On Being a Professional Bummer
I make a living by pointing out and centering gaps in organizations’ understanding or knowledge. While I do bring folks clarity, I don’t always bring them comfort. You’re working on solar energy solutions? Great. What are the implications for those in traditional energy industries who might be out of work soon? Can low-income households access your technology? Where are you developing land, and what are the implications for indigenous communities and their ancestral homelands? Are you aware of the history of environmental racism and are you actively dismantling it within your own practices?
Woof. Who invited her?
Growth can feel icky. Unconvering what we don’t know can leave us feeling exposed, incompetent, and unsure of our place in the world. When we unearth an ‘unknown’, some rough feelings can come up: shame, guilt, embarrassment, inferiority. We rush to justify: “We couldn’t afford [blank] at the time,” “We’ve already done x, y, and z—don’t we get credit for that?!,” or, the often tone-laden “Well, we’re only people. What do you want us to do?”
Instead of seeing new information as exactly what it is—new information—our brains and hearts trick us into seeing a direct threat. These perceived threats can wreak havoc our identities (“but I’m a good person!”), our idea of competence (“I’m smarter than this!”) and our reputations (“I’m known for getting things right!”). I’ve found that new information only threatens us if we are unwilling to be curious, humble, and flexible in our idea of how the world works.
We—human people—don’t know a lot of things. We don’t know most things. And what’s more, the more we learn, the less we know. Can we embrace new information without feeling that our entire worlds are being destroyed? Can we embrace that new information and acknowledge that there will always be more that we don’t know? Can we admit that we’ll never get to where we want to go?
If that feels hopeless, hold on. Let’s sit with that feeling for a moment. What if it is hopeless? What if we’ll never be the best, the most, or perfect at whatever it is that we’re up to? Does that mean we should just … give up? If your answer is “yes,” and you’re not advocating for the devil, fine. Don’t hire me.
Bummer, as I see it, is not the same as Naysayer, Worrywort, or Narc. When you say that you’re striving to make the world more livable for all of us, I believe you—and I want to help you do that in the most effective way possible. This means that we’ve got to look in all of those dark corners that we may have dismissed as rabbitholes, dust off the cobwebs, and have some potentially frustrating conversations.
Being the bummer of any room can feel risky, especially the board room. This work is not about being nice, but it is about being kind. This work is not about making people wrong, or shaming folks into thinking a certain way. This work is about shining a light on those blind spots and fostering an environment in which people are free to learn.
This is not to say that we should ‘go easy’ on problematic blind spots, whether they’re willful or not. Having compassion does not indicate endorsement of bad behavior. That said, true accountability is not policing. Being a professional bummer doesn’t mean shoving anything down anyone’s throat. Being a professional bummer means that I’ll be there to walk you through those bummer feelings, address the blind spots that contributed to them, and hold you accountable to bringing those blind spots into your vision. With kindness.
We must pay attention to those bummer feelings like shame, guilt, and embarrassment. They’re telling us something. We don’t get to use them as shields against growth or demands for exceptions to the social contract—they can be pathways to curiosity, humility, and collaboration.
This work is not always light, and it’s rarely easy.
This work is necessary if we are to build a world that works for everyone, and it can teach us a lot (including how much we don’t know). This work can also be fun if we’re willing to let go of the idea that we know everything, or that we’ll get everything right on the first try.
Consider this an invitation to bum your colleagues, friends, family, and self out. Every idea becomes more effective when accompanied by questions like, “what don’t I know?” or “how might this be harmful?” Pro tip: we can’t answer these questions by ourselves. We must reach out to folks with different lived experiences, worldviews, and values systems to even begun to answer these questions.
Be in community. Bum each other out. Keep building.
Genevieve Smith is a social change expert, an organizational behavior and strategy consultant, speaker and facilitator. She runs GV Advisory, where she works with corporate leaders, INGOs, and investors to align their actions and their values. Genevieve is available for project-based work, coaching, and advisory services. Learn more about her work here or get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org