The Canker Sore

“Listen, we all die. And nothing you did is going to speed that process up for yourself or anyone else. It’ll be fine.”

While probably not the most comforting words to hear at the workplace, I will stand by their accuracy. Plus, empathy is all in the delivery.

But let’s take a step back.

As a middle manager at a mid-sized distribution company located in the least exciting part of a below-average sized US city, I like to think I know something about how life and this whole “Corporate America” game work. Over the last seven years, I’ve built a fairly successful career: I’ve managed multiple departments, led many successful projects, innovated new ideas, and grown significantly as a person and professional. And in that time, two lessons about Corporate America have stood out to me the most:

  1. Nothing ultimately matters
  2. This includes the above fact

When you first start your career, every misstep feels soul-crushing and every success feels life-affirming. You lack the perspective to know that most mistakes are a) reversible or b) relatively inconsequential. Nor do you have the context to know that even the consequential and/or irreversible mistakes typically do no more than make a group of old, rich, white men slightly less rich. And since they’re still white and male at the end of it, I’ll assume they’ll be just fine.

The first time I made a mistake at work, I went into a mild spiral of doubt and self-loathing, powered by Taco Bell and alcohol (and perpetuated well beyond its reasonable lifecycle by sad pop-punk music and pre-existing anxiety):

“This will ruin my reputation.”

“I’ll never recover from this.”

“My career here is over. I need to look for a new job.”

“Maybe my kindergarten teacher was right to want to hold me back.”

“No mom, I’m sorry. I still don’t have a girlfriend. And given this, you should understand why.”

Now to be clear, I don’t think anyone even noticed my mistake (which in itself led to a separate shame spiral around how I was too unimportant, at work and in life, to be noticed at all – but that’s out of scope for this post). Yet that doesn’t change how I felt in the moment. Nor should it. You can’t be expected to have perspective on things you haven’t had the chance to endure yet. Human experience is relative, and so is perspective.

My mistake didn’t cost anyone their life. I didn’t botch an open-heart surgery, prescribe someone the wrong medication, misdiagnose an illness, or direct any episode in the last three seasons of Game of Thrones. In fact, it mostly just messed up a spreadsheet that nobody used or looked at. And to that end, it did not matter in the least. It was a meaningless mistake made in an environment where even the meaningful errors have limited potential to cause harm.

But relative to my experience up until that point, it felt devastating.

This is what’s so tricky to me about perspective. It’s incredibly important to have it. Yet there comes a point where if you have too much of it, it becomes extremely difficult to empathize with people who have less of it. In the context of middle-management, this can make it difficult to provide the appropriate context and empathy to help less experienced folks grow and develop. In the broader context of life, it can make it extremely hard not to trivialize others’ misfortunes.

For example, I’ve had a canker sore on my tongue for the last two weeks. It was surely a test handed down by God to his strongest soldier to set an example for others in how to endure adversity with dignity and grace. Truly, no man has suffered as I have suffered. Which, needless to say, has made it difficult not to trivialize the less pressing issues of others. Yet nobody wins, myself included, if I’m unable to meet people where they’re at, and instead insist on one-upping people’s less intrusive cold sores and oral tumors. It just becomes a giant race to the bottom.

Because in the end, we all die. And even my canker sore isn’t going to speed up that process. And while that fact can ultimately trivialize the “global” meaning of almost any aspect of our lives, it seems dumb to overly prescribe meaning to that meaninglessness. It’ll just make everyone more miserable and hopeless.

And I’ve got enough of that with this canker sore.

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