When I was about nine years old I read about pecking order for the first time – how there is the A, B, C and D chicken (and so on down the line). The A pecks the B, the B pecks the C and D, but not the A and so forth. I remember thinking, “Wow, that really sucks,” and then “Yeah, that’s how life works. I recognize that.” From then on my goal was not to be the last chicken. Some people see themselves as the A and B chickens, with the battle being for the top spots. If they get to be the C or D chicken, they’re not happy about it and they’ve got an eye out for the main chance. For me, it’s always been about staying a few steps up from the bottom.
In eighth grade I switched schools for a semester, arriving at my new school in January. Having spent my career worrying about the last few spots, I was actually pleasantly surprised to find I was in the middle of the pack. The novelty of being the new kid gave me some shelter. Later in the spring, there was briefly an even newer girl. She was terribly scrawny, had protruding teeth and anxious eyes. I never forgot her, even though by my 20s I realized that she was probably a tragedy right there in chemistry class, homeless and/or severely physically and sexually abused. What else would explain a child moving into the school in mid-semester, for only a few weeks? Particularly an eighth grader who wet her seat. As an adult I wish I could reach back thirty years and rescue her from whatever made her the way she was, but as a young adolescent I looked at her with confused revulsion and relief. Here was someone who was so clearly the Z chicken that I was safe. So while I didn’t peck at her, I didn’t make any move to protect her.
Somewhere in there I learned a lesson about the X, Y and Z chickens. There’s a bigger gap between the Z and maybe the Y chicken and the rest of the pack. The distribution isn’t even down the scale. The A, B and C chickens might be closely and evenly spaced, but the Z chicken was alone, bedraggled and drawing fire just for being there. The W and X chickens can be safely anonymous and mostly they get pecked just to keep them in their place.
The pack is a little more complicated as we get older. Children may act more with their primitive lizard-chicken brainstem, but adult primates aren’t bound by the linear pecking order. We have the Fool. The fool is a little outside of the system, and draws fire, but can also give it. The challenge is figuring out how to be the effective fool. My father was the Holy Fool. He saw himself as a prophet, speaking truth to power, cowing those around him with his iconoclastic wit. Sometimes that was true. But the line between the gadfly and the laughingstock is thin. The fool, the prophet and the person with the tinfoil hat all see themselves as speaking the truth. The most effective and powerful comedians perform from the experience of their own pain. And there’s always the risk that people will throw rotten veggies instead of laughing.
When I was a child, I accepted my father’s view of the world. He was a principled artist and satirical scholar surrounded by hypocrites, morons and Philistines. And certainly I couldn’t help noticing there were plenty of hypocrites, morons and Philistines around. But as I got older I realized that a lot of people reacted to my dad like he was wearing a tinfoil hat. The tinfoil hat is in the eye of the beholder, so what’s a person to do? If your detractors are ignorant hypocrites, you have to keep speaking the truth. On the other hand, if an ally says, “You’d be so much more persuasive if you’d just take a bath, and take off the tinfoil,” should you say “Truth is the same, whether I bathe or not”? My task in life is to avoid being so much of a raucous, pompous ass that people throw veggies. If I can’t be accepted as a prophet, at worst I want to be a fool, not the smelly Z chicken screaming on the street corner (although actual chickens do appreciate rotten veggies…)
Every law school class has at least one Gunner. The one who sits in the front, volunteers answers and asks good questions, but also asks questions so that everyone else can hear them asking a witty question that puts the professor in a questionable light. There’s a couple of gunner types and most classes actually have two or three. Some of them sit in the back with their feet up on the chairs. Most (but not all) gunners are understood to be smarter than average, but they are not the only or even the smartest people in the class. People usually know who the really smart ones are too, although there are a few who keep their heads down and then you find out they’re getting a D.C. Circuit clerkship.
Being called a gunner isn’t a compliment, but it’s something people will admit to being. A gunner is a fool aspiring to be a prophet. Other trades and societies have their gunners and when we get out of the confines of classrooms, we don’t disappear. My first year of law practice, there were at least three of us. As new lawyers, we would have training meetings over breakfast. There was one fellow (“Ted”) who always asked questions – longwinded ones that started out as questions and became free-form opinions. Ted was a religious and regional minority who perceived himself as an outsider because of these things. As far as I could tell our peer group perceived him as an outsider because he was socially awkward, poorly organized and a mediocre lawyer. At some point I realized the other person who always had something to say was me. Ted eventually decided to move back to his place of birth, although it was generally understood that he had gotten in trouble for viewing porn on his laptop.
The other chap, “Don”, was a loud talker, irritated his peers by claiming seniority over the rest of his class that started six months after he did and made a point of alluding to his religious fervor in an office-wide email. Don had the reputation as a hardworking and capable if not exactly inspired lawyer. He also could and would unashamedly and melodically sing Brittney Spears karaoke at the office holiday party. Then there was me. A woman (1 of 2 in my class), an ethnic minority and the first in my family to grow up with running water (and also a loud talker with a predilection for asking long winded questions). As a summer intern, in the most formal of white collar environments for the first time, I got in trouble for not being friendly enough. I also learned a few things about table manners, by trial and error. As a new associate, I got in trouble for being too anxious and needy. I can’t say what my peers thought of me, but I did occasionally get invited to events that weren’t sponsored by the firm.
Fifteen years later, according to the internet, Ted, Don and I are all still practicing law. Don is a “senior attorney” at another firm in the same town. Ted appears to be a solo practitioner in his home state. I moved to another law firm across the country where I did remarkably well as a senior associate, specializing in a somewhat abstract and unpopular area. I thought I had the prophet-fool balance made when a colleague said after a conference call “I don’t know why, but when she says it, she sounds annoying, but when you say it, it’s funny.” Then I became a partner and developed a reputation for being difficult and angry. In my impatience, I sprouted a tinfoil hat, resulting in the eventual lobotomizing of my career.
Now I’m a consultant. I have to convince people what I do is valuable. I have to be a prophet, to convince people that I can offer a solution to their problems, and more importantly, that they even have a need that warrants a solution. I’ve learned that telling people they have a problem when they don’t believe it exists not only draws fire, but gets you fired. I have to wash and take off my tinfoil hat, so I can feed my little chicks and raise them not to be pecked to death. There are days when I feel exhilaration and prophetic joy. And there days it makes me weep.