Last week was a board meeting for my company, Brazen Careerist. I used to hate the board meetings because there is so much to prepare beforehand, and if everything is not going great, then you have to really face that.

1. Hide your feelings if they are going to be trouble for someone.
I am still a major shareholder in my company, but I do not work at the company day to day. I would like to say that my neediness issues and fear of abandonment do not follow me to my workplace, but in fact, they are huge there. And I spend a lot of time worrying whether people listen to my opinions because they care or because it’s easier to listen than to try to get me to shut up.

When the board meeting rolls around, I get nervous. I don’t know if I should go or not.

I like to go because I like knowing what’s going on. Well, and of course, I like giving my opinion. I also like hanging out with the board. I really like Ryan Healy now that I don’t have to work with him. And everyone on my board is someone who did a huge amount for me at one of the (many) very tough times in my life. (Like this time.) So I just really like everyone.

So, while I am deciding if I should go to the meeting or not, Ed Barrientos, the CEO tells me that the company would pay for me to go. Ed is incredibly cheap when it comes to any company expense, so I take this to mean they really care about me being at the meeting.

2. Focus on clothing because it’s easier to control than personality.
I wear my dark J Brand jeans and a purple shirt from Banana Republic. The clothes I choose are really important because I don’t want people to think I’ve lost my edge on the farm. I can’t look too farm-y. I have worn jeans and a black top to every board meeting ever. That’s fine for men, because the only criteria men have for clothes is that you look hot. But now that there are women at the company, and I will have to stop in and say hi, and the women will think I don’t know black is out.

So it is out of my comfort zone, but I wear purple. I work really really hard at looking like I fit in. Which you have to do if it’s impossible to fit in. If you fit in, you can think about being a little bit special. I try just to not be special.

3. Act nonchalant about things like a private jet. Making any scene is bad.
The board member who has a plane, Erik, has had, for a very long time, the job of keeping me in line. When I had a screaming fit at the attorney’s office about the investors lowering my salary, they brought Erik in to talk to me. And he never stopped.

I love his patience for me, but I also love his plane. Did you know that companies do not put their logos on their corporate jets because it’s bad PR? So I fly in and out of airports that look like all the planes are full of CIA operatives.

4. Acknowledge that you make people uncomfortable.
On the plane, Erik reminds me that I should try to behave well at the meeting.

I tell him that I know he didn’t like the time that I made paper airplanes to keep myself occupied.

I tell him that to assure him that I know what bugs him. But the mention of paper airplanes seems only to remind him of bad things, so I assure him that I brought new pens to keep myself busy.

“Jelly Rolls,” I say. “Do your daughters use them? They’re really fun. They sparkle. Or there are some that are dull. And the ink is like squishy liquid.”

Board members do not like hearing about Jelly Rolls. I did not know this is a rule, but I infer it from the look on his face. Just not immediately. I wish I had noticed sooner.

5. Suffer in silence. If you talk about pain, people will think you’re a pain.
Then my abscess tooth starts to hurt. It was already hurting that morning. So I put a few Vicodin in my purse, which I have from the dentist who said I might need some in the few days I’m waiting for the oral surgeon.

The thing is that was two years ago. Two years ago when I was supposed to get my tooth pulled. It is dead. Or whatever an abscess is. The dentist said I’m very young to have a dead tooth.

I cried. I didn’t tell him that it’s not fair that I’m losing teeth because for my whole bulimic life I was really careful to brush my teeth after every vomiting episode.

I also didn’t tell him I wasn’t going to have the tooth removed. I mean, I will. Just not now. It’s too upsetting.

6. No mind-altering drugs on short notice.
Erik and I land and I thank the pilots. I have noticed that Erik, the King of Being Normal, is always gracious to everyone. And I am oblivious to everyone. So it stands to reason that for him to think I’m normal, I need to be gracious.

I thank the driver for being there to meet us and then I thank him for waiting for me to go to the bathroom.

The tooth is hurting a lot, and I am worried I’m going to pass out. It would actually be good to pass out with Erik. He would figure out what to do and he’s a get-things-done kind of guy. But he would not like it. He wants to feel secure in the idea that I’m stable and he won’t have to rescue me again.

So I think of popping a Vicodin, but what if it makes me loopy? Then maybe they wouldn’t invite me back to a board meeting. Then they’d tell me to dial-in, and I’m a notoriously bad listener on the phone, so they’d assume I was checked out, and then it’d be like I wasn’t there at all.

So instead of a Vicodin, I take ten Advil.

7. Try to do what is expected in each situation.
In the car, on the way to the meeting, Erik looks at his email, so I do that too because if you want someone to like you, you should mirror what they do.

Then Erik stops to pick up lunch. He asks if I want lunch. Everyone at the company knows that I hate eating with a group. So he only asks because it’s the normal thing to do. He knows I will say no. But it’s good to be normal. I get it. So instead of saying, “No, of course not,” I say, “No, thanks.”

He nods.

I see the line for sandwiches is really long. So long that I’d have thrown a fit and demanded to go somewhere else. But Erik is not a fit thrower. So I see that I’m going to have some extra time.

8. Fend off all possible emergencies.
I go to the bathroom to investigate the tooth situation. On the way to the bathroom, I pass a dentist’s office. That gives me confidence. Because something really bad would not be really bad too long because I could just slip right into that office and ask for some help.

In the bathroom I take out my earring and use the pointy part of the earring to work on my tooth.

The puss was more like popping a big yellow zit. It sprayed onto the mirror. I popped it a few more times, a few more sprays onto the mirror.

Then I clean everything up. The mirror, my mouth (now there’s blood dripping, which is how I know I got all the puss) and I redo my makeup, which takes a while, because I pretty much have to wash my face and start over.

When I get to the car, Erik is there. Waiting. I say, “Oh. Sorry. Were you waiting long?”

He says, “Yeah. Did you take a tour of the building?”

9. Explain yourself so people don’t assume the worst.
That is Erik’s way of asking if I did something bad. He knows me well. He sees possibilities. He is worried I did something not appropriate.

So I need to tell him something because it is not normal to walk around a strange building for twenty minutes. Which, it turns out, is how long I’ve been gone. I want to let him know that I was doing something okay.

So I tell him that I have an abscess tooth and I had to pop the puss part.

“It was interfering with my speech,” I tell him. I try to convey that I was just worried about being normal for the board meeting. Which is true.

He is not going for it. He thinks I take insane risks. Which, to be fair, is the only reason there was even a company for him to invest in: because I took insane risks. But whatever, risk takers always look exciting from far away but never up close. So I try to tell him that I definitely made a choice on the side of caution because I made sure there was a dentist’s office nearby and also, I did not take the Vicodin.

He says I didn’t need to tell him that.

I’m not sure what I needed to tell him.

10. Get a list of expected behaviors and then execute on that list.
I am well behaved for the meeting. I do not tell everyone that I think I know more about Brazen Careerist’s traffic than everyone else even though I don’t work there. People do not want to hear that from me. And someone with good social skills would say it differently. So I keep quiet while Ed talks.

And I keep quiet when people talk about the weather and sports. Well, not really. I say no, please, don’t do smalltalk. It’s so awkward. And then they talk about it anyway. Which is a sign they think I am on good behavior.

At dinner, everyone compliments me on my good behavior at the meeting. I paid attention, I had no outbursts, and I did not do anything completely inappropriate.

I breathe a sigh of relief and then spend five minutes ordering because I’m terrified of not having complete control over the contents of my plate.

11. Recognize the crazy people and don’t follow their lead.
Then the guys reminisce about farm times in their childhood and it turns out that they have been cow-tipping.

“That is not nice,” I tell them.

I tell them we would never do that on the farm, and that one of the signs of a child turning into a sociopath is treating animals poorly.

They laugh.

117 replies
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  1. Awiz8
    Awiz8 says:

    “I tell them we would never do that on the farm, and that one of the signs of a child turning into a sociopath is treating animals poorly.”

    Very hypocritical of you to say this after killing the family cat.

  2. Joni Jackson
    Joni Jackson says:

    I know everyone keeps saying it, but you really should get the tooth sorted out. I had three wisdom teeth removed a few weeks ago. I was sedated. Maybe you should come to Jamaica and see my oral surgeon :). Love your blog. I look forward to reading your posts every week.

  3. Marctheengineer
    Marctheengineer says:

    Don’t brush after throwing up EVER – enamel gets soft and a hard brush will damage it.

    You shouldn’t actually brush after putting anything into your mouth – After throwing up/eating rinse your mouth with water (to wash away any acid) and wait 1/2 hour to an hour before brushing.

  4. off'n'out
    off'n'out says:

    … Should I consider it telling that common human courtesy is this much of a strenuous concept to you? 

    Seriously, you worry that your board members won’t listen to you, then proceed to doodle through their conversation, and basically beg them to not talk even in a social setting. WTF?

    They do not want to hear that you think you know more than them because it’s more than possible that you don’t, not because there’s a subtler way to say it. If you found a more “socially acceptable” way to say it, they’d still hate you for the insinuation, unless they were dumber and more oblivious than a pile of rocks. And let’s face it, you are the attractive, unpredictable, “controversial” face of an organization that is no longer run by you for a reason.

    That said, I’m glad you’ve found some ways to lessen the impact of your natural instinct to be rude and self-serving on the people around you, even if it’s only to avoid the scorn of (or abandonment by) the unfortunate people who work under you. 

    Funny, you advise us not to “follow” the craziest person in the room. I think this post has convinced me to do just that.

    • Alison
      Alison says:

      Obviously you don’t have a lot of experience with Asperger’s. Don’t insult people you don’t understand.

      • Andy
        Andy says:

        People with Aspergers generally have a choice; We can look at the person and apear to pay attention with nothing really sinking in or we can look off into space, doodle and actually pay attention.
        It’s not an intention or compulsion to be rude. It is a lack of understanding about what it rude. It’s a little like going to a foreign country. In china showing the soles of your feet is a little like mooning someone. It’s those little things that make us seem rude. Sometimes we appear self centered because we don’t think to say “how do you or whatever” sometimes jumping straight into the work at hand, how the project is going for example. It has been my expeince though that a lot of the time other people don’t care either, that’s a superficial routine. Not aways.
        The rest of you comment is just unfocused Hate. Those are your issues.

  5. redrock
    redrock says:

    not sure what to make of this post. On one hand, many of us have had to learn how to carry ourselves in different social situations, even without Aspergers there is a learning curve. Doodling with Jelly pens might help to relieve your stress and anxiety, but maybe you should consider how stressful it is for everybody else in the room to have a meeting with someone who tends to blow up any second? Without any apparent provocation? That makes for incredibly painful and often incredibly non-productive meetings – at some point everybody just wants to get out rather then to watch another “event”. And I am not at all sure this constant blowing up and throwing tantrums is a facet of Apbergers. 

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  8. Ap23
    Ap23 says:

    I coulda used this article two years ago when I was busy getting fired.  I have no idea.  I never did have an idea.  I haven’t worked since; it’s been kind of a Post-Traumatic Stress existence after losing the job I always wanted.

  9. Burnsjohn36
    Burnsjohn36 says:

    observation #1; Having your ideas listened to and taken seriously at a meeting requires, A, a good idea and B, you being a great sales person. Would you buy a used tractor from a woman in a purple hat missing a tooth? I don’t think so.

    observation #2; Next to chickens, cows are the dumbest animals on the farm, maybe on the planet sooo tip away!!

    • MJ
      MJ says:

      Um, actually, someone missing a tooth might not be an uncommon used tractor sales person.

      But someone missing a tooth would be a rare BMW salesperson.  It all depends, yo.

    • MJ
      MJ says:

      Um, actually, someone missing a tooth might not be an uncommon used tractor sales person.

      But someone missing a tooth would be a rare BMW salesperson.  It all depends, yo.

      • Burnsjohn36
        Burnsjohn36 says:

        Yo MJ, 
        Observation #1; Having your ideas listened to and taken seriously at a meeting requires, A, a great idea, the BMW of ideas say, and you being a great sales person for that idea. Would you buy a used BMW from a woman dressed in purple named Penelope missing a tooth? It would be a tough sell.

  10. Deadhedge
    Deadhedge says:

    I kind of have a similar approach to this at work.
    Acceptable behavior is a 5.  I generally behave like a 1.  So when I behave like a 3, everyone is happy and congratulates me.  That’s my dress code, too.

    The key fact is that I am good at my job and my boss has no knowledge of my area.  I typically make colonoscopy jokes or express disdain at the new template they want to use for agendas in our team meetings.  When I sit quietly and participate, I got praised.

    However, when my other coworkers get out of line, they are slapped down immediately because expectations for them are much higher.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I am not sure I understand, and don’t get me wrong:  I certainly don’t think that everybody has to be nice and well-behaved all the time. But I also think that some of the behavior described in the replies here appears a little childish. Like “behaving bad” and getting away with it is an achievement. No, I don’t condone a strict always play by the rules behavior, but some stuff (not just in deadhedge’s mail) is just obnoxious. Being praised for good behavior already drove me crazy as a 5 year old, I thought being able to have a proper adult conversation is a sign of, well, growing up. 

      I also think (in reply to a previous email) that in a professional meeting with mostly women the jelly pens would not be considered a great thing. Just look at the picture of the table: notepads, computers, and jelly pen doodles? 

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I am not sure I understand, and don’t get me wrong:  I certainly don’t think that everybody has to be nice and well-behaved all the time. But I also think that some of the behavior described in the replies here appears a little childish. Like “behaving bad” and getting away with it is an achievement. No, I don’t condone a strict always play by the rules behavior, but some stuff (not just in deadhedge’s mail) is just obnoxious. Being praised for good behavior already drove me crazy as a 5 year old, I thought being able to have a proper adult conversation is a sign of, well, growing up. 

      I also think (in reply to a previous email) that in a professional meeting with mostly women the jelly pens would not be considered a great thing. Just look at the picture of the table: notepads, computers, and jelly pen doodles? 

  11. Drhong
    Drhong says:

    Penelope,
    If you haven’t had the tooth pulled yet, I would recommend getting on an antibiotic like augmentin. If there is draining puss and it has been bothering you off and on for two years, there is likely bone loss around the tooth and it will come out easy. Come to California and I will pull it for you no charge :)

    Kari Ann

  12. Illini2k
    Illini2k says:

    This is a great post and in reading it, I thought that maybe a better title might have been “know your role”.  It is clear to me that you are not a “business person” P, although I think that you think of yourself that way.  You are the talent, the reason why the company exists.  Clearly you do a great job, or the ‘business people’ (small talk, feigned impatience, etc) would not send a handler to make sure you make an appearance. 

    As the handler for my company (being patient and accommodating with needy eccentric talent that seem to be unable, or unwilling, to function in the most basic situations…like being quiet during meeting introductions, or printing a boarding pass) I feel somewhat compelled to respond to the post by telling you that your list of 11 techniques is interesting, but that you are not fooling anyone.  Following these techniques will make you feel better, and maybe even make things easier on your handler.  However he will still need to explain your behavior after the meeting, defend your ideas, cover for your gaffes and in general promote your agenda in a tireless effort to maintain the business focus.

    Too many times people think that they are the talent, when they really aren’t.  That the business will succeed without them.  Their eccentric behavior gets them fired.  Better to know your value in the company, and match your behavior to your role.

  13. Scott Nicolson
    Scott Nicolson says:

    I’ll be bookmarking this for later reference, though I fear I won’t be able to do it (look normal). I used to be able to pass myself off as merely “quirky.” Nowadays, I just can’t fake it. It’s too strenuous…taxing…exhausting. 

  14. Scott
    Scott says:

    Dang girl…you really kick tail and take names! 

    I just learned of you from an interview you did with a guy from End The Grind blog.  Wow!  That was pretty tough for him, but as a reader, I can tell you that did a great deal for me.  I need to get my focus more like a laser and then go after that and stop chasing the freaking shiney objects! 

    Thanks for being so candid.  I love the piece above about the paper airplanes..haha!

    You are great!
    Scott

  15. Scott
    Scott says:

    Dang girl…you really kick tail and take names! 

    I just learned of you from an interview you did with a guy from End The Grind blog.  Wow!  That was pretty tough for him, but as a reader, I can tell you that did a great deal for me.  I need to get my focus more like a laser and then go after that and stop chasing the freaking shiney objects! 

    Thanks for being so candid.  I love the piece above about the paper airplanes..haha!

    You are great!
    Scott

  16. DorothyP
    DorothyP says:

    ” major shareholder”  in a company that has yet to turn a profit. Boy, am I impressed. I like PT”s writing, but truth is a rare commodity.
    And if you’re going to claim clothing as a game plan–Prada beats any mall store, fyi.

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  18. Dale
    Dale says:

    Be yourself Penny.  It’s what got you a company.

    You’re like the anti-pioneer woman:) more like the rest of us, but able to express yourself well…

  19. emily
    emily says:

    these past few posts have been really helpful for me; thank you.  through a comment on one of these posts i found: johanna rothman and her post to http://www.jrothman.com/blog/mpd/2011/09/agile-power-and-culture.html. we spoke ad she gave me really a really great script for a meeting I had to attend that made me feel a lot like the one that you describe here.  

  20. Alice
    Alice says:

    The way you describe how you analyze what you do and why you do it mirrors how I approach things.

    Granted, I know well enough not to make scenes (I retreat inward when I get anxious), but even when I’m being authentic and very directly shedding light on an issue so that we can better optimize the situation and create a solution, somehow I manage to get key members of our company very upset with me.

    Even though I explain that I mean literally what I say, without any innuendo or subtext, sometimes it feels like my words are twisted around to mean something else. I’ve been told my comments are inappropriate even though I’m only trying to be helpful and actually make an effort to mirror the behavior around me. It can be, at times, very stressful. I can literally say “the sky is blue” and I’ll have several people ask, “well, what do you mean by that?” or “what are you really trying to tell me?”

    Can’t “the sky is blue” just be “the sky is blue”?

    And it’s even more stressful when I feel like my behavior is being monitored, because I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with me or broken inside, but it definitely feels as though I’m being treated as such.

    I feel good being honest. I like expressing when I think something is a very bad idea and potentially harmful for the company. I also like finding ways to optimize our current situations. I also like boundaries so that I can better organize my workflow and don’t get caught up in the delusional telenovela dramas day in and day out. To me, that sounds healthy and reasonable.

    I don’t understand why it’s so important to pretend to be nice to and smile at people who very clearly dislike me. It feels fake or embarrassing. Plus, I don’t understand why doing pointless or inefficient work with a smile is more important than helping the company find a more stable, potentially lucrative direction.

    I wish there was a better way than having to “pretend to be normal”, attempt to fit in and play social games I don’t understand, where the rules seem to constantly be changing. I don’t understand why it has to be this complicated.

    The way I’m talking, I sound like I’m socially inept.

    I’m not.

    I have amazing, loving, “normal” friends offline and I’m fairly personable and likable online when I consciously make an effort.

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