Kristin has spent her career working hard, promoting her ideas, and pushing her team to achieve, yet she can’t seem to become a true impact player. Joseph holds high expectations for his kids, insisting on straight As and an exhausting roster of “enriching” activities, yet, despite the fact that he wants only the best for them, their relationships are perpetually strained.
Both are doing what they’re “supposed” to do — so what gives? Here’s the problem: Kristin and Joseph believe they are sharks — strong, unrelenting, and ruthlessly goal-focused — but actually they’re parasites.
In the ocean, parasites feed off of sharks. Tiny as they are, they may weaken and eventually kill their host because they only take. Likewise, human parasites are individuals who take others’ confidence, time, knowledge, peace, and energy without adding any value.
While some parasites really are unrepentant takers, many don’t set out to negatively impact others. Often they’re not even aware of the impact they’re having. A parasite could be a leader who expects increasingly high performance but doesn’t take the time to develop their team members, an employee who coasts on coworkers’ accomplishments but never steps up to lead a project, or a parent who believes that showing “tough love” by focusing on their child’s weaknesses will ultimately lead to that child’s success.
Here are common parasitic qualities — and what to do if you recognize yourself:
1. Learn to recognize common qualities of parasites.
Many parasites have never been shown how their attitude and actions impact others — so consider this your eye-opener. In the human world, parasites:
- Look out for themselves above all others, and may feel that they don’t need to concern themselves with others’ success.
- Use resources, time, and energy for their own ends without considering others’ needs.
- Are never satisfied. They always want more (success, validation, power, money, etc.).
- Tear others down instead of building them up. Belittling others often makes them feel powerful.
- Work primarily for recognition and accolades. They are less inclined to do something if it won’t result in external praise.
- Complain, gossip, and spread negative energy.
- Are distrustful of others and are reluctant to open up, compromise, and collaborate.
- Can be hard to get rid of. They don’t want to give up the benefits they are receiving from the “host,” whether that’s a person, position, or organization.
- Can be consumed by bitterness, anger, and resentment. These emotions drive their self-centered actions.
2. Admit that you are a parasite — and that you need to change.
Parasites often initially think they are sharks because they hold a leadership position, are highly successful in their role, or see themselves as unrelenting go-getters and “closers.” It’s hard for them to make the mental shift and admit their true nature.
Odds are, parasites have never closely connected with a real shark: someone who achieves success through integrity, honesty, and bringing value to others. Realizing for the first time what a shark’s attitudes, behaviors, and relationships truly look like can be very jarring. Don’t retreat into your old coping mechanisms — face the discomfort and commit to changing.
3. Try to figure out your “parasite origin story.”
Many parasitic behaviors result from a broken or messy past that has robbed someone of the ability to integrate successfully into a professional or social setting.
Maybe you’re following the example your own parent or boss set. You might be trying to prove your worth after being made to feel you weren’t good enough. Or you’ve been hurt in the past and cope by distancing yourself from others and their needs. If you can zero in on the ‘why’ behind your parasitic behaviors, you’ll know where to start healing and changing.
4. Believe that there is hope.
Unlike marine parasites, humans are capable of thought, reason, education, and change. Just because you’re a parasite now doesn’t mean you’ll be one forever.
Everyone is selfish — meaning they display parasitic behaviors — sometimes. But even people who have been parasites for most of their lives can develop, improve, and even thrive. The fact that you are able to recognize parasitic tendencies — and feel the desire to change — shows that you have enough self-awareness to transform into a suckerfish.
5. Find a shark to coach you.
Just like parasites, suckerfish attach themselves to sharks, but there’s one key difference: In return for transportation and protection, suckerfish eat the parasites that might otherwise kill the shark! In other words, they bring value to the relationship. In the human world, suckerfish are often employees, mentees, and students — but anyone who stands to benefit from being coached and developed (even a CEO!) can be a suckerfish.
The more guidance they get from their ‘shark,’ the more productivity, ideas, and commitment a suckerfish brings to the team. Regardless of your position or tenure, look for others in your field who are getting it done better than you and pay special attention to their character, work ethic, and values. True sharks are the people who influence others by recognizing and coaching them, and you’ll often find they’re happy to mentor you as well.
6. Look for ways to bring value to your relationships.
One of the main things that separates parasites from suckerfish is that suckerfish don’t just take from the shark; they help it in a tangible, life-sustaining way. Instead of persisting in a me-focused mindset, you will have to learn to become a valuable member of a team — personally and professionally.
The first step in bringing value to others is often apologizing for offenses, owning up to mistakes, and righting wrongs. Then, as you continue your transformation into a shark, take others with you by supporting and developing them.
7. Look up, not down.
As you settle into your new role as a suckerfish, you’ll be tempted to wallow in self-recrimination when you think of your past parasitic behaviors. While you may have to deal with the consequences of your actions for a long time, remember that it is not your past decisions that define you; it is your next one.
Sharks keep their eyes on the water ahead of and above them, ready to react when prey appears. Similarly, it’s important for us to keep our thoughts and our attitudes pointed in a productive direction. Focus on what you can do, instead of on what you can’t change, and always be vigilant for opportunities.
8. Surround yourself with other suckerfish and sharks.
Chances are, if you’re a recovering parasite, many of the people in your life are also parasites. As the main character in my book Swim! points out, “You are who you hang out with.”
Fortunately, that principle can be used to your advantage. Seek out people who will motivate you to succeed: other suckerfish who are also working to grow, develop, and improve and sharks who care enough to turn your weaknesses into strengths.
9. Be willing to make hard choices.
There are definite growing pains associated with the parasite-to-suckerfish transition. They often revolve around how you spend your time and who you spend it with. You may need to have uncomfortable conversations with loved ones, educate yourself on relationship management, set better boundaries, or go to therapy. You will have to swallow your pride, compromise, and put others first.
Trust that these things will lead to a happier, healthier, more productive life. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.
One of the most important takeaways from my book is that there is hope for the parasite. Unless you were fortunate enough to connect with a shark early in life, that’s where we all start. We all need to spend time as suckerfish, learning from someone else’s vision before we are fully prepared to follow our own. The evolution from parasite to suckerfish to shark can sometimes feel uncomfortable, awkward, and vulnerable, but it’s the only way to swim with true strength, integrity, and success.
Walter Bond is author of “Swim!: How a Shark, a Suckerfish, and a Parasite Teach You Leadership, Mentoring, & Next Level Success“. Walter is a renowned business coach, motivational speaker, and former NBA player. His time in the NBA taught him the fundamentals every team needs to be successful, and today he shares his knowledge with entrepreneurs, business leaders, sales teams, and employees to get them to the next level.