[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Who hasn’t had to deal with an annoying coworker? Or boss? Or family member? … someone you couldn’t get away from and had to treat respectfully, no matter what you felt about them?
I once worked on a consulting project for a company with a difficult-to-work-with (to put it mildly) CEO. He was friendly before the project started, and you could see how he brought in clients, but I found him overbearing with his team.
Soon after the project started I decided to leave, since why bother working with someone I didn’t like working with. But before leaving I thought, “If I leave every time I don’t like a coworker or boss, I’ll have to leave a lot of companies. That won’t help my life.” I had just finished business school where I supposedly learned how to work in business. This was my chance to put those skills into practice in real life.
I already wrote my belief that social skills are among the most important to develop. A major part of learning them is practicing them.
Difficult-to-handle people (jerks) are how you practice and learn. Exercises like I post here help start the process. I design and share ones that are safe and easy to do, to start the process. Practicing on friendly people in regular life helps and challenges you more than practicing in alone or in a safe context.
But practicing with difficult people challenges you the most. If you don’t like working with them, they’ll help you grow the most. Normally the idea of seeing challenging people as helpful may normally sound odd, but I hope it makes sense in this context.
If you want to build muscles, working with only light weights won’t help much. The heavy weights strengthen you most.
If you want to run fast, sprinting as fast as you can gets you that last bit of speed.
If you want to learn an instrument, playing scales helps, but you learn the most from the most challenging pieces.
Of course the heavy weights, sprints, difficult pieces and so on work best when you build up to them. If you use them unprepared you can set yourself backward. I take for granted on this page that you use things effectively. Or that you can find a coach, trainer, or equivalent.
If you want to develop social skills, the most challenging people are like the heaviest weights. If you agree with me on the value of social skills, difficult-to-handle people help you the most.
A model to make difficult people so helpful you’ll want to thank them: Difficult-to-handle people are like the heavy weights in a gym: they help you develop the most.
Back to the challenging CEO I had to deal with. Once I decided to use working with him as my chance to practice in regular life what I learned in business school I started to look forward to seeing him. Not like I looked forward to seeing a friend, but like I looked forward to going to the gym. Like I was going to work out.
Seeing working with him like exercise meant I prepared for meeting him by reviewing what I’d learned. It meant reviewing interactions afterward to figure out how to improve for next time. It meant seeing ill feelings afterward like soreness after working out — it meant I was growing.
The result? While I wouldn’t say he became a close friend, I came to look forward to seeing and working with him. After a while we developed a working relationship and finished the project.
But the major result came afterward. I felt confident I had developed and refined some important social skills and wanted to move to the next level. Like a successful weightlifter, I wanted to move to heavier weights.
Crazy as it may sound, I consciously looked for a harder-to-work-with person to work with. To my surprise, I couldn’t find a bigger jerk! What I learned from him applied so broadly, I found I couldn’t find anyone that could annoy me as much as he had a few months before.
Did the rest of the world change? No, I did. I could handle people better than before.
I first thought of him as a jerk. Now I don’t think of him as a jerk. Nor do I think he was a jerk then. On the contrary, I look at myself as having limited social and business skills then. I took responsibility for improving myself. I improved myself, but the result feels like I improved my world because now my world has fewer jerks in it.
(I feel funny that I wrote “I couldn’t find a bigger jerk” above because I don’t think of him as a jerk anymore. I now interpret someone calling someone else a jerk to mean they have poor social skills.)
I look back at my time with him as one of my periods of greatest professional growth. It happened in a professional environment, but what I learned applied to all types of relationships.
When I use this belief
I use this belief two times. The first is when I face someone I don’t like working with. I ask myself what I can learn from this person. Then I look at them like a weightlifter looks at heavy weights — a challenge, not pleasant, but necessary for maximum growth.
The second is when I suspect I might feel too proud about my skills. I know someone out there can push me past my limits, so I look for someone to take me down a notch so I can learn again.
What this belief replaces
This belief makes jerks with your best teachers. It replaces frustration with discovery and personal growth.
Where this belief leads
This belief leads to a life devoid of jerks. It fills your life with people who improve it.
What more could you ask for?
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