It’s fair to assume that my outlook on most things runs somewhere between cynical and completely jaded. I like to think it comes from a lifetime of watching the world around me… or more spificially, the people who inhabit that world. I’ve rarely been disappointed when I ratchet my expectations for them way, way down.
Still, as much of a cynic as I am, I can’t help but understand the allure of finding yourself inside the orbit of the local chieftain or other center of power. Power, even petty power, or someone else’s power, can be intoxicating. I’d be lying if I told you I couldn’t see what might make people give up their personal life and join the cult of personality.
Look, I’m admitting I can see the draw. The attraction is understandable. I’m also 100% sure that there are no circumstances where I’d ever be that guy. Subsuming my own ideas and ways of doing things in the name of some great and powerful Oz-like figure just isn’t me. It isn’t me, but there are occasional moments where I feel the pull and realize how easy it might be to fall into that trap if conditions were otherwise.
Christmas eve marks the beginning of the point in the year where posting snarky commentary on the internet is more like shouting into a void than any other. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. People are focused on other things – friends, family, avoiding friends and family – whatever may be in their holiday tradition. As for me, I mostly drop into a less rigid schedule and post when and whatever the mood of the moment dictates as we all race towards the end of the year.
I find Christmas Eve not so much the start of relaxation as the last gasp of mayhem and chaos as people sprint to the finish line of their shopping quests or trundle cross country to wherever it is they’ll spend the holiday. Maybe later in the day we can all manage to take a deep breath.
For all the buildup, Christmas will be here and gone again nearly before we realize it. Like any other big production with a life of its own, this thing is going to happen. Sure, we can shape it around the margins, but weighing it down with expectations, instance that it must go “just so,” or the quest for a perfect moment will drive you straight to the nuthouse.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there are still a million things to do and despite everything I might say, I won’t get a moment’s rest until they’re all knocked off the list… as if any of you thought just laying back and relaxing was an idea I was going to get behind.
If you’re wondering what the deal is with that word up there in the title line, it represents the total number of emails I received today. Being a careful shepherd of my limited supply of vacation days, I realized that burning one off on the Monday before Independence Day was likely to be a tragic waste of resources. I thought this for two reasons 1) I was scheduled to work from home today anyway and 2) Virtually no one who can avoid it is going to come in to work on a single day between a weekend and a federal holiday.
My assessment of the situation proved to be entirely accurate although just how dead it proved to be was well beyond my expectations. Neither of the messages I received called for immediate action… and in fact one of them was just thanking me for providing some information requested last week.
I don’t have a years long study to back up this supposition, but I’d be willing to stake my questionable reputation on the fact that Uncle Sam could save a shit ton of money by just closing up shop on these oddball occasions that pin a work day between two days off. Then again, if Sam went around doing things that made sense on a regular basis, I’m not sure I’d even recognize the place. I suppose we’ll just carry on then.
I feel sure that somewhere in these pages I’ve told the story of a supervisor who worked in the same organization I did many years ago. One of her standard responses to things that were anything beyond easy to do was, “Well, don’t expect too much.” That was the better part of fifteen years ago, but I’m beginning to see the virtue of low expectations.
Today, for instance, a “hot” information requested landed on my desk around lunch time. That’s not unusual in and of itself. What gets problematic is when someone wants a complex issue distilled down and answers provided within 48 hours. As I tell anyone who will listen, I’m a facilitator, not a subject matter expert. My specialty is in putting people who need information together with the people who have the information. Doing that right takes time. It takes even more time when whatever answer they come up with needs to be approved back through four additional levels of the bureaucracy sometime within the next 36 hours.
Look, I’ll get you to the right answer. That’s what I do. It could just come sailing back through the ether with no problems. Stranger things have happened… but not often. I think the most important thing here is that you don’t expect too much. It’s the only sure way to avoid disappointment.
1. The confidence of youth. I’m not saying that I don’t still have a ragingly high level of confidence in my own abilities, but that confidence has been tempered with the experience of so many things that should be simple to do becoming a giant triple-stacked shit sandwich right in my hands. Occasionally it’s because of something I either did or failed to do, but more often it’s because of outside influences over which I have little or no control. Occasionally now I see a young project leader, eyes bright with possibilities, charge through a meeting as if nothing could possibly go wrong. I chuckle to myself, but I also feel a little bit sorry for him because I already know what the next act looks like. Experience is a harsh teacher and while those occasional flops have made me better over time, every now and then I miss the swaggering confidence of youth and a time when I was slightly less cynical about everything.
2. Things beyond my control. Believe it or not, I don’t think of myself as being much of a control freak. Most of life is pure reaction to those things we don’t foresee or exert any control over. While willing to accept that I can’t possibly control for and plan against every conceivable circumstance, I do like to imagine that I can bring some semblance of order to my little section of a chaotic world. I’m also enough of a realist to know that order begins to break down just as soon as it’s established and keeping a veneer of control in life takes all manner of effort on a pretty consistent basis. Knowing that there are a multitude of things beyond my control and being willing to accept those things just now is feeling like more of a tall order than usual. Maybe I need to sign up for some kind of master class in Zen and the fine art of acceptance.
3. Not being surprised. I’m a bit befuddled that anyone is somehow surprised that there’s a set of rules for the wealthy and powerful and another for the rest of us. It hardly seems like news that a long time politician “somehow” managed to get away with actions that would cause the average employee to lose their job, be barred from future employment, and possibly go to prison. While I’m certainly as outraged as anyone at the lies, deceit, and in my opinion outright criminal behavior foisted upon the public by a high profile politician, I can’t for a moment say that I’m surprised that the official consequence of those behaviors is absolutely nothing. If this is the kind of thing that surprises you, there’s a fair chance you’re just not paying close enough attention to the world.
I can almost always point to the cause-in-fact or at least the proximate cause of whatever jackassery is happening on any given day. Usually the cause is fairly basic such as “You went to the office” or “You left the house.” I take full and complete responsibility for those, although the imperative to earn a living and find food are largely unavoidable contributing factors to those causes.
Drill down a little deeper, though, and I can trace most issues back to an even more troubling root. Most days at least once I mutter to someone that the fault lies no so much with the stupid thing that happened, but in the expectation that something stupid wouldn’t happen. You had expectations. There’s your problem.
There’s quite a bit written about the dangers of low expectations, but it’s been my experience that the real danger lies in having expectations. Period. Full stop. It’s in those inexplicable moments when I momentarily ignore my own advice that I tend to get myself into the most trouble. I’d be far better served all the way around to remember that the moment you start having expectations of anyone other than yourself, well, you’ve practically set the stage for failure or at least for disappointment – usually both.
Today is apparently time for another friendly tip from your kindly Uncle Jeff. This week we’ll take a look at how not to build trust in your audience when presenting information. Staying away from a few key missteps will go a long way towards creating the illusion of a connection between you and your audience.
First, do your best to avoid generic phrasing such as listing “increased synergy” or “maximizing capabilities” when talking about your goals. This makes you sound like someone who maybe hasn’t really given their actual goals very much thought. Try building your presentation based on actual information, ideas, and measurable goals.
Second, if in the first 30 minutes of your discussion you have found six different ways to tell the audience that everyone is in this together and extolling them to “think of it as an opportunity,” everyone in the room will automatically be suspicious of you and your scheme. That kind of power of positive thought jackassery might sounds good to an intern, but to the more jaded and cynical members of your audience, it sounds like another sales pitch for Ye Olde Oil of Snake.
So in conclusion, let me just remind you that it’s generally not necessary to work so hard to sell good ideas. Everyone knows that change can’t be stopped. It can, however, be managed. Whether it’s managed well or badly depends almost entirely on how you choose to present it, but once your audience thinks you’re up to something you might as well forget ever getting them on your side in any meaningful way.