The first part of my life could be described as a long string of attention-seeking incidents. Some of them, like getting bitten in the head by a big dog at the age of 4, didn’t start out that way but reinforced the sense of validation one gets from being the center of attention. Later as a bullied school student, I became the class clown as a way to gain acceptance and ratchet down some of the violence. You get to be the center of attention either as the class clown or the bully victim, and people are laughing at you either way, but one is a noticeably better experience than the other. Can you guess which one I preferred?
Being bullied and being class clown both mean more social contact, but only up to a point. What I craved most was actual friends. The kind that stand by you, clue you in gently when you are clueless and contribute to the relationship in proportion to what they take. Time after time those people I thought were friends turned out to have a hidden agenda in which I was a convenient pawn. The more I craved human connection, the more deeply I was wounded. Eventually I shut down and stopped seeking friendship. Since I did not also stop craving it, this was a particularly miserable time of my life in which I was always depressed, often suicidally so. Deep within me lived a tiny spark of defiance that did not want to give my tormentors the satisfaction of my suicide. That spark kept me alive when nothing else mattered.
This attention-seeking permeated every aspect of my life for 20-odd years, eventually including my career. I took my first programmer job at 23 years old. Since I had no degree and no experience, I was offered a trainee position at significantly less than the advertised pay and I took it thinking I’d quickly be promoted once my skills were demonstrated. Soon it became apparent that despite my lack of training and experience I actually was among the best programmers in the shop. In my mind, I had earned the right to a promotion and raise at least on par with the original job listing, if not a lot more. When I didn’t get it, I was livid.
I tried all the things I could think of to get that promotion. I kissed the bosses ass, but wasn’t very good at it. I finished my work and then went around and helped everyone else who would let me. When these didn’t help, I started working “undertime.” I’d do my work and then use the leftover time for socializing and personal pursuits. I was tired of working way beyond my duties and pay scale and figured I’d give them the level of work they were paying for. My attitude grew increasingly bitter and hostile when nothing I did resulted in the promotion or raise.
It got to the point that I was fully expecting to be fired. Not waiting for the axe to drop, I decided that I’d put myself in the best possible position to go look for a new job. I had at that point been fired from every job I’d ever held and resolved that this time I’d leave on my own terms. I completely abandoned my campaign to be promoted or get a raise. Instead, I began use that “spare time” to take all the training that was available to me. When there was overtime to be had, I volunteered so that I could build up a war chest with which to make the job transition. I gave up all social activities and stripped out every single thing from my life that wasn’t directly related to getting ready to make the job change. I was already the among the best 2 or 3 programmers in the shop but now the focus was to become the best possible programmer I could be. No more measurement against the local standard of excellence. How good could I become compared only to my own past performance?
Turns out the answer was I had a lot of unused capacity. When I diverted all that attention away from managing the career and getting positive feedback, and instead focused it only on improving my skills and measuring relative only to my own past performance, I started getting raises and promotions. When I realized this, I embraced the concept full-bore. I completely stopped measuring success by conventional means and instead became principle-centered. I didn’t care anymore what my boss said in my performance review because I had become more critical of my own performance than they were and was no longer motivated by anything they had to offer except the challenge of the work itself.
This philosophy took me on a journey where each new career move was on my terms and always a move up. As I moved from that first job through stints at several large companies, I focused only on being the best I could possibly be in whatever role I found myself. Once the salary rose to a point that the family’s basic needs were met, I even stopped measuring that. The subsequent rise in income suggests that the measurement had been holding it down but when you struggle to get food, shelter and medicine needs met it’s kinda hard to not measure income.
When I joined IBM, there was for the first time a focus on measurement of “social eminence.” If you represented the brand in any way in social media, then you had better do a good job of it because your bonus and raises now depended on things like your Google Page Rank, Klout score and Twitter followers. After decades of ignoring such measurements and letting the content speak for itself, I was horrified. Google myself? Vanity searches? I truly value the opinions and feedback of my social media friends but must I really give a damn about what Klout thinks? Apparently, yes. If you want to succeed at IBM in the role I was in, you have to manage your social presence.
So, reluctantly, I embarked on a self-promotion campaign. At first it was like changing diapers. You gotta do it but it’s gross and you need to wash the stink of it off afterwards. But soon it became apparent that managing and growing my online reputation actually helped me do the things that were really important to me. As “The MQ Security Guy” I’m taken more seriously, seen more as an authority in my field, if my social presence is highly ranked. This in turn makes me more effective in actually securing the networks of the vendors you and I rely on to keep our money and personal data secure. (I have never worked for Target, Sony, Hannaford, Dave & Busters, LinkedIn, or any other vendor you are likely to know from headlines about their data breaches. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.) My ethos, perhaps heavily influenced by my Asperger’s, has always been “function over form.” Social reputation management started to look more like function and less like superficial facade once I realized how it helped me accomplish my mission.
The key, I have come to believe, is to never take your own press too seriously. I like being “The MQ Security Guy” but I’m always leery of falling into liking it for its own sake. I like being followed, re-tweeted, shared and re-posted, but try to never chase these numbers as ends in their own right. The value of the content always was and remains the most important thing and re-tweets, shares and re-posts are a measure of the quality of that content. If I want more re-tweets, I focus on making the content more compelling rather than tweeting the same blog post ten times a day. Now I find I’m walking a fine line between a place of comfort where I just don’t care about reputation measurement, versus caring – but not too much.
I still feel uncomfortable with what little celebrity I have garnered but the attempts to shrug it off can seem like false humility since I’m obviously putting some effort into managing my social reputation. That said, I still stand by the basic philosophy that has resulted in the majority of my success over the years and have no reservations recommending it to anyone, especially autistic folks struggling with social issues:
- Understand your own internal values and measure yourself against unchanging principles of good and bad, right and wrong. Situational ethics that justify bad behavior based on having been treated badly don’t work. If an action is wrong, it’s always wrong. This is hard in practice but strive to keep that gray area as small as possible.
- It isn’t the number of relationships but the quality of relationships. Having no friends is better than having even one bad friend. Be comfortable with your self first. Are you functional as an independent island? The path goes from dependence to independence to interdependence. Many people mistake more or different dependence for the interdependence that they seek, not realizing you must go through independence to get there.
- Don’t keep a ledger. Give of yourself because it’s the right thing to do and without strings. Do not give more than you are prepared to lose and then if it doesn’t come back you have broken even. You will be surprised at how much comes back.
- Don’t say anything about someone that you would not willingly tell them to their face.
- Seek to influence through persuasion and leadership rather than through coercion. Shaming someone into changing their behavior makes them an adversary and those same tactics often get directed back at you. Influencing through generosity, compassion and leadership make people your allies and, oddly enough, those tactics also get directed back at you.
In general, all this boils down to measuring and tracking the right things. You can measure by salary and increase that figure in a variety of ways. Focusing on the salary number and not the nature of how its achieved can destroy you. Focusing on your character tends to raise the salary number and reinforces you in all aspects of your life. When the salary is measured for its own end, you lose. When the salary is an indicator of the work you’ve been doing to build your character, then you win. The same holds true for just about every other indicator we use for “success.”
My big problem with all of this comes when I’m trying to promote an idea and the feedback all sounds like “T.Rob, you ROCK!” OK, that’s great and all, but what about this other thing I’m working on? You know, the Big Idea I wrote about? If managing social reputation means you court responses like “T.Rob, you ROCK!” then they are not entirely unwelcome. I’m not as confident on my advice on this point as I am on the bullets above but my take on it is this: at least have fun with it. Today after a Facebook round of “T.Rob, you ROCK!” in a thread where I was promoting the Athena’s Daughters project, I gave up and decided to own my own ROCK-yness. Secretly, I am The Rock.