I’ve done well for myself. I’ve taken advantage of my educational opportunities all along the path of life. Occasionally I even think that I’ve done better for myself that a simple boy fron down the crick really has any right to expect. Don’t think for a moment that I take any of that for granted.
I’ve seen a lot of the world and had the opportunity to have some truly remarkable experiences. At heart, though, I ultimately think of myself as a technician – a wrench turner in the data economy. I’ve tried the whole management and supervision thing and we’re all better off for my having given it up.
Mostly, I really just want to be left alone to do the work. That’s where my talents and interests are applied to the most effect.
I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: Hard won experience tells me that I can either spend six hours doing the work or spend those same six hours sitting in meetings talking about the work. If I’m doing the latter, there’s absolutely no progress being made on the former. Putting more simply, I can talk about the damned work or I can do the damned work. I cannot, however, do both simultaniously. Personally, I know which one I’d greatly prefer.
However, my opinion on the subject is clearly not of any great significance. If it were I wouldn’t regularly be spending 50% or more of my days sitting around jibberjabbering instead of getting the job done.
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.”
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.
Someone once said “There’s a time and a place for everything.” Apparently it was true enough that everyone around him started saying it too. Maybe it it. What nobody ever mentioned, though, is that if there’s a time and place for everything, there’s a corresponding time and place which is not for a thing. It’s worth trying to bear in mind, really, because you see the time and the place to tell me that the thing I’ve been working on all day “isn’t right” is not 15 minutes before the close of business. That’s especially true when I’ve been doing everything besides begging for guidance for months now.
All I’ve ever asked for is someone to tell me what the objective is – what they want the end result to look like. With that key piece of information, I can bend the world to fit that image. Without it, I’m just flailing around making shit up as we go along. As another old saw goes, “when you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
I’ll just have to brace myself for the inevitable shitshow and mandatory ass chewing tomorrow… because Lord knows it’s always the time and place for that.
1. Hurry up (and wait). Hurry up and wait is an idiom that I personally suspect is at least as old as the first band of hunter gatherers who went to war to protect their wildlife and berries from a neighboring tribe. If there’s anything I’ve found consistent over the last decade and a half it’s that the preponderance of things that need doing arrive on my desk with some designation as “hot rocks” or “mission critical” or “for immediate action.” Setting aside the fact that almost none of these issues have ever dealt with actual life or death situation, it becomes a simple matter of people simply expecting things should be done in the double quick. It’s been my experience that you can do analysis well or you can do it quickly. You can even find a middle ground of acceptability between the two, but you cannot under any normal circumstance have both simultaneously. In reality no matter how “hot” the issue, you’re going to find yourself waiting for further guidance, waiting for questions to be answered by others, or waiting for your own chain of command to get around to feeling any actual sense of urgency. Until those things happen, it’s fine to hurry up, but you’d better be sure to have some entertaining apps loaded so the wait is tolerable.
2. Social history. The great man theory of history was out of fashion for at least a century before I picked up my formal study of the craft. Contemporary popular historians busy themselves crafting social history narratives that feel more like professional pandering to racial, gender, or whatever current cause célèbre group has captured the spotlight temporarily and then judging the deeds of long dead actors against whatever utopian dream they’ve concocted. Give me great men and heroic actions any day over that kind of tripe. Call me old fashioned, but I like my historical deeds to be set within the context of their times, rather than measured by whatever half assed yard stick someone just developed so everyone can feel included and not get their feelings hurt. Context is king, which is why judging historical figures as if they just suddenly walked out of the local galleria with a chi tea and $500 sunglasses makes absolutely no sense to me at all.
3. Landscaping. In my pursuit of domestic tranquility I’ve lain my head in all manner of places. From an efficiency apartment, to a condo, through a succession of apartments, to a new-built house, to a rental house, and finally, now, to what I consider a more permanent Fortress Jeff. What most of those places have in common is that I didn’t have to spend a lot of time concerned with landscaping. The condo and apartments obviously took care of themselves. The rental house could be serviced by a regular cut and trim of the yard. The landscaping around the Memphis house was so new that it mostly took care of itself. Now at Fortress Jeff, I’ve inherited a mature landscape in place when I arrived – and one that hadn’t received much attention in at least several growing seasons. In the last year I’ve taken down four full grown trees, sliced out half a dozen shrubs and plants that didn’t fit my “artistic vision,” raised parts of the back yard by almost two feet and set new grass to grow on it. This spring I launched into what I hope will be a mid-term solution for controlling run-off in the front yard and improving drainage. I’ve added the first cubic yard of mulch and have two or three more to go. A former flower bed next to the driveway needs prepped and sodded and then it’s time to tackle the challenge of a bare dirt bank where it seems nothing can take root. All of that’s on the list before I turn my eyes again to the back yard – where the list of want-to-dos is at least as long. Fortunately, I like tinkering with these kinds of projects. The hell of it is, they all take time and cost money and need to be laid in along with all the other tasks and chores that keep the homestead running… so now that spring has arrived, please forgive whatever messes pile up indoors. I’ll be getting back to them when the weather again drives me under cover.
1. Bossing. I don’t like being a supervisor – even when it’s only a temporary expedient. I didn’t like it when I was one and I don’t like it when I get to pretend to be one now. I like it even less when top cover is nowhere to be found. And while I don’t like it, don;t think for a minute that I’ll shy away from making decisions. They might not always (or even often) be the right one, but we won’t flail around blindly in the name of indecision. Mercifully nothing I touch is life or death so the consequences of straying outside some unknown left or right boundary marker are pretty minimal. I suppose they could always throw the job to someone – anyone – who might be more interested or more qualified, but that’s most likely wishful thinking on my part.
2. Email. If you send me an email there’s a better than average chance that it arrived. You don’t need to call me 15 seconds after hitting send to ask if I got it and then ask me to opine on the topic of your inquiry. The fact is, I wasn’t sitting at my desk staring blankly waiting for your email. I know some people are a bit ADD about checking their email as it arrives. I’m not. I’ll work in whatever issue you have after I’ve reached a suitable stopping point with whatever it is I was working on while your message was winging its way across the network. Even then, sadly, you may not be the most important thing in my inbox. Priority of effort goes (not necessarily in order) to the boss, the uber-boss, echelons higher than the uber-boss, and then, lastly, everyone else. It’s not personal, but I feel like tending to people who have some authority over my yearly performance appraisal first is a pretty good system. Believe me, I will get to your message, even if I don’t consider it as much of a crisis as you do.
3. Millennials who bitch about the stock market. If you have 20, 30, or more years before you plan to retire, a down market is the very least of your worries. In fact, it’s kind of a gift. You’re getting the opportunity to by your shares at crazy deep discount price compared to what you would have paid a year ago. It must be hard to believe, but more shares bought cheap compounded out over the next 30 years is in all likelihood a thing of financial beauty. Sure, it looks like you’re taking a beating on paper right now, but you’re supposed to be playing the long game here. No one loses actual money until the cash out their chips and make the loss “real.” That’s not you, kids. Let your parents bitch about that down market because they’re the ones who are getting taken to the woodshed if they planned on retiring any time soon. For you, my millennial friends, this whole thing could shape up to be a once in a decade or once in a generation buying opportunity, so play your hands accordingly.
1. Priorities. I never expect to be anyone’s top priority – except my own of course. All I’ve ever wanted is to know, definitively where I fall on the spectrum of importance. My projects don’t tend to be flashy, they’re not always the high visibility ones, they’re the ones that tend to go along unnoticed and unremarked (unless something goes horribly wrong). They’re the workhorse projects that just need to get done with a minimum of trouble. They’re sort of a personal specialty of mine. While most of them motor along without much intervention, that doesn’t mean they always will. Occasionally I’m going to fire off a red star cluster. I like to think my track record shows that I’m not just doing it to get attention – but because there’s an honest to God problem somewhere in the works. But if I’m going to be dumped into the “yeah, yeah, we’ll get to you later” pile, I will plan and execute accordingly.
2. I am not the decider. Call as often as you want. Try to drop names to intimidate or influence me. Have your boss “follow-up.” See, the thing is I’m not the decider. In fact you’d be alarmed if you knew how little authority I had to do anything at all. My job is to provide analysis, advice, and recommendations. What people do with those once I provide them, I can’t and won’t answer for. I’ve gotten very adept at standing like a stone wall in the face of bitching and complaints. I can do it all day every day and not so much as raise my voice. If you need to talk to someone who’s going to “feel your pain,” you called the wrong number… but feel free to have your boss call and I’ll tell him the same thing.
3. Working lunch. No, I’m not going to consider a pack of crackers and a Coke scarfed down at my desk at 2:00 in the afternoon while trying to catch up on email “taking my lunch.” I’ll take lunch during socially agreed time of day for the mid-day meal or I’ll take it off the end of the day. It’s not optional and not a topic open to debate. In neither case will it be a “working” lunch. If people can’t figure out not to schedule meetings back to back or let them run 45 minutes over in the middle of the day, other, eminently practical provisions will be made, as rest assured I value nothing so highly as my own time.
Given a sufficient amount of planning time, support from key personnel, funding, and leadership with some passable facsimile of vision, just about anything is possible. With a long enough lever you can move the world. By contrast if you want to operate on a shoestring, fail to assign sufficient people to do the work, and do it all without any clear idea of how you want things to turn out, all signs point towards presiding over a cluster fuck of notable proportions. I resist the notion of “historic” proportions only because in a hundred years, there won’t be one living soul who will give a good damn what jackassery was caused here today.
Most of us never bother to learn to see past the edge of what we can reach with outstretched hands. I like to think, in some small way I manage to see more clearly than others from time to time – though certainly not always. Still, I know the difference between a rush job when the situation calls for one and a rush job when it’s what we’re doing because someone forgot to think more than thirty five minutes in advance.
I’ve got 40 hours in any given week – minus mandatory training, holidays, the occasional sick day, and whatever other priority efforts my time and attention is directed towards on any given day. I’ll do everything I can for you in the amount of time allotted, but I damned well can’t miracle something into existence by force of will or personality. I’ve tried and since my job description isn’t currently Powerball Jackpot Winner, it’s safe to assume miracles lie beyond my purview…. But like the saying goes, if you want it bad, you’ll get bad.
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.
1. Priorities. So here’s a little friendly advice from your kindly Uncle Jeff: When everything is the most important, absolutely nothing is important. All claims of being able to multi-task aside, it’s been my professional experience that when you’re trying to give equal attention to three things at once, all there of them are going to end up being half-assed at best. Want to do a good job on something? Go ahead and focus on that one thing until it’s finished or at least until it’s at a logical place to pause and then go work on something else. Repeat this process as needed until everything is done. Jumping randomly from this to that with no actual planning or thought behind why you’re doing what you’re doing is mostly guaranteed to end badly for everyone involved. In those cases where you can’t take this advice, be prepared to apply a large helping of “I told you so” when things go to hell in a handbag.
2. The happy customer… 12 hours later. About 12 hours after singing the praises of Amazon Prime and Amazon customer service, an email landed in my inbox informing me that the price of membership is going up $20 a year. Sure, it’s probably just a fluke, but it feels an awful lot like this Amazon just decided that since I like them so much, I won’t mind paying an additional 25% premium for it. This is clearly what happens when you say something nice. Therefore in the future, I’ll try to remember to only raise criticism and keep the kudos to myself. From here on out everything sucks and is bad, regardless of how much I like it.
3. Situational awareness. Snap judgements aren’t always right, but I’ve got a pretty decent talent for looking at where things stand and knowing when there’s a bad moon rising. I almost wish I didn’t. I’d probably be a happier human being if I wandered around not particularly aware of what’s likely to be over that next rise. Some days having decent judgement is a gift, but lately it’s felt like a real curse.