I drive around from time to time looking for new places where the next interesting book to add to the collection could be hiding. The invariable part of every new town I pass through is that you can tell a lot about where you are by the kind of businesses occupying prominent or high traffic areas.
As a general rule, once I hit the part of town where pawn shops, storefront check cashing, and empty buildings predominate, I’ve probably gone too far. The likelihood of finding what I’m looking for seems to diminish with every payday loan processor I pass. Often enough, these are parts of town when I have no business being or otherwise stick out like a sore thumb. If there’s treasure hidden somewhere there, I’ll leave it to someone else.
Last week I had something of the opposite experience. Returning home from a successful book buying expedition, I found myself driving through a picturesque bit of Delaware – long lawns, gated drives, and the early 20th century impression of old money. Soon enough the residential gave way to the commercial – cheese mongers, wineshops, and a several block stretch of insurance agencies, understated banks, and “wealth management firms.”
Sure, I felt altogether more comfortable there than I do driving down a block of abandoned and burned-out row houses, but it was still very much a case of being a stranger in a strange land. Less likely to get mugged, maybe, but far more likely to be offered a “can’t lose” investment opportunity, so perhaps they’re not all that different, really.
I don’t suppose there’s anything particularly insightful here… just a musing on the oddities of finding yourself out of place.
I generally get to work about 20 minutes before my day technically starts. Partly it’s because I’m hopelessly committed to arriving everywhere precisely “on time” and partly it’s because I generally need ten minutes to mentally prepare for the long walk across the parking lot and getting the day started. Most days this adds up to ten or fifteen minutes of time just sitting in the truck watching the world around me.
Sure, technically I’m sitting in the parking lot watching people, but I’m not doing it in a creeper-stalky kind of way. I’m really just noticing people pass by and making observations – like who can’t park worth a tinker’s damn, who forgets something on the roof of their car three mornings a week, and who else is just sitting there trying to summon the courage to face the day.
The thing I notice most often, the thing that is so common as to be nearly universal – is that almost no one is smiling. No one has a spring in their step. Nearly everyone looks like their being led to the gallows. They’re plodding their way to the front door like they expect someone to shank their puppy once they get inside.
Clearly this place ain’t Disney World… and I can see plainly why they never bothered to do another “employee viewpoints” survey to see if that morale problem had turned around. There’s really not much need for a survey when the answer is written all over everyone’s face.
Stress is a funny thing. Actually, that’s not right at all. Stress is a pain in the ass thing, but what it does to people can certainly be funny. Based on my observations, there are two basic types of people: 1) Those who “externalize” stress and fly off the handle with little or no notice when put under pressure and 2) Those who internalize stress and let it seep into their pores and really fester. I tend largely to fall into the latter category. I’ve learned through hard experience that almost nothing good happens when you fly off the handle. I do my best to respond accordingly. Some people, though, they just let it blow. To each his own, I guess.
Cracking jokes on your way out the door when you’re seething inside is something of an art form. Conveniently, it’s also less detrimental to your career than putting your fist through the nearest available sheet of drywall, so there’s that too. Sure, it helps you better align yourself for he inevitable middle-age heart attack, but it beats all hell out of letting anyone know they’ve gotten under your skin. The cardinal sin in the animal kingdom is showing weakness. Experience tells me that we’re all just about a step up from our primate cousins under the best of circumstances – just a better dressed version of the animal kingdom. Therefore, I try to keep weakness showing to a bare minimum.
I walked away today without twitching, sneering, or picking a fight. I should get a goddamned medal for that, though I won’t dare hold my breath. Just one time it would feel incredible to let myself go off like a rocket. It would be bad on every other level imaginable, but God it would be so cathartic.
About six times today I heard the phrase “valued added.” Each and every time I heard it, I wanted to punch a baby in the throat. Look, maybe I should care about “demonstrating value added,” or team building, or joining hands and giving peace a chance, or whatever. All I’ve ever wanted to do anywhere was the best job I could within the confines the job itself placed on me. With those confines growing increasingly tighter week by week and month after month, we’re all going to have to get use to the idea that how we define “doing our best” is going to change for the worse.
Over short periods of surging to meet the unexpected, people have a remarkable capacity to do more than expected. In a pinch, they can even give the illusion of doing more with less. Most people, most of the time, want to contribute and do their part to make sure the trains run on time. Relying on that capacity as a long term “get well” plan, however, generally has consequences that are less than good. Under sustained pressure to perform above optimal levels and with diminishing resources with which to do it, even the best are going to pull up lame eventually. I can’t cite a scientific study that tells me this is true, but I’ve spent more years than I want to admit watching people and seeing how they respond under pressure.
The truth is some people just handle a high stress environment better than others. A few people might thrive on it, but the vast bulk of them are going to hit a wall, burn out, fade away, or otherwise just stop giving a good goddamn. That’s a dangerous place to be for any organization. The slippery slope from actually doing more to getting less is really more like falling off a cliff. One day everything will hum along at top speed and the next it’ll be in free fall towards the jagged rocks below.
I’d never argue that this is a universal truth, but it does reflect my personal observations based on a little more than a decade as a decidedly interested observer of bureaucratic processes. There are always options available and B does not always have to follow A in this case. Preventing this outcome requires someone with enough horsepower to drive a change and make it stick to realize there’s a problem and for them to do something about it. Unfortunately, my best advice is to not hold your breath waiting for that to happen unless you have some kind of weird workplace oxygen deprivation fetish.
I’m pleased to report I am alive and well in Western Maryland, but the thought that occurs to me is that outside of a few old friends and family members I don’t actually know anyone up here any more. I’m not sure why that actually surprises me, though. It’s a “discovery” I make pretty consistently every time I am here for a weekend. Not so much a complaint, just an observation.