On the downhill slide…

Even though I should have been happily ensconced today in my home office, I walked in to the building this morning with a little extra spring in my step. Unremarked and unknown to anyone I have slid past an auspicious milestone and that knowledge has, at least for today, has helped give me a little better perspective. 

You see, I’ve rolled by the halfway mark of my anticipated career as a professional bureaucrat. That means, should everything go to plan, I’ve already spent more days sitting in a cubicle than I’ll have to spend sitting in a cubicle in the future. 

Yes, an extraordinary number of things have to go right to make this reality – the stock market needs to match or exceed its historic rates of return, I have to avoid doing anything egregious and getting fired, and I need to not drop dead or otherwise completely wreck my health. 

Still, though, for the first time I’m on the right side of the countdown and I have a rough plan for the way ahead. It’s hard to believe that finding myself on the downhill slide could possibly feel so good… but it does. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Bathroom stall phone calls. Yes, you’re sitting down and probably bored, but the shitter in the public restroom really isn’t a conference room. And yet at least once a week I walk into the one down the hall from my little section of cube farm and there’s someone holed up in one of the stalls having a full blown conversation. First, it’s the one room in the building where I can mostly go to escape pointless conversation. Secondly, whoever you’ve got on the other end of the line doesn’t need to hear you dropping the kids off at the pool. Lastly, you can save the stink eye, because every time I walk in there and find you on the phone, I’m going to fart, belch, whistle a jaunty tune, and generally be as loud, obnoxious, and passive aggressive as possible… because I dare you to say something to justify yourself in the eyes of gods and men.

2. City slickers. In Paul Krugman’s recent screed in the New York Times, Getting Real About Rural America, his thesis seemed to be that things could get better if only people in rural America started thinking more like people living in urban America. The catch, of course, is that I’ve made the conscious decision to live in rural America precisely because it doesn’t think (or behave) like urban America. I could have just as easily decided to live in Baltimore, Wilmington, or Philadelphia but none of those places support the kind of lifestyle or the quality of life that’s important to me. If the capital “D” Democratic Party ever wants to make serious inroads into the vast swath of country beyond reliably Democratic voting cities and inner suburbs, they’re going to have to come up with a far better argument than “you should just think like us.” The day I declare I want to give up wide open ground, backyard wildlife, towering oaks, no traffic, and idyllic quiet for “everything the city has to offer,” consider this my written permission to begin proceedings to have me psychologically committed. 

3. Recognition. After spending the better part of six months mixed up in delivering a final product that’s “rolling off” the proverbial line next week, there’s nothing more cheering that sitting in a meeting where one of the Gods on Olympus turns to you quizzically and asks, “Ummm, why are you here?” Oh, no particular reason, I saw a meeting forming up and I didn’t have anything else to do this hour so I thought I’d hang. I don’t ever do things for public credit to see my name in lights – in fact I actively avoid those things. Still, though, sometimes it might be nice to know it’s recognized that I’m not just wandering the halls lacking anything better to do. You can just color my morale well boosted today.

Personally…

I think it’s adorable when someone calls me sounding apologetic and forlorn because they need to make a major change to one of the events managed by Tharp Parties and Events Ltd. (A division of Big Bureaucracy Productions).

Look, chief, we all work for someone. You answer to your bosses. I answer to mine. If yours and mine provide conflicting guidance and we can’t sort it out together, I have absolutely no problem pushing it up the chain for resolution somewhere at echelons higher than reality. Your bosses and mine are allegedly professional adults who should be more than capable of decision making when their staff can’t come to agreement.

Believe me when I tell you that if you come to me saying “I know this is going to blow a hole in the schedule, but my bosses don’t want to do A, B, or C,” I’m just going to shrug, pass the word to the next level up, and move on with the day. The chance of my taking it personally is precisely zero-point-zero.

You see, there are a limited number of hours in the day and I’ve only got so much energy to apply to whatever batshit crazy things happen during any given 24-hour period. I do my level best to wast as little of that time and energy on anything that is absolutely beyond my ability to control or even to exert influence upon.

So, you see, if you ever find yourself in a position of delivering me “bad news,” and I take it with what might generously be called ambivalence, know that it’s not exactly because I don’t care, but rather because even as you were speaking, I assessed the situation as being something well outside my scope and I’ve already made the decision to refer it to higher for further evaluation and action.

I’m nothing if not a man who recognizes his own professional limitations.

Mandatory…

I’m about to be dropped into the 4th “performance appraisal” system I’ll have worked under during the last 16 years. Based on the 8-hour mandatory training there isn’t much new under the sun. I’m going to tell my boss what I think I did. He’s going to tell me how well I did it. And someone above him is going to agree or disagree with the story we’ve crafted.

I’m sure rolling out a new system is quite a feather in someone’s cap… although just because it’s taken years and tens of millions of dollars to accomplish doesn’t really mean there will be much to show for the effort beyond the implementation team getting “top boxed” on their own next appraisal.

I’m not sure I learned anything new today beyond the fact that we’re, at long last, moving from pen and ink to an online system that captures almost the exact same information. How much I trust such a system to be up and running when I might actually need to use it is another issue entirely. Of course even the best performance appraisal system is only effective at all if anyone bothers to make management decisions based on the results. You can put me firmly in the, “we’ll see” category on that one.

Experience tells me the more likely outcome is that over time evaluations across the board will migrate from the middle of the bell curve, where most belong if only by definition, to a place where everyone’s score is inflated back to the top box, which makes objective evaluation effectively meaningless.

That’s not my egg to suck, though. My egg was purely concerned with meeting the objective of attending the mandatory training and not in any way involved with designing a more perfect system. Color me mission accomplished.

Being busy…

There is a world of difference between being busy and getting things done. I was looking at my calendar for the next ten days or so and it’s absolutely undeniable that I’m going to be busy. Meetings are stacked up like cord wood and on a few days there might even be time to eat a lunch that won’t feel like either a late breakfast or an early dinner.

Although I’m going to be busier than a one armed paper hanger, what I can tell you with almost perfect certainty is that I’m not going to be getting things done. Experience tells me that the amount of work accomplished is inversely proportional to the number of hours spent sitting in meetings. It’s a known fact across the bureaucracy, but doe some reason the illusion that meetings in some way equate to work accomplished persists in the minds of people who call meetings.

Maybe it’s possible to both attend meetings and be a productive and contributing member of society, but I’ve never cracked the code on making that happen when the meetings and the work insist on occupying the same eight hours of the day. I suspect that the people who pull off spending all day in meetings and also somehow manage to get something done are willing to slip in a few extra hours on the side.

If you’re sitting around waiting for the same from me, my best advice is to get comfortable, because you’re going to have a bit of a wait.

A magnificent shitshow…

I don’t know why I’m surprised anymore. The moment something appears to be well in hand and headed for certain success, a butterfly flaps it’s wings in Tokyo and a shit sandwich is served in Aberdeen. 

This isn’t my first rodeo. In fact that is the 5th iteration of this exact rodeo. It’s also a close approximation of other similar rodeos from years in the past. The only theme across them, however, is that at just the moment opening a successful registration website appears on the cusp of happening, something will go horrifyingly wrong.

At least it’s always something new and different that screws the pooch. I’d hate to think with all these years of experience that I’d waste time making the same mistakes. Especially when there’s all the opportunity in the world to make new and far more interesting ones.

I know I’ve always been my own harshest critic. I’m also well aware that sometimes my standards can, at first gloss, seem unreasonable. Still, just one time, I’d like to open one little registration without everything turning into a magnificent shitshow requiring me to explain to the gods on Olympus just how it slide of the rails this time.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

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.