I have been working with quite a few square pegs. They just do not fit into the traditional roles that corporations define.
Some try to squeeze themselves into those roles. Some are very successful. Unfortunately, they usually end up unhappy and unhealthy. The stress of making themselves fit wreaks havoc on their physical and mental health.
I am starting to realize that I am—to some extent—one of these square pegs!
Note: This post was originally published in October of 2015 and was updated in August of 2018.
Becoming an Actor
For many of us when we started our careers we became actors. We were hired to play a role and if we stayed in character long enough we started to think we were that role. I have often written on this blog about becoming an extrovert in order to make more money. I am a closet introvert.
When I was in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I could stay in character for long periods of time. When I reached my 50s staying in character became exhausting. I found that periodically I would become completely exhausted which seemed completely out of character. I would then need to take time to recharge. Unfortunately, I kept on getting exhausted and it took longer and longer to recharge.
In 2004, I went off to teach high school math in an inner-city high school in Austin, Texas. That first year was exhausting and I really did not understand why. I had convinced myself that I was an extrovert. You can learn more about this from my podcast From High-Tech Training to High School Teacher, and Why I Left.
That summer I really focused on resting and relaxing. I needed to recharge. When I returned in the fall, I thought I was ready but I was not. I left teaching at winter break and it probably took me a year to recover.
I had become an actor and continuing to stay in character was exhausting.
Have you been an actor at work?
Square pegs come in many forms, but let me describe their most common characteristics.
- Creative – They have a very high interest in music, art, and/or literature. Many have abandoned those interests because they do not fit into what our economy values or is willing to pay for. Instead, they often express their creativity in colorful spreadsheets or attractive PowerPoint presentations.
- Structure – They do not like staying between the lines. They want the freedom to do it their own way. They are good in chaotic situations where they get to make the rules.
- Introverted – They work best when by themselves or on a small, cohesive team. If you ask them to make a presentation, give them plenty of time to prepare. Consider Steve Jobs who was very introverted. Jobs would rehearse and rehearse and rehearse before every product announcement.
- High Empathy – They are kind, caring individuals who want to be treated similarly by their colleagues. I have worked in the high-tech field for most of my career. High empathy people are not generally welcomed or considered the norm.
- Low Authority – They would prefer having a colleague to a boss. If you try to micromanage them, it is not pretty!
Do you see any of these characteristics in yourself?
These personality traits are largely incompatible with today’s work environment.
- Today’s work environment does not highly value an interest in music, art, or literature.
- You are supposed to follow the rules.
- You are rewarded for being an extrovert. I am a closet introvert! But, I have learned to behave like an extrovert in order to succeed.
- Emotions are not welcome in most workplaces.
- Strong leadership is valued in the workplace, but some of us just want to left alone to get our job done.
Another issue I currently see is cultural dyslexia. These are people who were born into indirect culture (Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) but were then raised in their teenage years in a direct culture (the U.S. and Europe). They attend western universities and acquire some western personality traits.
The problem is that they do not feel they belong in either their birth culture or their adopted culture. I call this cultural dyslexia and we will see a lot more of this issue as people move around the world.
Does everyone suffer from cultural dyslexia who make this transition? No! However, I have seen it enough and how it causes them great angst in trying to fit in that round hole.
Cultural dyslexia is just another form of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
I worked with a client who was a top-flight IT project manager. She had been seduced into multiple jobs only to have it end in a nasty divorce. She would take a position, run a project for a year and then her boss would give her the same kind of project again.
She would say … “well, ok.”
After another year the project would come to an end and her boss would put on another similar project. She would get angry and say, “NO!” Her bosses response was to think, “we are putting you in your comfort zone.”
The problem was her comfort zone was always to do something new. I hate to tell you but for the average project manager that is very unusual. She did not understand that she just did not fit the hole that her boss was putting her in.
Do you see yourself in any of these examples?
Are you a square peg?
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