On Being an Irritant

Playing “Devil’s advocate” is a skill that not everyone appreciates. It is definitely a skill that, when employed, makes some people uncomfortable. If you are someone who tends to challenge others, buck the status quo, question everything or constantly looks for opportunities for improvement, you are an irritant. A fly in the ointment.

Assuming your intentions are good, you can be an irritant for good. You are trying to make a situation or a process better, or you are simply asking questions to probe, to see if something could be improved, optimized.

I work in the tech industry in a company that creates data sets on which other companies rely. Accuracy is important and efficiency gains can yield great benefits for our department/company. I most certainly identify as an irritant. I ask a lot of questions, never assuming I am right, but challenging my coworkers to prove that they have considered all contingencies. This process is set up to improve data quality in my department. The testing process is intentionally adversarial. I don’t try to challenge my coworkers’ authority, but I do bring up any data that is confusing or unclear, precisely because it could be improved. My intentions are never personally directed, but they can be misinterpreted. And I know I am not the only one who sometimes experiences personal reactions to impersonal testing.

Over the years, this has caused interpersonal conflict to arise. Even if my intentions were pure, others take pride in their work as well, and are not always comfortable with being challenged. But what they likely don’t know is that I also challenge myself every day. Not necessarily in the work sense, but I am constantly questioning my own motives to ensure their purity, to be certain that if there is something I did today that could be done better tomorrow, that I’d do it. I never let myself off the hook. It is just in the core of my being to challenge assumptions at all times. Trust me, it hurts me more than it hurts you.

So, fellow irritants, be absolved! You are not entirely responsible for others’ feelings about your requests for justification or clarification. Your inherent dedication to continuous improvement has a space in this world. Others must learn how to not take things personally all the time. I appreciate that this will be difficult, but they can do it. And it must be done in order to form a more inclusive society. Because irritants need love too, and we might also just make the world a better place while we’re at it.

4 thoughts on “On Being an Irritant

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