Two worlds at work

I live in two worlds at work. One is good, one is bad. I created them both. They move in different orbits. Despite my education in orbital mechanics, I don’t know how to predict their paths nor do I know how move them.

The first, my native world, is the bad one. It is a land of belching fumaroles and badlands — a discontented place. This is me at work.

The second is peaceful, positive. Here is where I feel at home but do not reside. This is me at work, but not at work — meaning, the things I do that are not defined as part of my job.

I recognized this today after our weekly Toastmasters meeting. It was a special meeting because HR interjected a group of summer interns into our meeting. Today I was the table topics master. For those not part of the Toastmasters cult: table topics are two-minute extemporaneous speeches on topics defined by the table topics master. My topics? I read a few of my favorite lines from books, and the volunteer speakers had to describe what they were thinking when they wrote the lines as if they were the authors.

What I learned: I have a really good reading voice. Take this with a grain of salt, of course, but I can make that thing boom. I don’t know where that came from, but in a room full of engineers, that’s a remarkable trait.

Later, in the hall of a different building, I intersected with the intern coordinator who was at the meeting. She complimented the meeting and asked why I go to the meetings since I’m so good at speaking. I told her I go because I don’t do any speaking at work, and I don’t want the skill to atrophy. She told me I was being wasted. I told her that I agreed.

At that moment the difference between the two worlds became immediately resolved, as if I were seeing the two through a needed pair of glasses for the first time. Bad vibes and required tasks on one world, good vibes and the freedom to choose on the other — an artificial assignment of value. I fell in the trap of needless martyrdom when she offered the bait. Woe is me, etc., as if my communication skills were intentionally diminished by my evil taskmasters.

One world at a time, eh, Henry?

I’m trying to get better. I’m not making much headway. I started this project at work at the beginning of the year with enthusiasm to learn, but I let it go to waste. It all went downhill after my task lead told me, after I suggested a different way to approach the work we were doing: “When I was your age I used to want to do things my own way, but it was beaten out of me and I’ll beat it out of you, too.”

Yes, that’s one of the most repugnant things I’ve ever been told. No, I shouldn’t have allowed that to sour the next three months of work. That’s like going for a hike in the mountains, getting bit by a mosquito, then throwing myself off a cliff in retaliation.

I’m trying patience. I have a great deal of patience in some contexts. I could walk or drive or sit all day, focused on anything I like. (Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions: “Can you see anything in the dark, with your sunglasses on?” she asked me. “The big show is inside my head,” I said.) Add to that just a drop of someone telling me what to do — and, god forbid, telling me a certain way to do it — and I will lay waste to anything within reach.

I’m trying. You’d need a scanning electron microscope to measure the results, but I’m trying. I borrowed a copy of Pema Chödrön’s audiobook Don’t Bite the Hook from the library. Every day I listen to it for 20 minutes on the way to work, 20 minutes on the way back. I’m on my fourth run through it. It is, in short, about recognizing the onset of the urge to do something rash, acknowledging it, and practicing the art of not indulging it. I’m not there yet but I’m trying.

(Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird: I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool.)

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