The truck meep meep meeped a warning as it slid into the bay doors and thudded to a stop. Its odor seeped into the warehouse.
When this happened, my first strategy was denial. Maybe I could just ignore the smell. Or maybe it’d be different this time.
We’d unlatch the back door, grab the handle, and shove the door up, the stench charged forward like a barbarian army, slaughtering our senses.
The inside of the truck looked like the worst clutter-porn shots from the television show Hoarders. Half a dozen baskets the size of couches overflowed with dirty clothes. Piled behind them were hundreds of grimy rubber floor mats.
I took a deep breath through my mouth, reached for the first basket, and tipped it forward, the clothes plunging out like the innards of an eviscerated torso. I swan-dove into the basket, shoved my arms down the edges, and clenched. Then I stepped back, pulled the clothes out, twisted to the left, and dumped them onto a conveyor belt.
As I gasped for air, I staggered away and tagged my partner. He threw down an armful of clothes and puked on the concrete floor. He was 19, Hispanic, in love, and engaged. Every few hours, he asked me how to say something in English. A couple hours later, I’d ask for some help with Spanish.
We were both on the Load Team at a commercial laundry facility. Four days a week, we unloaded and loaded trucks that delivered uniforms, towels, floor mats, and other supplies to businesses around the Denver area. Once a week, we unloaded a truck with supplies from a wet dog food factory. I’ll never forget the smell of that truck or purchase that brand of dog food. If I ever go to a friend’s house and see that brand in a dog bowl, I’ll either shriek and bust out the front door or start grabbing and dumping out my friend’s laundry.
My partner and I constantly hustled, one of the best teams our boss had ever seen. The shifts began at 2PM and usually ended around midnight. Slow teams might work until 3AM. My partner and I sometimes finished at 10PM – two to five fewer hours of getting smeared with grease, chemicals, and bodily fluids.
Before this, I’d worked with a different partner. He was almost done with graduate school, married with children, and hated his job. After the company bought the employees Qdoba for lunch, I spied him hiding an unopened bag of chips in a cupboard. “I’m a family man,” he said.
When we started working together, he told me, “If other people are waiting on you, don’t worry, just go slow – at your own pace.” We dragged ass past 1AM.
One day, before our shift started, our boss called us into his office. He was balding at age 24, had arms the size of legs, and legs the size of an average pine tree trunk.
“What needs to change for you to start finishing on time?” he said, unfurling a blank notebook, tossing it on his desk, and dumping a pen on top.
I tried to think of anything to fill one line of that notebook.
I figured our boss would fire us. Instead, he paired us with other people. My former partner stayed slow. My new partner and I broke company records for speed.
My boss said to me, “It’s interesting what happens when you work with different people.”
Whenever you’re partnered – at work, with a friend, a lover, or a marriage – you either build each other up or tear each other down. If you think you’re somewhere in between, then you’re probably tearing each other down in small ways, the first of 1,000 cuts.
It’s even true in your spiritual walk. In Daoist mysticism training, couples thrive when they do the training together. This is because when one partner in the relationship hits a rough patch of sudden transformation, described as “a death and rebirth,” the other partner supports the transformation. Later, they’ll switch roles, constantly leap-frogging each other as they grow.
If a partner isn’t supportive, he or she will throw a stick in the wheels of transformation – like how my former Load Team partner slowed me down by setting a lower standard.
When you have a partner, you’re going to keep score. Humans are hardwired to make mental tally marks. We’re also hardwired to resent partners whose marks come up short compared to our own.
When working with some of my job partners, I kept a suspicious eye on them, and vice versa. If I unloaded one basket, I made sure he unloaded the next. We wasted energy to keep a fairness score. We used our energy to throttle back.
When my fast partner and I broke company records, we competed to see who could contribute more. When we unloaded the trucks, we kept one admiring eye on each other. Every time I turned around, he was bear-hugging a stack of dirty floor mats as he staggered out the truck’s rear end. So I grabbed a bigger stack.
No matter what, you’re keeping an eye on your partner. Is it suspicious or admiring? If you use energy to throttle back so you can keep your tallies even, you’ve already lost.
What if you’re in a partnership where you’re trying to build the other person up and they tear you down?
If it’s a friend, lover or relative, this is simple to do, even if it’s not easy. Break it off. You can come up with ten thousand excuses why it can’t be done, but they all have one answer – break it off. You can keep seeing the good in them and think they’ll change. They won’t. Leave them and give to someone who gives back, even if it’s just yourself. If your partnership is at work, breakups get trickier. You need to be more strategic and, over time, make sure the right people know you’re the better part of the team. My boss knew either me or my partner was the problem, which he confirmed when he split us up. If this isn’t possible because of bureaucracy or lack of ethics, then plot your transition to another company.
In all your partnerships, observe how you keep score. Are you holding back because you’re waiting for the other person to catch up? Are they holding back? Or are you well-matched? The answer will show you the way forward.