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.


About the Author

I help build WordPress, BuddyPress, bbPress, EDD, Sugar Calendar, and a bunch of other super neat stuff.

14 comments on “I’m difficult to work with

  • Anca Mosoiu August 21, 2015 at 6:06 pm

    Have you ever asked people to explain more about they think you are difficult? Just like the chef in your story, you’ll hear difficult answer, but getting more details will help you adjust your interaction patterns so you get the results you want.

    You imagine that you’ve thought through every angle of why you are “difficult”, but until you actually get the details of WHY from someone who is wise enough to articulate this on your level, you are missing some really big clues.

    Social interaction problems, just like UX things, are not tractable for the analytical brain in the same way that “figure out every path though this code, and make sure it doesn’t break” is tractable and finite.

  • Justin Sainton August 21, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    As someone who has had the opportunity to work with you, however tangentially, let me say this: you are worth working with. I doubt we worked closely enough for me to judge whether or not it was actually difficult – however, no matter how difficult it could have been, it would have been worth it.

  • ServerPress Marc August 21, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    I have had limited interaction with you and while one time was me sleeping on a plane when I could have had far more engaging conversation with you (in retrospect, something I wish I had done), I have really appreciated the times we have spoken. Being around people who are smarter than I only makes me FAR better off ultimately.

    I think that when people say that someone like you is hard to work with, it is because they take personally something that was not originally posed as a personal issue. Asking how you like the soup really should be about the soup and potential improvement upon it. Instead, they are really asking a question about themselves. It’s a false premise.

    I come from the other side of things. When I ask an opinion, I get upset if the opinion offered is not an honest one. I ask sincerely because I want my end product to be top notch. It might hurt a bit at first if it is something that I put a lot of heart and soul into, but I take the thoughts offered seriously and appreciate them beyond measure because I know that the end result is a kick ass product.

    From your perspective, though, being able to understand their motivation for asking the question in the first place is a great place to start.

  • jasonbahl August 21, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    I’ve never worked with you but I want to after reading this! I actually find it more difficult to work with people who are just people pleasers and avoid conflict at all costs just to keep things calm and peaceful. I’d rather work with someone who analyzes things and can bring up their perspective and be direct about it.

    I feel like I could have written a nearly identical post about myself. . .I’m pretty analytical and think about things from several perspectives and when I offer feedback that’s sometimes more loaded than expected it can be offputting.

    Thanks for posting this. Great read.

  • Central Geek August 22, 2015 at 12:52 am

    I always enjoy your in depth explanations for what you have to say. And I especially like the fact that you do get around to saying what you seem to have set out to say. There are a whole lot of less pedantic people who don’t seem to have those abilities.

    Keep up the good work, you are entertaining whether you are hard to work with or live with or anything else. What you write is fun and insightful.. I also enjoy those projects you have been involved with that I use.

    Poor puppy. 😉

  • beckyddesign August 22, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    I had several flashbacks – I’ve heard “enormous potential but does not apply himself”, from several teachers in my life, for myself, my brother and my kids. I wonder if educators understand how harmful it is trying to get bright kids to conform, instead of being challenged themselves and giving the kids something interesting to do.
    Beyond having a dozen words with you at a dozen WordCamps over the years, we haven’t had a chance to work together. I hope someday soon we do. Keep being difficult, it’s awesome.

  • Peter Davenport August 22, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    Pedantic. I think that is the word you are looking for. Some people make fun of it, but I see it as a matter of pride. Your description of yourself matches how I describe my adult son, who is very much described as pedantic. He is thoughtful and conversations with him tend to leave one at the end with a feeling of being overwhelmed. He has a deep, educated knowledge of things – not trivia knowledge, though that is present too – analytic knowledge. He’s seen the conclusions in his head, drawn them and is happy to explain (or more often, argue) them.

    When he was a teenager, I found his pedantic style of conversation sometimes annoying and exasperating, but now that he has finished college (dual major, economics and international relations) and in the workforce, I find it fascinating and interesting. Especially, because he has begun to understand more about how he thinks and works in that pedantic way – and is beginning to leverage it in his job as a researcher for a consulting firm. With his methods, he is meeting great success as a young man.

    The depth of the layers he approaches things is nice, when you are prepared and ready for it; but, if one isn’t ready he comes across as hard to work with. It was nice reading this, because I can relate to it as an observer of someone whose mind works in a similar fashion.

  • Germanophile August 22, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YEs! Invariably something about how our brains never shut off and absorb all this info makes people nuts and insecure. No one thinks, “Well she probably is jealous of people who crochette. ” Which I am. I am good at a lot of things. I like a lot of weird things (German pop/rock/shlager music). But I suck at crochette and knitting. I can’t even spell the one. I am jealous of people who can relax at the bar. I can not be comfortable there. I am always scanning for the person who will take my purse, throw a punch or grab my ass if I go to the bathroom. And I don’t like booze. There are lots of things other people are good at.

    But somehow, they take offense at the things that I am good at. And then the sabotage starts. First the gossip, then the active disruption of work, the defilement of a work station and then boom! Into the supervisors office and “You’re difficult to work with.” But I get, “And everyone here hates working with you so if you want to keep your job you have to get along.” I don’t smoke so people are offended that I don’t go to the smokers table for break. I don’t drink so my absence at the bar is an issue. And when I show people how I do what I do, (Because they asked) I get called a show off.

    It’s a no win battle my friend. we know that everyone has a talent. It’s just that most people have been shamed into ignoring theirs they have to shut down others. It still sucks. It still hurts. But when you get older you will careless. At least I think you will. I’ve been told my new found No fucks given” comes with menopause (sorry, TMI) so if you guys get it then you will find the haven of Nofuck one day.

  • Doug Smith August 24, 2015 at 11:19 am

    I haven’t had the pleasure of working with you to know if you’re difficult or not. However, what I do know is that when we’ve crossed paths online or at a WordCamp you’ve always been helpful and gracious with your time. Those instances have helped me to learn well and think at a deeper level about the topic at hand. Agree or disagree with the perspective, that kind of interaction and thoughtfulness is often exhibited by people I enjoy working with.

    BTW, there must be something with teachers and that “has potential but doesn’t always apply himself” kind of phrase. I had a teacher tell my parents that and I then heard it echoed for many years after. 🙂

  • lonewolf95665 September 1, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    Ya.. to be judge at such a young age. I got hit with a ruler for writing with both hands at the same time. Hit so hard that blood drew from the back of my fingers. Then, later in life, after a 36 hour stretch of work and college studies, I was doing it again. This time across a chalk board in from of an entire class. Usually loud and playful when waiting for the hand written presentation to be placed on the board.. the class was silenced. Not realizing what I was doing the Professor interrupted me… I did it again… this time I did not get struck. Oh! I also nailed the economic presentation. Yes. Chalk.. I am giving up some years around the sun here JJJ. Keep up the good works. LW.

  • wpcarer September 10, 2015 at 3:43 am

    For God’s sake get out and walk that dog! If your dog doesn’t think you’re the BEST THING EVER then noone will!

  • Kvizee Doug September 10, 2015 at 10:41 am

    RE: “…if I came in for an iced-tea on a hot summer day, … I wouldn’t want to pair it with a cup of tomato soup.”
        I think a more important question is: How would you design an air conditioning system where a sound system drives puffs of cold air in a pattern such that a baffle at an open door(or no door) could emit sound out of phase to produce and interference pattern wall to keep the cold air from escaping. Then on a hot day you could initially cool off quickly with iced-tea and then when you got too cold from the air-conditioning, you could have hot soup. Running in through an open door, you could do the quick cool down from the tea and then have a slow warm up in the embrace of a spicy soup. You could have a balance and equilibrium to your state of comfort with a good clash and feedback of tastes. Tea and hot soup is like running fast in the cold to keep warm.

  • Dillydally3d March 8, 2016 at 6:04 am

    Thank you for explaining something i struggle to myself! I get the same feedback you do, not all the time but it keeps cropping up. I’m difficult to work with. The way you explain things has made a lot of sense and makes me feel less deficient in the wide working world.

    I’m also glad i’m not the only one that sees the start and demise of a product from one person asking me about a product colour scheme!

    Btw…i do hope there is an off switch found one day as its exhausting being this ‘switched on’ all the time!

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