The language of bureaucracy is full of many ways to admit that you have no idea what’s going on in interesting and completely non-committal ways. This afternoon I was in a meeting where I’m pretty sure I used all of them. It’s an awkward feeling, though not in any way surprising or unusual.
You see, I find myself in the not unfamiliar position of being told that I’m “in charge” of something without being given the corresponding authority to make any actual decisions. This means I’ll spend more time running back to higher echelons and asking “mother may I” and waiting for mother’s response than I will doing anything that might accidentally resemble planning.
Sure, I’ll perch out on a limb from time to time and make a decision that’s time sensitive. There’s a cost associated with doing that – a limited pool of good will that occasionally lets you execute an end run around the powers that be. It usually ends up with either being required to beg forgiveness or listening to one of the Olympians opine on how it had been their idea all along.
Mercifully the last thing on earth I want is credit. All I really want is to do a job quietly, professionally, and then head myself towards the barn at the first available opportunity. Frankly I’d prefer than my name stay out of the record as much as possible – because public recognition has a funny way of only serving to attracting more work and I’m not looking to expand into new markets here.
Today was the first of many meetings where most of my responses will inevitably be some variation of “I don’t know.” This is the time of year when I approach peak bureaucrat-ing. It’s a close run contest to decide whether I’ll respond “don’t know” or “that depends” more often over the the next few months.
I’ll let you in on a secret: 95% of what I do on a daily basis isn’t particularly difficult, challenging, or hard to do. Mostly it involves reading for understanding and synthasizing separate ideas into a coherent thread so that someone slightly further up the food chain can use and/or ignore at his or her convenience. Just about everything else is really a supporting requirement.
In a world that operates on basic logic, it should all be mind numbingly easy to do. Of course no one has ever accused Uncle of running his universe based on any kind of rational system. As often as not it’s living in a state of just barely organized chaos in which that slim thread of organization is threatening to split apart without warning at any time.
Nothing I do should be particularly hard to do. And yet somehow it is. Today for instances I revised a bit of written work so that version eight bears a striking resemblance to version one – that I put together more than two weeks and six versions ago.
Now if I were doing something like drafting whole sections of the State of the Union Address I could almost understand the fine tuning of happy to glad. In this instance, you’ll just have to imagine that what I’m working on is more than several rungs lower on the scale of importance than that. Many, many, many rungs lower.
This shouldn’t be so goddamned hard to do. And yet you’ll have to excuse me because I’m off to punch up version nine with a few more “recommended changes.”
I was home yesterday. I had plenty of time to write and post a normally scheduled addition to the blog. I have no excuse other than the fact that I really kind of forgot that yesterday was Monday. Weekdays are usually hard to miss based on my level of aggravation and discontent, but being a big, beautiful day full of annual leave, this particular Monday wasn’t so afflicted.
I should probably take it as some kind of a warning sign that so much of my content is driven by the annoyance and general disgust generated by the average five-day work week. On the other hand, the fact that I don’t have much to say about the other 80 hours each week may speak loudly about how low key and relaxing I find the time not spent dwelling in cubicle hell.
I may have missed Monday, but you can rest assured that Tuesday more than made up for it. After all, where else could I put my 15 years experience, bachelor’s degree, and MBA to work putting giant hard-backed posters on an easel and then taking them off again all while working two hours of unscheduled overtime?
You’re welcome for my service.
Well, you can tell by the vacant look on my face, raging headache, and random moments of blood pouring from my nose that we’re in the shit now. The curtain goes up in a little over twelve hours. It’s officially the time that no matter the eagles, stars, horseshoes, or clovers on your collar, there is virtually nothing you can do to adjust the trajectory or outcome of that which you have set in motion lo these many months ago. It’s simply too late. You have run out of time.
It’s going to roll forward as if it has assumed a life of its own. Some of it will be good, some of it will be bad, and (not) soon enough it will be over. In a week, the whole thing will barely be a whisper of a memory.
It’s probably a good time for all involved to take a breath and be reminded, however gently that, “Remember Caesar thou art mortal.”
1. Automatic shutoffs. For as long as I can remember, gasoline pumps have come equipped with an automatic switch that shuts off the flow of fuel from the pump when the vehicle’s tank is full. I’ve been pumping my own gas since 1994 and have never personally seen what happens when one of those switches fails to do its thing. As it turns out, the result is gallons of gasoline gushing back out of the filler tube until you can reach into the frothing mess and manually shut off the flow. If you manage not to catch on fire, the convenient side effect is a) the side of your vehicle being drenched in gasoline; b) the parking pad being drenched in gasoline; c) Your boots and pants being drenched in gasoline; and d) your arm being drenched in gasoline up to the elbow. In conclusion, whoever designed the “automatic” switch for gas pumps can see me in hell.
2. Bureaucracy. I sent off some paperwork that needed approval – literally one page of not very complex text, mind you. I sent it off way back in the first week of December, winging its way through the bureaucracy. This one page piece of paper, after 6 major revisions, and review by all manner of doctors, lawyers, and indian chiefs, was finally approved this week…. only 57 short days after the process got started. It’s hard to believe there are people around who wonder why it’s so hard to get anything done in something approaching a reasonable amount of time.
3. Natural consequences. The doctor insisted, during my last check up, that I start drinking more water. It’s a tall order given the volume of coffee that’s required to keep this machine running, but I’ve gotten fairly good at complying with easy instructions. So, drink more water I do. The only problem with this plan is that every morning at 1:30 on the nose I have to wake up to take what I affectionately refer to as an emergency piss – as in get yourself out of bed right now this is an emergency. Look, I know that water is supposed to be good for me, but I’m fairly sure that the doc is also the guy who told me I needed to get more sleep. Just now, I’m trying to sort out the priority of effort between these two obviously conflicting bits of guidance.
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.
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.”