We’ve all been there. You’ve got a line backed up to the exits, the phone is ringing off the hook, and a patron is standing there wanting to argue policy with you. You could be working in retail, a public library, an academic library, or anywhere there is a front-line public service desk. It is difficult. It is stressful. It is rarely fun. About the only positive thing you can say about it is that it makes the time pass quickly. Thirty minutes or an hour can pass in a few seconds.
Those of us who are the best at this can view these times as exhilarating periods of service and problem solving. The rest of us dread these times and feel panic and stress. Either way we’re exhausted at the end of our shifts.
I tend to agree that the busy times are exhilarating, and exhausting, and that they definitely make the day go faster. But I’ve never looked forward to them, and now that I’m the boss I have the added burden of being the top problem solver.
I’ve had primarily public service jobs since I was seventeen years old. At thirty-nine, now, that’s a lot of time on a sales floor or behind a counter. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve had a lot of successes and I’ve had a lot of failures. I have been praised and railed at; solved problems and caused them; kept my cool and lost my temper. I’ve been taken advantage of by a quick change artist, and called an ambulance for a patron in a medical emergency. It’s been an eventful twenty-two years.
If you do any job for long enough you’re naturally going to build some proficiency. I’ve never believed the “10,000 hours of an activity makes you an expert” meme. It’s too exacting and doesn’t account for raw talent, interest, ambition, or the ability to learn. I don’t know how many hours I’ve worked public services, but I’m certainly not an expert, even after twenty-two years. I don’t know that I ever will be, and I don’t know that anyone ever is. We all have our success and we all have our failures.
I’ve recently had a few too many incidents in which I fell on my face and it got noticed by the wrong people. There are no immediate problems this has caused, but I am having to mind my P’s and Q’s a bit better. The thing is, though, all of the coaching I’ve received lately is all stuff that I’ve known for some time. I keep having the gnawing feeling that I used to be better at this.
I am an emotional person. I always have been. As a child I got fingered as a cry-baby at school and the social ramifications of this created a cycle of repressed feelings, anger, and depression that have had a life-long affect on me. To this day, I describe myself as an angry person. I’m constantly having to suppress feelings of anger and frustration, but now, it’s less that I don’t feel “allowed” to have these feelings as much as expressing these feelings are counter-productive to my life.
I’m not angry all the time. I don’t have a secret violent side. I make friends and function as well in modern life as anyone can be expected. But constantly having to dial back my “negative” emotions takes a lot of willpower, and willpower is not something that we hold in infinite supply. Willpower is like a muscle. It can be conditioned to be strong, but after too much use it looses energy and needs to be recharged. The incidents that caught the wrong kind of attention of my superiors were ones in which my willpower was critically low.
This does not mean that I have no culpability for my actions. My behavior was as flawed as my techniques. I didn’t cross any professional lines, but I certainly did not behave in a way to solve the problems. I was not working to get to “yes.” I was defensive, pedantic, and arrogant. I let my frustration with my patrons’ senses of entitlement get the better of me. And something I had not truly begun to grok until recently, I displayed a terrible example for my employees, especially the student workers. Furthermore, in the social media age I could have provided fodder for negative publicity for the library if someone had videoed the incidents and posted them without the context of my actions. This not only could have been bad for my library, but bad for my career, as these things forever float around the internet. I’ve been a very bad boy.
Like I said, I used to be better at this. My emotionalism has gone through many stages in my life. It’s gone from the unbridled emotionalism of my childhood to the repressed emotionalism of my adolescence. After that came the bumpy emotional integration of my early adulthood. It was this time that I developed a reputation for “brutal honesty.” Engaging with my feelings were paramount to compassion or empathy. I was hard to like.
By my late twenties I had begun to grow that empathy, even in spite of myself, and began questioning what kind of person I wanted to be. I didn’t become less judgmental, as much as more aware of others feelings. I still may think your taste in music is terrible, but I’m not going to tease you about it anymore. Then, something unexpected happened. I started crying again.
On a scale of one-to-ten, if I’m between three and seven, everything is fine. If I get pushed above or below that range, however, it’s cryface time. I cried more at my wedding than my wife did. I cry when I’m happy. I cry when I’m sad. I cry with any kind of excitement. Anytime my emotions are red-lining, or heck, orange-lining, I’m crying.
So how do I handle it? How do I handle dealing with my habitual anger and the constant threat of tears in the face of the crush of a busy library. What was it I thought I was so good at? The only solution — as with so many things in life — is the wisdom of Spok, or more generally, the emotional discipline of the Vulcans. As Star Trek developed the ideas of Vulcan philosophy it went from a biological inability to have feelings to a spiritual discipline. It’s not that Vulcans don’t have emotions, it’s that their emotions were so powerful it nearly drove the species to extinction. It was their development of this emotional sequestration that allowed them to function and become the force in the Alpha Quadrant that they became — or will become by the twenty-fourth century.
Obviously, this is an extreme model, but a useful analogy. The ability to build an emotional wall to separate yourself from your emotions is vital for someone like me. The point is to not make the emotions inaccessible, but to sequester them until they can be expressed in a healthy manner. It takes discipline. It takes willpower. It takes a psychic awareness of your own emotional extremes and current state. I did used to be very good at this. In fact, I had gotten so good at it that I started to worry about my ability to connect emotionally with anyone. I had become too Vulcan. At one point I thought I might even have turned myself into a sociopath, but then I actually looked up what a sociopath was saw that that was not remotely the case.
My challenge now is to reconnect with my Vulcanness; to regain that emotional discipline that used to be so easy for me. “Under-react” my boss tells me. When I’m feeling worked up, I need to mentally take a step back and evaluate what I’m feeling. Which emotion is it? Is it reasonable in the situation? Am I hungry? What is the real problem? How do I solve it in the best way? I knew how to do this once. I believe that I still do. Now I just have to practice.