I took an hour-long train ride from Philadelphia straight up the Main Line on Wednesday and spent a good portion of that time texting with my brother. I’d been at Temple University visiting the art school—our alma mater—and word on the street was that he’s difficult to work with. Interns, it would seem, talk.
The funny thing was that I’ve heard the same mentioned about myself. My brother, however, was taken by surprise, and he was not as thick-skinned as I when he heard it.
My brother is one of the most celebrated art directors at his agency. He won top portfolio within his graduating class at the art school. If his work isn’t perfect every time, it’s damn near close. I both admire his perfectionism and loathe it. But I wouldn’t have him change for the world. I didn’t mean to upset him with the news but I didn’t want to hide it from him or sugar-coat it either. So instead of backpedaling I told him:
It’s because you’re too good and expect the same from others. Own it. Nobody says mediocre people are “difficult to work with.”
That’s true, he responded. And that was the end of it.
A former boss of mine who’d seen us both in action once told me that were my brother and I to team up we’d be unstoppable. And yet, we’ve never been the best at working together. I suspect that is because we’re both “difficult to work with.”
But if “difficult to work with” means being one of the best, and challenging others to do better work than they were doing previously, I see it as a compliment. I’m not afraid of hearing it. I wasn’t always this way, though—it took me a long time to develop a thicker skin. You see, because, labeling someone as “difficult” also implies some bias on the labeler's end. After all if we, the “difficult” people, would only curb the push-back and do exactly what our detractors say, revere them exactly as much as they expect to be revered, the “difficult” label would be lifted and we would be better liked. Calling someone “difficult” doesn’t paint a likable picture, and no matter what anyone says, we all hurt a bit when we feel we’re not liked.
I began to care less about being traditionally liked exactly seven years ago. I decided to live authentically and haven’t looked back. It’s natural to get caught up in the negative feelings that come at any given moment when we think we’re not liked, but it’s also easy to choose to rise above them. And in the end, it’s far more powerful to have people like and respect you for who you really are, rather than a made-up version of yourself crafted just to be accepted.
Take a look back at who you were in high school. If you were ever that person who had blue hair or a piercing before that stuff was cool, and you got made fun of, then I think it’s about time you prove to everybody that you were, if not their equal, even better than they were by having gone through your teens choosing to let your freak flag fly. Letting your freak flag fly just means standing up and saying, “This is who I am, and this is what I think,” even if you're ahead of the curve when it comes to being cool. As your adult self that doesn’t have to mean showing up to the office with a purple mohawk and a sleeve of tattoos—although, hey, if that’s who you really are… No, it means staying true to what you know in your heart is right. If someone’s work isn’t good enough, don’t be afraid to tell them. And then work with them to make it better. If your boss has a stupid idea, don’t just go along with it when it’s tearing you up inside because you know it’s the wrong approach.
Being your authentic self is never about trying to take over. It’s more about letting everyone know that there’s a different way of doing things. If people can open their minds and pay more attention, they’ll never want to work with anyone who isn’t at least a bit “difficult,” who’s way is less meaningful or has less substance.
I, for one, will always choose substance over surface.