In each and every job I’ve ever had I’ve had a standard list of issues and items that are defined, at some level, as being things that I am responsible for doing on a regular and recurring basis. These are “primary duties.” There are also secondary duties – perhaps items that I do when someone is on vacation or that require more than one person to complete in a timely manner. Lastly, there are the ubiquitous and ill-defied set of “other duties as assigned.” These ODA have a tendency to be ash and trash actions that aren’t particularly time consuming but that have a bit of a tendency to be dull, thankless time sucks.
Through them all, the primary, secondary, and ODA, though, I’ve always made it a point to know my lane – all of those things for which I am collectively responsible to carry out at any given time. Now, the list isn’t static. It changes based on manpower, skills, personal preference, and sometimes (usually) the whim of senior leaders everywhere. In a more ambitious age, I knew not just my lane, but also had a fair depth of understanding of the lanes to my left and right. I won’t say those days are gone forever, but I certainly pay a lot less attention to the things that are outside my currently assigned channel markers these days.
Knowing your lane and its boundaries is, in my opinion, one of the most important tasks you can master as a run of the mill employee drone. Knowing what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it, where it comes from, and where it goes will put you in good stead 85% of the time. If nothing else, it gives you at least a little bit of ammo when someone asks you to do something that you know well and good lies in the purview of some guy who sits down the hall.
I make it my first order of business to know my job and where its limits lie. Now if everyone else could just find their own lane and bloody well stay in it, what a wonderful world it would be. Yeah. I’ll be holding my breath on that.
1. Baby on board. It takes a special kind human being to believe that installing a small yellow “Baby on Board” sign is going to imbue their vehicle with some extra protective abilities. As if someone would be driving along and otherwise decide to drive into them until the moment when they realized that a baby might be involved. When the driver of one of these vehicles decides that they’re going to weave in and out of traffic, tailgate a dump truck, and jump a curb because they cut a turn too short, well, I’m just not sure how much I or anyone else should care about whatever baby you happen to have on board. I mean if the driver doesn’t have any regard for their own health, safety, or welfare or that of their offspring, asking their fellow drivers to be careful sort of defeats the purpose.
2. Reorganizing. One of the best parts of any reorganization is learning all about the new tasks you’ll be doing. As everyone shuffles their seats you’ll be picking up new assignments and passing along some of your old work to other people. That’s always how the concept is pitched, anyway. In reality though no specific method of casting off those old duties is ever really defined so if you’re not paying attention you just sort of end up doing all the old jobs plus all the new ones too. If you don’t mind being an obnoxious little shit, though, you can feel free to start making unilateral decisions about what activities get thrown over the side and what you keep doing. In the absence of clear guidance from leadership, it has always been my policy to create my own. Eventually someone will notice that some percentage of things aren’t getting done and start asking questions and shuffle that work off to the appropriate person… or they won’t. In business school that’s what we learned to call a win-win solution.
3. Political party conventions. Once upon a time, party conventions met to do important things like actually select their nominee for the presidency. Our pesky habit of voting has largely made the selection of a candidate a foregone conclusion long before the party loyalists show up in the designated city. In fact no major party convention has selected a nominee outright in my lifetime. That leaves the conventions as largely a four day, made for TV pep rally. That’s fine, I suppose, but even major news outlets are spending less time covering “events” the outcome of which are a foregone conclusion. So I say spend the money on something more effective like direct mailers or TV spots in contested states… and leave the awkward hugs between people who hate each other in the dustbin of electoral history.
1. Other duties as assigned. I can do my job – the heavy analytical lifting – or I can do the other duties as assigned – issuing keys, setting up new employees with laptops, filing, hole punching, and flipping slides. However, I lack the gift of being in two places at once so you’re going to have to pick between those so I know what you actually want me to spend time tending. I’m good either way, but choose one and you’ll get a seriously good analyst, close the other and you have a spectacularly overpriced secretary. The choice is utterly yours.
2. Being other than on time. Although I’ve been doing it nearly every working day since January 2003, people always seem surprised when I shutdown and head for the doors on time. You may work for love. You may work for pride. You may even work to give your short time on this rock a sense of purpose. I’m a simpler animal. I work for money because I know my time isn’t free or limitless. Think of it what you will, but you can always be assured that when I’m “on,” you’ll get the best product I can manage, but I will be equally dedicated to preserving my personal time at almost any cost.
3. Free stuff. My news feeds and the media channels have been filled with talk of everyone who wants “free” stuff these last few days. They want a $15/hour paycheck guarantee for entry-level unskilled labor – essentially a request for “free” money since their economic activity doesn’t command such price in the marketplace already. They want “free” higher education. They want “free” healthcare. They want “free” housing and “free” food and maybe even a “free” phone. I may be a poor simple hillbilly from Western Maryland, but it strikes me that what the most recent round of protestors really mean is they want the stuff and they want other people to pay the bill. Precious little in life comes for “free.” Someone, somewhere, has to pick up the check. It’s not presently the popular thing to say, but in my mind being a grown ass adult mostly means being able to make your own way in the world, paying your bills, and being a responsible and productive member of society… or maybe I missed a memo somewhere. In that case, where’s my free shit?
There’s generally a right way and a wrong way to do everything. I’ve found that as a rule, we don’t like to do things the right way until we have exhausted all possible alternative courses of action. In either situation, it’s almost always helpful to know at least a little something about whatever it is you happen to be working on. That’s why I instinctively flinch when I get an email that says something like this:
We have to have a point of contact for XYZ Project. I’m not really sure what it’s all about, but we just need to have a name listed in case anyone comes along and asks who the point of contact is. They’ll probably just put your name on the sheet and stick it in the file.
Now I don’t mind wandering out into the tall grass when I need to, but just randomly putting us on the hook for things no one understands doesn’t seem like a best business practice. Maybe it would be a better idea to, you know, actually have someone look into this project a bit. But, hey, I’m not the boss, so that falls deeply into the category of not my problem. At least until someone drops by and starts asking questions.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.