Monday, March 4, 2013

Becoming a community fish

We change as we get older, did you know that?

Every once in a while, I tell my children, "Don't be like me." I say it about things I've had to improve or change in my life: my driving, my attention span, my controlling tendencies but I also say it to be funny. Now, after seeing three of our four children operate in their independent  lives, I'm happy to report they are not like me in the ways they shouldn't be. And I am happy to report that I am now like them, and other twenty-somethings, in a way I needed to be.

I thought about this at Petco recently where I went to pick up extra rubber golf balls for Gus and found myself  drawn to the fish "department"-  the corner kept dark but for neon details and designs near the tanks. Here, in this fish nightclub, the predatory fish are separated  from the community type. I walked around looking at the piranhas and the angels, and thought about two things: how would we know if fish ever got depressed, and what the hell was wrong with all of us in the 1980's.

Soon after I left college in the 80's, I took my first serious job in the financial services industry. I entered the workplace like the rod-straight, silk and pearls Anne Wells in Valley of the Dolls, shocked  to observe a community so jaded  by self-interest that there was actually an acronym for it. In my first orientation session, the trainer wrote it on the board. 

"Whatever you do," she said, underlining it several times, "CYA."
"CYA?" I asked.
She looked at me for a few seconds. "Cover your ass," she said. "Don't think someone's going to accept blame for a mistake if they can blame you." She underlined it again.

Wasn't that helpful? I thought so.

Competition in the workplace was never, as it is today, a constructive force. And the word to describe the atmosphere was not "culture" as it is today, but "climate" - fitting for those cold, "me first" and "outta my way" places where hopeful twenties stalked up the corporate ladder, pretending to like you if you were useful, staring at their shoes in elevators if you weren't. If you did find anyone  in the workplace who was truly happy for you when you were promoted, or given a raise or awarded more responsibility, it was because you were on track to become their supervisor, or because they were a temp. Ideas weren't shared, mistakes weren't admitted unless they were someone else's, ropes weren't thrown and people were shameless in their attempts to endear themselves to superiors.

Despite the trainer's guidance, I was always the surprised , naive "Huh?" one who had to learn through  a "friend" that I'd been  thrown under the bus because I lacked the instinct to know it myself.  I saw examples of duplicity all the time, and yet, when it was hinted in a meeting by a co-worker that I hadn't done my job, or when a confidential remark shared with a co-worker was leaked, I was still surprised. "Huh?"

I learned.

It wasn't easy,  but I learned how to hide my satisfaction when someone else did poorly,  or hide my jealousy when someone else did well.  There were few hurt feelings. Nobody expected the support of their peers because nobody trusted their peers. We were angels and piranhas living in the same tank.

I didn't even want to be like me.

Change is good.

Today, the high-achieving twenty-somethings I know (including my children and their friends) are struggling  in an equally competitive employment climate  to find and keep their jobs. But while they are facing the same competitive factors that we did back in the hey day, they employ different strategies; they don't leave piles of screwed over co-workers in their wake as they navigate competitive waters, they stay late and take on more. They don't go out for drinks to find out incriminating stuff that they're not supposed to know, they go out to commiserate, share stories, and support each other. They don't compete with each other as much as they compete with themselves.

Bullpen floor plans allow co-workers proximity to one another and promote group think and camaraderie. Today, our twenties  in their more "cultured" workplace don't sabotage talent, they share it. And when a twenties describes  being shown up, singled out, or picked on, it's rarely by a  contemporary, but more likely a boss or co-worker who steeped in a CYA 80's workplace.

Because it was one fish eat fish world out there in those 80's.

Whether old competitive behaviors are conditioned or innate, they are worth shedding. But it's not easy. As counter-intuitive as it once was  to compete with my peers, it was tough to learn not to.  Tough not to feel jealous when others achieved what I wanted.  Tough to offer congratulations to those as deserving as I was.   

And then I started writing - a solitary art which requires heart and competitive spirit  in a way that can drive improvement, keep you current and advance your craft, or, make you resent those who pave the way while you stand in your own way, wondering "why not me?" 

I didn't need isolation. I needed community.

So I switched tanks, joining online writer sites and blogger communities, signing up for work shops, attending conferences, forming a writer's group. I began to read other writers - the published ones  - heartened to remember that they were once where I was.  And I bolstered the unpublished ones, cheering their successes and hoping to soften failures or missteps with words of "I've been there."

With a lot of remedial training, I have become a community fish again.

And now, I have one more thing in common with my very nice children, who are all more relaxed about letting someone else be in charge, who all drive safely, who are all excellent at paying attention, and who are all splashing happily about with the other angel fish.  

Thank you all twenty-somethings for showing me your tank. I like what you've done with it. I think I'll stay. 


  1. Susan,

    We are living in parallel universes. Graduating in the 1980's from college, I entered the workforce in NYC and was shocked to be a part of the competitive corporate world. Today as a blogger I live a solitary life as a writer, trying to do, as you say, become a part of a bigger community of other writers. We support, uplift and applaud each others successes. We are a strong community journeying together and, at the same time, creating strong bonds. Thank you for writing so eloquently about our shared journey.

  2. Thank you, Cathy, and yes,it's a kinder, nicer life isn't it? You have made similar observations about the solitude of a writing life and I always appreciate them.

  3. This is dead-on right. The old catty ways were nasty and don't work anymore. People can smell it a mile away and don't want to have anything to do with you if you employ those methods.

    Also, I think with Facebook, it is nearly impossible to run away from your bad behavior. It follows you forever. Ha! For good or for ill, Facebook is now our permanent record holding us accountable.

    Community is much better than isolation and CYA.

  4. Like a lot of behaviors, they won't change if the attitudes continue to exist.I believe today's collaborative behaviors are more than lip service to a good idea, but reflect an actual change in culture and that's a good thing.