Zone Defense

Does taming your ego mean living life in the friend zone?

How’s this for a familiar movie arc?

John and Jane move in the same circles. John has a crush on Jane, but Jane has never thought of John in that way. They strike up a friendship when John goes out of his way to be nice to Jane. She continues to be oblivious to his feelings for her, then eventually starts dating a dumb jock. John is crushed. Their friendship gets weird, then he confesses everything and they stop being friends. John can’t figure out where he went wrong.

In the movies, Jane eventually realizes she misses John, breaks up with the beefcake, and she and John live happily ever after. 

In real life? John probably never escapes the friend zone. The end.

You don’t want to be John. 

Now consider this: romantic relationships are one thing, but John’s cautionary tale can play out in other parts of life too.

John’s problem, of course, was that he was too nice. On the face of it, he did everything right. He listened when it was time to listen, he joked when it was time to joke. He showed up when Jane needed a hand. And he never demanded anything in return (which he told himself was because he didn’t want to come on too strong… the truth is he just couldn’t get up the nerve). That’s okay -- eventually Jane would realize that John was the one for her... right?

You might meet John’s fate elsewhere -- trapped in life’s friend zone, as it were -- by similarly doing “all the right things”. You’ve been doing your Unachievement homework and you’ve started to see that most times, the biggest thing you can do to get ahead in the world is to work on what goes on between your ears. You’ve learned that even when people or other things external to you are a problem, they’re never the problem -- in a bigger-picture sense. The real problem you need to solve in life is… you. So you’ve become a zen master, gliding through ups and downs with grace -- the model of discipline, patience and empathy -- and it’s going awesome. The world now seems to be working with you more often than against you.

Until one day -- that asshole Larry gets the promotion that’s rightfully yours. See, you’ve been quietly crushing it at work and -- yeah -- this promotion has been taking a while to materialize, but you haven’t spoken up about it because your new zen outlook on life tells you not to make it about you. Eventually, Old Man Johnson (your boss) will notice your work and he’ll do the right thing.

Meanwhile, Larry’s been in OMJ’s office every Friday for the past six weeks, bitching and moaning about how much he thinks he deserves the promotion. Eventually, the Old Man has had enough and hands Larry the promotion to get him off his case. While you were busy being John, Jane rode off with the tattooed guy on the motorcycle.

WTF happened here? Did you get betrayed by your zen principles? Is it time to go back to being a rampaging ball of self-concern?

Yes and no.

First of all, let’s deal with Larry. You don’t want to be him any more than you want to be John. Most Larry’s (Larries?) in the world eventually hit a dead end. For every one you can think of that doesn’t (I get it, there are some Larreez in high places), there are 100 who do. Your average Larry can be found bouncing from company to company, forever in search of bigger and better, and forever confused about why Lady (Bad) Luck keeps making his path cross with people who can’t seem to recognize his genius. Larry’s colleagues, meanwhile, quickly pick up on the fact that his best skill in life seems to be talking about himself.

Don’t be Larry.

What you want is to be you -- the Samurai of the Self -- but to not accidentally get overlooked and wind up in life’s friend zone. So you need a way to command the kind of attention you seek (without being Larry).

Here’s how most people fuck this up: they make their best efforts conditional.

Most people have figured out that at some point, you need to speak up for yourself. Just doing so is not going to reflect poorly on you. The trick is in how you go about it.

There are some runners-up on the list of don’ts here...

The obvious one is to march into Old Man Johnson’s office and start spewing negativity -- anger, jealousy, and so on. Whatever OMJ thought of you before, you’ve just taken your standing down a couple of notches, however valid your underlying point.

A little less obvious is to make claims about fairness or how much you deserve the promotion. Both of those are subjective claims, meaning they boil down to a matter of opinion. And because there’s no way to prove objectively what’s ‘fair’ or ‘deserved’, you’ll be relying on the hope that OMJ agrees with you. (Plus, a funny thing about fairness is that when it’s invoked, people have a tendency to want to poke holes in your view of it -- even if they were on your side to begin with.)

The biggest mistake, though -- the way to go from John to Larry in a jiffy -- is to make your best efforts conditional. The explicit version of this is to start handing out ultimatums. In most cases, though, people just implode silently -- either consciously deciding to half-ass it until they get their due, or letting their frustrations get the best of them without really meaning to. And just like that, you’ve made OMJ’s decisions a piece of cake. You’ve revealed your true character as someone who, when the game gets tough, takes their ball and goes home. 

But that’s not actually you. Here’s how you go about things, avoiding life’s friend zone without ever compromising your esteem:

You make your best efforts unconditional.

When you have the conversation with Old Man Johnson, whatever you say -- with equal parts calm and conviction, of course -- you make it very clear that you never do less than the best job you can. That’s always been true, and it will continue to be true whether or not the two of you agree about the promotion. And then you go and back that up.

If you do those things, not only will it be okay that you speak up about what you want -- you’ll gain (not lose) people’s respect by doing so.

This isn’t really about Old Man Johnson -- it’s about you and your principles, and the mentality that will get you ahead in the long run. But for what it’s worth, your approach is likely to make such an impression on the OMJs of the world that for the most part you won’t have to worry about getting the things you’re after.

Unlike both John and Larry.