It Just Doesn't Matter...

Originally published 7/18/10

There was a 1980's movie with Bill Murray, where he was a summer camp counselor -- the name of the movie was Meatballs or something like that. Anyway, I remember Murray leading the campers in a chant of: "It just doesn't matter,..." because they were losing some athletic event against another camp.

Funny what sticks in your head, and can amuse you years and years later. I have a lot of movie quotes floating around in my head, just like that one.

Anyway, I'm four months into the sabbatical now, and I'm finding my preoccupation with all of the petty details that went on in my work life not bothering me much any more. All of those labels we used to use -- "He's good," "She failed," its all so -- fabricated. I mean, in the big scheme of things, does it really matter if you did a great job on that particular presentation?

While I don't believe that most people have the capacity for Machiavellian plotting (although, I've met at least one CEO who does...), it's puzzling how the structure of corporations, especially the roles for managers and professionals, seem almost designed to extract the maximum amount of life from people, and quickly facilitates the discarding of the empty husks when finished. It just doesn't matter...

I'm starting to gain some new perspective on all of this -- by being able to look at it more as an outsider and less like a victim of the system. Some of those criticisms that those of us who were in the rat race used to shrug off, have merit to them. Take some time and think about what outsiders observe, and don't just discard it as unsophisticated drivel this time.

Follow Up

Originally published 6/30/10

I posed the questions for this post in the previous post, and I as I re-read it, it occurred to me that the way we ask questions can prejudice the answer. For example -- one of the questions I asked was (paraphrasing): Can you fail at something and be happy?

Now, I don't want to get into a battle of semantics -- I'm not going to say it depends on the definition of "is", like one of our famous politicians did. However, the word fail is pejorative. Of course, it would be next to impossible to fail at something and for that thing to make you happy. At least if by fail you mean: you suck at it so bad that any layman would look at your performance and say you were terrible. You would finish in one millionth place out of a million participants. Under those circumstances, I don't think I could be fulfilled, although there might be some people that would be happy just due to the joy inherent in the activity.

On the other hand if by fail I was to mean, second best in the world ("If you ain't first, you're last! -- Ricky Bobby), then yes -- I do think you could be happy. Let's say you're the world's second best salesperson, or the the second best writer, or the second best in some athletic pursuit. Sure it would be nice to be the best, but in a planet with seven billion people, if being number one was the only way you could be happy, then we would have a planet full of unhappy people. And despite an occasional pessimistic outlook, I think we can all agree that the world really isn't like that.

That being said, I think I'll continue to accept my middle of the pack running performances as fun, satisfying and happiness producing, thank you very much!

What's a "Boom Wrangler"?

Originally published 6/12/10

According to Po Bronson's book, I gather a "Boom Wrangler" is someone who rides the crest of each boom, each fad, in the marketplace. The wrangler enjoys the ride, and is constantly looking for the next big thing to dive into.

As I read this description, it sounded a lot like a person who is a "learner", as was described in Gallup surveys that I took: first in YPO, then later at work. A learner is someone who loves to learn new things. A "Boom Wrangler" sounds like a "learner" on steroids. Of course the term "Boom Wrangler" sounds pejorative, but I'm sure a confirmed B-W can be happy, if they feed this need they have.

In those surveys, "learner" came out as my top characteristic (I think, it was at least in the top five). So I eagerly set out to decide if I was a natural "Boom Wrangler", who had somehow missed the "Booms" (like, dot-coms, hedge funds, selling mortgage bonds, etc.).

I've always liked trying new things, and my interest in most of the things I've tried, both career and leisure, has tended to peak and then decline over a span of two to five years. These are B-W characteristics.

As I read further, I decided, however, that this does not describe me. I don't line up in several areas:
1. I'm too risk averse. I like my risk in smaller, less scary doses. I'm okay with moderate mountain climbing, but not with jumping cars on a motorcycle. I'm okay with incremental career changes, but, up to now, have always avoided going back to the start and trying something completely new.
2. I've got too many things I definitely don't like doing, and haven't been interested in trying. Most of them involve taking social risks -- like being in sales myself, or going around asking people for money (donations, investment capital, whatever). Sure I've done some of that stuff in limited quantities -- I've had too. But they definitely aren't something I would be willing jump into with both feet.
3. I do actually have some interests that have had staying power. I like products -- like working with them, like making them better, like thinking about how to produce them more efficiently. I have always liked athletics, and continue to enjoy regular fitness. I like music -- at least my own particular taste in music. Travel, particularly international, is another preference with staying power.
4. My changes have never, ever been motivated by boredom. Almost always by that creeping fear and anger that I've discussed in previous blogs.

So, I can cross B-W off of the list of possible diagnoses. It sure is helpful to read other people's ways of thinking about transitions and what drives them, however, because I never in a million years would have ever come up with "Boom Wranglers"!

Fear -- Part 3, Anger -- Part 1

Originally published 5/28/10

Revenge may be a dish best served cold -- I wouldn't know about that. Reflection is also a dish best served cold, or perhaps 'detached' rather than 'cold' is a better way to think of it.

In two previous blog entries, I talked about Fear. How fear permeated so much of what I did at work. How fear negatively motivated me. How I had a kind of love-hate relationship with fear.

After nearly 9 weeks away from the source of the fear, I'm very aware of its influence and its and the degree to which it engulfed me. Even when I had the financial ability to quit work, I still was driven by fear of criticism, failure, labeling, and fear of so many other things.

In the last 9 weeks I've also become more aware of another negative emotion that was present in large quantities while I was working -- anger. Anger can be a useful emotion, when it drives us to act decisively and effectively. But like a lot of emotions -- too much of a useful or good thing can be bad. And I now know that I had to much of it.

My anger was mostly suppressed when I worked. But suppressed emotions need to find ways to escape. I had a few methods of coping.

1. Risk taking -- hey, I wasn't white water rafting the Zambizi River, or hiking in the backcountry in Canyonlands just because it was fun.

2. Escaping on trips -- to focus on something exclusively, and put aside the things causing the anger.

3. Listening to hard driving music -- I'd scream my lungs out in the car sometimes to let off steam.

4. A short fuse at home -- unfair as it was, I was transferring anger to my family.

5. Complaining -- my apologies to those whose ears I bent unwillingly to listen to a rant over something. I was more aware of this outlet than any of them, and tried to at least moderate it some....

So what caused the anger? I'm not as sure about that. Feeling trapped, perhaps? Any kind of criticism leveled in any but the softest way? Feeling unappreciated for having to deal with the Fear? Probably a bit of all these.

And don't think these feelings just dry up and go away the minute that the source is removed. My emotional reactions to the world developed over a pretty long period, during which there was very little deep change in my life. Those patterns will take some time to wear down and change. But I can feel them beginning to thaw now after 9 weeks away.

Here's to a fear reduced and anger reduced future!


Originally posted 4/16/10

I've decided that I'm probably a lot better at doling out advice to others than I am at identifying my own shortcomings and blindspots. Additionally, doing so is much more enjoyable than submitting oneself to self-examination or criticism. With that disclaimer in mind, tonight I want to talk about personal honor and corporate honor, and specifically what we owe to employers.

This post was inspired by a dinner I had with a friend, R., who is struggling with the core dishonesty that revolves around demanding commitments from individuals by representatives of corporations, who have no intention or means to follow through with rewards for a job well done. 

Let's start this with the posing of a hypothetical --
If a corporate representative (undoubtedly somewhere higher in the organization) asks an employee to make a commitment (for example -- take on a particularly tough assignment, move his family across the country, or step back from his current responsibilities in the promise of further development and the promise of bigger and better opportunities in the future), what does the individual owe to the company, and what does the company owe to the individual?

The individual owes the company NOTHING, particularly if the commitment was obtained under false pretenses, which it frequently is. Even if the manager in the company that extracted the commitment was honest in his intent, the corporation itself, may not back the manager, effectively creating a situation where the commitment was falsely obtained. The company actually has an obligation to the individual who went the extra mile on its behalf (or at least put best efforts toward doing so), but since companies are not people, there is no one to grab and hold accountable to a debt of conscience in such instances.

There must be a course somewhere (I think I missed this one somewhere along the lines of my education), where CEO's, presidents, and other senior managers learn how to pinch employees and extract commitments from them that are patently unfair and one sided. A typical example would be -- "I need you to commit to turning this mess around. I'm picking you because I know you are the best person to take on this challenge. But I need to know now, are you committed to making this a success." Because of the way that many of us have been brought up, with the notion that our word is our bond, we believe that a promise extracted under these circumstances is binding on us.

Too often, when the individual succeeds at the difficult task, often through much personal sacrifice and family sacrifice, the company (and those who run it) rationalize away the just rewards deserved for the extra effort. "That was in his job description", "He needed to do that to earn a chance to move up", and the ever popular "his salary is governed by market economics" most of the time, these are the words that are spoken to justify a muted reward. Better be prepared to be satisfied by a pat on the back.

If the individual fails -- regardless of the circumstances, he is certainly headed for the exits, with the only thing holding the company back being some small amount of additional sweat that they believe that they can extract in the individual's short remaining time. Or worse, senior management doesn't tell the individual where they truly stand, and so they continue to impress, perform and deliver results, despite the fact that in reality they are already 'dead men walking', already judged by those that make such judgments.

In this environment, how is one to operate? First off, make sure that all commitments are well understood on both sides -- what will you give and what will you get. And if you find yourself in a position where the commitment of the company was weak enough that they can weasel out of actually providing any reward for work well performed, then ask yourself honestly -- what binds me to honor a promise to an organization that proves themselves over and over to be fundamentally without honor. Then act accordingly.

Actors Playing Roles or Reality?

Originally posted 4/5/10

One question that has occurred to me recently is -- Is 'Corporate Life' reality, or is it a stage play performed for a limited audience of interested spectators? And does it become so real to the actors, that they truly believe it is real life?

I realize that this isn't very clear, but I'm not sure I can make the concept completely clear. So let me illustrate what I mean: When you are IN 'Corporate Life', every aspect of it seems sooo important. Do I really need to go to dinner that night -- of course, it's expected! What an incompetent 'that person' is, because they didn't know the answer to 'that question'. How we dress ourselves each day, according to the norms of the organization. Even the language we speak (Dilbert certainly has a field day with this one) can be seen as a joke - "incentivizing associates through EVA for the benefit of all stakeholders."  Yuck.

Looking at it from the outside, it sometimes appears to be an elaborate farce. We all are hammered into roles -- the mentor, the technician, the young ladder climber, the celebrity CEO, etc. There are real people underneath the surface, below the role, but we steadfastly insist on characterizing the people by the parts they appear to play rather then what they really are beneath the veneer.

What is worse, the better we, as the actors themselves, understand the roles that are available, the more we try to hammer and squeeze ourselves into them. Of course, there are parts that no one willingly takes -- the incompetent, the shirker. These parts are foisted upon unwilling actors by the other players, and usually only for a brief time before they are written out of the production.

And there are an infinite variety of these productions going on at different companies across the US (and probably the world). While there are strong similarities, each one seems to have its own nuances and twists of plot.

But I digress. The entire point of this post is to illustrate the difficulty I'm having in thinking of 'Corporate Life' as real. Reality seems so much - Bigger (for lack of a better term) than the narrow interests of 'Corporate Life'. When you buy into it to the degree that I did, you lose track of real life because 'Corporate Life' hijacks so much of your energy.

So maybe getting something 'accomplished' today is over-rated. Achievement, especially career achievement, perhaps isn't all that critical. Maybe catching a 3 pound Bass, or tickling a 5 year old, or spirituality should be elevated to a greater standing in a rebalanced world.