Where is credit actually due?
Who do we credit for our successes? What about our failures? Who gets credit for our good or bad ideas? The choices we make? The consequences of those choices? When I was younger it mattered to me immensely. I learned in school that it is critical to give credit where credit is due. I learned that plagiarism is the most heinous act a student can possibly commit.
At the same time, I learned that did not always apply to me. I would not always get credit for my thoughts, ideas, or words. This is why I loathed group projects. I was always the kid who did my work on time and did it well. And because my grade depended on someone else who wasn’t doing any work, I was always the kid who did their work too. Sometimes I complained to the teacher but most of the time I didn't bother. I made sure I got my A and I moved on.
But the problem persisted into college. My university placed a lot of focus on team assignments. The idea was: the modern workplace functions on teams, so we should all learn how to operate successfully on a team. Unfortunately, they did not actually spend any time teaching us the skill of working on a team. They just grouped us together for assignments and tied our grades together. If one or more of my team members failed, then we were all marked as having failed, regardless of our individual contributions to the process or product.
So I went on doing the work for the students who wouldn’t until I found the other people doing that very same thing and we made our own team. It was magical. I did my part, so did everyone else, and our collaboration made a strong showing. We figured out for ourselves how to leverage our individual strengths and perspectives and we developed real synergy.
What I should have done all those times I was on a dysfunctional team was complete my agreed upon portion and then let the team fail. That would have given the instructor an opportunity to see who needed help or guidance. It would have given the teacher an opportunity to identify what barriers prevented my teammates contributing to team assignments. It would have exposed teachable moments.
But a team failure was not equally consequential to all the team members. In order to generate all that potential learning opportunity, I would have had to sacrifice my personal grade. And I wasn’t willing to do that. I had a 4.0 GPA, which is relevant in our capitalist and classist society that values credentials more highly than interpersonal skills or lived experiences. So I learned how to survive and succeed within that system.
And I brought those coping skills into my workplace. I went through a phase in my 20’s where I thought it didn’t actually matter who got credit for an idea or for successful completion of a work project. When I shared an idea and someone else (usually a male-presenting colleague) would then present my exact same idea and get credit, I didn’t worry about it. Or when I would bring an idea to my boss who I would then have to convince it was actually their idea before they would approve, it didn’t bother me.
It mattered more to me that the idea was out there and spreading around the world than who got credit for it. It was more important to me that the work got done than who got credit for doing it. I thought I was gaming the system. It turns out the system was actually gaming me.
I wasn’t taking credit for my contributions or accomplishments, so I wasn’t building a following of recognition that I have ideas worth considering. Consequently, any time I had another idea or found a solution I couldn’t just put it out into the world... I needed to go through an idea broker.
And who are the idea brokers in our society? The people who already have the power and who currently control the societal narrative. That means only new ideas that maintain the status quo of power and control make it through the broker and out into the world.
This arrangement is continuously affirmed because while my successes were always attributed to someone else, my failures were mine alone. I have no problem identifying my weaknesses and working to build my skills and abilities. But that isn’t really giving credit where credit is due.
I wholeheartedly believe that my success thus far in life is not solely mine. I have worked very hard. AND I have had a steady, continuous stream of help and guidance along the way. So then are my failures not also comprised of contributions from both myself and others? What impact does my community and my support network have on my failures? What impact does society have on the “failures” of the poor, the disenfranchised, the underserved?
Who gets credit for the current state of our society? Do they deserve it? Whose responsibility is it to set the record straight? To give credit where credit is due?
I read an article this week inviting employees to share their workplace failures more openly in an attempt to normalize failure in the workplace generally. This is an admirable aspiration. If we could truly recognize failure as merely a part of being in-process, a part of being human, that would be amazing.
Unfortunately the invitation for all to openly share misses an important nuance: some people are already allowed to fail and some people are not. We can’t normalize failure until we acknowledge that is the current reality. First company leadership needs to create an environment where everyone is granted the privilege of failing. Otherwise we are asking the humans who experience the greatest consequences from outing their mistakes to throw themselves on that grenade in order to normalize failure for everyone else. And that won’t work.
The world operates in the same way: we are all going to experience the impending doom of global climate change and economic collapse, but the consequences will not be the same for everyone. Some of us will suffer more than others. And the people who will suffer the most are the same people who already suffer more under our current systems.
Poverty is not the fault of the impoverished. Our societal systems create an environment where poverty is possible and prevalent. Bigotry is not the fault of bigots. Our societal systems create an environment where prejudice thrives. Oppression is not the fault of the oppressed. Our societal systems create an environment of arbitrary metrics that value some lives more than others.
Twenty-something-me was right: good ideas just need to be let loose on the world and spread around freely where they can mingle and blend with other ideas, creating synergy, growth, and progress. If we did that tomorrow within our current systems, only the powerful and privileged would benefit. The people in power who control the narratives are not receiving enough credit for keeping all those systems exactly the way they are. Let's give them that credit. And let's remake our systems.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.