I’ve had several projects and writings on the back burner as I’ve been rolling up and down through learning to more successfully manage PTSD symptoms and slowly, very slowly, work through the healing process. Now that I’m feeling better and have more energy to pour into those projects instead of constantly managing my brain’s belief that I am under imminent threat, I’m hoping to write a bit more about what I do for work, which is so important to me!
I started out mowing lawns and babysitting when I was around 12. I come from a long tradition of people who work and work hard, and it was just assumed that my brothers and I would start earning our own money as soon as we were old enough. So I mowed lawns and babysat friends’ neighbors’ kids until I was old enough to be employed with a W-2, then I got a job working the early shift at a cafe. From there I was hired for a retail job, which I loved, then a construction company, an architecture firm, back to a construction company with a lot of volunteering in community development, graduate school and retail again, then a company with my business partner, and now just me.
This is the first year I haven’t had coworkers. I have colleagues and clients, but not coworkers.
There is a lot about not having coworkers that I like, and there is a lot about owning and running and working at a company by myself. I’m efficient, I set my own hours, I get to make all of the decisions, I get to pursue the projects and work that I want to and I don’t have to ask permission to do what I know to be the right move. I don’t have the annoyance of waiting on others, unclear communication, others not pulling their weight on a project, office drama or any of the other annoyances of coworkers.
I’ve had coworkers that became like family, I’ve had coworkers I could not stand, I’ve been harassed and taken blame that wasn’t mine, I’ve made really difficult projects happen despite the team, I’ve made really difficult projects happen because of the team, I’ve baked birthday cakes, I’ve served ice cream, I’ve made team lunches to boost morale, I’ve worked 80 hour weeks without overtime to make up for someone else not doing their work, and I’ve gotten really, really pissed off at coworkers.
As much as there can be a lot of advantages to not having coworkers, there are a lot of advantages to having them, and one of the biggest advantages is that coworkers can annoy the shit out of you.
Hear me out.
Avoiding conflict doesn’t really help us. Setting healthy boundaries and not allowing others to be abusive or manipulative toward us, yes, that not only helps us but is critical to our well-being. When we have to manage conflict, and when we have to operate within systems in which we have to navigate annoyance, conflict, competition and bullshit, we can grow as people, as leaders and as sources of compassion and empathy. If we only avoid being annoyance and conflict, we cannot learn to successfully manage it, and when our boundaries are never tested, we don’t have the opportunity to develop them.
I was tossed into work without the tools and skills I needed to navigate the people side of things, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the process. Would I like to have been able to avoid all of it? Yes. Would avoiding all of it – the passive aggressive undercutting, the abuse of my time with personal drama and the low performance of team members – made me stronger, wiser and more compassionate? No.
I really like who I am, and who I am did not come from avoiding challenges, it came from facing them head-on. It came from being honest with myself, from learning to love and value myself and from seeing what it was like when people aren’t kind. Knowing “I may not know exactly where I’m trying to go but I surely don’t want to be like that.” was the first step toward the work I’ve done over the last few years to be a person I really enjoy being – PTSD and all.
Entrepreneurs aren’t devoid of conflict, and the amount of risk we take on can more than make up for it. Support systems are critical to our well-being a success. I am not successful in and of myself, I’ve gotten here with the help of a lot of people. And I think even solo-employed entrepreneurs need “coworkers” so that we don’t lose sight of the multitude of attitudes, perspectives and capacities on the spectrum of human experience. And so that we can get the critical feedback on our own work and performance from our peers – however unqualified they may seem at times to provide that feedback – that helps us grow and improve. Most of us don’t live in a vacuum, nor do we work in a vacuum, and the lessons learned at work translate across the spectrum of our personal experiences.
And coworkers aren’t all bad! Some of the connections we make with coworkers add value to our work, our personal lives and our new ventures. Some coworkers we keep around for a lifetime. Some we hang out with after work or on the weekends. I used to run 5ks and mud runs with mine, and we met every Sunday night for happy hour and dinner at a bar we had claimed as our own. I will value those times forever, and it’s why entrepreneurs need to be mindful of having “coworkers”, good and bad.