Recognize when you’re being a nutcase

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One of my best friends, Sharon, is a hairdresser. She is not a normal hairdresser. She’s a big-shot hairdresser in Los Angeles. And one of the most important moments in my financial life was when I moved from client to friend — I started saving $100 on a haircut and $150 on color because she did it for free.

Sharon has two or three clients going at any one time, and it’s amazing to watch her make everyone feel like they are the only one. After all, that’s a lot of what they are paying for. To listen to their problems. Sharon says that everyone comes to her to solve a problem. They say they are coming for their hair, but it’s her job to figure out what their real problem is.

As the self-proclaimed queen of delegation, I sat down in Sharon’s chair for years and told her to do whatever she wanted. I always had the kind of hair people comment on. I figured that she’s the expert, not me, so why should I tell her what looks best?

Besides, she knew me well enough to know that the problem I always wanted to solve was how to be less boring. Left to my own devices, I would wear the same thing every day and never take my hair out of a pony tail.

Sharon specializes in the nutcase client, and people actually send theirs to her. Sharon tells great stories about the people who come back three days later and say, “I think you cut one of the hairs in my bangs too short. Can you fix it?”

Sharon is great at dealing with these clients because she knows it’s not the hair that’s the problem. It’s always that other thing.

This was always interesting to me until the day that I became the problem client. It was when I had just closed a round of funding from a prominent venture capital firm, and I had spent weeks being the youngest and the only woman in the room. I was feeling like maybe I was somewhere I shouldn’t be. Maybe they’d wake up and say, “What about her? What’s she doing here?”

So I told Sharon I didn’t like my hair and she had to do it over. “I need it to be more conservative,” I said.

She said, “You can make up for that with your fifteen pairs of black loafers.”

“No, really,” I said, “Can you take out the red highlights?” And then, it happened: I pulled out three hairs and told her, “If you could just fix these three hairs. That would be okay.”

So now I’m going to tell you about being a nut case. Watch yourself. Because some people get migraines when they are under too much pressure. And some people become other peoples’ migraines.

There is no point in being a pain just because you’re stressed and nervous. Recognize that you’re under pressure and misplacing your anxiety. Give the people around you a break. Anyone can be fun to work with when life is going along perfectly. The best people to work with are consistent, even when they are a wreck – that’s the real test of how well you manage your stress.

If you work with someone who is a terror under stress, pretend you’re a hairdresser, and look for the underlying cause. And remember that Sharon calms those nutcases down by being a good listener. Don’t underestimate listening as a tool for keeping the nuts in their shells.

17 replies
  1. paul
    paul says:

    I am the local nut case at work due to the fact I am terrible at handling stress. Working under pressure is fine as long as everything that I laid out in order stays in order. But once that order has been compromised I am a mess. Being able to pull back and reorganize is on the fly is something I have to learn how to do.

  2. Katelyn Sack
    Katelyn Sack says:

    I love it. Everyone gets stressed out. Everyone needs this reminder, that everyone else gets stressed out, too.

    On a more general note: your story-telling skills just get better and better. When’s the next book coming out? When are you going to branch out and do a children’s book or a fiction book? (I suppose that would be even less “conservative” or monochromatic than your hair, though. ;)


  3. littlepurplecow
    littlepurplecow says:

    Enjoyed your post, Penelope.

    Re “If you work with someone who is a terror under stress, pretend you're a hairdresser, and look for the underlying cause…”

    A great recommendation for Plan A. Plan B? Stick ’em under the dryer.

  4. Benjamin Strong
    Benjamin Strong says:

    As a firefighter/paramedic in my “former” life my partners and I were faced with all sorts of stress. Most of it was life and death stuff. Trying to calm patients who were in terrible situations almost seemes easier than trying to calm nervous coworkers when a deadline is looming.

    We used humor, and often horrible humor at that. Of course we saved this bad humor for the fire house.

    I know that during extremely stressful situations we just relied on the fact that we trusted each other and knew our business. Often we would simply remove the most stressed out person from the situation by giving them a small (yet significant- that’s the key) task that contributed to the whole case yet didn’t effect the true life or death situation we faced.

    It may sound weird but today I often look at stressful office situations and say “As long as we all have a pulse who cares?” “Let’s just work through the situation and if someone drops, then we worry!”

  5. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    Last week, I had to be somewhere earlier than planned to accomodate my brother and, without thinking, became a “time optimist”. (I didn’t leave myself the proper time to get prepared).

    As I rushed at the last minute to find all the things I needed to take with me, I became furious at having to leave earlier than planned and when I went out into the street, I was really nuts. And any kind of aggressive action seemed to make sense.

    By the time I arrived at my destination, however, not all that late, I had calmed down and soon I was in a good mood — which made the block of hysteria stand out all the more clearly.

  6. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    Time optimist – I love it! That’s what I am.

    I can usually keep it together under pressure at the office but thank God I have a group of girlfriends I can go out with and we can ‘come out of our shells’ together over a few drinks.

  7. paul
    paul says:

    Having been both interviewed + interviwee, I’ve found a useful strategy for the multi page resume is to try to place specific areas of expertise in a bulleted list format, Not only is it easy for your interviewer to spot + highlight. It helps create dialog about your skills, allowing you the opportunity to sell yourself to the interviewer on the basis of what you can do for them. Your confidence in doing so translates to the confidence your interviewer feels in appointing you to the job over other candidates. In that way, they can feel they’ve made the best choice.

  8. M Heinemann
    M Heinemann says:

    When you driving around with an adult diaper on heading to kill your female are nutcase and lot of others things too. “You’ve come along way baby!”

  9. Ellie
    Ellie says:

    When I get stressed I just look at what I have to get done and start at the most convenient thing to do, after all it’s no good sitting worrying about it or nothing will ever get done, if you keep chipping away at things you’ll be finished before you know it :)

  10. karelys
    karelys says:

    So I just read a lot of comments, here and another post where this post is linked to, and I went to search flights from chicago to LA.

    If she’s getting $300 worth of cut/color the flight is a lot cheaper! Crazy stuff.

  11. A.T.
    A.T. says:

    She should be charging a fee for her psychological services (Is just listening a service?) on top of the hair dresser fees.

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