If you’re certain about what you want and you’re relentless in doing things your way, you’re going to create some enemies.
Most people don’t appreciate certainty in others. They don’t appreciate strong convictions about what’s right and what’s wrong. They don’t appreciate people who step out from the crowd and say, “I’m going to do this my way.”
When I was a teen-ager and when I was a young adult, I had strong ideas about how to do things and I didn’t let anything get in the way of my pursuing what I saw as the right way. What’s more, I’m not sure I was socially aware enough at the time to notice or even care that people didn’t like my certainty and my drive to do things my way. For many years, I didn’t even understand that others would resent such a person. It would have baffled me.
I’ve had something of an epiphany in the last few days. I might have discovered something that will take me back toward something I used to be. I’m not sure yet, but it might be very important.
When I started working in the newspaper business, I didn’t have any desire for a career in journalism, but if I was going to work at a newspaper, I was going to do things the right way. I was going to devour all the information I could get from others. I was going to quiz them relentlessly about best practices and what they had learned. And then I was going to pursue what seemed to me to be “the right way to do things.”
I quickly learned how to do every job in my newsroom. I wrote sports. I covered city councils. I shot news, sports and feature photos. I developed film and printed photographs. I even spent one summer writing and editing weddings when I ran what had once been the “women’s desk.” At a small daily newspaper, there was opportunity to learn as much as you wanted if you kept asking questions and asking for more responsibility.
In the photo above, you see some of the tools of the trade from the time. We didn’t have computers to handle layout or photos. All we had were primitive word processors connected to typesetting machines. Every element of a page had to be meticulously built using sheets of type and headlines and border tape. I learned all the technical skills to do any job in the newsroom or the composing department. By the time I left that newspaper, I could do every job in the building except running the press.
I already knew grammar when I started, but I had to quickly learn Associated Press style and how to type. (I didn’t tell them I didn’t know how to type when they offered me my first part-time job.) I became a good writer and then I became an even better editor.
I was good enough at what I did that I became managing editor of this small daily by the time I was still just 21 years old. I was the youngest managing editor of a daily in the country at the time. (Our best writer was only one year older than I was, but everybody else was considerably older than we were.)
Some people resented me, but I barely noticed and it didn’t bother me. I was having too much fun and I was learning too quickly. All I knew is that I had a vision for what could be — and I was pursuing that as fast as I knew how.
There were plenty of things in my life during those years when I showed the same characteristics. If I was going to do something, I jumped into it with both feet — and I did things my way. I fought against authority figures who opposed me and I ignored their rules when I couldn’t get around them any other way. I tried to be good enough that they wouldn’t dare get rid of me — because they would see what I was doing and ultimately agree that I had been right. It was a high-risk strategy, but it was the only way I worked at the time.
Over the years, I went through a lot of maturing and self-improvement. I came to see that I had been too arrogant and too certain about a lot of things. I’ve talked about some of that before — but I find myself rethinking some of that now. Maybe in making this change, I also threw away the certainty and drive I had always had to do the right things and to do them correctly.
This is very difficult to summarize, because understanding it would require knowing a couple of turning points in my life and understanding the changes I went through at those points. I’ve ended up at a place at which I second-guess myself and don’t assert that my way is the right way. I had to find the humility to quit worrying about being right.
But what if I went too far in the opposite direction?
What if I became so worried about people seeing me as arrogant or egotistical that I stopped pushing to do things my way? What if that killed the very thing which made me such a success early in life?
I was listening to an audiobook a few days ago dealing with my Enneagram personality type. It mentioned that when a Type 4 (Individualist) — that’s me — is emotionally healthy and growing, the person can appear to be a healthy and high-functioning Type 1 (Reformer). I had heard that before, but I’d never spent much time thinking about it. So I took some time to study the Type 1 — and I was floored at what I realized.
If you look at the best aspects of a healthy Type 1, those sound eerily like what I had been when I had been a successful young man. I had been certain that I knew how to make things better — in anything I did — and I was certain I was right. I pursued change not from any egotistical need, but from a strong desire to do “the right thing.” It was always a matter of doing what ought to be done.
I’m oversimplifying things to explain them here, but listening to writer and teacher Helen Palmer talk about a healthy Type 1, I saw myself as I was back then. And I realized with horror that I’ve lost that part of myself — in a well-intentioned desire not to seem arrogant or judgmental.
I didn’t do things back then because someone else wanted me to. I did things only because they were interesting enough for me to care how they were done. That was true when I successfully plotted to take over the youth group at my church or when I radically changed my high school newspaper or when I entered a last-second speaking competition.
If I didn’t care about something, I didn’t get tangled up in it. If I did care about it, I pursued taking over and changing it from scratch.
(I tried to take over the student newspaper at the University of Alabama, but I failed. As an outsider, I shouldn’t have even been a candidate to be the editor, but I almost convinced the Media Planning Board to give me the job. But that’s another story. It hurt to fail at that, but it was typical of my approach. I didn’t spend several years working my way through the system “waiting my turn.” Instead, I aggressively sold the board on giving me the job. I wanted to run the place — and completely change it — or I wanted nothing to do with it.)
In my desire to avoid sounding arrogant or egotistical, I’m not pursuing things I know are right today. Even when I’m in a position where I know things are being done incorrectly — in ways that won’t achieve the stated objectives — I meekly go along, because the stakes aren’t high enough for me to fight for my way and because I don’t want to appear arrogant.
I don’t know for sure where this is going to lead, but I see three immediate points I need to learn from this.
First, I need to pursue only things I care about enough to fight for what’s right (by my standards). I don’t need to continue letting myself do things which someone else simply wants to pay to have done. I will never shine or achieve great things in such a situation.
Second, I need to find a way to allow myself to say, “I’m going to do this my way,” but without being arrogant or egotistical about it. I have to be able to tell other people that I might be wrong about some particular thing, but that if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it my way. This isn’t because I’m perfect. This is because trusting my judgment about what’s right has brought me success in the past. I need to trust that again — and stop compromising about it.
Third, I need to remember why I always worked best with a partner. When I did projects with partners early in my life, I was most successful when there was someone else who I trusted along for the ride. It had to be someone who trusted me, but when there was that mutual trust, I could do my best work — and that person could often be the buffer between my stubbornness and those on the outside who wouldn’t react well to my steamroller approach.
I feel as though I’m still stumbling forward in the dark, but I also feel as though some things are becoming more clear every day. I feel as though I’m understanding why I was so successful early in life — and why I lost some of that as I tried to care too much what other people thought of me.
I’ve known for years that I had to recover something from the past to become myself again. (Here’s something I wrote five years ago about it.) I knew I was missing something — and I might have found an essential piece of it in the last few days.
If I can find a way to pursue the things which I absolutely know are right — but without appearing arrogant and running over people — I might very well be able to pick up where I left off when I got off track years ago.