Like a used car…

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.

Capitalism doesn’t work…

I’m never quite sure how to respond when someone tells me “capitalism doesn’t work” or that it only works for the uber-wealthy. I generally deflect the issue, because even in a well-reasoned discussion there’s virtually no chance of them changing their position – and there’s absolutely no chance of me changing mine. I’m not a philosopher and I’m not an economist. I’m just a guy from coal country who got a decent public school education and has had some life experience. I accept that my experiences are different than others, but I don’t consider them particularly unique to me in any way.

Growing up I was never in danger of being described as ultra-wealthy. I’m not in that position now, either. Thirty-seven years hence, that still doesn’t seem likely to be the case – though I do still buy a weekly Powerball ticket in case the fates have declared otherwise. At best I’m part of that vast swath of people who consider themselves middle class. I’m somewhere in the middle part of the curve of income distribution.

I made about $30,000 as a first year teacher. That first year I put $25 every two weeks into my IRA. That’s $50 a month towards what was then a very distant idea of retirement. Some months that $50 was painful – and in that first year as a “professional” I still ate a hell of a lot of ramen and lived in an efficiency apartment way off the beaten path because that’s what I could afford. Still, over that year I was able to scrape together a very modest downpayment. I found a mortgage company who was willing to take a risk on someone with little real credit history and bought a condo for $72,000. It was a 742 square foot, ground floor bunker of a place, but it was mine. Instead of paying rent I was building equity and paying 5.25% (which at the time was a real sweetheart deal) interest for the privilege.

A few years later I took another job (another risk), and rented out my little condo for $200 more a month than I was paying on the mortgage. Some months got awfully lean while I was waiting for a new tenant or the refrigerator needed repair, but you see, that’s capitalism. I used my own money to build value over time. I still have that little place and today it’s renting out for more than twice the mortgage payment. That’s capitalism… and I hardly feel like I’m taking advantage of the person who’s paying the rent. I’m still the one taking the risk that the air conditioner won’t conk out or the building won’t burn down.

I’m still making twice a month deposits into my retirement accounts. Planning for that part of my future is my responsibility. Despite the “correction” of the last few weeks, all told those accounts are still doing well over time. The growth of those early deposits, driven by overall increase in stock prices and the beauty of compounding interest is simply staggering. Some months are obviously better than others. Risk is a real mother like that. Sometimes she gives and sometimes she takes away. Even so, I don’t blame JP Morgan, or Citibank, or GM for doing what they do. There’s a reason we have the phrase “it’s just business.” They all seek to maximize profits at the macro level the same way I do on the micro level with my small rental property.

Populism and distrust of big business and big banks has a long history in this country stretching back to well before William Jennings Bryan’s cross of gold. Socialism hasn’t had it’s roots here quite as long, but it’s no spring chicken in America either. I’ve done the reading. I’m not sold on either model.

I choose to believe in my own experiences – of every time Amazon sends me a check for selling a short story and every time the rent is deposited into my account and every time a stock pays out a dividend. So I have no idea how to respond to someone who says capitalism doesn’t work. I’m seeing it work every single day.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Atrophy. I’ll admit it, I’m not as good a driver as I use to be. I spent five years mastering the art of running nose-to-tail at 90 miles an hour on I-95 between DC and Baltimore. There’s not an every day call for that kind of driving in most other places. There wasn’t in West Tennessee and there certainly isn’t here in Ceciltucky. Every now and then, though, the situation presents itself where those long unused skills would prove useful. It’s only when you reach in to that old bag of tricks that you find out you’re not quite as quick at the wheel as you use to be. That’s disheartening… particularly when it leads to the inevitable question of whether it’s just a lack of practice time or if it’s a truly diminishing skill set.

2. Just Don’t Do It. Years ago I worked (indirectly) for a boss who’s philosophy was summed up by a Just Do It card that he passed around to employees at every opportunity. It read something like “If it’s ethical, legal, and you’re willing to be held accountable for it, don’t wait for permission, just do it.” It’s a pretty good rule to live by if you’re the kind of person who has any kind of reasonable judgement. I’m never going to argue that all decisions should be made at the lowest level, but I known damned well that all of them don’t need to be deferred to the highest levels, either. There’s a middle ground. More people should find it instead of deferring every decision for days and weeks in hopes that someone else will take responsibility for it.

3. The Cycle of Mediocrity. A wise old Warrant Officer once told me that “nobody does what the boss don’t check.” He was mostly right about that. In most offices the boss down’t check much – and the results are predictable. We all claim to want excellence – but in reality the objectives are usually targeted at achieving mediocrity. The rules are set up to achieve a minimum acceptable standard and performance tends towards achieving that standard. It’s what the bosses check so it’s what the people produce… and the cycle of mediocrity rolls on and on and on.

The wrong metric…

It occurs to me that when it comes to the amount of time we spend at work that it could all come down to tracking the wrong metric. Since early in the 20th century the “standard” has been the 8 hour day and the 40 hour week. That’s well and good I suppose if you’re churning out Model T Fords by the million on an assembly line. In that kind of work there’s no allowance for people working at varying speeds. Most of the people I know these days aren’t working on a 1920s assembly line, though.

Instead of manning the line at the Rouge River Complex, we’re all sitting at our keyboards banging out emails and memos and slides. If I happen to be super efficient and complete my assigned memos and slides in six hours, I’m still at my desk for two hours regardless of whether I’m doing anything constructive or staring blankly at the ceiling. The reverse is true as well. If I’m an utter slacker and can’t get all my emails sent in eight hours, there’s no force compelling me to stick around until they’re done. As far as my unscientific observation of the eight hour day and 40-hour week is concerned, I can only conclude that we’re basing our business model on precisely the wrong metrics. We’re managing to time rather than managing to outcomes.

If I, gods forbid, were a boss, why would I care if someone got their assigned work done to standard in six hours? Maybe in theory I could then assign them 20% more work, but in my experience that almost never happens. If your mission in life is to get X done every day, once X is done, I say go home. Go to the park, the bar, the ball game. The threat of having to do X+20% doesn’t do anything more than make the typical drone slow their roll to make sure they don’t pull too far ahead of the pack. Sure there are a few over achievers out there who throw off the curve, but when I look around they’re the exception rather than the rule.

So there it is – the thesis I should have written for my MBA. A Savage Act of Defiance Against the 8-Hour Work Day: Managing Performance Instead of Time. It feels a little like there’s a “philosophy of management” book in there somewhere… which means I should mention that the thoughts herein expressed are the sole property of the author and protected under the copyright laws of the United States. All rights reserved.

It’s going to be a doozy…

Hard as it is to admit, my inaugural foray into non-fiction was not met with thunderous applause. I can count on two hands and a foot how many copies of Retribution wandered off the shelves at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’m not saying that with any kind of self pity, although I do think the world is missing out on a fun little short story. Notwithstanding the monumental lack of sales, I enjoyed working in fiction. It’s a refreshing change from the usual 5W’s style professional writing that is one of the many banes of the average cubicle dweller’s existence. Trust me, writing reports, emails, cost estimates, and justifications memoranda does not constitute a rich literary life.

That being said, I think I’ve settled in on my next topic… and it’s one that takes us all back to the future. My bread and butter has always been an apparently bottomless ability to bitch and complain about whatever topic was set in front of me. As often as not, that ability turned itself on peculiarities of working inside the world’s greatest bureaucracy. Time and circumstances have conspired to bring me back around to where it all started.

If Nobody Told Me, was an tribute to a youth lost in service to the machine, I’m starting to flesh out the vaguest idea of the next effort to be more of a deep dive into the mid-career oddities, realizations, and situations that make you really want to consider where it was that your professional life to such a harebrained turn. It’s safe to assume there is plenty to say about those issues and I think I have just the point of view to make them both hilarious and thought provoking.

I haven’t started writing yet. I’ve barely scraped together some notes, a few snippets of outline, and the most ephemeral of notions in my head of where I think this should go, but it feels like the right topic at the right time. It feels like the project that might well keep me on a halfway even keel in increasingly turbulent waters. I don’t know how long it will take. I don’t know when I’ll have a draft. I don’t even have a fully formed central thesis. I do have an idea. As dangerous a spark as an idea can be, that’s all it takes to start. The rest will come later.

Stick around folks, I think this next trick is going to be a doozy.

Getting above the bullshit…

Everyone has a few items that fall into the “don’t leave home without it” category – wallet, watch, phone, keys, knife, whatever is in your pockets every day when you walk out the door. It’s the stuff that you turn around and go back for even when you’re already halfway to work on a Monday morning. I’m no different, except I tote one thing that has absolutely no actual functional purpose whatsoever. The only reason I keep this one thing close is that it serves as physical reminder to me of a couple of universal truths.

CoinMy 1900 Morgan silver dollar doesn’t have any great intrinsic value. You can pick them up on eBay for $20-odd bucks, but every time I run my thumb across the rim of the coin I remember that “my” Morgan came to life in Philadelphia 78 years before I was born and unless I trip and fall into an forge or smelter, it’s going to be here long after I’m gone. The men who minted it in 1900 all had important jobs. They had their worries and their troubles. They swore, they fought, they loved, and they lived more or less the same way we do. The biggest difference between them and us is every single person involved with minting “my” Morgan is dead and gone as has been for probably half a century. I’m willing to bet that not one person reading this can tell me a single thing about the life they led, the work they did, or the dreams they dreamed. It’s almost tragic, except it’s really not once you’ve had a chance to think on it.

What’s the lesson here for us? Hell, I don’t know. It could be there isn’t a lesson. I like to think the big “so what” of it all is that this Morgan dollar reminds me not to get too worked up about the shit I can’t control – the briefings that flop, the jackass three offices down, the one great love who got away, whatever it is you spend your days dwelling on. In 114 years, there won’t be anyone around who remembers any of that.

Now, this isn’t your kindly Uncle Jeff giving you a blank check to go out into the world and rape, pillage, and burn, because nothing matters. In fact, this little dollar coin sends me in just the opposite direction. You see, the boys in Philly left us with what is arguably the most recognizable coin ever produced in this country. That’s what what remember them for – not whatever petty bullshit they had to deal with from day to day. I think that’s the higher purpose. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to find our “big thing” and make sure we’re not so beaten down by the bullshit that we lose sight of it.

I’m pretty sure I’m finding my big thing, slowly, word by word. So the next time you see me with a 1000-yard stare and my hand in my pocket, just know that I’m communing with some long gone Philadelphians. The gears are turning and I’m trying to remind myself to get above the daily bullshit. Some days it works, some days it doesn’t, but I’m trying. I’m trying. Maybe that’s all that really matters.

Love what you do…

I usually let these archive posts stand alone without any additional comment or correction. After reading through this one, well, I knew I had to lead it off with a little commentary. This post was written back in October 2011, when I was still fresh in the new gig… Almost six years later I’ve been through four changes of first line supervisor, four changes of senior supervisor, four changes of command, and watched a metric shitload of water pass under the bridge. You can tell it was written when I was fresh and excited because I mention putting on a tie. I wouldn’t write this post the same way today. And I definitely wouldn’t call it “a little slice of heaven” even in comparison to what came before. The more things change, maybe they really do stay the same.

The original post from October 24th, 2011 follows:

They say that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. It occurs to me that people who say this are probably either a) moron, b) easily amused, or more likely c) easily amused morons. Setting that aside for a moment, it seems the career I’m most interested in would be professional PowerBall winner. Suddenly finding myself heir to a hotel fortune would be ok too, I guess. Having the freedom to work at what you’re really interested in rather than what pays the bills has to be an interesting experience, but even then I’m pretty sure I’d think of it as “work.”

That’s not to take anything away from what I’m doing now. Really. I mean it. I’ve got a perfectly good job and bring home a perfectly good living. Compared to what I was doing a year ago, this places is practically a little slice of heaven. Even so, I’m never going to mistake it for doing something I love. At best, I’m doing something at which I have some degree of comparative advantage and that I don’t find mind-numbingly dull. I don’t have a boss who makes me crazy and I don’t, with a couple of noted exceptions, mind my colleagues. Given the current state of the economy, I’m doing every bit as well as anyone could reasonably expect. In my own warped way, I’m grateful for that.

Still, I don’t love it. Throwing on a tie and coming to the office isn’t something I do in the morning with unbridled glee. I suppose it’s possible that some people do, but I haven’t bumped into them in the parking lot. Maybe they all come in before I do. Regardless, I think the whole idea of loving your job is overblown. Sure, I like it well enough, but if I suddenly hit a $100 million jackpot, I don’t like it well enough to keep showing up when I don’t need it to pay the bills. Frankly I can’t think of anything I love doing enough that I wouldn’t think of it as work if I had to do it for eight hours every day. Even sitting on the beach drinking umbrella drinks would get old after a while… and besides, there’s not much of a market for that kind of employee.

My advice to the next generation isn’t to waste time looking for a job you love. Instead, find a good paying job you can tolerate for a while, make what you can, and then move on to the next thing. If you’re looking for deep personal fulfillment in the eight hours a day you spend whoring your mind and body out to the highest bidder, you’re going to be disappointed. Like every street walker knows, when you’re in the business of selling yourself by the hour you’re way more likely to get screwed than you are to find love.

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.