The Life Autistic: Why Your Skills Can Only Go So Far

IMG_1404.jpgEver feel like you’ve done everything right and still end up like it all went wrong?

Where you’ve mastered every facet of your work, acquired new skills, checked the boxes, and yet — failed?

When you look around and realize, while you may do everything better than everyone else, you are not the best?

This is a hard lesson in life, even harder in The Life Autistic.

“There should be logic to this,” we think. “The whole should consist entirely of the sum of its parts — that’s how it works!” we plead.

That’s not how it works.

Early in my career, I thought that mastering my current job would be the gateway to the next level up. Surely, being a top Advisor would open the doors for me to manage, right? (Don’t laugh.)

But it took a different set of skills (like coaching, motivation, leadership, organization) to progress.

“Ah, so that’s it — it’s all about the DIFFERENT skills!” we think.

As I picked up skills that helped me move beyond to organization leadership, I was motivated to “learn all the things” and fortify every deficiency for success.

Presenting? Check.

Forecasting and staffing? Check.

Employee engagement? Check.

Reporting? Check check check CHECK.

Hopefully your neurotypical minds figure out what took my autistic mind too long to discover, only after I’d stalled.

It’s not about the skills.

It’s about attributes.

Respect. Tact. Diplomacy. Patience. Approachability.

Not just what you do, but who you are.

I was dismayed. I’d done so much, and I thought I could solve it all by doing. But as it turns out, it’s about being. 

Your success must go beyond your skills.

In The Life Autistic, it’s so much easier to do, do, do. The idea of being is not impossible, but it’s tough! To practice things that would normally be just someone’s personality – that’s difficult.

It still doesn’t always make sense to me.

But I’m still making sense of the world. Making better sense of me and people like me to the world.

 

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The Life Autistic: Working for a Boss on the Spectrum

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Having an autistic co-worker is one thing, and it’s probably a more common experience than you may think.

But what if it’s your boss?

I spent years of my Apple career in management. People management. Actual, living human people.

Not only that, but I went from managing employees directly to managing their managers, with a business unit of over 115 awesome front-line agents and six stellar team managers. I was a bona-fide organizational leader.

I found my footing in the role, and I feel I did well for my people and their people. Before you shake your head and wonder “What the heck was Apple thinking?” — mind you, I wasn’t bad at the gig!

But I was different. 

And if you have one of those “different” bosses like me, here’s a few things I’d like you to know:

1) We care, even if we have trouble showing it

Expression doesn’t always come naturally to us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I had to make reminders to thank my people and highlight their work – otherwise I’d get lost in observing work and fail to recognize the worker.

2) We’re cyborgs, not robots

Routine and ritual are our R&R – if we’re in management, it’s because we’ve likely made the best use of rigid actions and processes to get things done well. Don’t let that intimidate you – we’re just wired that way.

3) Bring a dictionary and a cushion for conversations

If your boss is anything like me, he or she may have affinity for labyrinthine conversations, extended analogies, prolix prosody, and extended stays in the forges of rhetorical wordsmithing. Apologies in advancewe’re honestly not trying to confuse you!

4) . . . or, get ready for blunt feedback

Mind you, we’re not talking “brutal” or “hurtful” – being direct and to-the-point isn’t because we’re malicious. We just don’t always catch the emotional impact of our words. Sometimes our tone is off, sometimes it’s a statement of fact in our minds and nothing more. I’m still working on handling it gracefully.

5) Find the positives

I wasn’t a perfect manager. Most aren’t.

If your manager is genuinely on the autism spectrum, they’re bringing a different mix of imperfections.

They may bring some commanding strengths, too.

Attention to detail. Intense focus. Unassailable determination. Unflinching support. A cool head. A keen eye on your work and ideas to make it better.

It’s a different experience.

And if it’s your experience – I do hope it’s the good kind of different.

 

The Life Autistic: Disclosure at Work?

IMG_6778.jpgI came across an article intriguing enough to where I read it twice, about disclosing one’s autism at work. The premise: is it beneficial to disclose your autism at work?

The topic weighs heavy on me, only because I almost did. (Of course, if you’re reading this and you know me from work: Surprise! You were right: something is definitely “weird” about H2! )

But I don’t make a practice of formal disclosure, and I have my reasons why:

I want to be judged by my work, not by how autism affects my work. 

In The Life Autistic, we can often compensate for personality challenges (awkward conversations, small talk, using bigger words than necessary, social unease) by turning in a good day’s work at the end of it all. I’d prefer people focus on the quality of my deliverables over the idiosyncrasies that they’d perceive (fairly or unfairly) about me.

I want to be managed, coached, and led as Hunter Hansen. 

My company is a world-leader in being understanding and accommodating to employees of all walks and abilities, and I’m proud of them for that. For me, though: I’m stubborn and proud of my abilities, even as they weave within my deficits. I’d rather the topic not come up to “explain” why I fall short, or come behind, or even in the rare cases I get ahead. I want my holistic traits and working habits to be what define me professionally. I am not my autism. 

I don’t want it to be used against me.

Again, see above about my company. They are gracious. Not every other employer is. I’m still wary of autism being seen as a “crutch” or an “excuse.”

I remember during a particularly harsh interaction with a (former) manager, where I nearly buckled, nearly threw it out there because I felt helpless — where I almost spilled the beans early, in a desperate attempt to give my boss some context and soften the blow.

At that point, I still had a lot to refine in my professional conduct, but I’m glad I stopped short — it locked me into a more helpful work precept:

It’s the what & how that matter.

I look for ways to deliver what I need, keep it within reason, open to negotiation, and sticking to the facts. “Would I be able to take this meeting via phone today while I concentrate quietly on other work?” Do you mind if I leave early from the team builder this evening?”  

Sometimes it takes a little clout, a little accommodating on my part to earn some oomph to ask.

It’s a balance.

Work can handle the what, where, and how.

The why is mine, on my terms.

The Life Autistic: We are your Workplace Engines – Here’s Why

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I remember getting a interesting compliment from my boss on my work ethic; it was as much his own transparent introspection as it was a testament to my drive:

“I have actually let things slip, knowing that you will catch them.”

(And for the record, this was a manager who did and does get things done!)

I was grateful for the feedback — flattered even!

Despite my troubles in other areas (tact, speaking out of turn, saying too much, being too direct, you get the trend) — in both leadership and in individual contribution, there are some ‘autistic features’ that have really helped me.

And they’re common enough among us autists to where they help you.

We’re great at laser-focusing on tasks.

I ended up building all of my Excel skills purely by taking on the most tedious and taxing items that involved spreadsheets, formulas, all that jazz. While I’ve since moved on to more fun tools (hello, Tableau!), my ability to zero in and grind out arduous work paid off.

We’re honest.

For all of our tactlessness, we are at least forthright about when something is great or not great. Back when I managed supervisors, I wasn’t always the most accommodating, nor the warmest, fuzziest manager. But I was honest, and that brought out the best in my folks – the expectations and feedback were always clear.

We’re good with details.

One of my best career experiences was with a global communication team — I was fortunate to be in a role that allowed me to fight for excellence in even the smallest details: pixel-perfect presentation arrangements, fine-toothed grammatical combing, and punctilious analysis of distribution lists, procedures, and more.

We’re quite good engines: driven, detailed, and dutiful.

Hire more of us, please!