by Victor Johnson, Career Facilitator
Cape Newenham is a small area on the coast of Alaska. It is not a town or village. The closest thing to a town is 25miles away…by air. It was an Air Force radar station when I was there. It was my first assignment in the Air Force.
The Cape, as we called it, was a place of striking scenery. The ocean to the west and mountains to the east. The green tundra came alive in the spring with forget-me-nots, as if to make up for the fact that there were no trees. It seemed that everything there needed to be larger than anywhere else in order to survive. Including the unofficial State Bird of Alaska: The Mosquito. Walrus, bears, whales, even the gulls were huge, looking more like eagles as they ate the grunion that were plentiful in the bay. From the top of one of the peaks, where the radar dome was, as you looked over the vastness of the ocean it seemed you could see the curve of the Earth. At night, the sky was so clear you could see an endless tapestry of stars so bright it cast a shadow, almost like moonlight. Then there was the spectacular aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, polychromatic ribbons and waves dancing across the sky.
I hated it!
That first assignment was a remote assignment, which meant that my wife and one-year old son had to stay in Columbus. When I got the orders and called to tell my wife, I cried, she cried, the baby cried, if we had had a dog it would have cried. Nevertheless, on the final leg of my journey to Cape Newenham, I found myself in an airplane so small that I had to leave my duffel bag behind to make room for the mail. The Cape was to be my home for a year. Along with only 15 Air Force personnel and 25 civilian contractors.
You can probably tell from my description of the Cape that I came to appreciate its stark beauty. Appreciating the Cape came from getting to know the people I was working with. The officers and enlisted airmen treated me as a comrade right away. As each would complete their year and another airman took his place, I became part of the tradition to welcoming the newest member of “The Chosen Frozen” and helping him adjust to his new assignment. I grew to admire the Cape as I grew to admire the people I worked with.
The civilian contractors were just as friendly and welcoming. We all watched over each other and made sure that no one spent too much time alone. We kept each other active, but also listened to each other talk about home and family. The work also united us, and it was from our common purpose that the deepest connections were made. I worked with some real characters in a place that was a perfect setting for some of the most ridiculous, danger-filled, funny, strange, almost unbelievable stories you have ever heard. I could fill a book with stories just from those 368 days of my life. Even 368 days instead of 365 is a story that you wouldn’t think was possible. However, what I learned about people, about communication, about empathy, and about working with others has served me well in everything I have done since that year.
I titled this, “Are You Thankful for Your Co-Workers”, because I was going through some old boxes and I found some pictures of the Thanksgiving Day meal at Cape Newenham. We had put all the tables together so that everyone who was not on duty could sit together. We took turns relieving the people that were on duty for a couple of hours so that they could enjoy the feast with the big group. During the meal everyone said they were thankful for the people at the Cape. The lessons I learned at Cape Newenham taught me to be thankful for the people I work with. I grew as an airman, as a husband, as a father, as a man, as a soul that recognizes I share this planet with billons of people.
I’ve heard people say, “I don’t have to like the people I work with!”, or “I don’t get paid to make friends!” – that is true! To those who feel like that, it may seem that I had no choice when I was in Alaska to be friends with the people I worked with, because we were so isolated. That was not and is not the case. Don’t we always have a choice in how we are going to act?
If you work a 40-hour week, you will spend 2,080 hours a year with your co-workers. Roughly, a little more than 40% of your life each year is spent with your co-workers. If you don’t communicate well, the business will not be as effective or productive as it could be. If you don’t treat your co-workers with respect, it is you that will end up disrespected and in a hostile work environment. If you don’t learn from the people you work with, you will not grow as a person and your brain will atrophy from the lack of exercise.
I did not agree with everything that the people at Cape Newenham believed, whether it was politics, religion, or any weighty or trivial matters. But I learned to listen and to understand. I learned to appreciate their humanity and to respect the humanity of every person. As someone who has spent many years in workforce development and career development, I believe that we all need to remind ourselves of the definition of “friend”.
Friend / frɛnd /[frend] (Dictionary.com)
- a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
- a person who gives assistance.
- a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile.
I believe that for some reason, there are those who believe that in order to be on good terms with someone else they must give up something. I’ve heard people say, out loud, that if they smile at someone or treat someone with kindness, others will think that they are weak, that people will take advantage of them. (Newsflash – people who are looking to take advantage of or do harm to others don’t need a reason from you, they are just going to do it.) I know that for some being “friendly” is like losing some kind of advantage or giving away something. Well, you are right. You are giving up hostility. You are giving up selfishness. You are giving someone your respect just because he or she is a person. A person you work with, whether as a co-worker or as a manager or CEO can fit into the definitions of friend.
Look, if you want to spend 40% of your life treating your co-workers like things and potential enemies instead of people and stay in your little corner behind a chair not learning anything, it’s your choice. It just seems a waste of time. But, if you want more out of life and want to feel good about going to work, I encourage you to read the definition of “friend” occasionally.
If everyone in your workplace treated each other aligned with the definitions of the word “friend”, how thankful would you be? To know that your co-workers would be there to give you assistance if you needed it. To know that your co-workers want to be on good terms with you. That your co-workers do not want to be in a hostile work environment. To know that your co-workers respect you. They do not gossip about you, or call you names, or ignore you, or are intolerant of you because you are different from them in the way you look or in your beliefs. Would you be thankful for your co-workers if all that were true? I’d like to believe you would. I know. I work in such a place and I am very thankful for my co-workers.
Now, here’s the catch: before you can be thankful for your co-workers, you have to make your co-workers thankful for you!