I just finished writing one of the more strategic emails I’ve ever written. It was only in hindsight that I knew it–the mere sending of this email, I now realize, designed subconsciously to set in motion a series of events that could make my life a lot easier in the long run. I didn’t know I was doing it, but when I realized what was happening, I felt immediate admiration at how far this bull-in-a-china-shop has come in terms of covert community building ops. Only after that did the sadness begin to sink in.
I already know that my workplace is not completely unique in that we operate on two distinct levels, the first being the more superficial feint of collectively working toward shared community goals. In a lot of words, we’re trying to make the community “better,” in all of its loaded, biased, racially-fraught complexity. My personal Clark Kent suit, glasses included, is as a measurement and evaluation persona; the somewhat gruff, unpolished nerd who loves nothing but a good data visualization and accompanying analytic explanation. Just now at that thought, I got chills of excitement. But we all know that the real core, the real heart, of this endeavor is a labyrinthine web of community and interpersonal politics that requires ninja-like stealth and precision to navigate, let alone actually get work done.
The cape I wear: a shapeshifting set of personas, designed for easy on/off as the situation requires. The skills I’ve grown largely relate to feeling the crowd; I cannot rely only on reading the crowd observationally but also have to know how ideas and actions are landing, what the internal turmoils and struggles are, and which ones are legitimate versus which ones are just caused by lunch settling a little heavy that day. I work at that ninja level of politics at all times. This is managing up in a Base-20 reality. No one knows the real me. They only know the me they need to know to do what I want them to do.
If this sounds miserable and exhausting, then I’ve described it correctly. This is what happens when a bunch of people are so self-unaware that they project–nay spew– their entire spectrum of contradictory values onto everyone within a 50-mile radius. I’m not proud of these skills, this approach. Again, there is only survival.
But what I realized in sending my stealthy ninja email is that because no one sees the matrix (which is too orderly a word for what I’m describing…maybe morass is closer) of interpersonal needs, wants, and triggers that will cause adult-onset tantrum syndrome, I get ZERO credit for this skill set which, by all normal accounts, should qualify me for advanced CIA field duty. In a crooked way, I’m impressed with this toolkit of superpower observation and inference I’ve developed. I am a superspy of community impact in the world’s most unaffectable town.
As I often think about my impact on these people and this organization, what makes me sad is that I’ve known for a very long time that it happens in such tiny, almost imperceptible, increments that there is no way anyone will ever know how hard my job is and, ultimately, how good I am at it. The earth does not get credit for rotating and, yet, our whole existence depends on it. I feel you, Earth. We’re in a similar boat, you and me.
And so year over year, I do this grind of stealth operating at a high personal cost because…it’s so many personas to manage…I’m at a deep, level of Inception almost all the time. I do it because I believe in the foundational concept and goals we’re trying to achieve. The mission is good. I have not nor will I ever get a merit increase, I have and will continue to get poor performance reviews because my impact is not perceptible. I will continue to suffer at the hands of this wretched place. The only way anyone will ever understand what I do day-to-day, month-to-month will be in my absence, when the fabric of this work starts to seriously unravel. Of course, like a ghost, I’ll be gone.
But let’s be honest. No one will ever understand what my job really was. That realization requires a level of reflection that is completely unavailable to these people. They won’t even know it’s their loss.