1. Work issued computers. Sure, the bosses want to to be ultra productive and focused on executing key tasks and achieving objectives… but when it comes to giving you a computer that’s worth a damn, that’s obviously the bridge too far. If I were permitted by the great hardware and software manager in the sky to have some basic administrator rights on my machine, I feel confident I could correct a large percentage of what normally goes awry… but since I am a lowly user, all I can really do is call the help desk, put in a ticket, and then tell anyone who asks for something that I’d love to help but my piece of shit computer is broken again and they should check back in 3-5 business days to see if the “help desk” has gotten around do doing anything with my ticket.
2. First reports. News outlets live and die by being the first to report on a breaking story… which is why what you hear as “breaking news” on any given day is almost always refined into something that could be completely different as facts are checked and the truth is revealed. Of course fact check, authoritative stories aren’t sexy and usually don’t come with their own theme music on cable news channels, so no one waits around to see what the real story is before launching something, anything, into the airwaves or onto social media. And that’s how we’ve become a culture that prefers being immediately outraged to one that would rather be informed or educated.
3. Holy crusaders. Over the long span of my career I’ve worked with a lot of people. Most of them are a decent enough sort. Some of them though, are crusaders, determined against all contrary evidence to believe their memos or PowerPoint charts are destined to save the republic. If I’m honest, I can report that I have worked on a handful of projects that were legitimately important or that made someone’s life better in some way when we finished. The rest were mostly some degree of vanity exercises in which we expended vast resources to make sure someone got a fancy sticker on their next performance appraisal. I’m all for showing a sense of urgency when urgency is called for, but nothing in my education, experience, or temperament makes me suited to pretending urgency over something that doesn’t make a damned bit of real difference to anyone.
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.”
1. The closest gator. It’s just human nature to try killing the alligator that’s closest to your boat. Just by virtue of its proximity it’s the one that should pose the most danger. Most of the time your natural assumption is probably right. Every now and then, though, that gator that just happens to be closest is just swimming past… and while you’re focused on him the big, ugly sonofabitch swimming up behind you is the one that’s going to take a bite out of your ass.
2. Not being elsewhere. It’s a rare day when I don’t want to be home above all other places. Just this once, though, I wish circumstances would have allowed a bit of leeway so I could have found myself, for a few hours, in Rock Island, Illinois. Today was a live demonstration that that a certain big government agency can manage not to trip all over itself in pursuit of elevating someone eminently qualified into the ranks of senior leadership. I just wish I could have seen that shit in person, you know, just to prove in front of my own two little eyes that such a thing is actually possible.
3. Bordering on exhaustion. It’s not lack of sleep. Thank God my brain disengages as soon as I turn the lights off and lets me drift off to sleep on demand. The problem comes in those 19 intervening hours, when it’s busy jumping from point to point. I usually have a pretty good capacity for leaving the work over on the other side of the river, but for these past few weeks and another few to come, it seems to be following me. Even when I’m not thinking about it, a few ideas are churning in the back of my mind. It’s probably a necessary evil for the time being, but lord it’s wearing my ass out.
My inbox is a war zone. It’s a maelstrom of electronic strife sorting itself daily between the dozens of easy to do things that each take 1-2 minutes or the majestically hard to do ones that command hours and days of constant attention just to sort out. I find if I focus too long on clearing the deck of the easy to do, hard stuff becomes a raging hairy beast. If I focus on the growing beast, however, the easy multiplies until I find myself as Gulliver – surrounded, cut off, and overrun by Lilliputians.
Time management “experts” will tell you to only respond to email at certain times of the day and give you tips and tricks on how to run triage and only engage the “really important” bits. I don’t know who these lunatic experts work for, but every SOB that lobs an email at my box expects an answer. Yes, some are more timely than others, but it’s the rare gem that gets flat out ignored.
To me, it feels like nothing so much as a grand opportunity to pick your poison. On any given day you’re entitled to a death by 1000 cuts or by a enormous rock falling on your head from a great height. Maybe some days, if you really foul things up right and proper you can have both simultaneously, but don’t get greedy because you’ll have to rise again tomorrow and fight the battle all over again.
1. Throughput. I’ve said it before, but it bears saying again: When you have X amount of time and Y amount of work, unless you’re managing things pretty closely the sum is almost never going to be zero. There will always be more work than time. The best most of us can manage is to prioritize the effort and try to get to the important stuff. If there’s important stuff that’s not being tended, it’s probably a good idea to tell someone it’s important rather than relying on them to read you bloody mind.
2. Scheduling. It’s Thursday night. The list of things to get done between now and Sunday evening is already twice what I should reasonably expect to get done. I shouldn’t complain since I make my own list, but still, I’d love to at some point have one of these nice restful weekends I hear people talking about. At least there’s a hard stop at about 8:30 Sunday night. The Dead are back and a man has to know where his limits are.
3. Election. Oh dear god how is this election not over yet? Please make it stop.
I like to think that I’ve got a fairly reasonable sense of proportion when it comes to telling what things are important and what things aren’t. That’s true at least in my day-to-day existence where I’m responsible for things like paying the mortgage and keeping myself and three other living creatures from becoming formerly living creatures. By contrast, when I show up at the office, my sense of where things should be on the sliding scale of relative importance seems to be consistently and remarkably out of touch.
The things we choose to take issue with seem, largely, to be those things that I’d brush off as approaching insignificant – things like who sits where (not whether there are enough seats) or whether the slide background is the right shade of gray (not whether the slide conveys the appropriate information). I hope you can forgive me if I seem to have a permanent eye strain from all the rolling they do. I suppose in some universe things like that are important, but I’m not able to wrap my head around why anyone would give a damn about them. Despite years of being beaten about the head and next with this issue, I’m just not wired that way.
Believe me, I wish I could glamour myself into believing that stupid shit somehow matters. It would make being an alleged professional that much easier. As it is, I’ve just grown weary and annoyed of pretending that it does when it doesn’t. Weary an annoyed is almost always a troublesome combination because it often leaves my mouth free to engage and spew words better left as thoughts… and that rarely ends well for anyone involved.
I know my sense of how the universe works is probably a little off by “normal” standards, but I find something deeply gratifying about telling Outlook to turn on my out-of-office message. It’s one of those rare bits of the day that feel like I really got something accomplished, namely that I’ve officially told anyone trying to track me down that I won’t be checking voice messages or email for the next seven days.
That’s not strictly true, of course. I’ll still be tethered as tightly as ever to my own electronics, but for these next few days anyone looking for me at my desk or eagerly awaiting a response is going to have to cool their jets while I go do other, more interesting things.
Because there are no free lunches in this life, I know all this means is the pile of things on my desk, jammed into my inbox, and waiting on me to “push three to hear your messages now” will be immense by the time I get back next week. That’s just going to have to be next week’s problem. I’ve only got the RAM onboard to be concerned with so many things at one time and frankly none of the issues on or around my 50 square feet of cubicle are even close to making the cut.
The week of Thanksgiving heralds the arrival of that most magical and wondrous time of year… and I’m not talking about Christmas with its faux joy, peace and goodwill towards people you otherwise can’t stand. I’m talking about the four weeks between the holidays when nothing gets done and everyone is busy burning off what’s left of their annual leave. In short: Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the long march towards the end of the year when there are fewer colleagues around asking reports, wanting to see slides, and generally pretending to be productive. It’s the time of year when the pretense of being productive falls away. Sure, that’s only because there are barely enough people around to keep the lights on, but beggars shouldn’t be choosers.
There are going to be plenty of people running around for the next month trying to put together pick up meetings or cram on one more “special project” before 2014 rolls in, but mostly even they know they’re putting on a show for the sake of appearances. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who really thinks they’re going to be able to get anything significant accomplished at this time of year. That makes for a low key environment… and low key makes me exceptionally happy.
If I haven’t learned anything else from being a drone these last 11 years it’s that this time is fleeting. Before you know it, and well before you’re ready for it, we’ll be back to the full-on grind. So the advice from your kindly Uncle Jeff? Take some time. Slow your roll and remember that no one ever saved the universe with their PowerPoint slides. Even when you think what you’re doing is important, there are well over seven billion people on the plant who don’t care if you live or die.
Some things we do are important and can have a real impact on real people scattered around the world. Those are the kinds of things you don’t mind spending hours working to perfect. Ensuring that there are the correct number of spaces following the various kinds of punctuation doesn’t generally fall into that category. Sure, formatting and general “prettiness” of a document are important insofar as you want it to be put together enough that people take your product seriously, but somehow I don’t think it’s important enough that we need to spend 20 or 30 man-hours making sure that everything in a 75 page document that no one outside these four walls will ever lay eyes on is “just so.” Then again, I have been wrong, or perhaps only misguided, before.
Look, I’m all for providing the best product possible, but I’m also a believer in the law of diminishing returns. There comes a point where it just isn’t cost effective to keep tweaking something around the margins. We all have personal pet peeves and certain ways we like to do things, but we’ve now officially letting perfection stand in the way of good enough to its illogical extreme. But hey, I’m not the guy signing the checks or deciding who works on what and for how long, so as long as the direct deposit doesn’t start bouncing, I’ll sit here plugging away at whatever someone tells me is the day’s priority. Today, like yesterday, it seems that that priority is word spacing and paragraph alignment. Don’t ask me why that is, but I’ll keep plugging away at it until someone tells me to shuffle on to something else.
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.
There’s nothing like a retirement party to put a career in perspective. We all like to think of our working lives as being productive and valuable and perhaps that maybe after 30 years of work, we’ve left our mark. Most of us, of course, would be wrong in thinking that. Sure, there are exceptions – Hyman Rickover is the father of the nuclear submarine force; Henry Bessemer made steel economical; Watson and Crick identified the double helix structure of DNA – but for the average schmo sitting in a cubicle there aren’t going to be entries in even the most obscure history book – unless you create your own entry in Wikipedia.
I attended a retirement luncheon – a function that no one ever really wants to go to, but that guarantees a long lunch without anyone getting on your case – and had the dismaying realization that even the people working next to you don’t really have a clue what you do on a day to day basis. The highlight of the “ceremonial” portion of the event was the soon-to-be-departed employee’s supervisor saying a few kind words. One would hope to hear how they made the workplace better, or contributed to the war effort, or saved homeless kittens in their spare time.
What this particular career boiled down to was this: A supervisory musing about how he’d “always remember the great report you wrote about the problems in Peoria.”
Wow. That’s perspective.
For most of us, that’s how a career is going to end. Think on that next time you’re working late on an “important” project or skipping vacation days to make sure a project is finished on time. In 20 or 30 years when your middle of the road colleagues are sitting around a table at a middle of the road restaurant bidding you farewell it’s likely all you’ve done is written a great report about Peoria.
Live your life accordingly.
Editorial Note: This is part of a continuing series of previously unattributed posts appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.