When I joined a tech company after working for myself for 20 years, the corporate world had changed in many ways. One, in particular, struck me. My old jobs had existed in environments so laddish and rowdy that even I, as a man, had felt uncomfortable in them. So I’d gotten out.
For 20 years, I ran my own businesses. I prioritized impact over profit. I prized adherence to a set of beliefs over survival. If marketplace disruptions made pivoting to an ugly business model the only way to keep a company going, I shut that company down—even when I wasn’t sure what I would do next.
After shutting down enough of my companies to convince me that maybe “business” wasn’t my strength, what I did next, in 2019, was to join Automattic, Inc.—the people behind WordPress.com, Jetpack, WooCommerce, Simplenote, Tumblr, and other web-based empowerment tools.
It’s nothing like the places where I used to work.
We believe in Open Source. Follow a Creed. Instead of laddishness, we support and even celebrate difference. One way that support flows is through Employee Resource Groups, which we at Automattic call Automattician Resource Groups, or ARGs—so that’s the name I’ll use here.
ARGs are communities, formed around personal identity and situation, where colleagues connect with and support each other and work together toward common goals.
At Automattic, we have several of these ARG communities. Eventually, as the lead of Automattic’s Employer Brand activity, I plan to join them all. Initially, I joined two: Neurodiverseomattic and Queeromattic. I saw myself as an ally. In joining these two ARGs, I hoped to become wiser and kinder; to increase my ability to support, live, and work with family, friends, and colleagues; to deepen my interpersonal skills; and to grow in compassion and understanding.
I accomplished those goals, but I also gained something I hadn’t expected.
It started with Neurodiverseomattic, a group that provides support and resources for neurodivergent Automatticians (including but not limited to autism, ADHD, dyslexia) and their allies.
As the dad of an autistic daughter (who also suffers from an alphabet soup of additional diagnoses), I have the joy of loving, living with, and learning from one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever encountered. But I also have the challenge of supporting someone whose life, through no fault of her own, is often painfully difficult.
I must listen when she needs an ear. Advise when she seeks help—and occasionally when she doesn’t.
Autism, in my daughter’s case, simultaneously includes remarkable, magical, wondrous capabilities, along with painful, mostly social, disabilities.
Some Neurodiverseomattic members are neurodiverse themselves; some are neurotypical but support neurodiverse family members; many, maybe most, are neurodiverse themselves and also support neurodiverse family members.
Over months, the more I shared experiences with members of my ARG, the better I became at meeting the challenges of parenting an autistic, depressed, anxious, dyslexic, artistic, gifted, emotionally intense, profoundly insightful teenager. And the more I came to realize that other members of my family had also been on the spectrum. Like my late father. And maybe my late brother. And, in a different way, my late mom. And…
And the more Ava shared her past experiences of being bullied, misunderstood, abandoned, and confused, the more I realized that I myself had had many of the same feelings and experiences growing up that she was having.
Like Ava, I had gone through a period of crying every day at the thought of going to school. The terror of brutal bullying and the shame of not fighting back. The shock of trusted friends laughing at me, not with me, or pretending not to know me. Lubricating their rise in the social ranks by pretending to find me ridiculous. Or maybe not pretending.
Like Ava, I’d concocted strange fantasies to try to understand why these things happened to me. Had I committed some crime? Was I a mistake? Had my parents been bribing my school friends to pretend to like me, and then run out of money?
So much of what Ava experienced, I had experienced. And so, it seemed, had many of my neurodiverse colleagues who courageously shared their stories.
And, finally, reader, it sank in:
I’m not just the president of hair club for men, I’m also a customer.
I’m on the spectrum. Of course I am. And always have been. Of course. And just never, ever knew.
Once I saw it, I was amazed that I’d never realized or even wondered about it.
Once I saw it, I was grateful to work at a place where we’re afforded the kind of support that can not only help us improve our people skills, but can also introduce us, on a deeper level, to ourselves.
And meanwhile, as an ally, I also joined Queeromattic. Need I say more?
Okay, I will.
The world I grew up in was so homophobic, and the romantic films I grew up watching were so prescriptive, that I got in touch with my heterosexuality long before I reached puberty … and didn’t recognize my queer side for decades.
Not even when I made out with a boy. (Hey, I was drunk.) Or years later, when I made out with another boy. (Hey, I was drunk, and, anyway, he looked like a girl.)
My new self-knowledge is mostly academic. Divorce has freed me of certain illusions, a spiritual practice has brought a taste of inner peace, and aging has eased up on the hormonal gas pedal, so that I no longer confuse attraction for a plan, or feelings for fate. Parenting keeps me plenty busy and fulfilled, and singlehood may not be exciting, but I’ve had enough excitement for multiple lifetimes.
Romantic love is for those still willing to risk everything. I prefer to hold onto what I have left. Because I know it’s a hell of a lot.
Thanks to the wisdom, vulnerability, truthfulness, and compassion of the friends I’ve made through my company’s ARGs, I have come to better know myself. It gives me pride, no pun intended. It even grants me serenity. And for that, I am grateful.