Privilege Blog

Finding Your Work Tribe, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:26am

I was thinking at some point this week – maybe walking to work, maybe reading an email from an old colleague, maybe after a joking exchange in my offices – that “optimizing skill and passion” gets us only so far in finding the right career. The last mile, as they say, comes when you find your tribe.

Back when I worked outside the technology industry, I often felt like an alien being. The people who sat round my lunch table held very different values, and communicated in a very different language than I.

I remember a salesperson told me I made him uncomfortable because I used the word “visceral” to explain the appeal of a hinge. That’s just how I talk. It made him feel as though I was pointing out our differences, but I had only meant to find a term that communicated precisely. We were never going to work together happily.

I went to work in tech in 1997.  Those first few months interacting daily with software engineers answered questions I hadn’t even known I was asking. “Oh my gosh,” I thought, or to be precise, felt, “I am at home.” For the first time, no self-editing required. Sure, there’s always the need to maintain professional behavior. Which eventually became managerial behavior. But still, gone the persistent and debilitating, “Can I say this?”

The software guys, and the industry that has sprung up around them, value precision (which they are apt to call “granularity”), logic, broad well-bounded hypotheses, and straight talk. I can do that. Other businesses may operate the same way, but they didn’t hire me so I don’t know.

Find your work tribe. Perhaps you already have. We get much more done when we work without a translator.

Have a wonderful weekend.

32 Responses

  1. You are so right about this! I have had the same experience many times.

    “They” often say “fake it till you make it,” but how long can a person do that without having an opportunity to be his/her genuine self?

    1. I so agree with you Nancy. I spent 20 + years doing “the fake it ’til you make it” dance. Jumped ship and spent five years trying to figure out my authentic work self. Genuine self is a concept so many of us are trying to figure out.

  2. Yes, indeed. So important to speak without needed a translator. Have been in situations you describe as well. Glad you found your tribe.

  3. A poignant piece for me – I’m managing volunteers who seem to want endless affirmation. I feel like I’m lying a lot of the time as I say thank you a thousand ways when actually I’d really like some of them to retire or at least be more co-operative!

    Also, I’ve moved to a new country that seems (at least in my sector) to be a lot more pussy-footting in the way it goes about things… I was considered direct in my old country, now I’ve offended some folk and I’m trying to see if I can balance being myself and expressing my thoughts and feelings with being professional and appropriate and working with the team etc.

  4. I had a boss who told me to “quit using big words that make people feel stupid.”

    I was puzzled, so asked him for an example of a big word. He couldn’t give me one. He also couldn’t tell me who “felt stupid.”

    A co-worker later told me that of course our boss was talking about himself. Not a good sign. I shouldn’t have been too surprised when it was my job that was eliminated when mandatory cuts were ordered.

  5. Very thought provoking post – there is so much joy and affirmation in finding one’s tribe that the limitations of belonging to one can be rather obscure.
    My clients are a diverse group and include a children’s day care center, a retail kingpin, Marin county rock stars and authors, and a women’s club whose average member age is @ 80 years.
    I guess I’m just lucky to be able to communicate clearly with all of them – not only do we discuss business, but politics, world events and HBO are commonplace topics. If a word or phrase I happen to use proves too esoteric or awkward there always seems to be another term readily available more congenial to the conversation.

    There are already so many superficial distinctions that keep us apart – language has such a range of possibilities that it does not necessarily have to be one of them.

    1. You make a very good point. Time spent in different tribes is really valuable. I am glad I’ve wandered about. But I am even more glad to have found my people.

  6. I just love the way you express yourself. “I used the word “visceral” to explain the appeal of a hinge. ” So perfect. Actually it sounds like something Steve Jobs would say.

    “value precision (which they are apt to call “granularity”), logic, broad well-bounded hypotheses, and straight talk. I can do that.” You’re so good at that. You have found the perfect place for yourself. Not only at your 9-5 but also on this blog. It’s always an enlightening experience to read your blog, wether it be about tech, style, hats or what every. You give it an added context, which is always a delightful challenge.

  7. Great post! I work in a middle school setting. Wouldn’t say “visceral” to faculty or staff, but would do so with happy abandon with the kids. They would, equally happily, say “What’s that?” Tribelessness can be edgy fun, but I do sometimes long for academia.

  8. Good perspective on finding one’s place. Would be interested in your thoughts on how this sense of tribalness relates, however obliquely, to being liked within the workplace or without, for that matter.

    Being liked is often underestimated as a driver of life success.

    A bit of grist for your mill.

    1. Very apropos grist at that:). One can succeed if one is not liked but it takes an enormous force of will and capacity to endure.

  9. Spent yesterday afternoon talking to a colleague about this very thing. I have been in hog heaven the past 20 years working with my tribe: quirky academics who like nothing better than to bandy the words and debate the ideas. Previously, I worked in an environment where I knew I’d always be the outsider even when I became an insider for the kind of reasons you cite.

    Your mention of hinges in a retail setting makes me wonder if you once worked at Home Depot. ; )

  10. I tend to call ’em as I see ’em, which means I don’t do well in environments where I have to be guarded about my communication or where playing politics trumps just getting things done. Which has been just about every job I’ve had including this one. I’ve had to learn to adapt and self-edit, but the political nuances are still lost on me. I love the IT guys. It’s all about does this work or not and why. How can we make it work more efficiently? I sometimes wish they were the only people I had to deal with.

  11. You are so right Lisa and very thought provoking discussion. I find it extremely uncomfortable to be around people, whether it was when I worked, or now in a social setting, if I have to edit what I say. There is so much tension when you have to think “how will what I say be perceived” before you speak. I am all for finding your tribe and sticking with them.

  12. Absolutely! I currently work at a little company for/with long-time friends and it makes all the difference in the world – mutual respect, trust, caring, understanding, support, a lot of latitude in dealing with each others idiosyncrasies – bliss after years in a cold corporate climate watching my back where shareholder value was the primary focus rather than customer satisfaction. The 45+ minute commute one-way is so worth it. My tribe. Thanks for reminding me why I’m there.

  13. Yep, I’ve spent years working with manly lawyer men, the kind who brag “I’m so left brained that I have no right brain at all.” Cue the shriek of horror from me – I get along best with creatives and therapists. Hope to never work with manly lawyer or CFO men ever again…

  14. I have never worked in an office, or “tribe” environment and don’t think I’d do well in one. So many rules, censoring, worrying about getting on other’s nerves.

    I work by myself, and get on my own nerves plenty.

  15. I don’t know if scientists and engineers are my tribe, exactly, as I am neither. However, I was raised by an engineer who liked to bring home whatever prototypes the group he directed was currently working on and let me play with them. And, probably as a result, I married a scientist who has always developed his own modeling software and who, in high school, was obsessively writing thousands of lines of code at the same time that I was obsessively writing twenty-page research papers.

    So when I sit with a table full of developers, scientists, hybrid scientist-developers, or all three, I feel oddly comfortable, even though my last advanced science class, sadly, was A.P. physics as a senior in high school. I am happy in a way I could never be around humanities scholars, whom one might at first glance assume were my own tribe. No, those people just drive me crazy in various ways.

    Some people leave their original tribes and are adopted into others.

  16. Making a salesperson uncomfortable – not easy to do, probably wasn’t a very good salesperson.

    You go on with your big word self! The word needs more precision, not less.

  17. Making a salesperson uncomfortable – not easy to do, probably wasn’t a very good salesperson.

    You go on with your big word self! The world needs more precision, not less.

  18. And work tribes don’t only vary by industry, they very by region. I have found a big difference between coworkers in different parts of the country. I work amazingly well with my coworkers now. The fit is natural. Earlier in my career, in a not so far away place (but far enough to feel like the tundra), I had a harder time in my industry and thought about giving up and switching careers. I’m glad I didn’t, because the problem wasn’t the industry, it was the work tribe of people from that region.

  19. Vocabulary is something I can almost take for granted with colleagues, but it is the IT guys that I know that are frustrated with my way of describing a problem.

  20. Thank you for saying what I have so often thought, and for the encouragement that you have unknowingly given a Computer Science major who will be graduating and (hopefully!) working in the field next year.

  21. Yay for software peeps. I can relate to your story of feeling like an alien. It’s been an interesting semester acclimating to an entirely new culture. But hey, that’s what keeps us on our toes, right?

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