How to Work for an Idiot

Survive and Thrive...Without Killing Your Boss. by John Hoover
Book cover for How to work for an Idiot

Chapter One: Confessions of a Recovering Idiot

Author John Irving advises aspiring writers to write about what they know. I published five business books before I realized I had yet to write from my personal ground zero. Now, standing in a pile of shards where a glass house once stood, I can’t remember who threw the first stone. Maybe it was me. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. The stone throwing got so intense that I forgot why they were being thrown to begin with.

Oh, yeah. I remember. I was pointing my finger at others and accusing them of things for which I was equally, if not more, guilty. For every stone I threw, a bigger one came back at me. I felt justified in my accusations and victimized by the criticism of others. Dishing it out came naturally and felt righteous. Taking it seemed unnatural and felt unfair. Just because I lived in a glass house didn’t mean I wanted others to see through me. Or did I?

Mi Casa Es Su Casa

Are you living in a glass house? Are you accusing your I-Boss of things that you can just as easily be convicted of? These are not easy questions. Nor are they questions we routinely ask ourselves. That’s why I’m asking you now. Things that annoy us about others are often characteristics we possess. Our own flaws are especially irritating when they show up in someone else’s words and actions. Our own flaws are almost indescribably irritating when they show up in the words and actions of someone with power and authority over us.

Now that my glass house has been shattered, I’m able to write about false confidence, false security, and false pride. I know them all. Somewhere in the beginning, my wires were crossed. If not at birth, soon thereafter. Was it nature or nurture? Genetics or environment? It doesn’t matter. Now I pray daily for the serenity to accept the nature and the courage to change the nurture. Like the prayer says, wisdom is the ability to distinguish between the two. All self-actualization aside, I can’t help but be a little disturbed and perturbed that nobody explained these distinctions to me until I had already messed up a major portion of my life. But, that is blaming. I might as well bend over and pick up another rock.

Recovery is a Test in Itself

What pulls your trigger? Who pulls your trigger? What tends to make you go off? Who tends to set you off? If you pause and think about your pet peeves or things that cause you discomfort, you are compiling a laundry list of personal issues that need addressing. This is especially true in your professional affairs. Your chances of stopping people in positions of power and authority from pulling your triggers are next to nil.

You have a far greater chance of removing or disarming your internal triggers, thereby diminishing the likelihood that your I-Boss or coworkers will upset you. Consciously disarming your triggers is the best way to build immunity to aggravation. What do you care how much power an idiot has as long as he doesn’t use it to annoy you? Reducing your I-Boss’s ability to annoy you, whether he does it intentionally or unintentionally, is a tremendous form of self-empowerment. And no one can take it away from you.

Dealing with a Trigger Puller

“My name is Dr. John and I’m an idiot,” I tell the group in the big tile-floored room in the church basement.

“Hi, John,” the chorus responds between swigs of coffee. Some say it clearly, as if to welcome me. Others mumble, as if speaking unintelligibly will mask the fact they’re present.

“I used to think that my glass house was the perfect place to live,” I continue.

“Speak up,” one of the mumblers spouts, suddenly very articulate. “We can’t hear you.”

Annoyed by the interruption, my instincts tell me to attack him with a toxic mixture of sarcasm and innuendo, impugning his intelligence and, should I be sufficiently irritated, his ancestry. That’s what we do, those of us who consider ourselves super smart, orbiting high above the stupidity. We impugn other people’s intelligence—especially after we’ve been caught doing something stupid. But that would be my disease talking. That’s why it’s called recovery. At least now I can catch myself before I throw the stone. Most of the time anyway.

I still instinctively bend over to pick up stones, a.k.a. formulate a poison blow dart question like “Did someone forget his medication this morning?” But now I can regain control before opening my mouth and letting it fly. In that moment, when the stone would have been en route to its target, the truth floods over me like acid rain, eating away my pretenses. I was mumbling. Guilty as charged. If I’m at a meeting of recovering idiots, trying to get beyond the thoughts and behaviors that have imprisoned my personal and professional potential all of these years, why am I mumbling?

The acid burns away another layer and I decide to share my stream of consciousness with the group. “I learned that living in a glass house is not a good idea if you’re going to throw stones.”

“How original,” Mr. Mumbles blurts.

I quickly pick up another stone and suck in some additional oxygen, not to calm myself, but to have enough breath support to achieve maximum volume. That’s when I notice the others are glaring at him. “Don’t interrupt,” a woman scolds. “You know the rules.”

“Yeah,” I think to myself. “What she said.” I feel relieved, comforted, and protected. Somebody stood up for me. Somebody cared. Instantly, the anger begins to drain from my body and I feel a tinge of compassion for Mr. Mumbles. He slumps back in his metal folding chair and picks at the edge of his Styrofoam coffee cup. When I feel like someone is on my side and cares about my right to occupy space in the universe, toxic thoughts dissipate, and in their place are curiosities about how others came to be the way they are. I even begin to wonder how I came to be the way I am.

Your Idiot Boss needs to feel that someone is on his side, in his corner, and has his back. Never forget that you and your Idiot Boss are both human beings. He will have the same basic responses to feelings and situations you do. This is important because, when you feel unsupported or even undermined, you tend to grasp tighter, fight more intensely, become more suspicious. Your Idiot Boss does the same.

Find ways to support your Idiot Boss, especially in his times of uncertainty and doubt. When you do, he will feel as I did when the woman spoke up against my detractor at the recovery meeting. I had a new best friend. Recall how you felt when someone spoke up or took up for you. You can engender the same feeling within your boss towards you. Try it and feel the tension evaporate. Send an encouraging email, mention in the hallway how well you thought he handled a situation. Keep it all in the context of the department’s goals and objectives so as not to seem syrupy.

Watch for Signs Your I-Boss is on the Mend

If you consider your boss an idiot, yet you notice him exercising restraint, you might consider changing your diagnosis. An out of control idiot will never consider the big picture of how his management pronouncements and edicts will affect the lives of others. If your boss appears to be giving any conscious thought to the consequences of his actions or how he managed to get into his current condition, listen, pay attention, and try to notice clues that he is undergoing some type of self-improvement initiative. If he is, encourage him. He needs all the support he can get.

I went on to share with the group how I learned to receive in kind what I am willing to give--good or bad. Getting back some measure of the good I give is an ‘iffy’ proposition. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless I’ve learned it’s best to do good anyway. Having been raised a German Lutheran in the doctrine of the worm I feel guilty if good things happen to me for no reason. If I send out goodness, I feel more comfortable with the good that comes back to me.

Nevertheless, I still resent it when nothing good comes my way. Lurking beneath my recovery are the remnants of my selfish inner worm. Everything, all the time, just because I’m here. That’s what I want. And so does your boss.

Would it hurt to pretend a little? I’m not suggesting you kiss up or go along just to get along. I’m more mercenary that that. I suggest going along to get whatever you can. In the murky world of office politics, resisting what your I-Boss wants might give you a moment’s satisfaction as you thwart his or her will and expectations. But it doesn’t buy you anything on your long-term wish list, assuming your wish list includes more respect and acknowledgement around the workplace, a raise, or a promotion.

That’s a Mirror, Not a Window

Before I stepped across that line between active idiocy and recovery, I didn’t understand that seeing other people as nincompoops was actually a self-indictment. I didn’t necessarily want my boss to stop being an idiot. I wanted to be the alpha-idiot. I didn’t really want to stop him from antagonizing me with impunity. I wanted the power to antagonize others with impunity. I wasn’t on a mission to create a kinder, gentler workplace. I coveted the power to make lives miserable.

When I first realized that other people could see me for the idiot I am, I felt naked. Worse, I felt as if I had been living a naked dream for most of my life without knowing it. It is embarrassing to reflect upon, but what can I do about it now? Get comfortable with my nakedness, I guess. That or stitch together some fig leaves. Building another glass house with thicker walls won’t help. There will always be big enough rocks to shatter them.

I can write about being an idiot from a position of knowledge because I fell into the trap. More accurately, I skipped down the road to hell following the siren’s song of success. Back then success meant having the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it, and having unlimited resources. I also wanted complete anonymity on demand, no accountability for anything I might choose to do, and I wanted all of the above without lifting a finger to make it all possible. I wanted to be a hybrid of William Randolph Herst, Jr., Howard Hughes, Donald Trump, and Ted Kennedy. I wanted the proverbial silver spoon.

Just because I’m in recovery doesn’t mean I don’t still secretly want all of those things. What has changed is my attitude toward them. I can now accept that I will never live like any of the aforementioned silver spooners. Better yet, I can be grateful for the things I have. If I ever achieve anything remotely close to the financial status those guys enjoy(ed) it will result from my efforts and the grace of my Higher Power. I could always win the lottery. But, that’s my disease butting in again. As a recovering idiot, I live a happier, more peaceful, and satisfied life. Despite how messed up I allowed my past to be, I still have time to live large and enlightened.

Idiots, Idiots Everywhere and Not a Thought Worth Keeping

Part of a large and enlightened life is accepting there will always be idiots among us, recovering idiots like me, and those that don’t know they’re idiots. Idiocy is sometimes defined as a permanent state of stupidity. I disagree. As a recovering idiot, I know I’ll always be vulnerable to stupid thoughts, stupid words, and stupid deeds. But I can reduce my dependence on them. That might sound stupid, but I’ve lived in spite of my stupidity my whole life. I can exercise some control, minimize the debilitating affects of stupidity, and be less annoying to others. I can pump intellectual iron and watch my emotional diet so as not to appear so repulsive naked.

In an ideal world, we would have idiot colonies and only allow idiots off the island after they receive a one-year sobriety pin. Recovery would be hard, especially in an idiot-rich environment. Without intervention the idiots would wander around looking at one another and wonder why they’re there. Active idiots do not engage in denial. They’re just plain clueless.

In most cases, practicing idiots don’t make life miserable for the rest of us on purpose. They’re not likely to feel as if they’re on the island as a form of punishment. They’ll probably think they’re there for a Tom Peters seminar, which, in a way, is not a bad idea. If Tom yells long and loud enough, some of them might start seeing their fellow detainees as idiots, which is the first step to recognizing the idiot within.

“Wait a minute,” they might think to themselves. “If they’re all idiots, what am I doing here?” It’s a long shot, but it might work.

Imagine for a moment what your organization would look like if the Idiot Police showed up one day and hauled off all the idiots. Which offices would be vacant? What things wouldn’t be done? Would any positive activities cease? Would any negative activities cease? If you found out where your I-Boss was being held, would you send him a postcard? Would you even…

…notice he is gone?

…care that he is gone?

…miss him?

…feel sorry for him?

...wonder what became of him?

Back in the real world, there are no Idiot Police. We’re on our own to deal with the idiots among us. At least those of us who are recovering idiots know what we’re dealing with. Active idiots will remain oblivious to the damage they cause, and non-idiots will just keep tearing their hair out. That’s why this book is so critical to your survival. Keep reading. There is hope.

Idiots: Stranger then Fiction

We can watch Jim Carey depicting an idiot in a film like Dumb and Dumber and laugh. But when dumb and dumber are running organizations, corporations, and government agencies, it’s not funny anymore. The ugly truth is that active idiots are lurking all around us. The tentacles of their stupidity reach deep into the lives of millions. Their power is indescribable. Fortunately, idiots are largely unaware of how much power they wield. If I-Bosses knew how many bullets they have in the chamber, things could really get scary.

All idiots might be created equal, but there is a wide disparity in how they are endowed by their Creator. Through some mysterious quirk of nature, cosmic hiccup, or an evolutionary belch in the universe, some idiots are granted the freedom to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it, and have unlimited resources to do so. They will also receive complete anonymity on demand, no accountability for anything they might choose to do, and not lift a finger to make it all possible.

I wanted to be that idiot, not the one I became. I still have trouble accepting that life is not fair. The sooner I get over it the better life will be. At least I recognized the urge to bend over and pick up a rock and stopped myself. The rock remains on the ground where it will do no harm. More importantly, I avoided bending over in the presence of an active idiot. That could be dangerous.

Why is there such power in stupidity? The answer will roll out in front of you like a red carpet as you read on. It’s too much to capture in a single sentence or clever phrase. Contexts must be built. Paradigms must be shifted. Boxes must be thought out (of).

Cosmic Questions

We all need to form a pact. I have a list of questions for God that will never be answered unless I meet Him face to face. I suggest you do the same. At least one person reading this book is likely to get through the Pearly Gates if I don’t. Whomever among us manages to interview God first can send back the information to Earth. Here are some sample questions:

  • Why did You create idiots in the first place?
  • Why must intelligent people suffer from worry, fear, and anxiety while idiots sleep well at night?
  • What purpose is served by keeping idiots oblivious to the carnage they create?
  • What is the purpose of idiots, anyway?
  • How do idiots fit into the big picture?
  • Why do things that taste good make you fat?
  • Why are things that feel good sinful?

The question on the mind of every working person the world over is, “Why does God allow idiots to become bosses?” In a world where basketball players are paid more than scientists working to cure cancer and people actually care what Hollywood actors and multi-millionaire musicians think about global politics, the fact idiots become bosses seems like the cruelest trick of all.

Testing the Theory

You can clearly see why such profound questions must be addressed incrementally. Shamu couldn’t swallow such a big pill in a single gulp. An important initial question to ask, albeit one you might not want to ask, is, “Am I an idiot?” The following quiz can help determine whether or not you fall into that category. If it makes you too nervous to consider yourself as a potential boob, go ahead and use the quiz to assess your boss. Answer the questions honestly. You’ll decide whether the test is accurate after you determine if the results jive with your preconceived notions.

  1. When something goes wrong at the office I…
    1. Automatically blame it on someone else.
    2. Drop important work and focus on damage control.
    3. Send out for pizza.
    4. All of the above.
  2. When I receive orders to cut my staff I…
    1. Check the batting averages of everyone on the department softball team.
    2. Cut the people who challenge me the most to think and innovate.
    3. Send out for pizza.
    4. All of the above.
  3. When I receive orders to increase production I…
    1. Threaten to fire the people who challenge me to think and innovate.
    2. Start a list of employees to blame for low production.
    3. Send out for pizza.
    4. All of the above.
  4. When I receive orders to cut costs I…
    1. Cancel the departmental holiday party.
    2. Force employees to provide their own office supplies.
    3. Force employees to pitch in for the pizza.
    4. All of the above.
  5. When I’m ordered to reward employees for good performance I…
    1. Check the batting averages of everyone on the department softball team.
    2. Allow employees to order extra office supplies.
    3. Order extra pizza.
    4. All of the above.

We really don’t need to go any further. If you tried taking the quiz for yourself and you threw your pencil across the room before you finished, there is hope. If you took the quiz with your boss in mind, here’s how the scoring goes:

Each (a) answer is worth one point, each (b) answer is worth two points, each (c) answer is worth three points, and each (d) answer is worth four points. Four points: Just Plain Stupid. Five to twelve points: A Real Idiot. Thirteen to nineteen points: A Complete Idiot. Twenty points: A Colossal Idiot. How did your boss do?

Self-Employment: Will the Cure be Worse than the Disease?

Abraham Lincoln pointed out that representing oneself in a court of law guarantees a less-than-gifted lawyer with a less-than-intelligent client, or words to that effect. To quit a job that pays regularly and provides benefits for you and your family in order to work for yourself and set the world on fire is roughly the same thing. I never realized what it was really like to work for an idiot until I started working for myself. Thank goodness I went into recovery. It was the best thing to ever happen to my employee.

People often turn to self-employment as a way to liberate themselves from their I-Bosses. But they often find out too late their new boss is a bigger idiot than the one they just insulted on the way out the door. Consider some potential pitfalls before you tell your Idiot Boss to take his job and shove it:

Once you walk out that door, is there any chance of coming back?

If you can come back, will they start you in the mailroom?

Can you pay yourself salary and benefits equal to those you’re leaving?

Can you pay yourself without using up your savings and college fund for the kids?

Do you understand what deficit spending is?

Are you ready to spend more hours working than ever before?

Does your spouse want you around the house all day?

Will your spouse allow you to turn the spare bedroom into an office?

Are you certain that you have the organization skills and self-discipline to be productive?

Will you be as brutal on yourself as you were on your I-Boss when things screw up?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, you might want to think twice about quitting a sure thing only to discover you’ve shot yourself in the foot.

The Birth of an Idiot Boss

The vast majority of us never receive any formal education or training in the art of leadership. As we claw or stumble our way into positions of authority, we use what we know, which is essentially nothing. So we do what any inexperienced person does and imitate the authority figures we have encountered and observed. But even our observations are not exactly “educated.”

I worked my way through college as a musician. In one of my first enterprising moves, I started a trio to play at the Top of the Tower restaurant and lounge at the downtown Des Moines Holiday Inn (circa 1972). About that same time I went to see a new movie called the Godfather. Most people would have identified with the characters portrayed by Marlon Brando or Al Pacino. Not me. I identified with Moe Green, the evil egomaniac that ran the hotel/casino in Vegas and got whacked with a bullet through his right eye in the final reel.

There was a prima donna piano player at the Top of the Tower I needed to deal with. He showed up late for rehearsals and was otherwise irresponsible. I came down on him one night before the show. He complained later about being publicly humiliated in front of the singing waiters and waitresses. “Chester,” I said, lighting a cigarette and exhaling a long stream of smoke for effect, (back then it was cool to smoke). “I’m running a business here. And sometimes I have to kick a little ass to make it run right.”

Chester laughed in my face and went on acting irresponsibly. I was mystified. The line was straight out of the film and nobody laughed when Moe Green said it. Chester did change one thing. Instead of disliking me intensely he hated me from that point on. In my first true professional leadership challenge, I became an instant I-Boss. I was a monkey that watched Moe Green look and sound tough when he got in Pacino’s face on the movie screen. Monkey saw, monkey imitated—poorly.

The Imitation Myth

Most bosses are promoted without the benefit of leadership training or formalized personal development. It’s common for Idiot Bosses to merely imitate the leadership styles and practices of their predecessors. That’s how we learn to be parents, isn’t it? We either do what our folks did or do the opposite, neither one of which is likely to be the best choice.

Although they seem oblivious to nearly everything, I-Bosses can nonetheless be insecure. If an employee does something wonderful, an I-Boss might feel a twinge of humiliation, rooted in his inability to match competencies. He might not be able to put a finger on the feeling or its origins, but he can take steps to make the employee feel what he’s feeling. That’s why no good deed goes unpunished and team members who do good things are routinely embarrassed or humiliated by their I-Bosses.

If an I-Boss isn’t sure if something a team member does is good or bad, he is likely to err on the side of bad and seize control of the situation, just to be safe. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve done it. I’ve joined in conversations on subjects I knew nothing about just to appear informed. I picked up terms and phrases foreign to me and dropped them into conversations. If no one reacted, I knew I got away with it. If everybody stopped and looked at me, I’d act as if there was something caught in my throat. Trust me, there are better ways to win the confidence and respect of your team members than to wear your ignorance on your sleeve.

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Because virtually no I-Boss is prepared, trained, or otherwise acclimated to the best practices of effective leadership, it’s up to you to train them. You can’t let your I-Boss know you’re training him. That’s your little secret. Just prepare your lesson plan and be consistent.

A psychology professor was teaching the concepts of classical conditioning to his class when they turned the tables on him. An insidious conspiracy formed and the students agreed to sit forward in their seats and pay rapt attention when the professor was on the right side of the room. When he wandered to the left side of the room they leaned back, slumped in their chairs, and acted disinterested. Without realizing why, he was soon delivering his entire lecture from the right corner of the classroom. I know because I started the conspiracy.

You can do the same with your I-Boss. Be perky, attentive, appreciative, or whatever else will please him when he does what you want him to do. Ignore him, work slowly, or act generally rebellious when he is behaving in ways that displease you. If you’ve paid attention to what makes him happy and unhappy as far as your behavior is concerned, it won’t take long to start influencing what he says and does.

Become an amateur anthropologist. Pretend you’re a CSI detective. Observe what pictures he hangs on his office walls, what artifacts does he proudly display on his credenza? What animals are pictured on his wall calendar? Listen to the words and phrases he uses. Is he literate? Can he operate a computer? Can he build a computer? Can he write software? Can he spell software? Is the child in the picture on his desk indescribably ugly? Can you bring yourself to compliment him on all of the things he so obviously holds dear, including the (gag) cute child?

Be patient. It doesn’t happen overnight. If nothing else, it will give you something to look forward to at work. You can also feel smug satisfaction that you are improving the working environment for all of your peers. Don’t feel dirty or guilty for kissing up. It’s survival. Think of yourself as a missionary to the clueless.

You’re Not Invisible

Remember you’re being watched all the time. If you feel invisible or ignored, it’s likely what you’re doing isn’t sufficiently impressive or important to those around or above you. But they’re just pretending you don’t exist. Put your detective skills to work again and note what types of behavior they approve of and start behaving accordingly. Even if you don’t plan to alter your personal style and work habits over the long term, the experiment will prove what you do and say are noticed more than you thought.

Please people and you’ll get recognition. As in the behavior modification episode with the psychology professor, you need to distinguish between what your I-Boss perceives as positive and negative behavior. In sufficient quantity, both positive and negative behaviors will make those who feel invisible visible. If you don’t elicit much attention from your I-Boss, you know whatever it is you’re doing falls into his dead zone.

Idiots lack imagination. That deficiency, coupled with the tunnel vision Idiot Bosses are famous for, means the ship will be submerged before they realize it hit an iceberg. If you want attention, you not only need to say or do things that warrant attention in the idiot’s eyes, you need to exaggerate them so much he can’t possibly fail to notice. If you’re trying to impress your I-Boss by watering the plants around the office, drag in the fire hose from next to the elevator. If you want him to notice you’re vacuuming the carpet, remove the muffler from the vacuum cleaner so the noise will deafen people two floors away and run a couple of circles around his desk.

Become an Influencer

A former president of the Maytag Company told me he couldn’t drink coffee at work in the early years when his office was down the hall from Fred Maytag, Jr. To reach the restroom, he had to pass Fred’s office and he didn’t want the grandson of the founder to see him making multiple trips to the john. So, he literally gave up drinking coffee on the morning. How far are you willing to go to improve your situation? The ex-coffee drinker was trying to avoid making a negative impression. I’m suggesting you develop and employ some tactics of your own to intentionally and systematically engineer the impression you want:

If you’re willing to help look after the office plant life, do it when and where the boss will see you.

If you see trash on the floor, pick it up. You never know who’s looking. If you have a chance to police the area when your boss is present, make a reasonable and believable demonstration.

If an opportunity arises to lend the boss a hand with something, from carrying a large box to helping reboot the computer, graciously offer to help.

Bring the donuts once in awhile. When you do, don’t just drop them in the coffee area. Walk past the boss’s office, display the box, and say, “You can have first choice before I put these out for the masses.”

If your boss articulates frustration with a situation to which you can bring a reasonable solution, offer to help. Don’t get pushy and aggravate his insecurities, make suggestions in the form of questions. “Would it help if..?” “What if we tried..?”

In all things and at all times, be positive. Not, over-the-top, make everyone want to throw up, giddy. Positive. This means finding ways to get along with difficult people, greeting your boss’s directives with a ‘can do’ attitude, and making sure the boss knows you’re a team player.

Come early and go home late. If you don’t want your family life to suffer, drop into conversations that you polished up that proposal last night at home or got up early to work on it before coming to the office.

Throughout the humorous anecdotes and advice I’ve put together in this and future chapters, you’ll find a constant theme: Your success when working with difficult peers and difficult people in positions of power all comes down to attitude—yours. “But, Dr. John,” you complain, “I have serious problems and I need serious solutions.” I agree. I’ve been there, done that, and have the coffee mug. No matter how miserable your situation, your solution starts in your head and works its way out through your hands. Deliberately scheme how you can be a positive influence in your working environment.

If you think it sounds cheesy to tidy up the coffee area within your boss’s view or to offer first dibs at the donuts, you don’t understand how a boss’s brain functions. Henry Ford said he was willing to pay more for a person’s ability to get along with others than any other quality. If you think shedding resentment and hostility, and replacing them with a positive and helpful demeanor are for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, you’re not seriously interested in improving your working atmosphere. There is no more powerful way to impress a boss than to be a supporter. There is nothing more miserable to a boss than a detractor.

Think this through to its logical conclusion. That’s your office you’re tidying up. You enjoy those plants along with everyone else. A happy boss, idiot or no idiot, is key to a pleasant working environment. Be honest and real about it. You are doing these things, as silly as some of them sound, and purposefully altering your attitude to improve your professional living conditions. Aren’t you worth it?

Hard Work Makes Friends and Enemies

If idiots in positions of authority annoy you, it could be your I-Boss is holding you back from hard work. Luckily, I have always been a dedicated, hard worker. Since my first job as the pro shop boy at the Newton, Iowa Country Club (I’ve been paying income taxes every year since the age of 11), I’ve felt, if I must work, I should get into it so intensely that when I come up for air it will be quitting time. It’s hard for me to take a breather and then dive back into something with the same intensity I had before I took the break. Like a helpful and positive attitude, I’ve found that working hard benefits me, as well as my employers.

I moved to California in 1977 and went to work as a union audio and lighting technician at Disneyland. It wasn’t long before my work habits attracted some attention. One day I was on a crew of three or four, unloading sound equipment from a truck. Big Mike, the union boss, joked with several of the other fellows that I was working like a human forklift. He suggested a couple of times that I should slow down before I blew a gasket. I chuckled with them and worked on until I felt a sharp tug on my arm. I had a microphone stand in each hand. “Put those down,” Big Mike grumbled. I could see by the veins bulging from his neck he wasn’t joking anymore. I must have looked at him funny because he said it again, louder.

I set the microphone stands down and reached for some more gear on the truck. He grabbed my arm harder and swung me around. I was about to apologize for not working hard enough when he said, “Stand over there against the wall.” I began to suspect my befuddled expression didn’t please him as he shoved me against the wall. “You watch from right there,” he growled. “Don’t let me see you touch a thing.”

It was one of the most excruciating experiences I’ve ever endured. Every synapse in my nervous system was firing, trying to get back into the unloading process. But I stayed put. The other stagehands kept doing their thing and I watched them helplessly as Big Mike watched me. When the truck was finally unloaded he gave me permission to move. “Next time I tell you to slow down,” he snarled menacingly. “Slow down.”

With that, he stomped off toward the commissary. The other guys turned and walked away, too. I remembered Big Mike the union boss hinting I should slow down a couple of times before, but I thought he was making a joke. After all, there was no reason for him to be concerned about my health. In the locker room later that day, one of the other guys expressed his displeasure that I had made them look bad by working so fast and left them unloading the truck shorthanded while Big Mike had me pinned to the wall. I was nicknamed the human forklift, which was not a term of endearment at the union hall.

Not long thereafter, Bob, the management guy came backstage between shows and took me by the arm. “Come with me, John,” he said. “I want to talk to you.” I was sure he going to fire me for slowing down on the job, even though I only did it when Big Mike was around. “I’ve been watching you and asking around,” he went on.

“Here it comes,” I thought to myself.

“We want you to head up a new department that will bring the union technicians under the jurisdiction of the Entertainment Division.”

“What the...?” I thought. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees personnel had been part of the Maintenance Division since Walt opened Disneyland in 1955. Here it was 1978 and they wanted me to team up with another person and effect one of the biggest organizational changes in the park’s history. I was to be in charge of audio, and an engineer from WED (the Disney design firm in Glendale named after Walter Elias Disney), was to be in charge of theatrical lighting. I thought this was all good and couldn’t understand why the union guys weren’t happy. After all, I couldn’t pick up equipment anymore.

Idiot Oblivion

I share my professional experiences with you so you’ll know you’re not alone. How much of your professional good fortune resulted from your best-laid plans? How much of your bad fortune resulted from your best-laid plans? I’m guessing that you, like most people, enjoy successes and disappointments that occur more often in the randomness of the universe than as intentional outcomes of a well thought out strategies. Understanding and accepting how much our fortunes resemble corks floating in the ocean doesn’t mean we should stop trying to position ourselves by doing the right things at every opportunity.

Without my knowledge, the same work ethic that upset the union boss at Disneyland had impressed management. And I hadn’t set out to make an impression on either one of them. I was just trying to stay busy until quitting time. Disney management thought I was something on a stick and my 85 or so union employees thought I was an idiot. Being a true idiot, I didn’t realize how much I was despised. Even after a couple of big guys from the union office came by and demanded my union card (my membership had been involuntarily terminated) I still didn’t get it.

I managed to stay oblivious to the sneers and verbal jabs taken at my expense as I set out to move the technicians from the Maintenance Division to the Entertainment Division. Once again, my nose was close to the grindstone and I didn’t intend to come up for air until quitting time. I didn’t realize for management there is no quitting time. Sometimes I worked into the wee hours and slept on the floor of my office with the Anaheim Yellow Pages for a pillow.

Your I-Boss Might Care More Than You Know

Fatigue might have helped bring about my epiphany. The jeers and jabs slowed down somewhat due to the relaxed working schedules and other work environment improvements we were able to enact on behalf of our technicians. As time passed, the audio, video, and lighting technicians liked being part of the Entertainment Division and felt more at home. It was a major change, and we made it work because we were working for the team, not the other way around. We hacked our way through the bureaucratic underbrush to make working conditions better for them, and they responded. Attitudes improved even though I’m sure they still considered me an idiot. At least I was their idiot.

Your I-Boss might have a greater emotional investment in getting things done right than he is willing or able to admit. An I-Boss’s failure to communicate effectively can result from cluelessness about important matters or simply from an inability to express himself. People who are not formally prepared for positions of leadership are not taught effective communications skills. Stay alert.

One of our Disneyland stage technicians was chronically late. She was one of our brightest people, but she also had an attitude with a capital ‘A’. After three or four late appearances in a row, I asked her to come see me in my office, well away from the stages where her peers were working. She came in, slumped down in a chair, and dropped her tool belt loudly on the floor. I immediately recognized Chester the piano player’s loathsome attitude. But whatever part of me that once admired Moe Green was gone. Instead, I started to cry. Not a big boo-hoo, mind you. But I teared up and a minute passed before I could speak. Maybe it was Moe’s the bullet in the eye thing.

My unusual demeanor surprised us both and got her attention. Though she tried not to let her tough countenance down, I could see she was curious. To my amazement, I really didn’t care. I just spoke what was on my mind, which sort of materialized on my tongue as the words came out. I honestly didn’t fully realize what was on my mind until the words came out. I know I had a picture in my mind of all the other technicians working away down on the Space Mountain Stage. “Personally,” I said in a calm, assured voice. “I don’t care if you come in early, late, or not at all.” I listened to myself closely because none of this was premeditated or rehearsed and I might need to remember what I said later.

“All I care about is the rest of the techs down there setting up for tonight’s show. Those are your friends, the people you go out and drink with after work, and some of the people who took you under their wings to teach you the ropes when you started here. They won’t say anything to you, so I’ll say it for them. They get here on time and cover for you when you’re late. From now on, if you decide to come in, I hope you’ll be on time. Not for me or the company—I hope you’ll be on time for them.”

Back in Your Court

She was never late again. And her attitude changed to a lower-case ‘a’. She seemed happier and more enthusiastic, which pleased her teammates. I stood at a distance and watched them work together many times. I’m not exactly sure what got through to her, but it resonated enough to make a change in her attitude and behavior; even if it did come from an idiot. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

That was a turning point for me. As clumsy and unanticipated as it was, my epiphany gave me enough of a peek at the Promised Land to never return to complete idiocy. Your I-Boss is no exception. Even idiots tend to retain bits and pieces of knowledge. If your I-Boss stumbles into a good move, something that is truly helpful to you or those around you, reinforce it the way we reinforced our psychology professor’s behavior. Rewarded behavior is repeated behavior—even if it’s accidental.

The Stupid Gene

Be cautious with your idiot diagnosis. Sometimes what appears to be an idiot is just a regular person with idiosyncrasies. We all have them. Idiosyncrasies become exaggerated with exhaustion and dehydration. If a person arrives at the office wearing a different color sock on each foot, he might be a genius, a fashion setter, or color blind. Most likely though, he’s an idiot.

Stupidity is different than alcoholism, drug addiction, or smoking. Well, maybe not entirely. But that’s a different discussion. The analogy I’m about to make borrows liberally from 12-step recovery programs. I’m not disparaging 12-step programs, mind you. The point is that stupidity is nearly as ubiquitous as oxygen. We have no control over stupidity in others. We didn’t cause it, we can’t cure it, and we can’t control it. The only stupidity we can deal with is our own.

Despite all of my attempts to rid myself of stupidity, I find that there are certain dumb things I keep repeating. In that regard, I believe there must be a genetic component to stupidity. No one to my knowledge has isolated the idiot gene. No one to my knowledge is trying. It’s not the sort of bandwagon Johns Hopkins University is going to jump on until there’s federal funding available.

Nevertheless, it seems as if my body produces stupidity the same way it produces bad cholesterol and excessive calcium. The result is clogged arteries and kidney stones. I can battle my personal stupidity in much the same way I attempt to reduce my intake of calcium and cholesterol. Exercise is helpful in reducing cholesterol and exercising my mind is helpful in reducing stupidity. Exercise won’t eliminate cholesterol or stupidity, but it will improve the quality of my life between now and you-know-when.

Steps to Stop Stupidity

Once you’ve become a transcendent idiot—one who can reflect upon his personal condition and circumstances—you can no longer wander back into the idiot population and disappear. Your intelligence, such as it is, will torment you night and day. You’ll suffer from sleep deprivation (which will exaggerate your idiosyncrasies), begin experiencing psychotic episodes, be involuntarily institutionalized, sprung by an A.C.L.U. lawyer without your knowledge, put back on the street, and worry your family to death until your dog finds you sleeping in your garage.

The only reasonable alternative you have left is to accept the inevitability of stupidity in the form of idiots. Welcome to the real world. You can sooner change the weather than have any affect whatsoever on the number and distribution of idiots on this planet. Sometimes it seems as if idiots in human bodies have invaded Earth. Maybe it’s a cosmic conspiracy to keep us from extended space exploration beyond our own neighborhood, which occupants of neighboring galaxies have written off long ago as depressed real estate.

You’re here. I’m here. Wherever they came from, idiots are here. They’re the only ones who don’t know it. Can’t we all just get along? I say yes…sort of. Our focus must be on our personal journeys toward recovery, enlightenment, and enrichment. Genuine idiots won’t be reading this book, so it’s kind of like a private conversation. The good news is that we can live fulfilling lives and have rewarding careers in spite of the idiots we work for.

The bad news is we must do all of the work. Don’t get mad at me. The idiots don’t even know what’s going on. How can they help? But isn’t a fulfilling life and a rewarding career worth the effort? I say yes…absolutely. With that, I take you to step one of our journey to idiot-proof (so to speak) nirvana.

The First Step:

“I admit that I am powerless over the stupidity of others

and my life has become too stupid to manage.”

Don’t let this first step depress you too much. We recovering idiots deserve to be happy. Stupidity might not exactly be a disease, but it should at least be classified as a syndrome. We can’t begin our journey of recovery until we first confess how much trouble we’re in. Feeling, much less admitting, powerlessness is intolerable to some people. It implies a loss of control (which they never had anyway) and they just won’t go there. Meet the living dead. These zombies walk around thinking that they can change the idiots in their lives. I say we need to succeed in spite of the idiots in our lives.

Life is unmanageable if you try to control stupidity other than your own. Do I need to say it again? It’s too big. Let it go. God can handle it. You and I need to invest our resources in managing our own stupidity. Now we’re talking manageable. Maybe. If we keep the whole universal idiot thing in perspective and context, there is hope. Trying to manage our own stupidity issues without deference to the stupidity around us is like driving the wrong way down the freeway. You’re asking for trouble. Driving the right direction, minding your own business, even driving defensively doesn’t guarantee that some idiot won’t run into you. Each one of us is a single car in heavy traffic. Keep one eye on your rearview mirror.

Confession is good for the soul. Even if the confession is somewhat of a stretch go with the flow. It’s easier to push off toward the surface from the bottom of the pool. Admitting powerlessness is the first step to recovery. Subsequent steps will reveal who has the power and how you can tap into it to achieve your own serenity.

Think about what I’ve said in the context of managing yourself. You are ultimately your own boss, even if you report to someone else. Are you your own I-Boss as I am? How effectively you interact with your boss is your choice. Will you be a monkey see, monkey do kind of person? Or will monkey see, monkey thought better of it? Will you be able to give yourself an emotional break, even if others won’t?

In the chapters ahead, we’ll get down to brass tacks and examine the whole idiot issue and the roles we play in it. It makes dealing with your I-Boss at the office much easier if you can see the parallels to your own experience. I don’t suggest the type of naval-gazing reflection that leads to regrets. But changing your thinking and behavior doesn’t happen naturally or effortlessly. Contemplating your past regrets will serve only to predict future regrets unless you consciously decide to follow another road.