May 19, 2009

Summer Reading: The No Asshole Rule

My apologies for the title...while I've always attempted to maintain a relatively swear free blog, this book is difficult to ignore, and to embrace ignorance through avoiding usage helps no one. Moreover, this is the first of many books I hope to review over the summer, with, of course, some musings and reactions.

Dr. Robert Sutton one day wondered why he was feeling crappy at work. He started looking at his job performance, the attitudes of those around him, and those that he served. After a while, he started realizing that there were assholes at his workplace; it's like discovering ants in your kitchen...except ants that are doing more than chewing away at your Little Debbie's.

After conducting research, lots and lots of research, Dr. Sutton decided to write about the experience of identifying, confronting, and dealing with assholes. Of course he focused on many professional areas, well-known or unfamiliar, public and private, all of which confirmed: assholes are more prevalent then we realize. Moreover, the actions and atitudes of assholes are contagious...not just your everyday Successories poster mantra, but a contagion realization which would make for a great zombie film.

The book not only includes a very academic approach to defining assholes and their influences (which are, surprise, mostly negative) but contains a very humbling chapter about identifying if you yourself are an asshole. It includes a self quiz, which can also be adapted to be given to your employees, or team, etc. to have them fill it out about you. This is where I hear you say:

"What? Are you mad!?! Why would I want to know what people around me think about me?"

You know, good point. I don't know what would motivate anyone to learn about themselves. It is a world full of larger problems like global warming and a failing economy. For the life of me I cannot fathom why one would want to waste their precious time to consider what others have to say. After all, how can others be right about who you are as a person?

Sadly, having now worked in two different professions, albeit in the same general area, this is a highly customary train of thought. Moreover, the tactics which address actively and passively dealing with any assholes mirror basic self-motivational theory. Which means: you have very little control of the world around you, but a lot of control over yourself. This reminds me of a quote the great philosopher Malvin from "War Games" once said "Go directly to the source..."

I have worked with assholes. And I'm certain that others have believed I to be an asshole. More on that later. I agree with the book, even at the best corporations and organizations across the planet, assholes will still exist. I also agree, begrudgingly sometimes, that assholes are people too. That they were not always assholes and it's likely that someone or something influenced them to be that way.

That sucks. Yet, there is hope.

I was picked on fiendishly as a child. I'm certain that it would be difficult to label kids as assholes since, well, they're kids. To be judicious let's call them bullies. Some of these bullies were active bullies: consistently engaging the victims (me, my friends Garrett, Matt, AJ, the other Peter) by verbally or physically harassing us. Some were passive, and when I saw passive, I mean as passive as a Klingon warrior could possibly be. The passive folks were rarely initiators but often joined in once the ball got rolling.

For me, school sucked for six years, mostly because of the guys that picked on me. Even after I left my elementary school for greener pastures, I was haunted and became sensitive in moments when I didn't need to be. It took a couple of years, and continuing support from my family, to move through that pain, and take situations as they come. Of course, I, like others, still encountered moments where people shot me a snide comment or mean spirited quip. Remember, assholes, are a constant factor.

I'm reminded of the episode of 21 Jump Street where Peter Deluise found the man who was his high school bully. The man was in a shabby house, smoking, unshaven, and sounded/looked generally unpleasant. Deluise's character felt closure, and the moral of the storys is "bad guys lose eventually." Since we've broken the swearing barrier, I have one response to this: bullshit.

What if the bully was rich, well off, even had a family? What then? What if the bully was recognized to be the greatest person in the world, through awards and accolades by those unknowing to how genuinely mean she or he was to people around her or him? Bullies do not automatically evolve into assholes. Just like assholes aren't always grown from being a bully.

I think karma can be an effective tool in coping, but I don't think it should ever be relied on. This leads me to three quck stories where people dealt with assholes, and what has become of them since.

The first is my friend Kat (not her real name at all, to protect the innocent). Kat and I were Community Advisors (or CAs...Resident Assistants or RAs to the non-res lifer) together for two years. Both of us had floors of truth, like all community situations, both of us had like four to six dudes who were assholes, but when you're getting harrassed, it always seems like more. After one year, Kat and I were having coffee and talking about next year. Thankful it was over, I mused to her: "the most important thing for us is how we change." I knew that this would both affect us no matter what, but how made a huge deal.

I will never say that confronting people gets any easier despite the experience, but you do learn a lot of tricks along the way. You also learn something important: that no matter how crappy assholes are, they cannot take away your memories or your personality. That alone is up to you. I was saddened that next year to see Kat, who was still a fine CA, to be very neutral around residents. A stark change from her normally cheerful self. While she never reacted negatively toward residents or fellow CAs, the experience had hardened her enough that she lost an important aspect of her identity.

The second person is a former colleague who worked with a professional that was absolute poison to everyone around her. Even after the woman had left, many people, including her former supervisor, acknowledged how oppressive, mean, and condesending this lady was. My colleague who worked directly under her was, when we first met, a very inspired and powered woman. I remember her and I talking a lot about the potential of our work and what she'd hoped to accomplish. I was excited for her when she was hired into her own position, and removed from her awful work situation (sadly, it would be another year before Ms. Poison left).

Much of my former colleague's first year was spent trying to vent to all the emotional baggage she must've collected from the two years she worked under said asshole. It was both sad and frustrating to see. Sad because you could feel her angst, frustrating because many of us wanted her to be happy she was away from her abuser. Years have past, and while I'd like to say that the venting helped, it didn't. She has taken on many of the characteristics of her former supervisor and enacts many of the behaviors described in Asshole Self-Test presented in the book. Like Kat, it saddens me to see someone who was once positive become that which they despised.

The last story is about a man named Viktor Frankl. He, and his brethren, were surrounded by the largest assholes in human history: the Nazis. Frankl, whom I'm certain I've talked about before, was Jewish and spent many years in a concentration camp. His experiences were quite awful and he one day decided that he would survive in order to discover his reason for experiencing this nightmare. One of the most striking things that I remember from his book (and there are many) is when he described the comraderie built up by him and his friends.

This tactic is also one Dr. Sutton reccomends as well. What clandestine items can we do to keep ourselves in check so that we don't A. spread the contagion amongst those we care about and/or serve? B. become so deeply effected that even when the problem is gone we choose to continue it? Both men described tactics such as laughter (and not laughing at the person who is the asshole, but laughing at the situations laugh at the Office don't you?), engaging in activities to empower oneself (writing, hobbies, exercise, prayer, etc.), and finding small ways to be assertive and stand up for oneself when appropriate.

As I look back on the days I was picked on, I am most upset with myself, not the bullies who picked on me. For, after a while, I began to pick on the other victims, in obvious hope that I would either be accepted or have the flack deflected from myself. I wish I knew about the No Asshole Rule, and I wish I would've chatted with those who were picked on in order at least build a community where we could process and be kind to each other. But I didn't.

As I said there is hope.

I have another friend who has experienced a trying time in her first professional experience. When I met her, she was bright, positive, and cheerful. She faced many of the same things the two other women I mentioned. Except that she chooses to sing (one of her hobbies), she is constantly supportive of her friends and those she serves and she remembers how to laugh. She has taught me that no matter what dark days there are, not only is there light at the end of the tunnel, but your inner light will shine no matter how long that tunnel can feel.

And so, to all the parties involved:
1. If you think you're a victim, read The No Asshole Rule; you will find validation and some helpful tips to deal with your situation. Beyond that, please remember to never lose yourself, or cause someone else to lose themselves.

2. If you think you're a recovering bully/asshole, you should also read the book; as I said, there's a small asshole in each of us, and it's humbling to see how we can continue to grow.

3. If you think you're an asshole (or you don't think you are, or don't want to realize it) I reccomend reading this book, knowing full well you likely won't, but as I said to one of my bullies almost six years since he picked on me:

"It's ok, you probably weren't aware of the pain you were causing; I'm not mad at you, I only hope now your life is in a much better place."