all the cool shit in the world requires an ability to comprehend something quickly and filter out anything that isn’t relevant.
In reality, though, what’s happened numerous times is someone asks for my opinion, and I blow their question out of the water with several layers deeper worth of feedback than they were probably asking for. Here’s an example based on a real life experience:
- “What do you think of this new soup we are trying out?”
- “I like it, but I don’t think it matches the rest of the lunch offerings.”
- “Oh, okay. But the soup is good though?”
- “It’s not bad, but it’s heavy on the spices and thicker than I expected it to be. And I think if I came in for an iced-tea on a hot summer day, that I wouldn’t want to pair it with a cup of tomato soup.”
- “I suppose. We have a few days worth of ingredients so we’ll see how it goes. Thanks.”
Now, me… I don’t find this interaction off-putting at all, but the chef definitely does, and the manager who worked hard to make the decision to order the ingredients and put together the pairings and design the menu and bring out the ladder and chalk and write the specials on the board and convince everyone this was the right thing to do, doesn’t want to hear this feedback.
This type of scenario carries over to my current career, where interactions are largely public, relationships are largely friendly, interactions are usually with individuals I’ve known in some capacity for several years, but I still manage to piss off despite a lifetime of preparation to try and avoid conflict and accomplish cool stuff with people.
My hunch is that they’re probably right, and that working with me is difficult. Ironically, I don’t think it’s because I’m stubborn like my dad, or over-observant, or passionate, or think too much, but because I’m so fluent and familiar with every aspect and angle of every problem that needs solving under my umbrella of influence, that I’ve already:
- Deeply assessed the entire situation
- Tested several theories about what’s wrong
- Cross-checked the results of my conclusions
- Considered the social implications of communicating my feedback
- Formulated a response catered to being direct, polite, jovial, and light-hearted enough to convey humor in whatever flaw it is we’re diagnosing and repairing
Ironically, even with all of this preparation, and time, and knowledge, and consideration, I’m still difficult to work with. And they’re right, they must be, because it’s fairly consistent feedback spanning several years and groups of friends and relationships and what-not.
My conclusion is that, in one sense, I’m over-applying myself to compensate for a conversation that happened when I was 8 years old. I’ve become addicted to learning things and applying what I learn to prove to myself that I can. I learned how to build, tune, and race cars when I was a teenager. I learned how to write code and make video games. I learned about making wine, brewing coffee, working on the house, auto-cross, electrical, plumbing, accounting, hiring, firing, small engines, milling wood flooring, drywall, pressure washing, video production, mixing music, turntablism, art history, design, typography, security, microwave emitters, steam cleaning, public speaking, community service, whatever…
Basically, I unknowingly fueled the depression and anxiety of primarily inattentive ADHD. I included a link, but you can just search the web for it if you care to learn. Basically, my brain is a hummingbird that never lands, and is constantly on high-alert trying to observe and absorb, and there is no off switch within reach. When it’s time to communicate to someone else what’s been rattling around in my head for however long, it’s already been too long and I’ve worked too far ahead. The effort it takes for me to slow down to bring everyone else up-to-my-speed, means me sacrificing my momentum just so that people can think I’m difficult to work with anyways.
This doesn’t happen very frequently, but when it does it’s painful… it hurts my head to stop thinking so I can write down everything I just learned, with the knowledge that the recipient isn’t going to consider all of the angles that I did, and I’m too anxious about being perceived negatively to concentrate on communicating the depths of my thoughts effectively.
If I wasn’t a cargo-shorts wearing pizza-eating white-dude that looks and acts pretty normal most of the time, and if it wasn’t something I felt I could control enough to navigate the world with relative ease, I’d call it a disability. It’s like being blind, and having people tell you that you’re difficult to work with because you can’t see.
When you consider the perspective of a self-aware recipient, being told that you’re difficult to work with is not feedback, it’s a personal attack, it’s dismissive, and it’s insulting. Combine that feedback with your efforts being voluntary, and it starts to look like management is actively sabotaging your experience.
It’s perpetually negatively self-fulfilling. If you tell someone they are a jerk, they’re going to get defensive which heightens their anxiety and excites them into acting like a jerk, and then you get to say they’re a jerk. It’s unfair, manipulative, and not indicative of true leadership ability or spirit.
What should happen in these cases, and what I actively put mucho effort to convey in BuddyPress, bbPress, and other open-source endeavors, is an appreciation for everyone’s efforts and perspectives, particularly if I initially disagree, because it’s important to me and the projects I represent that I fully understand all perspectives before I can rightfully come to any conclusion, and it’s important that the delivery of my conclusion be respectful of their time & feelings related to the matter.
So, fine… I’m difficult to work with. I’m probably difficult to work for, too. And difficult to be married to. And I’m confident Paul the dog thinks I’m a difficult puppy-master because I spent 2 hours drafting this all up instead of walking him around the block this afternoon. If you know me, or you think you want to, or you’re forced to interact with me somewhere for some reason, please try to give me the benefit of the doubt, and if you aren’t able to, expect for me to be pretty frustrated about it, because I’m trying my best and I expect you to do the same.