On Family Photos, Song Lyrics, and Group Projects

I sometimes ask comedy audiences “Who thinks life would be better if we could all do whatever we wanted, without anyone interfering?” There’s usually a bit of applause, and then I’ll explain I disagree completely,  and spend a few minutes exploring the ways in which we’re all broken, evil, and can’t be trusted. Here’s a few words along that same theme.

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“Remember when you were little, and…”

Most of the potential endings to that sentence are pretty harmless:

“…your sister knocked over all your legos?”

“…you got your face painted like a carwash?”

“…your uncle sat down in a lawn chair and it broke underneath him, and he was stuck there for a while?”

Etc., etc. But I can’t handle it. Stories about my past come out, and I immediately want to leave the room. This isn’t because I did anything particularly unthinkable as a child. I’m not afraid someone will launch into a story which begins “remember when you were little, and we left the house for five minutes and came home to find you halfway through killing and eating the dog?” They know better than to tell anyone that story.

I don’t think this is normal. We all did silly things when we were younger, it shouldn’t cause embarrassment or shame because when I was five I did something perfectly normal for five year olds. No one really expects their adult life to be judged by their childhood (Macauley Culkin, perhaps). So where does the fear come from?

I have a similar problem with song lyrics. My old band has been playing again, and a few good songs have been consigned to the Great Box Set in the Sky, because I don’t like the words. Given that most songs are about nothing (especially songs which sound like they might be about something), and in general people don’t care what the lyrics are, this seems like a waste of decent chords and melodies.

It constrains the covers we play, too – good ideas are never tried, because the prima donna singer wonders how the words will reflect on him (he says, irritatingly, in the third person (he explained)). This makes the least sense – the audience knows we didn’t write it, they don’t imagine that deep down, I really really really wanna zig a zig ahh (to take a purely hypothetical example). So why can’t I get over it?

One last example. If anyone has ever asked “do you enjoy working as part of a team?” in a job interview, I am confident in 2 things: the interviewee responded yes, and it was a lie. Steve Jobs apparently made a comment once that “A players only work well with other A players,” the implication being that in order to have a successful team, you must fire all the B and C players. I don’t agree with this – large organizations depend on people of varying abilities working well together. It might be nice in a manager’s mind to say “we only have A players here,” but it’s never going to be the reality.

But I find myself sabotaging this “everyone work together” attitude sometimes. (For example’s sake, and because I haven’t eaten yet, let’s imagine a line of people making a burrito). In general, I contribute to a team’s success only until it begins to look like an idea I disagree with (for example, eating cilantro) will be part of our final product (perhaps I’m making a burrito with someone who feels rice and salsa taste too nice, and must be ruined by adding horrible green leafy things). Once that becomes clear, apathy takes over and I find it hard to be invested in the success of whatever we’re doing (oh, many people probably like cilantro. They think it’s fine, and who am I to judge?). If I don’t think I can win, I won’t even bother putting my case forward, I’ll just meander along with everyone until the end (choking down a burrito like a 6 year old forced to eat peas). As I just explained, I know intellectually that this is no way to behave, but it seems to be my default setting.

Is there a common thread here? More than failure, shame, or embarrassment, I think it’s control of my reputation. Family members telling stories, band members suggesting songs, or coworkers putting a project together, all cause opinions to be formed which I’m not in control of, and sometimes that’s impossible to handle. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing – I’ve just spent 700 words explaining why it’s ridiculous – but destructive as it is, it’s definitely real. We often labor under the illusion that if we could control every aspect of our lives, our lives would be perfect…but if even the desire for control can make a wreck of everything, I suggest we’re not the best people to be in charge.