I used to be a nice person. I was a pretty people pleaser. A cheerleader extraordinaire. Now I’m a mercenary.
Cutting Down Delusion
This isn’t to say you would know my mercenary status when you meet me; I can still be very engaging to be around. I simply don’t see the world in the same way anymore. It’s as if I’ve crossed some sort of cultural barrier, like the line dividing ninja assassins from law-abiding townsfolk.
When I say “mercenary,” know I’m not being hired by others to fell people; I’m paying myself permission to be deliberate and sincere (when it serves me). Does that last parenthetical shock you? It shocked me too. Yet, that’s the truth of it. Over the full course of my life, I’ve been infected with some sort of increasingly strong “convenient integrity” disease that has finally taken hold. I’m coming clean here in hopes you will admit you’ve been infected also.
Most of the time, the symptoms of this convenient integrity disease present in uncomfortable honesty and painful observations. I recently told some friends I didn’t want to visit with them because I couldn’t endure their kids’ behavior any longer. I delivered the raw and horrific Sandy Hook news to my tween daughter and 2 of her friends when they arrived home after school that day. I stared down a parent/teacher organization volunteer and told them my daytime hours are full. I told a client their brand won’t work with the certain populations they were targeting. I “suggested” to the doctor’s office staff that they take more responsibility for their mistakes about my insurance paperwork. I refused to take notes during board meetings, despite being one of the youngest members and a female who would be the obvious (sexist) choice. Actions are all I rely on anymore. I trust no promises; I value no intentions.
I didn’t used to be like this. As a younger person, I routinely went well out of my way for strangers. I bent over backwards for family and friends. This was to my detriment. But that’s what the world expected of me, and that’s what I delivered.
As I got older, I slowly gave myself permission to make changes. I allowed myself to worry a little less about impressing peers. I indulged in establishing permanent personal boundaries in areas in my life that (sorely) needed them. I took hold of my physical life, finally veering from conventional medicine to find an answer to my life-long tummy issues (a nutritionist discovered Celiac’s disease).
These changes don’t seem mercenary on the surface. Psychologists encourage personal boundaries; the health industry begs people to take care of their bodies. My changes all seem like a nice trip up the pyramid steps of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
Why do I feel like my own gun-for-hire then? Because each time I lean toward the honesty, I lean away from etiquette. Each time I defy expectations, I deny others’ their comfort. Convenient integrity disease has me asking myself these questions: “Why can’t we speak truth here? Why does this person’s comfort rely on my discomfort?” Therein lies niceness’s dark side. Isaac Newton told us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. He didn’t tell us how bad those reactions can get. Previously, my decisions would always favor others over me to the point of dangerous implosion. Now, more than ever, I find myself going into “honesty” mode for self-preservation purposes.
Squirm-inducing straight talk to clients is my forte. I am at times brutally honest about branding and image because I don’t want clients to discover I was yet another “yes man” to their tradition-based delusions. I discourage certain business owners away from building a website or a social media presence because I don’t believe they’ll keep up the work on their own and they won’t pay me or anyone else enough to do it. I manage expectations. I don’t smile away uncomfortable situations. I ask, “What is it that you want from me, right now? What do you need?” I allow myself moments when I am all business. This honest, information-oriented approach may seem cold to some, especially those with the typical “nice” expectations my appearance elicits, but it’s the more compassionate course of action. When I was younger, I couldn’t bring myself to deliver the “no”, the hard news, the fact that I just wasn’t interested. Now I would rather save everyone’s time and energy even if I must play The Ice Queen.
How I Became A Mercenary
My self-directed studies of Behavioral Economics over the last several years has lead me to this “Equal and opposite” thinking about my actions. The Freakonomics books and podcast have honed my skills in this ability to see the “hidden sides” of the decisions we make. Researchers like Dan Ariely and Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrate how our culture tends to white wash anything with “positive thinking,” even if it is destroying us.
Dear Reader, those of you still be in the “positive” realm may be dismissing me right now as a curmudgeon, a cynic, a pessimist, or a self-serving wench. I get it. The Positive Army delivers crushing pressure to comply. I fall to it at times. But now I realize that when I do fall to the pressure to keep things upbeat, I’m cheating myself as well as others. Now as a mercenary I try to step outside myself for a minute. I try to become aware when I’m not being honest. And I chop down the delusions that stand to choke me.
We are all mercenaries. We all act in self-preservative ways. Some of us are simply more skilled self-employed guns-for-hire than others.
To be a human adult means you take responsibility for yourself. This self-preservation must happen and it can be done in all sorts of ways. When I was a younger woman, I chose to please people in hopes they would like me, therefore helping me feel secure in my chances of survival. When it became evident I wouldn’t ever please some people, I would try my best to avoid them and find new people to please. Now, as my mercenary skills sharpen and I continue to rid my life of life-draining people and things, I’m finding it harder and harder to follow the conventional rules of engagement in all aspects of my life. I’m not interested in saying “yes” to something I know will please another person but will terribly inconvenience me. I don’t take on projects just to impress someone. I don’t suppress my own thinking and opinions while I’m in a group.
With a good sense of self, it’s much easier to filter out what you’ll likely do and what you won’t, based on your past behavior. I journal everyday. I’ve journaled on and off my whole life. Writing by hand in a paper notebook feels raw to me. Rugged honesty is all I can manage when a pen is in my hand. This mirror of truth is hard to take. Stare at that every morning and you’ll turn mercenary too. You’ll know when to say “No.” (And when to say “Yes.”)
I’m no A-Teamer, though. I still fall into pleasing-others patterns. I haven’t leveled up to the Extreme Mercenary stage of “convenient integrity” disease. A woman needs to meet advanced age requirements for that. Based on my research on family gatherings, grocery stores and workplaces, 60+-year-old women are at the Beginner training cycle of Extreme Mercenary. They have lost all respect for the expectation of a quiet night and go all truth ninja up in there. Watch out for them. Do not be fooled by their humble appearance.
For myself and for the businesses I advise, I’m aspiring to a level of sophisticated transparency. We
don’t have to deliver the whole truth at all times. As representatives, we have but one duty: to protect the organization. If an individual wants to sacrifice themselves for others, they are following their own plan for self-preservation. If a company makes a social media faux pas, an apology and partly transparent explanation should suffice. Keep the health of the organization or individual as top priority.
I’m not happy when people are uncomfortable, but I’ll no longer take the responsibility for ridding them of that feeling. Truth is uncomfortable, not the messenger. If I take the burden of that discomfort away from where it belongs via etiquette, silence, illusion, etc., I am the one who ends up breaking and being no help to anyone. I didn’t realize the repeated action of trying to save face for others would deliver a reaction of the loss of my own strength.
I begged my friends’ forgiveness when I finally admitted my frazzled nerves at the hands of their children because I didn’t want to lose them as a friend. Now we meet for coffee, sans kids. I told the girls about Sandy Hook because I thought it would be better coming from me than if they discovered it on their own. Later that day they thanked me. They said Instagram was covered in images that would have confused and alarmed them without the prior knowledge. In meetings, I offer, as delicately as possible, truthful summaries of what I think is going on under the surface. When I say to the parent/school moms to not ask me to volunteer, it is because not only did I put in more than 3 years volunteering already but I freelance now and I have no time for it. I can be polite. I can be clear. But make no mistake, I am not being nice.
When is the last time you delivered some hard truth? How did you do it? How “transparent” were you? Share some of your own mercenary stories in the comments.