The words came out of my friend’s mouth: “Everyone I work with is a nightmare.” It felt like something out of Black Mirror. Time stopped. We fused and became the same person.
It was like her words were coming out of my mouth. I suddenly realised that this is something I say, all the time, without realising it. And, when I say it, I really mean it. Just as my friend really meant it. Probably a lot of us say, all the time, “Everyone I work with is a nightmare.”
It has become a ritual we go through when we talk to our friends. “Let me tell you about the nightmare I’ve had at work!” In this nightmare, you are right and everyone else is wrong and if it weren’t for them, everything would be great. And we wonder why tribalism has taken hold in the national conversation.
It’s true that, sometimes, the people we have to work with and live alongside can be total nightmares. And yet it’s also bullshit and we know it. Because, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Hell is other people.” And, while this might sound like a comforting little bit of existential philosophy that allows you to be right and everyone else to be wrong, it actually poses a major challenge. The problem is, we are people, too. So we must, by definition, also be hell.
The thing is, we know secretly that it cannot possibly be true that everyone else is a nightmare and we’re perfect. It’s a delusion. And yet it’s one we readily sign up to, just as we sign up to lots of other delusions in life, like believing that we are less likely to die than other people are. (I totally believe this and, while there is no concrete proof to the contrary – such as me dying – I am going to continue to believe it.) The thing is, it cannot be true that everyone we work with is a nightmare. It’s like that line in When Harry Met Sally, when Marie (Carrie Fisher) says just as her husband, Jess, has a wagon-wheel coffee table that is indeed hideous, so it is true that not everyone we work with can be a total nightmare. In fact, just as Jess is the one who chose the wagon-wheel coffee-table, it is more likely that we are the ones who are at fault.
Because if you look carefully, in every nightmare work scenario that you describe, guess who that scenario always features? You
So, when we talk about what a nightmare our work is and how everyone we work with is an idiot and if only it weren’t for Janice from accounts getting on our case then everything would be fine and what is wrong with her anyway…? Then what we are really talking about is ourselves. Because, if you look carefully, in every nightmare work scenario that you describe, guess who that scenario always features? You (or, in my case, while I am still alive, me). What if we are the nightmare, not everyone else?
I remember reading a Buddhist quote, years ago; something about a man who was bothered by a drilling noise outside his window. The Buddhist response was this: “What if the noise is not bothering you? What if you are bothering the noise?” It’s a weird concept, but I’ve thought about it many times since. And I often think about it when I am bothered by, yes, a noise, or by another person or by work or by anything. What if they are not bothering me? What if I am bothering them? The noise is only annoying if you give your attention to it. The person is only a nightmare because you’ve given them a role in your nightmare. The wagon-wheel coffee-table is only horrific because you want Jess to move it. Take away the attention, take away their part in the drama, care less about the table… and, what's left? Generally, calm. And calm is where an answer can pop in that might help you to deal with things.
Clearly, I did not tell my friend this. I just said, “Oh, my God, you, too? That’s weird, because everyone I work with is also a nightmare.” And so, it goes on. Until I die, which obviously won’t be for ages.