The dark art of staff work…

For going on fifteen years now, I’ve heard how PowerPoint is making us stupid and is at least a contributing factor in people not being developing actual communication skills. In fact, there was quite a kerfuffle back in 2010 about a brave lieutenant colonel who was booted out of Afghanistan for daring to admit he spent his days in “endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.”

That’s the kind of snark we appreciate here at jeffreytharp.com, but it is not the kind of truth-laden sarcasm that is much appreciated by most at echelons higher than reality. There are a few exceptions though, officers like H. R. McMaster (now National Security Advisor) and James Mattis (now Secretary of Defense) are both well-known critics of PowerPoint. Mattis, has gone so far as noting that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” McMasters, more diplomatically, notes that “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control… Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Although these two leading lights are notable exceptions to an establishment that has drawn PowerPoint into an ever closer embrace, they are the exceptions (even now almost a decade later). The sad fact of the matter is that when it comes to staff work on an average day, he who controls the PowerPoint controls the meeting – the flow of information, what gets presented and what doesn’t make the cut, how far (if at all) in advance someone will get an early version of whatever information is hiding in plain sight on those slides.

Information, you see, no matter how badly displayed on a conference room wall, really is the coin of the realm. It’s precious and is so very often guarded jealousy by those who have it against those who want it.

As a staffer in the belly of the beast it’s my job to make those slides say whatever the boss thinks they need to say. It’s not so much about the truth as crafting the message in such a way that nothing comes as a surprise, the rough edges are rubbed smooth, and the viewer is carefully guided away from information someone doesn’t necessarily want them to have or questions they’d really prefer the person being briefed not ask. I find it’s generally helpful if you suspend disbelief and go along with the program. Making waves won’t necessarily get you in trouble, but it will make your life just that little bit harder than it would have been otherwise.

There’s a bit of a dark art to doing staff work – and the better you do it, the darker that art becomes and blossoms well beyond your individual ability to make a PowerPoint briefing dazzle. In fact, the dark art of staff work feels like something that might just be worth talking about in a companion volume to Nobody Told Me… if I can just sit down and muster up the internal fortitude to actually do the writing.

On trying to like people…

Thanks to the Facebook “On This Day” feature I saw an early meme I shared on back in 2012 that read something like “I try to like people, but they’re all so fucking stupid.” I smiled, nodded, and thought “Yep, that’s still pretty much true.

On reflection, though, I realized that statement is getting less and less true. With every day that passes I find myself not Stupid.pngeven attempting to like people. It wasn’t like I started out making a big effort on that front anyway, but frankly my compassion and understanding reserve is all but worn out. Again, not that it was particularly deep to start out, but still.

I’m just sick to death of turning in nearly every direction and seeing people making incredibly stupid life choices. Look, I’m not saying everyone needs to be an Einstein. God knows I’m never going to sit at my desk and churn out a grand unifying theory of anything. I’m tired of playing off bad things that happen as fate or just bad luck when it so very clearly is a result of a piss-poor decision someone made a few steps back.

Every day I’m reminded of the late, great George Carlin who said, “‘Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” That stupider half is out there living among us while we live with the consequences of their actions and decisions. If that doesn’t keep you up nights or put you off people completely, I have no idea what will.

As for me, I’m done smiling and nodding. I’m done trying to like people. If I look in your eyes and can’t find a spark of anything in there keeping the lights on other than habit, I just don’t have the energy to even pretend. There are public libraries in just about every town in America. The internet has given us access to very nearly the sum total of all knowledge accumulated across the vast sweep of human history. We carry that shit around on our telephones. Information is too easy to access for people to walk around just being stupid.

I no longer have the energy required to try liking stupid people. Instead of faking it from here on out, my official policy will be to glare at them and walk away.

Three long days…

I had three long days to get a post together. I’d like to sit here and make some brilliant excuse for why it didn’t happen. The truth is I kind of completely forgot that today was actually Monday and not the second coming of Sunday. The fact that it’s Monday utterly escaped my mind is the closest thing I have to an excuse for today’s lack of pithy commentary/bitching and complaining.

If I’m painfully honest it was nice to have three consecutive days when I wasn’t particularly worried about stringing words together in something close to a coherent (and mildly entertaining) order. I’m sure all will be as normal by this time tomorrow, but just now I’m going to soak in the last of these three days and appreciate them for the unplanned break they became.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. “Emergencies”. We’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating. The way people throw around the work “emergency” in the contemporary office is basically laughable. No one is bleeding. No one is about to start bleeding. The word you’re probably looking for most often is “embarrassing” as in you’re about to be embarrassed due to something you did, were supposed to do, forgot about doing. ​Alternately, you might be about to get blasted because of poor decision making skills. In any case, those things might represent a legitimate personal emergency to you, but to the rest of us it’s really just a shrug and a so what. Let’s try to leave the talk of “emergencies” to the times when there really are barbarians at the gate or brass hitting the floor, ok?

2. County taxes. The proposed Cecil County budget for FY18 includes increases in both the real property and income taxes. It’s made all the more noxious because it was proposed by a Republican county executive who ran less than a year ago on a platform of fiscal accountability and no tax increases. I know, lying politician isn’t exactly breaking news. Still, though, I’m left to wonder why at some point it isn’t perfectly acceptable to say that we have X number of dollars to spend against Y number of services and when there’s no additional revenue for new or existing services, some things need to be cut. The politicians first response is always to borrow or tax their way into all the revenue they need instead of being required to live by an actual budget in which they can’t always purchase all the goods and services they’d like to have. In the end the bastards always end up with their hand just a little deeper in our pocket. I suppose that’s just what you get when every level of government desperately wants to buy the love and affection of the voters and seeks ways to be all things to all people.

3. Keeping my head in the game. I’m probably expending at least as much energy just trying to keep my head in the game as I am actually doing any productive work. That doesn’t feel like something that’s going to be sustainable over the long term. It’s easier some days than others, but for the most part by the time mid-afternoon rolls around I’m dumping every bit of available effort into just staying awake and some delusory productive activities. Believe me when I tell you that you don’t want to read some of the written products that fly off my desk after 2PM. Unless I absolutely can’t avoid it, I hold them as drafts and then clean them up the next morning when I’m still relatively fresh. It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.

Ask me anything…

​I try my best to keep a pretty extensive list of ideas I want to write about on the sideline just in case I run into one of those bad days when ideas just stop flowing. Over the last few months I’ve been cheating a bit and dragging ideas off the list. I find that quiver becoming uncomfortably empty at the moment and I’d really like to start adding things back to the list of potential topics rather than continuing to draw it down.

You, my dear readers, can do something to help. Although my personal pride would never let me ask anyone for cash donations, I clearly have no shame about asking you to help me out with ideas.

As I do here from time to time I’m opening the doors wide and encouraging you to go ahead and ask me anything. Is there a subject you think I should talk about? Do you want to know my thoughts on man-rompers or fidget spinners? Do you want to know my favorite food, color, and shoe size? I won’t sell this as a once in a lifetime opportunity, but if there’s anything you’ve been dying to know, this would be an awfully good chance to get an answer.

You can leave your questions in a comment here on WordPress, or on Facebook, or Twitter. Since I’ll be focused on answering your questions, that will give me the chance to refill my own pool of ideas, so really everyone wins here. You get the inside scoop about what’s rattling around in my head, I get to sharpen my writing chops on ideas I would otherwise be thinking about, and maybe we all get to learn a little something in the process. Really, what’s not to like about that?

Doing the hard work…

I’m not an expert, not in this field anyway. I am however, due to many years of experience at wading into topic areas where I lack formal education or training, a generalist of remarkably broad scope. I’m good at looking for connections – or for the places where connections should be but aren’t. It’s a knack I have for reading, comprehending, and then synthesizing material into something approximating a coherent and rational bit of information. On my very best day I’m a pretty brilliant analyst. On an average day, I like to think I’m still awfully good, just maybe getting the job done with a little less flourish.

I need to point out in no uncertain terms that what people do with the information once I give it to them isn’t really my field. I’m not a decision maker. I don’t want to be one. What I will do is present you with the best, most coherent information I can pull together in whatever time is allotted for the task. That’s my one iron clad, most absolute guarantee.

Still, though, I need you to always remember one thing. When the information I’m working with is incomplete, wrong, folded, spindled, or mutilated in some way, the results you get are going to be suspect. When the amount of time available doesn’t allow for a full detailed analysis, the results are going to be suspect. Now the good news is I’m always going to present my assessments with those limiting factors highlighted for the world to see. I’m never going to shirk the analysis because it’s too hard, but damned if I can help it when you’re caught up in shitty input leading to shitty results.

Picking your rabbit holes…

Over the last couple of months I’d rather gotten use to Monday being my transition day between weekend and work week. Finding myself spun directly back into the office this week has been something of a shock to the system. Even with the extra day off tagged on to the front end, I wasn’t prepared for the arrival of an unwelcome weekday. I don’t suppose anyone ever is, of course, except maybe those happy few who seem to have been born to do whatever It is they find themselves doing. Then again, I’ve long been of the opinion those people are inherently dangerous and not to be trusted.

There is, however, a long weekend on the horizon… which is important because just now I’m not sure I’m of a mind to have the goal posts set much further away than the next weekend. If I can hit the small targets, the big ones should generally take care of themselves. That’s the theory I’m operating under at any rate if only because they’ll have to tend to themselves until I’ve managed to gin up enough energy to do something else with them.

I’m never quite sure if it’s some general funk in the air or if it’s just me slipping into a periodic low energy mode. In any case these moments rarely make for the best of times as they usually further sour a mood that’s usually less than sunny even on my very best days. That old ebb and flow can be a real bitch sometimes, but after all these years of living inside my own head I know the malaise never lasts long. In a few days at most something will come along to catch my interest and reset the “introspection” switch to neutral. Until then it’s just a matter of selecting the rabbit holes I choose to fall through a bit more selectively than usual.