How to Avoid Human Obstacles

When someone stands in your way, adjust your path.

Jessica Wildfire
Jan 18 · 4 min read

People love storming out of meetings. We have one guy who does that on a weekly basis. He never has much of a reason, other than seeing what he can take from someone else.

It works for him, with mixed results. He teaches two days a week, and has the rest of his time to himself. He does whatever he wants. He has his own printer, while the rest of us share the office copier. Everyone bends over backwards to please him, but it’s still not enough.

We all pretty much hate this guy, and we avoid him whenever possible. Nobody wants him on committees. We don’t trust him to do anything, so he gets away with much less work.

His students lie on his course evaluations, because they’re afraid he’ll find out who they are and punish them.

So he thinks he’s a great teacher.

He’s not invited to parties. Of course, he’s oblivious to our disdain. He tries to schmooze on campus when he’s in a good mood. If I spot him coming, I duck behind one of our stately building’s Corinthian columns. If I can’t find one, a trash can will have to do.

A conversation with him can last hours. I use the word “conversation” loosely, because it’s mainly just him talking at us. One time, he commandeered one of my meetings with the chair. He spent so long rambling about nothing in particular that I had to reschedule.

I’m giving you an extended description of this guy for a reason. He’s divorced, without custody of his kids. To my knowledge, he’s never compromised once. He’s never had to give up a course release to help someone else. He’s never had to write an article while bouncing a fussy baby. He’s the portrait of entitlement. Other people literally give up their happiness to contribute to his, and he doesn’t even acknowledge it.

We all know at least a few people like this. It’s not always a man. Women can pull this same crap, even if they don’t usually get away with it in the same way, for quite as long.

My point is that sometimes overcoming your obstacles involves more than just hard work, dedication, and discipline. They can involve extremely unreasonable and incompetent people, who either deliberately screw you over, or just screw you over as collateral damage.

All the self-help gurus and struggle porn out there love to talk about goal setting and habit formation. Having your shit together is a great start, but remember that you’ll have to deal with a lot of people who don’t.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I’d say to this professor, if I had tenure. I’d tell him how selfish he is, that he doesn’t realize how great he’s got it. I’d tear a hole in his distorted reality, explain that he’s not a rock star — just a pain in the ass. That’s why he always gets what he wants.

But I don’t have tenure. For now, all I can do is document his actions. Maybe one day I’ll make my way into a position where I can report him to our dean and have him investigated, disciplined, or fired.

That time hasn’t come yet. So I have to strategize.

I’d love a job where pains in the ass don’t exist. They make me wish I could find a bag full of cash on the sidewalk, and retire early.

But I’ve realized something important.

I’ve gotten really good at dealing with pains in the ass. It’s an important skill set, one that contributes as much to our livelihood as anything.

I always admire people who can deal with pains in the ass, and I’ve tried to learn from them. One of my best friends had a pain in the ass for a thesis advisor when she was getting her master’s in biology. He was another portrait of the privileged male professor. He wasn’t mean, just extremely entitled and sort of clueless. His mistakes cost her entire nights and weekends.

Sometimes, she went to bed crying. She debated quitting several times. The department chair and grad program director knew what was going on, even though she never complained. Still, they did nothing.

Then my friend realized something important. She was good at dealing with her thesis advisor. Nobody else could work with him. Sure, she wished she would’ve known he’d be such a pain the ass. But she was making progress. So she pushed on and finished. Now she has what she wants.

My friend’s experience mirrors mine. Writing a dissertation takes a certain amount of discipline. That said, I didn’t expect my own committee to try and sabotage me. One of my professors sent back chapters with extensive negative feedback. So I blocked out entire weekends to revise and edit.

My boyfriend and I “took a break” for six months so I’d have more time. It wasn’t enough. This professor grudgingly said my revisions were excellent, but he wanted me to slow down. He wanted me to spend two years on my dissertation and take out more loans.

Basically, it came down to this. Because he had struggled on his dissertation, he wanted to make the process harder for me.

He didn’t like how easy I was making it look.

Only two things solved this problem. First, I won a tenure-track job despite everyone’s predictions. Second, I published a chapter of my dissertation as an article in a top journal. So he backed way off.

Only because he had to.

People can turn themselves into obstacles easily. They’ll throw back all of your overtures and olive branches. But starting a fight with them can derail everything you’ve worked for. You’ll waste your time and energy trying to change them, or make them see their mistakes. There’s no point in driving head on into a human obstacle. Drive around.

Jessica Wildfire

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Life is an amazing journey to nowhere.

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