do not feed

The Best Advice So Far - do not feed - sketched baby dragon comic eating a cookie

Last spring, I found myself looking into a little side gig as a content editor for a startup out of New York. It seemed a good deal at first: ten flex hours at the rate I requested. It was a rocky start even getting in the door, with impersonal communication actually becoming curt and then rude. And they were desperate, pleading with me to jump in within a half-hour of the first phone call, late on a Friday afternoon, asking me to edit three articles over Memorial Day weekend.

But I wound up figuring I could handle it once I was in the door and through the initial messiness. Mind my own business. Do what I said I’d do. Collect my paycheck.

Not so.

It changed. It grew. Heck, it mutated.

A week in, I was asked last-minute if I could “just bail them out on a few things” due to a writer who’d had a baby and left several articles half-done.

I went ahead and bailed them out.

Now, before I took the position, I made sure of what I was and was not expected to do. And my pay rate followed word-count brackets that were based on those clear expectations. I was to edit as I saw fit. I was not required to explain my edits. I was not required to read source articles or fact check (both expressly stated as responsibilities of the writers).

But I noticed in that first set of “emergency” articles that some of the claims and statistics just didn’t seem plausible. So I checked the sources and, sure enough — the data being reported was off. I mean way off. Not even close to what the article was saying. I thought, If a client ever saw this level of egregious errors, they’d drop this company in a heartbeat!

I alerted the boss.

She asked me to fix it “just this once.”

The articles I was editing, on the whole, were extremely poor. Honest to Pete, they read like a sixth-grader had written them (and not a particularly astute one at that). It quickly became standard fare for me to have to slash 80% of the copy — which, of course, was taking much, much longer than agreed upon. As much as ten times longer, in fact.

In the next few days and weeks, I pointed out to the owner that most of the articles I was given to edit were now not only poorly written, fluffy, off-topic or illogical — but the misinterpretation (or misrepresentation) of supporting research was rampant. I reminded her that we’d agreed this was the writers’ job, not mine.

The owner became snippy and condescending. I reflected back to her how she was coming across, despite the fact that I was now “bailing her out” constantly. She returned with, “Well, if you want me to be honest, it’s a little tiring having you continue to come to me and ask me why you have to do this or that, or telling me that it’s the writers’ job. This is a startup. The lines blur. So the reason you should do what I tell you to do is because I said so. I shouldn’t have to explain myself to you.”

Enter … the BEAST.

Still, for some reason, I stuck with it. For months, I stuck with it.

I told myself that this young entrepreneur was just stressed out.

I genuinely wanted to see the operation succeed. I convinced myself that maybe I could be a sort of mentor to her, supporting her dream of running her own company while also gently helping her to improve her communication skills.

I showed a personal interest in her, asking about how her weekend was or how she was feeling about the election results.

I thought, She’s going to appreciate all this down the road and thank me for my patience and commitment.

And there were a few moments of vulnerability that I clung to, telling myself I was getting somewhere and that it would all be worth it in the end if I could just bear with it a little longer.

But the BEAST grew. And GREW. The claws got bigger. It was gobbling up more and more of my time.

My peace of mind.

My happiness.

By the six-month point, I was now being expected to “coach” all of the writers (i.e., to leave copious comments about edits with suggestions for how they could fix things, though none of the writers ever applied the learning to the next article), as well as to now read all of the linked articles and vet all stats for accuracy.

My initial generous offer of a few days’ turnaround on articles somehow turned into a mandatory 24 hours. Then 12.

I was now putting in 20 or more hours a week … yet somehow only getting paid for 3 or 4 hours, based on the initial word-count agreement.

When I expressed mounting frustrations and concerns, they were literally ignored, as if I hadn’t spoken at all.

Criticism, however — well, there was no shortage of that. I’m not kidding when I say that articles were now requiring multiple hundreds of edits each, to the point where spotting virgin copy was difficult (and I was only leaving that much untouched so that the writers didn’t feel totally deflated). Yet while appreciation of any kind became nonexistent — even by way of a simple “thanks” at the completion of another nightmare edit with superhuman turnaround time —I’d get a snide public comment from the owner if I missed deleting a double space somewhere in the fray.

My own personal writing pursuits had taken a back burner to the new and ever-growing drudgery and stress of editing material I didn’t care about.

I was staying up until 4:00 or 5:00 AM to complete edits on articles containing shoddy copy that never improved.

I was missing the gym often at this point, which made me feel even worse.

My stomach was in knots of frustration at how I was being treated.

And it was leaking over into my personal life and conversations with others, so distracted was I at how horrible it all had become.

*****

I write about BEASTs in my book, The Best Advice So Far. As I explained there in Chapter 31, I use “BEAST” as a metaphor, but also as a handy acronym:

Big Energy-Absorbing Stupid Thing

BEASTs always come to your doorstep small. Even seemingly helpless. Their large sad eyes sound like plucked violin strings when they blink. Their whimpers and sniffles implore you to take them in.

In fact, BEASTs have a knack for sniffing out certain people:

  1. People who are compassionate and genuinely care about others
  2. People who are conscientious and committed
  3. People who tend to see the best in others

We’re easy prey.

[Allow me to use the more reader-friendly lowercase form of “beast” from here on out.]

So we invite the beasts inside and we give them a cookie. And they gobble it up. And it’s so cute and we feel happy that we were able to be so helpful and save the day.

And even when the beast belches in your face, it’s just a tiny belch that sounds kind of cute, too.

The beast smiles up at us and its eyes get glassy — and it holds out its hands for another cookie, making a tiny sound that warms our heart.

And we think, “Aw, well, it’s just one more cookie. And I have lots of cookies to spare.” So we hand over another one.

And another.

And soon the cookie jar is empty. But the beast isn’t full. In fact, it’s somehow twice the size it was when you let it in. And it thinks nothing now of walking over and raiding the fridge. And before you know it, your shopping bill has quadrupled and you’re sleeping on the couch because the beast has taken over your comfy bedroom in between feedings. And there’s a trail of slime all over everything in your life.

Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. I gave some pertinent examples in the book, but let me add a few more:

A friend asks if you have any recipes for easy hors d’oeuvres … and somehow, you’ve now wound up as the event planner for the entire party.

You agreed to help an acquaintance with a task you estimated would take two hours. But after a string of ingratiating smiles and if-you-wouldn’t-minds and you’re-the-bests, you’ve now devoted a full work week worth of hours into it — with no end in sight.

The Sunday School class or town league coaching position you took on out of guilt.

The one-time babysitting you offered to do, that’s now become a regularly expected thing.

The Facebook post you commented on, that’s now become argumentative, aggressive and generally nasty.

Any of this sound familiar?

I’m sure your own beasts are now coming to mind, as well.

But the thing about beasts that people don’t realize is that, no matter how big or scary or possessive a beast might have become, the very same person who let them in (that’d be you) has the power at any time to kick them out again.

Oh, sure, they’ll bellow and roar. They’ll claw the carpet to try to gain a hold, turning over lamp stands on the way. And once at the threshold, in a desperate attempt to stay, they’ll try their best to squish down and pull in their limbs and try to look small and innocent again, like the day you took them in. They’ll try to make the violin-plucking noise as they blink, eyes moist with feigned repentance. But if you jut your chin and remain stalwart in your resolve and give them a good shove — they’ll go.

They must.

Because you always have a choice.

You made the choice to let the beast in.

You made the choice to give it the first cookie.

You made the choice to keep feeding it, and to give it the run of the place.

And you can make the choice to kick it to the curb.

*****

Midway through December, it hit me. I wasn’t practicing the very basics of the advice I share in my book and blog.

“You always have a choice.”

“Misery is a choice.”

It was Christmas time — and I was missing it.

I made one last effort to communicate my concerns and frustrations to the owner (an indication that I was still somehow feeling badly about not continuing to feed the beast). I spent about an hour carefully putting into words just how I’d been feeling and sent it to her through the private messaging app. The message showed as “Read.” But by way of reply … I got nothing. Radio silence. Dead air. The articles kept coming my way, but my heartfelt personal message was never addressed — or even acknowledged.

Three days later, I gave a gracious four-week notice. I was invited to leave in 10 days — one final slap as if to say, “You’re really not all that hard to replace, you know.” (Though within a week, she was back on my digital doorstep, asking ever so politely, with big blinky eyes, if I might bail her out just once more and only on a handful of articles, “just until we narrow down our final search for a new editor.”)

Understand that situations, not people, are beasts. I genuinely cared about this young woman’s wellbeing. And I wanted her to succeed. But some beasts just can’t be tamed.

I’m happy to say that I showed my own untamable beast the door on December 30th. I did not let it back in when it rang the doorbell. And my soul is the lighter for it.

If there is a beast in your life, remember that you are not a victim. It cannot force you to remain its prisoner even a day longer. You can get back to enjoying your life.

You always have a choice.

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