It’s Not You, It’s Me – I Got Banned From Making the Grocery List, But It Taught Me A Lot About Work


I was married about two months the first time I was banned from something by my wife.

Mrs. Businesspundit and I used to write things on the grocery list as we ran out, but my handwriting, it seems, was tough for her to decipher. She returned from the grocery one day and we had a conversation that went something like this:

Mrs. BP: What exactly is "alien 7"?

Me: I don't think that means anything.

Mrs. BP: Then why did you put it on the grocery list?

Me: Whaaaat? (grabbing the list) Can't you read? That says broccoli.

Mrs. BP: What-Ever. Broccoli? You lose your grocery list making privileges.

Me: Thank god.

So I screw up and I get out of some work? What a great strategy. In fact, I liked it so much I began using it more often. I found it particularly useful at the office, where incompetence could me out of certain kinds of work.

There is a constant debate in the workplace about doing the type of work you don't like. Should your boss try to tailor work to your skills and interests, or should you suck it up and do what you are told? I leaned towards the former.

Then one day I became a business owner. I wanted to give my employees all kinds of fun and exciting work – the kind of work they looked forward to and enjoyed. Unfortunately, there was a problem called reality. Reality said that there were plenty of tasks that were no fun for anyone, but had to be done. Reality said that if they weren't done, there would be no opportunities for the fun stuff. Reality sucks.

For some reason, I thought back to the grocery list incident. Why should I blame Mrs. Businesspundit for her inability to read my sloppy handwriting? I can write neatly when I take the time to do so. That thought took hold and grew strongly inside me. I began adopting George Costanza's line while I was at work – "it's not you, it's me." If you don't understand, then I'm not explaining it well. If you aren't motivated, then I'm doing something wrong. If a task seems boring, it's not the task, it's my attitude. It was a liberating perspective. No longer was I dependent on the world to be the way I wanted it to be. I could accept it for what it was, and change my behavior to move more towards my long term goals. It was a practical experience with the fundamental attribution error – it wasn't the people, it was the situation. Sometimes I could change the situation.

How to Keep Your Employees Happy Without Giving Them a Raise

Back up a second. I am not advocating that you let people walk all over you. I am not advocating that you interact with the world in a passive wishy-washy way. If you always think you are wrong that is a sure way to develop low self-esteem. What I am saying is that if there is extra work to be done on both sides, you do it. You cover the extra ground, you go above and beyond, you change your approach. Do that and you will reap the benefits.

Who gets promoted when the time comes, the person that only does a good job on some things or the person that does a good job on everything? Who generates better results, the person that is stuck because the situation won't adapt to his needs, or the person that adapts himself to the situation to get things done? Which startups succeed in the long run, those that force consumers to adapt to their offerings, or those that adapt their offerings to what consumers want?

There is a fear that if you do that work no one else wants to do, you will get stuck with more of it. (No good deed goes unpunished, right?) That may happen sometimes, but more often the result is that you will be perceived as a person that can get things done who doesn't complain about the process. People appreciate that. Many things about corporations are stupid, but you can't waste your energy fighting every little thing. Sometimes the best strategy is to play the game by the existing rules until you get into a position to change them.

I've learned to be adaptable. Marriage does that to you. So does running a business, or working for a startup. I've also learned to take my time when I write something on the grocery list. It doesn't take much extra effort, and I never end up with onions when I wanted oranges. Now when I want broccoli, instead of a rushed scribble I print clearly and neatly on the list… "ALIEN 7". It's a constant reminder that it's not you, it's me.

  • Clearly, one should try to assign people to jobs that optimize their skills and interests. But once a person is in a job, they need to do whatever the work requires, rather than saying “I can’t give presentations” or “I can’t understand technical stuff” or whatever.

    I think a lot of people damage their careers by taking a self-centered attitude focused entirely on themselves rather than on the demands of the task.

  • Being adaptable, being a calculated risk taker and bring open to change are all good things. One way for a business to create that kind of culture is to hire for it.