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The Way of the Cockroach
How Not to be There When The Lights Come on and Nine Other Lessons on How to Survive in Business
By Craig Hovey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Craig Hovey
All rights reserved.
you have nothing to fear but yourself
It wasn't 6 A.M. yet and Joseph was already toiling away at his desk, working to transform a tangle of dismal sales figures into a report that wouldn't get him fired when he presented it to Mr. Harshfeld after lunch. He pictured Harsh, as the boss liked to be called, sitting behind that big metal desk and shaking his head, frowning while he pretended to listen. His thick brow would bunch up and bear down over those flat cold eyes of his, eyes that were set too close together below a large wasteland of forehead that was steadily beating back his hairline.
The image made him shiver.
With only the light of a small desk lamp, and the sun just beginning to give the overcast sky a dull glow, his tiny universe, lit by a distant bank of windows, was dim. Little more than the shadows from other workspaces were visible beyond his cubicle.
Absently, Joseph reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out one of the awful nutrition bars his girlfriend, Monica, was convinced would help keep them healthy and regular deep into old age. Every bit of it was healthy, from the whole grains to the gummy fruit paste that held it all together. But the ingredients added up to the taste of used duct tape.
The break room was locked and he knew he had to eat. It was going to be another long, brutal day, so he would choke it down. He was so absorbed in trying to wish away the grim numbers before him that he did not look as he tore off the top of the wrapper and opened his mouth to take a bite.
Something fell into the pile of papers in front of him. It wasn't loud, but the noise was startling in the silent airplane hangar of a room. He leaned back a little and looked. It was a brown object, about a half-inch long, and, good god, it was alive!
The disgusting thing had landed on its back and was wiggling its legs furiously in the effort to flip back over and get away. But it stuck in place. Joseph grabbed the printer manual from the computer stand to his right with both hands. Roaches scared him, and he was perfectly willing to sacrifice the paper it lay on in order to kill the foul thing.
Just as he raised the manual to nose level and prepared to deliver a death blow, he heard a small but clear voice.
"No, no, have mercy, please don't kill me, I beg you." Joseph looked around wildly. Somebody must have snuck in to play a trick on him. But all his coworkers were lazy slackers. Who among them had ever shown up at work, let alone gotten out of bed, this early? Again the voice came.
"Please, if there is a kind bone in your body, I've fallen and I can't get up. Don't kill me, I have kids — they need me!"
"Who's there?" Joseph shouted in his boldest voice. "I know you're around here somewhere. ... You've had your fun, so come on out, I'm trying to get some work done here, for God's sake."
"I'm not having any fun at all, and I'm right here in front of you."
The voice came from the cockroach. Impossible! Somebody must have planted a fake bug on his desk and rigged up a tape player ... but the legs were moving, and now he saw the antennae wiggling against the paper.
"Wow, I've got to start getting more sleep," he muttered to himself, "take a vacation, or take something ... I'm hallucinating."
"No you're not. I'm real, and if you're not going to kill me, could you please help me get back on my feet? I promise I'll never bother you again, not ever."
Joseph looked back down at the cockroach. Its legs were moving slower now, just occasional spastic jerks, really, and the thing clearly wasn't going anywhere. He lifted the manual again.
"Whether or not you can really talk, I hate roaches. Time's up!"
"No, no." The legs began waving frantically again. "Don't kill me, I can help you, really. I know all about your problems here at work, and at home with Monica, too. I can help."
"What? You, a cockroach, know my girlfriend's name and can help me? This is too weird."
"It's true, and I know a lot more than that. For example, I know that you get only a small corner of the closet and that her toothgrinding keeps you awake at night, but you're afraid to tell her. I know about your wedding plans and where your honeymoon is going to be. Not only that but —"
"Hold on there, Mr. Cockroach," Joseph blurted out. "You can't know about my wedding because I'm not getting married, and even if I was, how in the world could you know anything about a honeymoon?"
"My name is Gregory, and I've been to your apartment plenty of times."
"What? But I live fifteen miles from here, that's impossible."
"No, it's really pretty easy, actually: I just hitch a ride in one of the empty pockets of your briefcase."
Joseph felt a wave of acid churn up in his empty stomach.
"That's awful. You mean to tell me I've been carrying roaches home? Monica would kill me if she knew."
"Don't worry, I'm the only one who's made the trip so far. That cucumber salad you brought into work was enough to keep any of my friends out."
"Hang on there, my mother gave me a big bowl of that a few months ago, after a family reunion — the stuff barely got touched. I brought some in for lunch one day."
"You sure did, in an old container that leaked all over the place. And you left it in there a week. Awful, just awful."
"What would a roach care about that? You'll eat anything."
"Not cucumbers. All of us hate cucumbers."
"Huh, who'd have guessed roaches were picky about anything?" Joseph remarked, then looked at the breakfast bar he'd dropped on the desk and suddenly felt faint. "Hey, what were you doing before you landed on my desk?"
"I was trying to eat breakfast."
"Breakfast?" Joseph moaned. "Now I'm really going to be sick."
"Oh, stop getting yourself all worked up over nothing. I was only nibbling on some of the glue used to seal the wrapper — on the outside."
"You sure you didn't get into any of my food?"
"No offense, Joseph, but those things don't look very appealing."
"You mean to say glue is better?"
"It sure is."
Joseph mulled this over for a few seconds.
"You're probably right."
"Now that you know I haven't contaminated your food, could you please help me get back on my feet?"
Not believing any of this, Joseph pulled a pencil from the desk's center drawer and laid it alongside Gregory, who immediately grabbed hold with the three feet on his left side and righted himself.
Gregory stretched while he said, "Thanks, that feels a lot better. Now, since you have spared me, which is a lot more than any of the bug-murderers you work with here would have done, I'm going to reward your kindness."
Joseph arched his still unbelieving eyebrows. "What are you going to do, give me a free room in a roach motel?"
"Nope. I'm going to tell you how to turn your life around."
Joseph just looked at him blankly for a few moments, then said, "Okay, you managed to sneak home with me a few times and you can talk, which, I admit, is pretty impressive for a roach, but I really doubt you have anything to share that's going to help me."
"Oh really? Listen, cockroaches were around 150 million years before the dinosaurs and 300 million years before your chimp ancestors figured out how to walk on two feet. We're the oldest insects that have survived to the present and, as the planet's senior and most adaptable six-leggers, we've always been on the cutting edge of evolution. Believe me, cockroaches know a lot more about how to survive and prosper anywhere, anytime, anyhow, than humans ever will. Why, if you knew what we know, you'd be running this whole company by now."
Joseph shook his head, amazed at the speech, and vaguely hoping the motion might clear away the sight of a talking cockroach on his desk.
"Did I really just hear a speech from a bug?" he mused to himself, with a combination of shock and awe.
Gregory waited in silence.
"Even if this is really happening," Joseph continued, giving in and addressing the bug, "what could you possibly tell me about running a company? You're just a glue-sniffing insect!"
"How little you know. For your information, Joseph, I am a member of Supella longipalpa, the brightest of all cockroach species — similar to Mensa in the human world. We've always preferred warm places, like libraries and appliances, and we have put our time spent in books and computers to good use."
"You mean that's where you learned to talk?"
"Bingo, my man, and we can write, too, but that is a little more challenging. Now, let me prove myself by telling you how much I've picked up from your company phones and computers."
"Sure, I mean, what could be more normal than listening to a roach who spies on my coworkers?"
* * *
For the next ten minutes Joseph's eyes widened in amazement as Gregory filled him in on just how much he knew, describing the company and what it did in great detail and dishing out lots of juicy tidbits. The roach mapped out all the power struggles, the secret alliances, strategies to be unveiled in the months ahead, and even gave him the lowdown on a few office romances that left Joseph blushing. He leaned back and rubbed his chin.
"Maybe you really do have something to teach me; I guess it's good I didn't squash you after all."
"You got that right. There's an awful lot humans can learn from us. To prove it, since nobody else is here, well, no people anyway, I can start teaching you the Rules of the Roach."
"You can't be serious, the Rules of the Roach?"
Gregory ignored the remark and clambered up on Joseph's electric pencil sharpener and took a perch, looking like a professor getting ready to deliver a lecture.
"We tried to give the dinosaurs the same advice, but they didn't want to listen. I hope I have better luck with you."
Joseph was incredulous. "Cockroaches could talk to dinosaurs?"
"Sure, how can you survive if you can't understand what other creatures are talking about?" Gregory retorted, as though only members of an inferior race would be too lazy to match the accomplishment. Joseph briefly reflected back on his miserable performance in high-school Spanish. Bad enough that the roach knew so much more about his company than Joseph did, but a bug being just flat-out smarter than him was unthinkable. He had to resist.
"If you and your ancestors are so smart, how come it took you all those millions of years to come up with ten rules?"
Gregory moved his antennae in a way Joseph could swear was condescending. So now the thing was looking down on him? Great, a whole new bottom had been reached.
"The ten Rules of the Roach are just a shorthand way of summing up what we've learned through the ages. Are they simple? Of course — the greatest wisdom always is. And you shouldn't make fun of our rules until humans have survived for at least a few million years — long enough to prove yourselves."
"Whoa there, Mister Roach, you little creepy crawlers may have been around longer than us, but look at all we've accomplished. Name one thing roaches have done that compares with, oh ... I don't know, the development of the Internet." And with that he puffed out his chest a bit and pointed at Gregory with his chin.
"That's easy," Gregory scoffed. "Humans have also created nuclear weapons, right?"
"Sure, what about it?"
"Now what would happen to you if a nuclear bomb were planted beneath your desk and went off while you were in the middle of one of your little catnaps, or even a mile from here?"
Before he could stop the reflex, Joseph glanced into the murky recesses below his desk.
"I'd be dead of course. What's your point?"
"A cockroach can withstand about eighty times the radiation that would kill any human. Humans brag about the Internet, which is pretty impressive, but we took a huge evolutionary step forward that made us immune to the greatest human threat. Humans can blow themselves up and we'll go right on living, then outlive whatever comes along to take your place."
"Well, well, a cocky cockroach, huh? But even if you do have a point, what's that got to do with your rules?"
Gregory replied, "As you'll see, the Rules of the Roach are about the most important challenge facing every living thing, an issue to which humans pay far too little attention. How to survive anywhere, under any conditions, and continue to grow and evolve long after the larger, stronger, smarter creatures with greater resources have failed."
"Wait a minute, how can you say that? Humans are always struggling to survive. What do you think all our wars are about?"
"Your wars are about fear, which is the biggest threat to survival and success there is."
"How is fear a threat to survival? There are all kinds of things to be afraid of, especially today: There's terrorism, cancer — more frightening things than I could even count."
Gregory waited patiently while Joseph spoke, then replied, "It isn't death or disease you need to be afraid of, but your own fear of them."
"Getting scared over things you can't do anything about is silly. You end up creating all kinds of bogeymen you are terrified of, then chase yourself around with them. From there, anybody who convinces you they have control over what you fear becomes like a puppet master, one who can yank you around like a doll on a string."
"So what do you cockroaches do instead of getting scared? You mean to say, with all the things out there that can squash you, all the people who'd love to wipe out every last one of you, you aren't afraid?"
"What we do instead of living in a state of panic, like so many of you humans do, is keep our focus on what we can control."
"And what is that?"
"Our own business. For example, we can't do anything about humans building bombs, but we can work on dealing with reality — and that's why we're always the ones to survive."
Joseph heaved a huge sigh. "I can't believe it, I'm sitting here talking to a philosopher-king cockroach," he said, and shook his head to himself. "So nothing scares you, nothing at all?"
"No, there is one thing to be afraid of, to be very afraid of."
"Oh?" Joseph raised his eyebrows. "And what is this chink in the roach armor?" "The only thing to fear is your own bad thinking. Nothing else can hurt you, ever."
"Look, you might be right, but this is too deep for me, and what good does it do me anyway?" Joseph swept his arm at the enormous room he was a speck in, like a game show host unveiling to a contestant a prize that had gone horribly wrong. "I'm stuck here in this prison."
Gregory did a full three-sixty pivot atop the pencil sharpener. "I see what you mean, but who put you here? Is this a sentence you have to serve?"
"Well, no, not exactly, but it's the best job I could find."
"Let me get this straight: Of your own free will you have accepted a position in 'prison' because you think it's the best you can do?"
"I don't know if I'd put it like that, exactly, but ..." Joseph fumbled for words, "but I suppose ..."
"Now do you see what I mean about having only yourself to fear? Who else could have done this to you?"
"Precisely. Look, let me give you the ten Rules of the Roach right now. They really can help."
"This I've got to hear."
"Actually, I already made a file of them on your computer."
"Impossible! That's impossible. How in the world can a roach type?"
"What I do is go to the basement and get the biggest of the American species of roaches living down there. Then I point out the right keys, one at a time, and my new friend climbs up to the top of your divider wall and jumps on them. It takes a while, but it works."
Joseph shook his head furiously, trying to clear the disturbing mental image.
"No way, it just can't be."
But a few minutes later, after he'd settled down enough to follow Gregory's instructions for retrieving the file, the rules flashed up on the screen:
THE TEN RULES OF THE ROACH
1) You have nothing to fear but yourself.
2) Don't always listen to your heart.
3) Always be the last bug standing.
4) Even the smallest opening can be a huge opportunity.
5) Feast where others see only garbage.
6) Grow eyes in your back.
7) Move while your enemies mull.
8) Rest up to wreak havoc.
9) Don't be there when the lights come on.
10) What doesn't exterminate you only makes you stronger.
That a roach could talk was more than enough new information for one morning. That a roach could operate a computer was seriously overloading Joseph's capacity to think. Slowly, through the fog of a mind ready to just pack it in, he read through the rules. It didn't help when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gregory put his roach-version of a chin in a roach-version of a hand — or at least a collection of hairs on the end of his right front leg — as he waited for Joseph to finish reading.
Joseph stopped halfway through the list and began to form a question, but suddenly Gregory vanished, as though he'd dissolved into thin air.
"Gregory ... Gregory ... where did you go, you still here?"
"C'mon out ... Gregory?"
"Who are you talking to? There's no Gregory working here."
Joseph was badly startled by the voice behind him and swiveled in a panic to face the district manager, Mr. Lindley.
Excerpted from The Way of the Cockroach by Craig Hovey. Copyright © 2006 Craig Hovey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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