I used to think I had to be a tough-talking, pushy bastard to get ahead in life. Instead, that behavior nearly destroyed me. I’ve learned a lot since then.
When I worked at The Eagle-Tribune, some of the editors carried on with the mindset that reporters always needed an ass kicking. If a sentence wasn’t written perfectly, the story got rewritten and the writer got a knuckle sandwich by way of e-mail.
Once, when the obituary writer was out with the flu, my bosses decided he was faking the whole thing and ordered me to call the guy and let him have it. I made the call, and the obit man, Danny Goodwin, was taken aback. Today he’s a close friend and we laugh about that call frequently.
No disrespect toward my former colleagues intended. I made some of my most lasting friendships there. And most newsrooms can be a cut-throat environment. It’s just the way it is.
The point of this post is really about how I tried to be the hard ass some bosses wanted me to be, and how — fortunately for me and everyone else — I failed miserably.
Before I go further, I should point out that this isn’t all about The Eagle-Tribune. When I was an editor for Community Newspaper Company, I thought I was really something. I treated reporters like my personal whipping boys. It didn’t make them better reporters. It just made me a bigger asshole.
When I worked for TechTarget, I had the same problem. I was nobody’s boss there, but I had the feeling I was superior to writers in other groups because someone stuck the word “senior” in my title.
Why did I carry on this way? Because I worried about everything all the time — as OCD cases are known to do — and I couldn’t control my addictions.
This made me feel like the scum of the Earth. Somehow, I reasoned, trying to be — or at least pretending to be — better than others would help me feel better about the absence of control in my life.
If I was going to suffer, I figured, I at least deserved something out of it, like being seen as the golden boy by everyone around me.
How’d that work out? Not so well.
You see, it’s one thing to hurt yourself. But when you hurt someone else to mask your insecurities, an evil is let loose that you can never control.
One New Hampshire reporter from the E-T days, Sally Gilman, got a taste of that evil.
In late 2000, early 2001, I was the assistant editor of the paper’s New Hampshire edition and reported to a manging editor who made my brand of control-freakism look like a minor, passing cold.
His attitude was that all the reporters were children who needed their ears slapped back on a regular basis, and he expected me to carry out his will. It was against my instincts, because I wanted to be known as a nice guy. But I pushed on. When he told me to take a reporter to the woodshed because that person wasn’t performing as he felt they should be, I did.
Sally was one of those reporters who was always in his sights. It was ridiculous, because she was older and wiser than we were. She had been covering New Hampshire for many years. She lived there. We should have just let her do her thing, because it was good enough.
But he wanted more. If an idea wasn’t something you could turn into a multi-story enterprise package with seven sources per story, then it was crap. Community journalism was a mark of laziness, apparently.
He was always on Sally to come into the North Andover, Mass. office to work more often. She resisted, because New Hampshire was where the action was. She lived there. She once noted that the New Hampshire plates on her car increased her credibility with sources, and she was right.
Still, it became my job to push her to come to the office. It seems absurd in this day and age, where you can easily work from anyplace that has a wi-fi connection. But even back then, e-mailing in a story was simple enough.
But we wanted the stories inputed directly into the newsroom’s Lotus Notes-based system. We felt we shouldn’t have to reformat copy on deadline. Perhaps we were the lazy ones.
One morning, Sally filed an incomplete story. I can’t remember exactly what the problem was. But the boss was pissed off about it, and he told me to give her a kick in the ass. Her husband was having some serious surgery that day and we both knew it. But he ordered and I got on the phone and gave her a talking to.
An hour or so later, Steve Lambert, the top editor, called me to his office. I went in there to find him, my direct boss, and editor Al White. Considering what I had done, they went pretty easy on me. There was no yelling. Steve just asked me what happened and I told him. The N.H. managing editor sat there with a very red face. It was always red, mind you. But it was particularly glaring in Steve’s windowless office.
It turns out that Sally had called to complain. She was really upset. How dare an editor call her early in the morning to give her a hard time about something trivial on a day when her husband’s life was hanging in the balance.
Steve agreed with her, as well he should have. But he was still calm about it. He told me I needed to ease up. He didn’t want reporters to see me as the newsroom ass-clown. I said I’d keep that in mind and left his office, feeling like I had just been simultaneously stabbed in the side of the head and slammed in the gut with a brick.
Ten-plus years later, the way I treated her is one of my biggest regrets.
It would be easy for me to blame that managing editor, and make no mistake about it: I’ve spent most of the last decade thanking my lucky stars that I don’t have to work with him anymore.
But I always had the choice to behave the right way, and I did the opposite because being the office rock star was too important to me. I needed that status to fill the hole in my soul.
I thought it would fill the hole. Since I did a ton of binge eating back then, it’s safe to say being a hard-ass didn’t fill the hole the way I thought it would. I binged away and worried about every little thing to the point of paranoia. I started to see conspiracies against me all around. I started getting sick a lot.
Here’s the other problem with being a hard-ass: The world becomes a lonely place.
People don’t want to hang out with you. And on the rare occasions that they do, you don’t have the slightest idea of what to talk about. When you try to be superior to people on the job, you have nothing to relate to outside the building.
Somewhere in my recovery program, I lost my appetite for all this stuff. Out of pure exhaustion, I just started treating people the way I WANTED TO BE TREATED. I just didn’t have the energy to be a hard-ass anymore.
My spiritual conversion was a big part of this, too. My religious beliefs were simply no longer compatible with riding people and trying to control them.
Do I slip up today? Probably. I’m still a control freak to some extent. I guess I always will be.
I’ll always have to work on it, reminding myself that I’m no better than those around me.
All I know is this: When I’m treating people with respect, I feel free. I’m not weighted down by animosity.
More people want to be in my life.
A lot of problems take care of themselves.
You don’t have to take what I say as Gospel. In the end, I can only explain where I’ve been and what I’ve experienced.
And what I’ve experienced since changing my attitude is all good.