You’ve literally had weeks to get your shit in order. There have been countless meetings in which all the materials have been changed, changed back, and then altered a dozen more times. But for some reason here we sit at 4:45PM the day before the goddamned meeting starts waiting on “final final” changes so we can go forth and kill a few dozen trees in this mad quest to build the Briefing that Saved the World.
Here’s the secret I’ve learned after sitting through, easily, hundreds of very similar gatherings of the great and the good: What you have written on the slides generally doesn’t matter all that much. Conveying information isn’t about the damned slides. It’s about what you say, how you say it, your body language, and the connection you can forge with the person you’re trying to communicate with in the few minutes you’re in front of them. By contrast, 75% of the handouts you’ve slaved over are going to end up in the trash can. If your audience is polite they’ll at least wait until they’ve left the room to throw them away.
I’ve often theorized that if people knew how much time (and salary dollars) were wasted in the endless transition of “happy” to “glad” or trying to pick out just the perfect shade of blue, they’d rise up in bloody revolt. They’d be well justified.
I’ve been told on more than one occasion I “do days off wrong.” I’m probably guilty as charged. As evidence let me walk you through an example 8 day period…
Monday. Day 3 of a three-day weekend. Scheduled root canal surgery.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – Normal Work Days.
Friday. Day 1 of a 4-day weekend. Features an oil change for the Jeep and an eye exam with dilation.
Saturday, Sunday. Standard weekend procedures.
Monday. Day 4 of a 4-day weekend. Sit home and wait for HVAC service tech to show up.
Just now I’m filling my gullet with high test products from big pharma hoping against hope that I can stave off the aforementioned Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from turning into one or more days of mucking through life with whatever cold virus of the week is going around.
I miss the days when I took a day off to not do a damned thing instead of either a) hacking up a lung and feeling like ass or b) to be a productive and responsible adult homeowner.
Here’s a little advice from your kindly Uncle Jeff: Don’t say things you don’t mean. Like when you walk by someone’s desk and they’re eating lunch don’t lead off whatever jackassery is about to flow out of your filthy pie hole with a platitude of “not meaning to interrupt your lunch.” That’s exactly what you mean to do. I know it’s what you mean to do because it’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re giving the truth a head fake and then diving on towards whatever useless drivel you intended to spew all along. If you didn’t mean to interrupt lunch your actions would have passed two basic tests: 1) You wouldn’t have come by during what is commonly referred to as “lunch time” and 2) When you saw that I was engaged in the act of eating lunch, you would have said something like “Oh hey, I see you’re eating. Give me a call when you’re done.”
Instead of that, though, you first assured me that you in fact didn’t mean to interrupt my lunch and then immediately proceeded to do the precise thing that you said you weren’t going to do. Perhaps you can see where there is an ever so slight disconnect here between words and actions. It’s no wonder everyone in this damned country has trust issues. It would have been far better for everyone involved if you had just been honest in your intentions up front. It would have saved me from making a mental note that you’re a douchecanoe who doesn’t know falsehood from truth and it would have saved me the approximately 300 words it’s going to take for me to tell the story. So really, what you’ve done is wasted my time twice today and it all could have been avoided if you would have approached, said what you needed to say, and then departed the area in as expeditious a manner as possible.
In conclusion I hope that in the future we can all dispense with the meaningless and misleading platitudes and just get on with saying whatever we were going to say in the first place. We can probably all save a shit ton of time that way.
For purposes of this post I’m operating under the assumption that we’ve all gone through that awkward phase when we’re dating and actually trying to impress people. While things aren’t quite as awkward as that here in Cubicle Hell, there are certain moments when it feels like it is actually far worse. By way of example, I was stood up today. Twice. I haven’t found myself sitting quietly and quite alone at a table like that since sometime in the late 1990s.
The up side is that being stood up at the office doesn’t generally feature deep, painful rejection of you as a human being or potential sexual partner. It does, however, send the unmistakable signal that your time isn’t worth a tinker’s damn and that the one doing the standing up had something more important to do. Believe it or not, I can almost understand that. I’m a cog way down deep in the belly of the beast. There are absolutely people whose time is more valuable than mine. I understand that with perfect clarity and I’m fine with it.
What I’m not fine with is that no one even bothers with an explanation. Lord knows I’m not sitting around waiting for an apology, but a simple explanation or some acknowledgment that there was some intentional or unintentional pooch-screwing and that as a result your time was wasted would be nice. I have it on good authority that from time to time people may appreciate that kind of gesture. Some people, anyway. Others have clearly already been pushed well past the ability to give any additional fucks.
1. Meeting prep. My feelings about meetings are fairly well known and not at all surprising. As wonderful as the average meeting is, the time wasted just sitting in them isn’t the only thing that fuels my discontent. The real problem is everyone – and I mean everyone – seems to look for excuses to have a call a meeting. It’s like what alleged professions do to kill time when they’re bored or lonely. Add to that people’s natural tendency to take Mondays and Fridays off and most meetings stack up like cordwood on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The issue then becomes the inordinate amount of time a poor simple soul then needs to spend just to find and reserve an empty room that has all the required audio/visual bells and whistles. Getting that process done from start to finish usually takes two or three times as long as the meeting itself. To add insult to injury about 30% of the time once you’ve wasted half the day just getting the room itself, the crazy bastards that set up the meeting in the first place cancel it – or worse – they change the time, which leads directly into an endless cycle of wash, rinse, and repeat. The whole thing is maddening.
2. It could be worse. People who comment “it could be worse” as a response when situations go bad clearly miss the point. Of course it could be worse. You can always hit rock bottom and then start digging. Just because you can, however, doesn’t mean you should. Just because it’s not as bad as the worst possible scenario doesn’t mean it’s good and it sure as hell not something to be chipper about. Asshat.
3. Bad investments. I bought a house in December 2007. A month later the bottom fell out of the real estate market… and then proceeded to keep falling for the next four years before leveling off. You might have heard something about it on the news for the better part of the last decade. It’s only been in the last year that there’s been any progress towards clawing back a little of that value. It’s too little, too late. Even with the barking dog neighbors on one side and the regularly evicted neighbors on the other, I liked my house. I wish I could have boxed it up and moved it north with me. Instead it’s just sitting down there being a bad investment, bleeding me a few hundred dollars at a time. As much as I hate to admit the mistake – and making permanent the loss incurred – I’m ready to call it what it is, take my lumps, and move on expeditiously. What I lose in cash flow surely will be offset by the removal of the damed albatross from around my neck.
I’ve been trying to schedule a meeting since about 7:45 Monday morning. If you’re a regular reader around here, I think my general feeling about meetings is fairly well known. What I haven’t done, perhaps, is give you a glimpse into why I think they are enormous time sucks from which there is no hope of escape. The following events are true. They took place in the first week of August 2014:
-0745- Received email informing me that I had to attend a video conference on Tuesday afternoon.
-0750- Forwarded video conference information to the people responsible for scheduling such things.
-0900- Followed up via email with the people responsible for scheduling such things.
-1230- Informed that the people responsible for scheduling such things no longer had access to email.
-1235- Contacted the people responsible for scheduling such things via phone. Informed that there were no video conference lines available
-1245- Contacted the people responsible for scheduling such things in three other buildings.
-1430- Received confirmation that there were no lines available anywhere no matter how many times I asked.
-1515- Informed by person scheduling the meeting that they were moving the video conference to Wednesday morning.
-1600- End of Tour.
-0745- Received email invitation to newly scheduled video conference on Wednesday morning.
-0800- Called the people responsible for scheduling such things and was advised by all locations that I was SOL.
-1000- Contacted by the people responsible for scheduling such things to tell me that a line had become available.
-1100- Advised by echelons higher than reality that we didn’t want to talk about Issue #1 in a public forum.
-1115- Informed meeting organizer that I was not prepared to discuss Issue #1 and requested I be excused from attending the meeting.
-1200- Received email confirmation that I was no longer required to attend the meeting.
-1230- Released the one available conference line back to the people responsible for scheduling such things
-1555- Received phone call from meeting organizer informing me that my attendance was now required, but instead of Issue #1, I should discuss Issue #2.
-1557- Requested a “give back” of the one available conference line from the people responsible for scheduling such things
-1600- End of Tour
-1601- Looked around wondering if I had any of the slides left from the last time I had to discuss Issue #2
-1607- Threw my hands up in disgust and departed for the day.
Proposed Itinerary for Wednesday:
-0730- Check email to see if the people responsible for scheduling such things were able to give me back the one available conference line.
-0735- Begin looking for slides related to Issue #2
-0800- Swear violently and possibly throw something.
-0925- Fill coffee mug with fresh “go juice” in effort to stave off inevitable madness.
-0930- Wander halfway across the county to the place where they keep the one available conference line
-1030- Attend meeting and discuss Issue #2. Or not. Depending on what’s in my inbox in the morning.
-1200- End meeting knowing nothing more about Issue #2 than I did at 0930.
-1600- End of Tour.
So as you can see, my visceral hatred of meetings isn’t just something I came up with as an excuse to write a book. It’s a goddamned self defense mechanism.
Given the “constrained fiscal environment” and fuss made over the excesses at any number of government sponsored conferences over the last four years, the very word “Conference” has been formally stricken from official usage. No matter what you’re doing, no matter how much it smells, looks, and acts like a conference you can never, ever call it that for fear of bringing down the wrath of the anointed – and even worse, the attention of the Washington Post.
Despite the official prohibition against staging (and largely against even attending) conferences, there sure are a hell of a lot of people fully engaged in planning for and attending workshops, councils, boards, reviews, forums, and very large group meetings. Under other circumstances, they’d be called conferences and no one would bat an eyelash, but great pains are taken to make sure they’re called anything but what they are.
Now, I’m just a cog in this great machine, but when I see our most senior leaders sitting before Congress begging for permission to cut pay and benefits while they’re still allowing grip and grin sessions and a hundred other boondoggles to happen with a nod and a wink, well, you can rack up mine as a vote of no confidence. There’s plenty of waste in this vast bureaucracy… and most of those on the inside would be happy to point it out if anyone were going to take a serious swing at eliminating it. But while we’re still in the business of wasting time and money on conferences by any other name, citing payroll as a major cost driver just doesn’t pass the common sense test.
Walking out of the office yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice that six very classy eight foot by four foot, edge-lit LED, etched glass murals that had been installed while I built slides, scampered between meetings, and fought with our dysfunctional network. I immediately wondered how many man-hours of salary we gave up for that little beautification project. Then on second thought, I realized I don’t actually wonder about that. The answer would probably make my head explode.
1. Responsibility. As a grown ass adult, you have certain responsibilities. One of those is to be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there. That goes double if you’re going to try passing yourself off as a professional. Yep, sometimes that means you’re going to have to play hurt, or when you have other things on your mind. It’s the way of the world, so suck it up, buttercup. When you’re the only one impacted by your piss poor decision making skills, I say do what you want and God bless… but when your decision make someone else deal with the consequences, you’re pretty much just as asshat.
2. Rolling Stone. From the perspective of having any tact or class as an organization, Rolling Stone has basically let the world know for sure that they have none. Look, if they want to run a magazine with the Boston bomber on the cover, they’re perfectly within their rights. All I’d ask is that don’t hide behind the cover of being responsible journalists tackling a hard story head on. If they came out and admitted they put that douchenozzle on the cover because they thought they were going to sell a gagillion copies of it, I’d say thanks for the truth and God bless. They’d be right and it would collectively be our fault because we Americans will buy up those magazines by the bushel basket. The only reason that smug bastard is looking out at us from the newsstand is because we’ll eat it up and pay for the privilege. Rolling Stone knows that… and we live through another example of the citizens of this fine country not having the common sense God gave a goose.
3. Standing by to stand by. I think by now we all know how I feel about meetings in general. In a decade’s worth of work, I’ve attended less than a handful that left me feeling like they were time well spent. That’s situation normal in the bureaucracy. What really grinds my gears, though is the mentality that the average drone has nothing better to do than sit around and wait for the next meeting to start. Don’t schedule something at 11:00, then slip it to 11:30, then pass the word to wait and see, and to be prepared to stand by to stand by until further notice. In a world of 32 hour work weeks and 80% pay, the least we can expect is that the limited time we do have on the clock is respected and used productively. Or maybe that’s a bridge too far.
We have the same meeting every two weeks. I don’t mean just a regularly occurring staff meeting or anything, but rather a meeting where we all get together and discuss the exact same issue, come to the exact same conclusions, and then part company knowing full well that we’re going to do it again in 14 days just like clockwork. Nobody, myself included, has the intestinal fortitude to recommend that we stop having this meeting so it seems possible that it will continue on indefinitely into the future, just as it has been held for as long as any of the current participants can remember.
As far as I can tell, meetings are the great enemy of government work – probably work in any large organization. I’m not saying if we cancelled this meeting that my productivity would suddenly jump by 200%, but it would free up an hour or two every week to do something, anything that might be even marginally productive. After all, when what you’re currently doing is complete dead time, even a fractional improvement in how you spend your day is a huge improvement in productivity. That’s not even counting the morale bump that would come from permanently cancelling time sucks like this one. Of course the likelihood of any of that coming to pass is somewhere between slim and none, so if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting to go to.
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.