Degenerative Progress

I won an award at work yesterday, for being one of the company’s best innovators of 2020, a catalyst for change, and an excellent collaborator.

The whole affair has me thinking about that old line from The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats, about things falling part, centres not holding. I’ve also been thinking about progress, connection, and hope. But then also about arrogance, callousness, and deadly degenerative disease.

And about how I’m probably making zero sense right now.

Let me explain. No, there’s too much. Let me sum up. (Sorry, couldn’t resist – Princess Bride ftw!)

First of all, I’ve long viewed awards as a spotlight contest. It’s about figuring out what is expected, and doing it well, but then also doing it visibly. It doesn’t mean you’re actually performing any better than other people. But it does usually mean that you are performing in a manner that turns people’s heads, just a little bit more.

I have to say, that wasn’t really my jam until the past year or two, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Hide my (dis)ability, save my job. Not too long ago, I thought my current job was doomed because of my hearing loss, and my initial strategy was to hide what I was experiencing, for as long as possible. As long as I could cover up the fact that one of these things is not like the others, I’d be fine. I devoted myself to finding creative ways to keep up, blend in, and not turn any heads.
  2. I worshipped at the shrine of collective credit. I’ve historically been shy about taking credit for what I work on. My job requires a ton of collaboration — it takes a village! — and I would never want to arrogantly give anyone the impression that I single-handedly accomplish, like, anything. So whenever I’d get acknowledged by a leader for a job well done, I was quick to deflect to someone else as the key to the success.

Then both of these things changed.

A few years ago, I decided that being straightforward about my hearing issues, while scary, was likely the better way forward than trying to keep it under wraps. I became more aware of how widespread hearing issues are, and by being the person to come out and talk about it, I hoped that I could be a resource and role model for others struggling with similar things, or potentially any physical, invisible challenge (and they are legion). Fortunately, I was right. Contrary to my fear that I would be pushed into an “out-group” corner, being openly hard-of-hearing has created far more opportunities than it has destroyed and has helped infuse my work life with more of a sense of meaning and purpose than ever before.

The “it wasn’t just my success” tick lasted a bit longer. I still catch myself doing it from time to time. But my team leader pointed out to me that this is part of what our culture has told us we should do, particularly women. We deflect. We don’t pause to accept the congratulations, to acknowledge when we’ve worked hard at something. We instantly take the spotlight off of ourselves and onto the collective. Unfortunately, by modeling this behavior, we perpetuate those stereotypically female norms, and we stay relatively “in the dark” while the spotlight goes to the (usually straight white) guy who is more than happy to say “Hey, I appreciate that. Thanks for noticing my hard work.”

Her point was that I was inadvertently modeling behavior that undervalues my contribution. I was unknowingly selling myself short, which then could be sending a deeper message of selling the work of women short, in particular to those who may (knowingly or unknowingly) look up to me as an example of how to behave. We send a message by stepping away from that recognition, not appreciating the praise, and ultimately, not getting those godforsaken awards.

Whew, that was a mouthful.

Long story short: you can do a lot of good for yourself and others by accepting the compliment. Say thank you when you’re recognized. Own the good things and the times when you mess up. And give credit to others as well, but make it an “and” rather than an “instead of”.

This was probably the most significant counsel I’ve gotten from a leader in years. It has made a tremendous impact on my self-awareness, not to mention my philosophy on the best way to conduct myself in the office. (For the record, I told her how fantastic her advice was, and she appropriately responded, “Thank you.” Not, “Oh, I learned this from Dave,”, not “Oh, I’m sure you’ve gotten better counsel from other people.” Just, thank you.)

Now every time that tick comes back, if she’s around, she gives me a look. Because she knows I’m working on this. And even when she’s not around, if I hear those words coming out of my mouth, it’s as if she’s given me that look.

Yesterday they announced my name as a “winner” for a job well done. I received a barrage of congratulations. And I said thank you, more times than I can count.

I stopped myself from adding, “I couldn’t have done it without all of you.” (Although that is true, said the small, nasally voice of the resident nit-picker in my brain.)

And it felt fantastic, and sincere, and inspiring. I carried the buzz into my evening, as kind words kept coming through in an afternoon meeting, my texts, my email.

But as wonderful as all of that was, as much as I felt I was blazing a trail for people who struggle with invisible conditions like mine (and the very visible reality of being a career woman), I couldn’t push away a deeper voice inside, that constant realist, who knows all too well that sometimes, things fall apart.

Sometimes, people are facing an obstacle — psychologically, societally, or medically — that no amount of “coming out” or changing perspective will overcome.

The other day, a friend of mine and I were reviewing a movie that we’d both seen, “The Sound of Metal”, which focuses on my issue, hearing loss. As we were talking, the conversation branched into how other films handle relatively unrepresented medical issues, and he prefaced one of his comments with the casual phrase, “as someone with a deadly degenerative progressive disease …”.

My heart skipped a couple beats.

Aye, there’s the rub. They call my hearing loss “progressive”. They call his disease “degenerative” — he added the word “progressive”, but it really didn’t belong there. There’s nothing progressive about it.

I can sound all my fanfare about how I am overcoming my progressive condition and am making things happen at work and being this role model and not letting myself be held back, but here’s my friend who, barring a significant genetic therapy that may or may not make it to market in the next few years, will legitimately lose his life to his degeneration.

And I kind of feel like a jerk. An arrogant, insensitive, naive ass.

I wonder, what am I doing? What am I saying? Do I have any right to sit here and postulate on all the ways that you can rise above your physical limitations and get recognized and bring home awards and all will be well and good and splendid, goddesses bless us everyone?

Ugh. That is not the message I want to preach.

On the one hand, yesterday felt like a victory of sorts for people with (dis)abilities, for women in the workplace, for my growth as a human being. On the other, I feel very, very small.

I think both things can be, and are, the reality of the world that we live in.

Again, I am unable to make the clouds part and reveal some great, incredible knowledge about crappy life circumstances and entropy and how to rise above all the things that may face a person in this crazy ride we call Life. But I did want to share this part of my journey, and perhaps someday I’ll look back on this moment as a critical step in the path toward greater understanding. Maybe that will be enough.

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