Like a used car…

I had another interview this afternoon. Different job. Different organization. Still in roughly the same geographic area I’m in now. It seemed to go well enough, though I may be a spectacularly bad judge of that sort of thing. I generally count not tripping myself on the way in the door as a personal victory.

What I’ve found in interviewing for positions in the local area is that you tend to run into some of the same people. Repeatedly. In both recent occasions, I’ve known at least one of the other people interviewing for the position. Some people would find that awkward. Maybe I should be one of them, but I’m not. One of the helpful skills I’ve developed over the last decade and a half is that I just don’t take any of this stuff personally. And for the most part it really, truly isn’t personal – because the bureaucracy just doesn’t have the time or inclination to care about you the individual. That may sound negative, but with hundreds of thousands of moving widgets it’s generally just a function of trying to find the one that appears like it would mesh best with the other cogs that are already in motion and then cramming it into the available opening.

Look, I’d rather get offered one or both of these jobs than not. I mean I wouldn’t have bothered putting on a tie if I wasn’t at least interested. What I’m not doing is giving these decisions a lot of life or death credibility no matter which way they break. I’d like the chance to do some different work and if neither one of these pans out it seems like I’ve at least cracked the code on getting my resume in front of the people making decisions. Having sent out hundreds of resumes in my time with Uncle, I’m secure in saying that’s easily 95% of the battle.

The other 5% is about selling yourself like a used car. If you’re feeling a little dirty when you’re done, you’ve probably done it right. Talk about life skills no one ever bothers to teach you.

Another post in which timely decision-making is discussed…

Letting decisions fester until the last possible moment is rarely a recipe for arriving at a well-considered answer. That may seem somewhat counterintuitive, because having more time to decide should allow someone to make the decision based on more perfect information. In my experience, that’s almost never actually the case. What really happens is that the decision is just put off and no actual thought is put into it until it’s the flaming bag of dog shit blistering the paint on your front porch. Put another way, the default setting is procrastination.

The real problem with waiting isn’t just that you leave a bunch of people sitting around with their thumbs up their asses while the pondering drags on for days or weeks. The problem is that in most cases decisions get delayed until it’s too late to apply any academic rigor and you just end up going off half-informed in whatever direction seems best at the time. Shooting from the hip with a scattergun is probably a fine strategy for defending your home from hopped up delinquents, but it rarely passes muster for decisions that require a little more fineness.

It’s not how I’d do things. In fact it’s precisely the opposite of how I run the 128 hours of my week for which I am the designated decision-maker. For the 40-hours a week wherein I have no decision-making authority whatsoever, though, that’s its own can of worms. The very best I can do is appraise those who do decide on the potential bad things that will result from waiting. After that all that’s left is a shrug and a muffled “told you so.”

Kind of back…

After a long and glorious spread of days off, I found myself back to work today. Maybe I should say I found myself kind of back at any rate. I worked from the comfy confines of my home office, which is probably about as a good a way to ease back into it as one could reasonably expect. It was still painful and I know it will be more so tomorrow when I resume my customary position locked into the middle of the cube farm.

I don’t know that I’ll ever really make peace with needing to whore my brain out by the hour to the high bidder, but I’ve at least accepted it as the preferable alternative to starvation and homelessness. It seems likely that acceptance is probably as good as it’s going to get. I can’t foresee a circumstances where I would spring fully awake from bed each morning eager and happy to file forms, create new and better slides, and engage the bureaucracy in a ceaseless battle of attrition. Climbing from the bed with my lips twisted into a grimace and with a gritty determination just to get through to the close of business feels like something I can manage, though. That’s probably enough.

If nothing else, I know the posts here are going to start picking up again soon. Few things feed that beast more than anger, frustration, and cynicism. All of those elements are in short supply when I’m left to my own devices. It’s remarkable to see how the word count plummets when I pass a day not filled with meetings and random paperwork. By Thursday, I think it’s safe to assume I’ll have a full head of steam built up and be back in proper form… that may not exactly be a good thing, but it’s at least the enemy I know. That should probably count for something.

The bureaucratic tendency…

There’s a tendency in the bureaucracy for days to run late into the afternoon and then on into the evening – as if those running the show didn’t have a home to go to and had no interest in being anywhere else. If I’m honest, by the time we’ve rolled past the usual and customary close of business, my loudest voice in my inner dialog is screaming “Why won’t they just shut the fuck up?” loudly enough to drown out most everything else. By that point, how interesting or important a topic might otherwise be is utterly irrelevant to the way my brain processes the information. It’s one of the many reasons I know I should never angle to restart my rise through the ranks. I just don’t have the interest in putting in the hours required and it’s never, ever going to be the place I’d rather be than anywhere else.

A sure and certain end of the work day is the only thing that makes some of them even tolerable. Take that away and, well, you’ve put me to sea without a compass or any way to find my North Star. It’s not lost on me that no one is looking for information or wanting to have meetings at 7am before they drag themselves in. What makes those same people think the rest of us are any more interested in staying on in the other direction is beyond me. Of course rank has it’s inevitable privileges. That truth is as old as our species, I’m sure.

Things would be different, of course, in the World According to Jeff. No meeting would last longer than 30 minutes and none would start after 4PM… because unlike others I have other shit to do and don’t live life searching for the adulation of those who dwell in offices.

Trained to within an inch of my life…

I’ve ranted and railed at length about the seemingly endless trail of mandatory training “experiences” my employer requires each and every year. Some of those trainings are online modules that literally have not changed since I started way back in 2003. I’m looking at you here Constitution Day Training. Having studied history and political science, there are very few documents written in the English language that I prize more highly than the Constitution. Clicking through a few pages of how a bill becomes a law or which powers reside in the Executive and which in the Legislative just doesn’t fill me with an augmented sense of awe and wonder. The fact that so much of this training is stale, though, misses the broader point.

Regardless of how stale or dated the training, it’s mandatory. Beyond it being mandatory, eventually I know I’m going to catch hell if all those little boxes are not check off next to my name before the clock runs out on the end of September. What everything finally translates to is I’m going to suck it up and wade through hours of pointless training not because it’s teaching me something new, but because I want to keep myself out of trouble. I’m sure that’s some kind of pedagogical construct, but it’s not one I learned about a hundred years ago when I was learning to be a teacher and design instruction. Again, however, even that misses the big point here.

The really important thing I have to say about the mind numbing volume of mandatory training is that unlike previous years where I come sliding in sideways and waving one last certificate on September 30th, I’m finished early. Very early. I’m fairly sure that the first time in my career that’s ever happened. It feels vaguely unnatural. Fortunately I know that feeling can’t possibly last long before someone slams a new “must do” training requirement into the system so we can piss away more time on activities that mostly teach you how to sleep with your eyes open.

Full days…

I’d guess that on average three weekdays out of every five could be fairly described as being “less than full.” Now I don’t mean to imply in any way that I don’t strive to give our Uncle his money’s worth every time, but there are simple laws of the bureaucracy that say it’s impossible to be busy every moment of the day. This isn’t McDonald’s and there isn’t always stainless that needs wiped down. Usually our days have an ebb and flow that ranges somewhere between comfortable and mind-numbing. It’s that one day in five that’s the wildcard. When it comes along it’s like being stuck with a whole room full of one armed paper hangers. No matter how fast you work, it’s just not going to be fast enough to account for everything coming over the side. In my experience, that’s the nature of the beast.

The real trouble with those rogue days is that they’re absolutely unpredictable. Days that for all outward appearances should be busy won’t be. Days that by rights should be dead slow will open their gaping maw and eat you alive. It would be nice, I think, if those wide-mouthed days would at least give you a fair warning. It feels like the very least the universe could do if it’s bound and determined to spend the rest of the day kicking your ass all over the room.

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.