July 17, 2014 by Michelle

Professional Anti-Adversarialism, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Job

Me, circa December 2013.

Me, circa December 2013.

At the end of last year, I was making myself pretty miserable with work. I love the work I do, trust and respect the people I work with, and sincerely believe that we’ve got about the greatest team ever assembled in one firehouse; we consistently have positive relationships with our clients. Regardless, I was often on edge, cranky, and wondering when the next fiasco was coming. I was on the defensive half the time, ready to fight my way out of whatever mess was thrown at me. I was, in short, a wreck.
After losing sleep, watching my capacity for joy dwindle, and feeling overall pretty shitty for a few months, I forced myself to  dive in and figure out WTF had happened. It hadn’t always been this way. I knew it didn’t always have to be this way. What I didn’t know is why it was this way.

There were definitely some  crappy trigger events, but crappy things always happen at work; it’s my job to creatively, gracefully move through them. Why wasn’t I?

NOTE: This blog was written when I was the COO of Commerce Kitchen, but much of this holds true today.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Adversarialism at work is common, but it’s a choice (and a bad one)

At almost every place I’ve worked, from bookstores to state agencies, there is some variant on the Us vs. Them phenomenon. At the bookstore, it was often The Hardworking, Over-Educated, and Underpaid Staff vs. Our Unappreciative, Ignorant Customers. In state government it was Everyone vs. Everyone Else Except The Three People You Trust And the Lady With The Chocolate.

That is to say, in almost all of the places I’ve worked, there was an adversarial attitude towards some central component of the job. The customers we served, our colleagues in other departments, or even our closest co-workers could be the imagined enemy, the thing we approached from a position of conflict rather than one of collaboration. Interestingly, it was rare that the position of resistance and defense was focused on the work itself.

Don Quixote, legendary fighter of imaginary enemies.

Don Quixote, legendary fighter of imaginary enemies.

Commerce Kitchen is a lot more wonderful than any of those jobs were, but we have all worked in places where that dichotomy gets ingrained. Some people will stay in a place charged with adversarialism and will feed off of it, and others will keep moving, trying to find a place that resonates with their spirit of service and provides them with the ability to take joy in work they love. CK is filled with the latter type.

At CK, I really have no opponent; my misery last fall, like most (first-world) human misery, lived in my brain and in my brain alone. There’s no “them” – I was tilting at windmills. I was used to there being an adversarial “them,” so when my energy was low I reverted to bad habits instead of rallying optimism and seeking joy in my work.

I finally realized that given my position as an owner and fancy-pants person here, that I get to work with my team to create the culture I want. I get to make hiring decisions. I sometimes have to make firing decisions. I get to work with everyone in the company to help all of us try to break the habit of being on the defensive.


This lion is rightfully ruled by a primitive brain. You and I are not. He is also very handsome.

We are, after all, no longer on the savannah waiting to eat or be eaten; we are more than our limbic brains and we get to make important and smart decisions using that big, beautiful pre-frontal cortex we developed somewhere along the evolutionary line.

Since this revelation, I’ve heard myself saying, and only half-jokingly, “Let’s turn that frown upside down!” – and I’ve wanted to punch myself in the face. Hard. I can name at least one CK hero who probably wanted to punch me as well (Leslie – I’m looking at you). But I stand by it. We don’t have to be miserable. We are empowered to embrace our work rather than go to war with it. And doing so is a lot more fun than fighting.


2. Serenity. The Serenity Prayer. And sometimes, SERENITY NOW.

Buffy Summers: More of a superhero than I'll ever be.

Buffy Summers: More of a superhero than I’ll ever be.

The CK exec team recently realized in a search for our core that we’re nerds. Big ol’ nerds. When asked by our coach, the remarkable Diana Smith, to classify about 10 or so different personality traits that we found compelling and admirable, Natalie hit the nail on the head when she suggested “Whedonesque.”

The made-up word references a collective hero, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Buffy’s team of quirky classmates are smart as hell, tenacious, courageous, adaptable, and humble; they know that they are stronger together than they are on their own, and in a pretty literal way, they are focused on the greater good, which they do by way of ridding the world of vampires and demons.

So, you know, a pretty high bar. Calling those core values to mind in a moment of stress can really help create clarity around difficult things.

(Note: if Whedonesque describes you and you are a programmer or website designer – call me! I’ll buy you lunch or a cocktail and we’ll talk about how amazing this company is and how amazing you are.)


You can’t take the sky from me.

Anyway, Joss also wrote Firefly, in which a ragtag crew of space cowboys and cowgirls ride around the universe in a ship called Serenity doing good work in odd ways. So, the word serenity conjures a bunch of good stuff in the Whedonesque sense, but also, of course, there’s the Serenity Prayer, which for the record, pre-dates its adoption by Alcoholic Anonymous.

For those 42 people in the whole world who have never been to a 12-step meeting or been in the company of a 12-stepper, here’s the prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

One thing that was making me crazy last year was constantly worrying about stuff I couldn’t change. Work can be hard, and lot of seemingly insurmountable challenges get thrown your way. Some of those things you can change. Some of them can change you for the better. A whole lot of them can’t be changed.

It’s hard as hell sometimes to quickly “know the difference,” but I think it is something we can get better at, if we find the courage to make real change (either in ourselves or in helping others to do the same), or the serenity to let go of things that we can’t impact.

Of course, that isn’t always easy, and so sometimes, it’s a bit of a mind game with myself. I often remind myself of those core values (Whedonesque!) in order to reach serenity. I bought a punching bag for when that doesn’t work.

Sometimes, like Frank Costanza, I really need to remind myself LOUDLY that I need to find some serenity. I remember that I can’t win battles that someone or something else is waging without me – and I don’t need to try.

3. Stepping away from the worry gives me less to worry about

This may be obvious to some, but it was a revelation (if sort of a “duh!” moment) for me: If I’m not worrying about make-believe BS, then I actually have the time and energy to focus on my job, do it well, and thereby create – SURPRISE! – less BS to worry about!

That’s right: If I don’t keep myself up all night worrying about how to improve morale, how to increase revenue, how to solve a complicated staffing challenge; if I don’t focus tons of negative energy on frustrations large and small, I am more well-rested and well-prepared emotionally, mentally, and physically to actually solve those frustrations. By worrying less about my job, I can do my job better.

To clarify: That doesn’t mean I don’t think about my job a lot, or spend hours working through the difficult decisions I have to make. Just that I try to not allow myself to worry about them as much. If I have to fire someone, for example, I’m going to have to fire them, regardless of how much I worry about it. Positioning that decision as a logical, predictable aspect of my job rather than as some unfair imposition foist upon me by the cruel, cruel world, or worrying if I’m making the right decision or even executing the termination in the most graceful way, that gives me the energy and mental acuity to make the right decision.


Me showing off all the new friends I’m making since I said “So long!” to trying to win non-existent or unwinnable battles.

To sum up: work is, in fact, mostly harmless

So, long story short: I rediscovered that work can and should be fun. And if not truly fun all the time, at least mostly harmless. We should be solving puzzles, understanding ourselves and our co-workers, showing compassion when we can, and screaming SERENITY NOW when we can’t, rather than spending countless hours worrying about the inevitable, trying to fix the unfixable, or trying to change the immutable.

This is not to say, of course, that everything has been rainbows and kittens since my little epiphany, or that I’m doing this every day. If I don’t get good sleep for whatever reason, if my crappy back pain flares up, or too many hits come too quickly, I definitely fall off the serenity wagon. But, I’m trying. I’m getting better. You know – that whole one day at a time thing.

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