Many years ago, I found myself working for a small print shop in Iowa as their in-house Desktop Publisher. I spent the majority of my day designing business cards, letterhead, and envelopes. The occasional wedding invitation or logo design might find its way to my desk, but most of the time, it was more of the same. Pretty boring stuff.

The print shop I worked at was located in a strip mall. I believe we were situated between a Subway and a Domino’s Pizza place. Even to this day, I avoid the food from both restaurants. Sorry Jarred.

The back room of the print shop where I worked had a simple setup. There was a two-color printing press (AB Dick for those who might care), a series of shelves, folding and paper cutting equipment, and of course a make-shift desk with a computer where I called home.

In my spare time at work, I operated in a supportive capacity, which is a nice way of saying I was a lackey. I ran errands, served customers, cut paper, took orders, delivered print jobs, etc. I suppose my experiences there were typical to that of any college job. The hours were kind of bad; the pay was even worse. Hardly worth writing about. And yet, despite the aforementioned drab above, something extremely profound happened to me while I worked at this job, something I still refer to today.

Like most people in a dead-end job I was acutely aware of my status. The knowledge of which only heightened the disdain for my job and, by association, my life. Being the last one hired, and holding the position of least importance, I had absolutely no authority in the shop at all. If there was a trivial task to be done, I was assigned to do it. The word “team” was often mentioned as I was asked to do the least desirable of tasks. Taking the garbage out, picking up someone’s mail, fetching coffee, or running to the store to buy cleaning supplies. I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t hired solely for my design skills. And it wasn’t long before I realized that my job title didn’t accurately describe my daily responsibilities at all. Ugh.

Adding to the frustration, the people I worked with weren’t the most supportive group. For about the first week I worked there, everyone seemed to be nice. But soon after, an ill-natured environment meekly exposed itself to me. It started simple enough, an unprovoked evil eye followed by a collective whisper cast at my expense. Soon, the irrational sense that everyone was out to get me took up permanent residence in my daily thoughts. It wasn’t long before I felt threatened, provoked and concerned for my job.

And then, something happened.

I slowly, and unknowingly, began to adopt the culture. I’m not sure why exactly, perhaps as a way to fit in. I joined the behind-the-back discussions. Snickering at the faults of my fellow coworkers. Looking for opportunities to cut them down, all in some ridiculous attempt to increase my stature within the company. My logic was clear, if everyone else looked bad, I would — in contrast — look better. Advancement, lacking any merit, the victories I had were vacant and petty. In just a few weeks I had become an alternate version of myself.

Somehow, my self-image remained intact. I saw nothing wrong with what I was doing. I allowed myself to be blindly unaware of my changes. I categorized my actions as defensive, and those of my colleges as inexcusable. I couldn’t see that I had become a negative person. I thought I was fitting in. And I guess I was. I was also being an ass.

And then, something happened.

I woke up one day and realized, I not only hated my job, but I also hated myself. Somehow, I had become the thing I thought I would never be, a person who cuts others down to make himself feel better. I felt compromised, weak, and insignificant. I suddenly saw the ugliness of my actions. I was 20 years old, and I felt empty, and on a path that held no promise.

A quick assessment of my situation brought me to the obvious. My job had become an unhealthy part of my life. I wasn’t happy there. I needed to make a change.

Now, normally, this is where I’d advise a person in my situation to quit their job and find something else to make them happy. For some, that’s excellent advice. But for me, at that time, quitting wasn’t a viable option. I knew this job was a jumping point for my career. I also knew I needed the experience that this job could offer in order to make that jump. I couldn’t just quit… I had to find a way to make this job work.

And then, something happened.

Something that can only be described as an awakening. I remember I was in the shower when the idea struck. All great ideas come to me in the shower by the way. It was a one-word solution… “neutrality.” As I thought of the word, a sense of excitement filled me. As if I had discovered the key to happiness itself, I suddenly felt aware and confident. Even though it was only one word, it seemed to be the perfect response to all the fighting at work. I knew I was on to something. I knew I was about to do something bold.

The first thoughts that followed were far from definitive. I began to refine my intent. Emotionally charged, it was immediately clear to me that I needed to step back and allow the infighting to continue without my involvement. I would rise above all the pettiness. With a little stubbornness, I’d cast out a new stance of neutrality and let the chips fall where they may.

I took my new approach to work quite seriously. Even though, I wasn’t exactly clear what I’d be doing. I reminded myself that my job didn’t define me, and it would certainly not get the better of me. I began simply enough by refraining from saying negative things about my coworkers. I refused to give in on this point.

Initially, this was a challenge. It seemed insurmountable at times. Determined to stay on track, I began to outwardly promote my new persona at the shop. I adopted a brand from a country known for its neutrality — Switzerland. I took on all the characteristics of my newly adopted homeland. I printed out the Swiss flag and posted it everywhere. My computer desktop was a Swiss flag. I bought Swiss memorabilia, stickers, maps clothing. I surrounded myself with this new adaptation of an attitude. I allowed this idea of neutrality to engulf every aspect of my professional life.

Every time I saw the flag, it reminded me to continue to remain impartial at work. To rise above it all. I looked up famous Swiss people and had a “Famous Swiss Person of the Week” poster I proudly displayed next to my computer. It was my way of loudly and unapologetically protesting the environment I found myself. The flag soon took on a symbolic meaning of a peaceful culture revolt.

I found myself enthralled by famous passive protestors. In my mind, my mission was of equal importance, so I studied the masters who overcame minority opposition. I boiled down their achievements into a decide, declare, and let those who wish, follow, approach.

Every day I interjected more and more neutrality into the work environment. I communicated the strengths and downplayed the weaknesses of my fellow employees. I became quite astute at finding the good. It became a mental game of mine, to try to find the positive amongst all the negative attributes of the people I worked with.

And then, something happened.

My fellow employees started to take notice. First, it started off, innocently enough, with comments like… “I didn’t know you were Swiss.” or “Is it some Swiss holiday or something?”

I proudly corrected them by saying, “It’s a declaration of neutrality.”

I admit, I got some crazy looks. But if you’re going to lead a revolution from the bottom of the totem pole, you’re going to have to think upside down.

Some of the people at work didn’t respond well. I was prepared for this. The wife-owner gave me dirty looks and began to dig deeper into her ways of back-talking and infighting. I was the “troublemaker” of the shop now. But because I wasn’t really doing anything wrong, she attacked in other ways. My non-design-task list increased, as I was asked to take on some of the responsibilities of the other employees. My boss won favor with the other employees as I was asked to clean the printing press, dust, or whatever anyone else needed for support. The message was clear. I was being told not to rock the boat. Undeterred, I pressed on with my rocking.

And then, something happened.

Fearing that the quality of my work wasn’t where it should be, I began to allocate some of my new found motivation into better learning my craft. I started reading design books, watching art movies, learning new design techniques, and opening myself up to critique. I began to ask the people in the shop what they thought of my work. I threw away all my old standby templates and looked at each project as a new opportunity to do something fun and exciting.

I remember one week, I obsessed about textures. I collected textures from everywhere. I once scanned my shirt and used it as a background in a brochure I was designing. I stole textures from plastic bottles, furniture, walls, sidewalks, buildings, you name it. It was one of many series of studies that I took on to become a better designer.

And then, something happened.

I woke up one day, and I realized, I was an island of happiness. I was actually excited to go to work. More importantly, I was proud of myself. I had found a way to be myself in one of the most hostile working environments I had ever worked.

I quietly purchased five Swiss flag lapel pins. I had been wearing mine since I started. I took them to work and placed them in a dish next to my computer. It was my passive way of inviting everyone to join in.

For a couple of weeks, I had my ups and downs with this new approach to happiness. The extra work was challenging. It cut into my other responsibilities, but I pressed on. At this point, the other employees were allowed to hand over all their “non-essential” tasks to me. So they had a lot of spare time and my day was spent doing the extra tasks. I actually started working at home during the nights just to keep up.

Like a drill sergeant, my boss would heckle me by saying things like “hey, if you don’t have time to do all your work Dan, we can get someone in here to replace you.” Or “You know, we don’t ask much of you, Dan, no one else has problems keeping up with their work.”

If I were seen sitting down, or doing anything that might be interpreted as a non-work activity, she would announce to the room “Dan looks like he’s board, does anyone have anything for him to do?” It was all passive aggressive crap, and I was getting the brunt of it.

I knew my boss was just waiting for me to slip up. Anything. A type-o, being tardy, or missing a detail on a customer order would be met with swift punishment. She openly mocked me in front of the other employees. She threatened to fire me or dock my pay on an almost regular basis. At one point, she began wrapping my paycheck in a pink sheet of paper, as if to signal that she wanted to give me the famed pink slip (i.e. fire me). This was a tough period in my life. At times, the abuse did get to me. It caused me to begin to question my tactics. I would have moments where I would look at all the Swiss memorabilia and wonder what the heck was I trying to accomplish. This was crazy. I was the laughing stock of the company. I wasn’t strong enough for this, I thought. Despite the sense of hopelessness, I never let my coworkers see my discouragement.

By this point, I had taken to keeping to myself at work. I spoke to no one unless I absolutely had to. I let the abuse rain down, and I just took it. I found it challenging to say nice things about the people who were making my life a living hell, but I continued to do so at every opportunity.

And then, something happened.

One day I arrived at work, early, as usual. I typically spent my first hour of the day, preparing the printing press. I had taken to using that time to get myself ready for the abuse that was sure to follow later in the day. This particular morning, however, the press operator was already at work. The press was running. He sat over it, making his adjustments to the machine as it printed out the brochures I designed the day before. When the printing press ran, it was so loud that you couldn’t hear anything else. I took a quick glance at him as I walked by. When I arrived at my desk, I saw something.

The press operator had put ten print outs of my recent design jobs on my desk. They were what we called early test runs. Meaning, the printouts that come off the press while he adjusts the ink, etc. Often times, he would provide a sample of those print outs so I could see how my design worked as a finished printed piece. If something didn’t print well or presented a printing challenge, he’d mark it on the sheet. This day, however, it was an act of kindness that I will never forget.

The printouts all had comments like “This one’s good Dan!” and “I think this is your best work!” and “Keep up the good job!” All encouraging sentiments. This was what I needed. So badly. The first kind words given to me in over a month. I admit, I went into the bathroom, locked the door and started balling my eyes out, like a little school girl. I couldn’t stop. It had been six hard weeks, and the emotion of my situation came out all at once. I collected myself, washed my face, and headed back to my desk. Once the press stopped, I made it a point to thank him for his comments. He wasn’t a talkative person, he simply nodded his head and motioned to the new addition to his outfit. Yup, it was the Swiss flag lapel pin. He was the first person to wear one. And it proudly displayed itself on his apron.

And then, something happened.

I found myself recharged by the new found kindness of my coworker. Soon the others began to band behind me as well. To them, the motivations of my boss became unequivocally unfunny. I was included in the group again. And with the invitation came the tempting offer to join in on trash-talking my boss. A captive audience awaited me to give in and discuss my feelings about how poorly she was treating me the last six weeks.

I have to admit, I was quite tempted. To me, it all seemed so unfair. But I realized, that cutting her down wouldn’t make me happy. I had spent over two months working on changing my attitude, and I wasn’t about to cave in now. This time, I remembered my neutrality. I responded by defending her actions and offering her perspective to the other employees. I continued to include her in my compliments.

Soon, almost everyone in the shop had taken their Swiss flag lapel pin. We proudly wore them every day. I had formed my own little Swiss cult. The other employees started helping me out by taking back some of their old responsibilities. Once the work was balanced, I found that I had more time to dedicate to my design projects. Again, I saw my designing skills take another leap forward. This time, it was through the collective support of my coworkers.

The owners of the shop didn’t like this at all. The only two pins unworn belonged to them. They became more aggressive in an attempt to provoke a response from me. I was asked to stay late to meet with them regularly. With an angered tone, I was asked to explain my actions. Several times, I was told that my work wasn’t good enough and that they’d keep me on, as a favor, until they found a better designer. I always responded, calmly and respectfully to them. I found comfort in the fact that for the first time in a long time, I was acting like me. And, in some weird way, their negative reaction was proof positive that I was doing something right.

For the remaining time I spent working there, I continued on in this way. I had found a way to be happy in a place that previously thrived in negativity. A few months later, the final two pins found themselves being put to use. Peer pressure had provoked the owners of the company to finally give in to the silent revolt I had helped start.

I worked at the print shop for a little over a year in all. I left after landing a job from a local ad agency. They had seen my work and thought it originated from a competing ad agency in town. When they discovered that the work originated from a little quick-print company, one that they used on occasion, they sought me out and offered me a job.

I learned something valuable. People are attracted towards genuine happiness. It’s an elusive state of emotion, happiness, not always recognized or obtained. The promise of happiness is too often employed by the misguided cult, religious or political leaders who talk of salvation through empty promises conjoined with glazed-over delusional doctrines. Absent of true intellectually provoked thought, we surrender to ignorant and lesser versions of ourselves.

And then, something happens…

About TheoryThree Interactive
TheoryThree Interactive is an Interactive Studio based in Madison, WI 
We design and develop digital products — mobile and web