Before you start your first day of work, you must know this: myth-making is what makes us not kill ourselves and each other. Stories exist to prop people up, and to bind people to a common purpose, a destiny they think they share. Every partnership, every organization and every country has a myth, an overarching motif that is repeated until it is accepted. For most part, people don’t think very much about the myths that they buy into. They drift through the fog of narratives, unaware that they soon become the very stuff that binds those stories together, thereby perpetuating ideas and fantasies.
But there is a class of individuals that is not like that. They understand the stories, and use the myths as their tools for battle. They slip through words and sentences, using nuances as their shield, and semantics as their sword.
These are the ninjas. In workplaces where eloquent incompetence is rewarded, and where meetings are endless rhetorical exercises that need to be mastered for success, ninjas thrive.
If you do find yourself in such a workplace (it is fairly easy to find these places), this document will serve as either a guide for identifying ninjas or if you do aspire to such greatness, a how-to manual to achieve the status of ninja.
What is a Ninja: A Brief Introduction
To be a ninja is to reach the apex of being able to play with the dark and yet appear to be light. Ninjas skulk in the darkness for most part, only emerging during critical moments so that maximum attention is given to them. They are highly-skilled individuals, skilled in what matters most. What has mattered most perhaps, in groups from time immemorial, from hunting parties to handmaidens in ancient palaces to nuns in cloistered convents: the embedded warfare of organizations and bureaucracy.
Ninjas have always been among us. They traverse cultures, cross class and gender boundaries. They are stealthy beings who jump through hoops and scale walls. Metaphorical walls, for these are the walls of the myths that were mentioned earlier — metaphysical and psychological, constructed with words upon more words. Up close, well-formed arguments, rhetoric. From afar — words that when repeated, disintegrate into the sum of their parts, letting the ninja escape in the ensuing cloud of smoke. To be a ninja is to carve sly steps into these walls, using them first as vantage points, and then as pathways to escape.
The two key skills of being a ninja are control and observation. Ninjas have complete awareness of themselves and their surroundings, having studied the basic tenets of human behaviour, psychology, law, political science and a hodgepodge of people-reading techniques ranging from physiognomy to nonverbal communication. The ninja knows that he must always come across as measured and rational, and to keep emotions at bay. This makes it impossible for anyone to argue with him without coming across as overly emotional. The ninja must always appear informed and in control. At the same time, a ninja is constantly scanning, constantly studying. He takes copious mental notes of how different individuals react and respond to various stimuli: nervousness, joy, anger, fear. This allows him to predict with uncanny accuracy the course of action any person would take in any given situation. He knows that people are creatures of habit, and that like all creatures, their reaction to external stimuli is deeply programmed. To this end, ninjas are rather like animal trainers. They know that by nodding repeatedly and repeating words, those words eventually become unquestioned truths. How do you toilet train a dog? Apply the same technique. Just as you tell the dog where to pee again and again and again, repeat the same thing until it becomes so natural that nobody senses any dislocation in logic.
The ninja is also observant of the buzzwords of the season, for using these allows him to seem aligned and tuned in with the powers that be, while focusing on his own agenda. These words also allow him to attack those he deems his threats, mainly those who attempt to force his hand into doing work, or steal his limelight form him. The ninja’s agenda is fundamentally a simple one — to do the least work as possible while reaping the greatest benefits. On the outset it might seem like a lot of effort to go to such lengths to avoid work that would, in comparison, take less effort. But a ninja never thinks in that manner. Never. Unnecessary work is anathema. And unnecessary work encompasses anything that does not propel one into the spotlight. This is how a ninja thinks: Somebody has to do the ground work but it should not be me. I am a leader, a star — not the under-thanked worker. I am the driving force – the consultant. Everyone else that stands in the way of my agenda must be eliminated.
Ninjas know when to return to the shadows when the light is not favourable, and to bounce back immediately after any setback. Embarrassment and regret, unless they feed into his agenda, have no place in the ninja’s psyche. Anything he does, no matter how badly, can be justified and reframed. Because articulate incompetence is priced over inarticulate competence, there is no shoddy work, only badly marketed work.
Because of the razor-sharp focus on the ultimate agenda, the ninja needs to always think 10 steps ahead of everyone else. When given a dead-end task, the ninja’s first move is to think of how to palm it off. Typically, this manifests in a professional mentorship, where under the pretext of development and guidance, the ninja gradually hands the work over before vanishing into the shadows. While words are crucial to the ninja, there is ample room for silence as well. Wait long enough, and someone will assume false bravado and step up to undertake a thankless task, under the mistaken belief that goes along the lines of ‘if I don’t do it, who will?’. Nobody will, and nobody really cares, as long as it’s not under their names.
The ninja needs to have several tools at his disposal at all times. First, an expander –- to make whatever little he does seem a hundred times bigger. Nothing is too minute to expand, and nothing can be over-emphasised and over-exaggerated. For this expander to work well, the ninja uses his arsenal of jargon and the buzzwords of the season. Second, a multi-faceted mirror. This, combined with his powers of observation, will allow him to see angles to his advantage and notice more people and more situations. Third, a pair of binoculars is crucial for the ninja to see far and gain foresight, solely for self-preservation. The ninja is akin to Noah, building a one-person ark to survive when the deluge comes. The last tool that a ninja needs to have is a paintbrush. This will allow him to always paint himself whiter than white, and his foes blacker than black. To use this paintbrush well, one needs to re-think what a lie is. Lies are not untruths. Ninjas work in the intersection of black and white, but not quite grey. They will never be seen as sitting on the fence. They will always be white. Always.
If you were one of those unfortunate people who do not have a natural flair for the dramatic, or who did not receive acting lessons as a child, the path to ninjahood is quite impossible, and your only chance of success is to keep your head low, and avoid getting painted black by one. The ability to feign joy, admiration, disgust and anger on cue is crucial for ninjahood, as is the ability to look like you are always in a rush, that you are pressed for time, that you are very needed, very wanted.
I know what you are thinking. It’s your first day at work and you want to be friends with anyone. You are not here to play political games. You just want to earn a decent living. Well, you my friend are setting yourself up for a long road of overtime, missed promotions and many moments of bitter disappointment and disgust that comes with doing work with little credit, and all the blame. If you insist on believing the lie that someone is looking out for you, that your work will speak for itself, and remain inept at shameless self-promotion, you will aid the ninjas’ in their climb to greatness.
I wish you all the best.