Truth Be Told: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 3

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This is the third of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

If it were your:

  1. First business trip, and
  2. First time meeting all your peers in person, and
  3. First org-wide succession planning session, while being your
  4. First month after a major promotion into a leadership role

Then I’m sure you probably wouldn’t have done what I ended up doing: something that hushed the room, raised eyebrows, and quick-dry cemented my reputation in a way I never could undo.

I’d like to say that many of us with autism are more “truth crusaders,” but we’re more “defenders of fact.” We’re good at pattern recognition & anomaly detection, but we’re not the best at keeping quiet about it.

And that can get us into trouble. 

I was the second-newest of the thirty organizational leaders at a summit – a big step for me after many steps in my Apple journey. Midway through, we discussed who on each of our teams would be our best future leaders in the making.

Since those in question were all my peers just weeks ago, I knew well who’d be ready to make the next steps.

One of the leaders waxed enthusiastic and eloquent about one person, someone who’d launched some initiatives, conjured up some coaching tricks, and cobbled some half-decent results.

But I knew this person. They weren’t really altogether worthy of that billing.

As this narrative went unchallenged, I thought “I’m sorry, I just don’t see this from them.”

But what came out was, well—just that:

“I’m sorry, I just don’t see this from them.”

*crickets*

So what do you do with crickets? Make more noise?

I kept going, already committed to the flag I planted, articulating my disagreements, all the while trying to find some footing to recover and yank this tirade back into something that’ll pass for constructive feedback.

It didn’t work.

That quiet, awkward lull gripped the air for too long — thankfully, our business manager called for a break. As soon as he did, I saw my boss get up from his chair and start making his way toward me. Great.

“Hey Hunter, just a bit of feedback —”

The disappointing complexity of the situation seized my shoulders. Our culture was supposed to be “feedback fit.” I had a direct view into this person’s impact. I made a mess of conveying “perceived truth” vs. “perceived opportunity.”

Unlike times where I rushed to judgment, this time, I felt the truth of the matter could offset how I went about speaking the matter. 

I’d like to say I salvaged this situation and made nice — and I did: I spoke to the gentleman at dinner and was honest about my own learning opportunity in tactfully conveying my thoughts. Thankfully, he knew enough about my “impassioned” tendencies and was gracious enough in me coming around to apologize. We get on decently these days!

I’d also like to say that my reputation was reforged as more one thoughtful and graceful in truth — but it wasn’t.

This was not one of those easy fixes, despite the work.

These introspections into my autistic professional self, they’ve helped — even if it’s just highlighting where I know I can be hasty, where I need to work harder, and where my “numb spots” lie.

It’s hardest even when you know and feel you’re right.

But it’s not always about being right.

The idea of right/wrong & truth/untruth & good/better/best had long been my success criteria in The Life Autistic — until I ran aground in my hardest lesson: failure. 

 

Getting a Chance to Make it Right: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 2

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This is the second of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

When I was 15, I started working for a Department of Defense subsidiary.

No joke. True story. 100% real.

Yeah, it was for the Commissary on NAS Keflavik, but DoD subsidiary has a great ring 🙂

I’d love to tell the story of my first boss there: a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, vulgar-joke-telling, meat-cutting, German-speaking Chicagoan guardian angel —but not today.

Or how I finally earned the respect from another boss: a tougher-than-nails Philippine grandmother, standing tall at 4’9″ and working endlessly and quietly until everyone else around her faltered — but not today.

No, today’s tale is about when I almost alienated Frank, the Winston Wolf of getting produce departments up to snuff, the one who was supposed to help us win the US Military’s Best Small Commissary of the Year award.

I toured him around the produce department, answering his questions matter-of-factly. Almost too matter-of-factly.

Me being autistic me, I leaned way too far into in my blunt, under-nuanced assessment of the situation.

When he asked why we had a towering stash of parsley boxes in the cooler, I said “Because we just order this stuff indiscriminately.”

He nodded.

Fast forward a day later, I get paged to the directors office.

“Hunter,” he said. “Do you remember what you said to Frank about our inventory?”

Oh God. Here we go. I could see myself being fired no matter what, because this was big, and there are no second chances to make things right, and—

But he didn’t fire me.

“Do you see how what you said might have misrepresented us?” 

This was the first major learning between my professional work and Life Autistic, where I just needed someone to help me see what I didn’t see at first.

I felt bad, but I felt better. We didn’t get the orders right, but it wasn’t because we were careless — we had a corrective opportunity to fix, which we did.

The director then went one step further, giving me a chance to make the situation right. 

This is big for us binary-thinking autistic folks, who thrive on wanting to restore balance by fixing things.

I went to Frank and apologized, knowing better where I could have been more tactful. Did we lapse and order too much parsley? Of course. But could I have better judged the situation more appropriately? Well, now I could.

Frank understood. He put out his hand, accepted my apology, and appreciated me being thoughtful enough to address this directly.

Later, I asked the director if I could take the judging day off.

“Why?”

“I don’t want to be here and risk mess things up.”

“No, Hunter,” he said. “You’re a part of this, win or lose. You helped make it happen.”

I got a chance to make it right and also not make it wrong.

And yeah, we won.

 

 

The Worst First Job: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 1

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This is the first of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

As a teenager, I loved coffee. Straight black.

So when the opportunity to start my first job at the Lava Java coffee shop opened up, I couldn’t be more thrilled. Or more nervous.

This was supposed to be my big step. My foray into doing “grown up things.”

That step faltered.

I clocked in at 6AM. Left sick by noon. Before the afternoon was up, the owner stormed to my front door, yanked my employee handbook from my hands in my own doorway and dismissed me on the spot before I could manage an apology for leaving.

Even as I reflected then and now, the horrid haze and blur was no less clear.

It made no sense.

I was crushed, rocked in tears, fearing it would be my last job ever. I was 14.

I didn’t understand my own Life Autistic then; I was ill-equipped & under-supported to handle my first job. 

The work expectations weren’t at all clear: instead of the owner showing up to train me for my first day as promised, two of her employees basically threw me to the register assuming I’d just “figure it out.”

Or when regulars would come in without so much as addressing me, placing heaps of quarters on the counter – like, “Oh, hi, would—ok, bye?” Apparently I should have known the usuals and their usual orders.

I wasn’t socially adept enough to navigate needing to pause, ask for help, or even ask the right questions, to be honest. At one time I asked what protocol we had in case someone came in with a gun. There’s that wonderful, tangential autistic curiosity at work.

After dozens of barely-managed orders, frictions from my odd patter, and growing illness and unease, I asked to leave for the day. Whether stress, early rising, or just a violent confluence of factors, I could barely stand up straight.

I thought I’d try again, get a second chance for when I need to come back.

That second chance never came. 

My Lava Java tenure lasted a full six hours. It wasn’t even a first day.

I look back at this through the lens of my older autistic self, wondering where I ruined it all that. I recall the odd questions, my awkwardness, but I can’t pry back open to find where I was knowingly abnormal, malicious, or otherwise undeserving of another go.

That’s the hard part of autism — it is our normal and we don’t always see where others find the abnormal. 

This first episode was terrible. My parents were worried, as was I. This felt like a judgment on my ability to function professionally. I knew I wasn’t normal, but now I felt like I couldn’t even do normal things. I was scared.

Lava Java never gave me a second chance.

But someone else did.