Not to reason why…

Even if you’re not steeped in the history of the Crimean War, it feels likely you’ve heard about the charge of the Light Brigade, or at least know of the phrase, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” Few lines of English poetry are, in my mind, more evocative.

The (very) short version is that the British light cavalry, owing to confused orders and the fog of battle, was sent charging down into the valley against well placed and defended Russian artillery positions instead of towards the far more suitable target intended. The Light Brigade, brave sons of England, faultlessly loyal to Queen and country, was savaged by the Russian guns.

Mercifully, I haven’t been put on orders to seize anyone’s guns. In the better part of two decades in service I’ve made my bones by delivering projects on time and to standard regardless of impediments or restrictions. I’ve worked projects I’ve hated with the white hot fury of a thousands suns and a few that I’d have almost paid to be a part of. My personal feelings never figured into the effort if there was a job that needed doing.

I’m not the kind of guy who gets frozen with self doubt. It’s not my nature. I want to get the job done smartly and move on, always. But here, now, we have the first time a job’s been put in front of me where I don’t see any good or reasonable path forward. Every avenue of approach bristles with pitfalls and obstacles… and the clock is running.

I’m in the deeply unfamiliar and unhappy position of legitimately not knowing if I can get there from here – in some large part simply because I don’t know what I don’t know. If you think what you don’t know can’t hurt you, well, you’re a damned fool.

Let’s just say that my usual sense that if I drop my shoulder and shove hard enough, I can move the world seems to have abandoned me at the moment. After seventeen years, it’s possible I’ve found the job that I just can’t deliver. If you think I’m not well and properly shook, you don’t know me at all.

Theirs is not to reason why, indeed.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Meeting prep. It’s bad enough when someone wants me to sit in a meeting on a topic way outside my general area of expertise. If they could at least do a little prep work first, though, that would be terrific. Maybe get me the slides an hour or two in advance so I can speak on the topic like I have some semblance of a clue what’s going on. It doesn’t feel like that’s too much to ask before someone shows up asking a lot of questions about material I haven’t ever seen before. But if past experience is any kind of guide, it’s at least as hopeless as asking one of the dogs for the winning Powerball numbers.

2. Bridging the gap. I have to pass through one of those sleepy one stop light kind of towns on my way to and from work every day. The main route is bottlenecked by a bridge that has been in urgent need of repair for at least the last five years. Now that the state has finally gotten around to doing something with it, we’re met by the usual bane of construction everywhere. Before work started, the bridge was going to be open for the duration of the project. Shortly thereafter it was declared “worse than we thought” and promptly taken out of service – expected restoration time 4 weeks. Tomorrow is the end of the 4th week and the latest word is “wait two more weeks”. Then, maybe, we’ll be able to press one lane back into service for gods know how long. The detours, the improvised 4-way stops, the drivers who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground; those things would all be OK if in two weeks we had a good working bridge. Of course what we’re going to have instead is the end of the “preparation” for construction phase of the project and a bridge that will be open or closed on a completely unpredictable schedule for the foreseeable future. I get the distinct impression that I could be stuck in detours for the rest of my natural life.

3. Unknown callers. I’ve been receiving a call from an “unknown” number once or twice a night for the last three or four days. Is there someone out there who sees a number is unknown and answers anyway? I don’t. Hell, I don’t even bother to answer calls when a number comes up that isn’t associated with someone in my address book. Usually those are a one-time occurrence. No message. No repeat calls. Wrong number. It happens. But the unknowns, yeah, they just keep on calling. I’m sure they just want to sell me something so they could save themselves a whole lot of time by just leaving a message and then knocking it off. Messages I’ll at least listen to eventually. Spamming my phone with missed and rejected calls, though, that’s not going to get you anywhere. Sadly, I’m sure they only do it because some reasonably significant percentage of people they dial take the call and give these asshats the time of day. That makes those people just as guilty as the tools who are instigating the calls in the first place.

Known knowns…

The better part of a decade ago the then Secretary of Defense befuddled members of the Pentagon press corps with a discussion of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Love him or hate him, Secretary Rumsfeld had a certain happy felicity of phrase that made his press events a thing of beauty to watch. Believe it or not, though, I did’t log in tonight to talk about the former Secretary.

Instead, I came to complain about the known knows – namely that I know the weekend is ending in a few hours and I know even before Monday gets here that I’ll be working late tomorrow night. I don’t mean that I’ll be there until the small hours of the morning, but there is an unavoidable afternoon meeting that’s definitely going to step all over what is normally a very happy time of the day. In this case, it’s not exactly my fault. I inherited this meeting from someone who has moved on to practice other opportunities to excel and it was set in concrete long before it landed on my desk. I like to think you all know me well enough to know there’s no way in hell I would schedule a meeting at end-of-tour. That’s just not my style.

So that’s my known known before the new week even starts. It’s a fair bet that it’s a known that will annoy me for the rest of tonight and throughout the day tomorrow. I wish it didn’t. Things that screw with my carefully cultivated schedule are one of those things that bother me well beyond all reasonable levels. With all that said, the knowns aren’t likely to be the things that really jam up the week. It’s the whole host of unknown unknowns lurking right below the surface that promise to blow the week to hell and back.

With that said, I’ve got a bottle of wine to finish and a good book to stick my nose in for the balance of the evening. That should decisively keep both the knows and unknowns at bay for the time being.

For my next trick…

We all know I like to write. You don’t blog for seven years and publish a book if you’re adverse to putting words on paper. Writing is the best sub-minimum wage job I’ve ever had and it more than makes a run at what I’d do full time if I didn’t have pesky concerns like rent and groceries. For all practical purposes that’s a complete pipe dream, but it’s a happy pipe dream at least.

Since I took on the bureaucracy in my debut effort, the question I’ve been struggling with for the last month or so is what comes next. I’m toying with giving my short-lived teaching career the same treatment. I think there’s enough distance between me and that aborted attempt at a career that it could be fun. I worry that two and a half years over a decade ago might not give me quite as much source material as I’d like to have. I wasn’t as good at keeping notes of all the stupid things that happened back then as I am today.

Another option I’ve been kicking around is taking on the whole concept of leadership and management. God knows my brief tenure as a manager left me with enough material to at least get started on something interesting. Plus there’s the whole parade of good and terrible bosses that you encounter over the course of any career. That’s a rich mine of ideas right there, though I’m not entirely sure I want to stick with the business and career genre for another round.

Then there’s fiction. Maybe everyone who writes thinks they have the great American novel in them somewhere. I’m not sure I even have a proto-idea of what that might look like, but fiction is something I’d love to tinker with eventually… but I’d rather start out with the ghost of an idea rather than just a blank sheet of paper.

What’s the point? Yet another thing I don’t know. Something’s going to be next, but what’s that is just hasn’t occurred to me yet.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Unpredictability. Know what? I’m a creature of habit. I like it that way. I take great comfort that things are going to happen at a regular time, in their regular way, and go more or less like clockwork. Most of you have never experienced my Saturday routine, but if you’re a fan of the German railroads, you’d love it, because if nothing else, I keep life running on time. The foreseeable future, including my personal budget, work schedule, and general attitude is going to be highly unpredictable and mostly beyond my control. We spend our lives dancing to a tune someone else calls, but at least most of the time we have the illusion of charting our own course. These are unpredictable times and that annoys me to no end.

2. Market research. One of the great pains in the ass when it comes to electronic publishing has been doing the market research on the competition. This is especially true as I’ve started really digging through the “management and leadership” section at Amazon. As far as I can tell, everyone over there seems to think the secret to work can be distilled into “5 Rules” or “21 Steps” or be based on releasing your inner office ninja. Aside from Scott Adams and Dilbert, mine might actually be the only voice of sanity in this world gone mad.

3. Unknown callers. Look, if you’ve called the phone number that I’ve had since sometime in 2003, leave a message for someone named Christy regarding buying a new car, and I don’t call back, the solution isn’t to then call three times a day for the next two weeks. I know the simple solution is just to answer, take a few minutes, and explain that you’ve gotten something completely jacked up, but the more passive aggressive option is to go ahead and let you continue to waste time calling someone who will never, ever answer.

Hey new guy…

I’d like to say that the transition between career fields is more or less seamless, but I was struck today by the first inklings of the magnitude of the my current unknown unknowns… like how to print to the color printer. Yeah, I had to answer the one request the boss had of me today with “uhhhh… yeah… I don’t think I can do that… sir.” Sure, it’s not exactly a career breaking moment, but still, it was humbling enough to be brought low by office automation. And don’t get me started on the acronyms. I’m keeping a running list of the damned things to look up feverishly when I get back to my desk. It looks like I’m in flat out fake-it-till-you-make-it mode for the foreseeable future. I’ve been here before, though and vaguely remember that this part of the transition doesn’t last too long. Someday soon, I’ll even be the one spitting out unreasonably pronounced acronyms at the newcomer. Until then, it helps to be reminded that even the most humbling day here are better than being an allstar in the court of the walrus king. Such are the restorative effects of being on home soil.

Managing expectations

Through most of my life I’ve never been terribly good at managing expectations. Or rather I should say that my expectations tend to swing wildly from puppy dogs and sunshine to the absolute bleakness usually reserved for 19th century poets. And all of this over the span of five minutes. Sure, I’ve learned to mask both of them fairly reasonably, but still, that’s what’s going on behind the scenes. You learn at an early age that if you keep those kind of thoughts in check you can save yourself a good deal of trouble in the long run.

I like black and white, the known versus the unknown. Some people seem to have a natural capacity or even a bit of a love for the unknown. I’m not one of those. It’s strange and different and therefore scary. Far easier to retreat back to the comfort and ease of what we know.

Maybe I’ve chosen comfort and ease for so long that it’s really all I know for certain and it becomes my default setting. Perhaps, it’s time to to move beyond that. I really don’t know how the rest of the world deals with the dichotomy between blind optimism and abject pessimism. If there’s a trick I’ve got to learn it, because swinging from pillar to post is quite simply exhausting.