Saturday, August 17, 2019

Doing the right thing

I heard an interesting story recently. A new employee was involved in a pretty bad accident; it was the kind of accident that will have him on disability for a few months at least. His company doesn't offer insurance until after 90-days of employment (an archaic practice in 2019, especially in Nashville where there's statistically near-full employment). He was on day 88, meaning he had no health insurance. Since he was in an automobile accident, hopefully that will cover the medical costs. But that's far from certain.

His company fudged and said he as on day 90 before the accident.

There are a few things to unpack here. First, to even consider that was amazing. Without getting into details, his company is the sort that burns through people quickly (which is how they justify the 90-day thing, though I argue that 90-day wait period is probably a contributing factor to people leaving). The company is very profit driven.

Second, it's not easy to accomplish this sort of thing; and it's probably questionably ethical or legal. All the more reason it's amazing they did it.

Finally, to do this for an employee that you're going to turn around and lose for a few months is even more incredible.

The moral of the story is that the right thing is rarely easy, and you can almost always come up with a lot of reasons to not do it.

That doesn't change that "the right thing" is the right thing to do. Always.

"But what if there are multiple right things?" you might ask. In this case, the right thing for the employee was probably not the right thing for the company, at least in the short term. That company's reputation with the insurance company could be damaged if the insurance company presses the issue; actuaries don't like risk that's suddenly injected into the world. Paying to cover someone who is no longer a viable employee is risk. Lying to do so is a greater risk.

I believe, though, that when faced with the decision, doing the right thing for an individual is always going to be better than doing the right thing for the company. Companies are made of individuals. Lots of them. And at any time, each individual in a company could be faced with a situation that pits their needs up against the companies. I've seen this many times; a friend once stepped away from management because he had to fire a team member who accumulated too many "points" by being tardy too often (she took her mother to dialysis, and sometimes it ran long). I've witnessed managers do the right thing for themselves disguised as the right thing for a company. In almost three decades, I've seen a lot of times companies made decisions that were good for the company rather than the individual.

As you go about your days, though, ask yourself this: would you rather the company make the right decision for the company - and fire you - or the right decision for you personally?

And then use that in your encounters with others.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Mental illness isn't mental deficiency

This past week, Robin Lehner, a hockey player, gave a speech about his struggles with addiction and mental illness:

Over the years I've started - and stopped - many book or essay projects on this notion. I've experienced the unintentional - and generally well-meaning - bias towards someone with depression. You see it for all illnesses. My father, for example, was so incredibly over-protective of my mother that it made her life miserable. Coworkers who have a chronic illness are treated with pity. An admission of depression leads to a strong desire - maybe even a need, for some - to protect the person.

When you tell someone that they're really hurting instead of helping, it can damage or destroy relationships.

So what do you do if you manage someone with depression? Ask yourself what you would do if that person had cancer instead. If your reaction isn't more or less the same, at least in its framework, then you're probably on the wrong track. Someone with a mental illness doesn't want special treatment; they don't want your comfort. That can actually make it worse. Like any human being, they want to be listened to and to believe their opinions are valued.

No need for kid gloves.

But when days are bad, don't threaten to fire them, do show them your exasperation, allow them to work from home if that's what's needed. That's what you'd do for the person with cancer, right? You'd understand that some days the treatments are harder than others. They might need to take time during the day to get that treatment, and it might hit them harder one day versus another. That's how depression works, too. You don't need to be afraid of them, or trust them less than you did before you found out. And for God's sake don't talk about so-and-so as being crazy or insane; would you use similar language for someone with cancer? Of course not.

Take my advice on this.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Father's Day

I never fully appreciated in my life how much my dad taught me about the little things. He tried not to complain too much; it came out, of course, because he's a human being and human beings have emotions and concerns and get really frustrated with life. I was unhappy he didn't teach me all I wanted to know about cars and construction and things like that. What I didn't really get, at least until I was older, is how much he taught me about being an adult.

Being a parent is difficult. There's no end to the anxiety and fear that uncomfortably mingles in with happiness and excitement, often at the same time in ever-changing proportions. My father had to deal with a lot, from his own PTSD that you weren't supposed to admit to having in his generation to a house burning down that led to some financial decisions that had had ripple effects even to the present day.

Those are the things life deals us. Life is a one way street in a thick fog. You might have some idea what's coming up, but all we can do is try to be prepared for it. Good things happen. Bad things happen. Weird things. And we make those choices as best we can, and if it was the wrong thing, well, you can't go back and fix it. The decision was made.

I hope I have lived up to my dad's example. I hope in twenty-odd years my own son looks back on the effort I made and believes I admirably held up my end of things.

Happy Father's Day to the dads out there who work and stress and struggle, who face their fears and loves with equal passion.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

On the bicycle

On Saturday I did a long-ish bike ride out to a rural restaurant my wife had been wanting to go to: Pinewood Store and Kitchen. It's a place that prides itself on buying local and cooking in as healthy a way as they can; really, there's only so much you can do with a hamburger.

For the most part the roads had only a foot-wide shoulder, if that. I tried to choose roads with little traffic, but couldn't always.

A coworker and I were talking about cycling, and he said he would be too scared to ride with cars so close. I've thought on why I don't mind and have a couple of thoughts.

First, I trust my fellow humans to not do stupid stuff. Sure, they might not always be as safe as I'd like, but the majority of scary experiences I've had on a bicycle were at the hands of other cyclists (though the car experiences were far more dangerous). Nobody actually wants to hit another human with their car. Usually. Twice I've known for a fact the person in the car was not actively trying to not hit me. And once I've been hit (though it was a side-swipe, and I crashed into soft grass. I tried to chase the guy down). But, in general, people are fundamentally decent.

Second, stressful sports help me get rid of my work stress. I ride my bike and sort through all of the things going on in my head. I push myself hard when I get to something that really irritates me. On short rides I've actually finished the ride more stressed than when I began; but that's rare, honestly. Usually I talk myself through the problems I have and even if it's just an hour of riding I'm better off than when I began.

What's the lesson here?

Find your outlet. Stress is something that exists. You won't get away form it, no matter how rich you are or how stable your situation. It's a fact of life. That little prehistoric part of our brains was built in reaction to stress. We are the product of hardship. Some people will create hardship in order to have something to react to; don't do that. It's a dick move. Seriously. But don't shy away from it, either. And find that way to burn off that stress energy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Strange Dream

This post was started over a year ago. It sat unread and unregarded in my Drafts folder, and today I decided to read it. So here's a blast from 11/11/2017.


Here's what I remember about a recent dream.

I was late for a meeting and was punished. The punishment was that I had to take a shower; it was a stand-up shower stall and was in the meeting room. Glass doors and everything. Somehow I had to contribute to the meeting from that shower. I was naked. When the water came rushing out of the shower at an impossible rate, I was shoved out of the shower. Fast forward a bit. I finally broke down and said I couldn't work in that environment. When asked "what environment" I replied that I had to take a shower naked in front of my peers and the water came rushing out and I got flushed out. Worse the water was full of piss. I remember feeling doubly embarrassed by the realization that I had just told the world (at least, the people in the meeting) that I peed in the shower.

There's a lot to unpack there, and I won't try to. And at first I let this dream go; I put it aside as I fed the dog, ate my granola over skyr yogurt. Got dressed and drove to Starbucks. But that dream wouldn't leave. It stayed with me. So I thought about it, and I came to a realization.

That dream was spot on.

In my life (personal, school, work, whatever), I've always been prone to do whatever is asked of me. Need a task done? The answer is to have John do it. If I was on a group project and didn't agree with the direction we took, I didn't say anything, just went along with others and did my job. I go on the trips others want and I don't argue. Instead, in all of the above scenarios (and more), I am prone to later regret my lack of conviction. Sometimes the person we come to depend on is also the person we come to abuse. Not in a way we might typically recognize.


I don't know why I didn't publish the post; probably fear of retribution, though it turned out there was retribution without the post ever getting published, so maybe I should have just pushed that "Publish" button and rolled the dice. But after re-reading this, I realize that nothing has changed. I am still the go-to, still the person who gets told to do things with little regard to the actual level of effort required. In the year that's elapsed since I wrote those paragraphs, I have done my best to be a better steward of my own time and sanity. Yet as I predicted to my not-yet-manager in August 2017, I got a bad review because of trying to take care of myself, because that meant doing less work than before, never mind that I worked hard to communicate the need for resources and help to finish tasks.

Today is the day before Thanksgiving. I am thankful to still have a job; I've been reminded that depression isn't an excuse for poor performance, and I recognize that. So I'm thankful to have not been fired. I'm thankful for a family that I love, including a child - no, a young man - that is a long way away at college yet still calls his great aunt every week, still calls his grandfather, and still makes time to call his mother and me. I'm thankful for friends who will meet me for coffee and beer and let me use their tools to make things, including a mess. I'm thankful I live in a city that's growing and vibrant. Thankful for too much to list.

Yet like many humans, especially those with The Affliction, I watch the sunset outside and see much of my life in it.

Here's to all that suffer and all that don't.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The art of futility

Recently I looked back on my graduate thesis; it wasn't great, but it didn't suck. There was some pretty heavy statistics in it, a lot of survey work, and all of that was put through analysis by little ol' me. The focus was on the role of women in Japanese advertising. I think one of the reasons I've stayed dedicated to my wife for two and a half decades is that she sat for a couple of weekends and did surveys on hour after hour of Japanese television. That led me to go back to my undergraduate thesis that examined the history of journalism in war. That led to some reflection on the test I had to take to graduate college; we were given sentences and had to tell the author and work it came from. Even I'm impressed by the younger me.

When I compare that with what I'm asked to do now, it is somewhat depressing. The last time I had to do any heavy analysis of any kind was when I outsourced a team to India; I clearly remember nobody thinking my approach was right, and then, after it was done, getting praise because it had been. There is little need for statistics in my job; I would need some serious work to get up to speed on that.

This has gotten me to thinking on the value lifespan of education. Meaning, there is a point after which the things we've studied stop to be relevant.

This isn't a fresh idea.

Lately, maybe for the past year or two, this has been heavy on my mind because my son has headed off to college. I want to think I have given him the tools needed to not sit at a bar when he's in his late 40s and wonder if he did the right thing, education-wise. I want to believe he is more prepared than I was at his age, when for complex reasons I was doing something I didn't want to do in order to please others.

That's been a trend in my life. It's made for a decent career; managers like to have that person working for them who will do the hard jobs with little complaint. I am the human equivalent of the backhoe, always ready to work endlessly, tirelessly, until one day I break down. As I did last year, hard. But like the backhoe, the mechanics fixed me and I limp along digging those ditches day in, day out.

I don't want that for my son. As my father didn't want it for me. As his father didn't want it for him. Back and back it goes. Laborers, born with callouses on our hands to save the world the trouble of giving them to us.

Learning I have in abundance. Multiple languages. Books by the thousands. I've dug those ditches - real ones. I've replaced engines in cars. Repaired transmissions. Changed, in fact, every part on a car you can think of. I can tell you how to get from point A to point B in cities I've lived in, some not in decades.

Learning, I have decided, isn't what you build a career on. You build a career by getting lucky and having managers that let you go to a level where you, too, can surround yourself with people who have learned things.

Luck is the key to life.

Once, a decade or more ago, I sat in a meeting about level-setting job titles. Much as some insist otherwise, a job title is important, especially if you are born with callouses on your hands. In that meeting there were many like me. But what I remember most is the developer who stood up. See, we had been bought by another company, and it was time to level set. So the developer said, "I'm a Developer III, and I know that a Developer III makes X-dollars more a year than I make. Will we get that higher salary." Yes, he was told.

But that was  lie.

Rather than give him the salary due to him for his job, they gave him a job title that matched his salary. He took the Developer III experience and left. Because that's what you do.

Well, that's what other people do. I seem to just sit and take my beating.

Learning nothing, it seems.

It's the Atlas problem I have written of before. The Gods didn't relegate Atlas to hold up the sky as a punishment. They did it because he was good at holding up the sky and they needed somebody to do that. So Atlas holds up the sky and cannot be replaced, because without him the sky won't be held up.

This post is, if anything, a message for the managers of the world. Look around you. Look at your team. Do you have an Atlas? Do you have someone you can't let go of because they are so important to you? Take a look at them. Don't assume they want to be Atlas. Don't assume they like holding up that sky. Some do, for sure. Most don't.

When you find your Atlas, ask yourself if you're okay holding them back. Because that's what you're doing if you don't go around shouting to the masses that you have an Atlas. And Atlas is awesome. Atlas could do a lot if given the opportunity and the support.

But if you're okay holding Atlas back for your own success, that's fine, too. Just don't call yourself a leader.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

I don't get taoism

I have been reading the Tao of Pooh lately. Well, trying to. It's very enjoyable, but it might hit too close to home and I find myself reading it in short bursts. Perhaps the problem is that "home" is the general problem with my life, that thing I seek but have never been able to truly identify, a place I have but don't find comfortable. Pooh, so the book goes, is the perfect representation of Taoism; he is carefree without necessarily meaning to be. Because of his ability to live in the moment, he is at peace. Anyone who has watched Pooh for even a few minutes understands, and maybe envies, him for his general happiness. Nothing seems to disturb him, at least not for long.

Taoism's primary definition is that it cannot be defined. You aren't supposed to figure it out. Meaning will come as part of the process; filling an empty vessel and things like that. There's a Christian teaching that is along these lines: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Take the trouble of the day as it comes" (Matthew 6:34).

There are some fundamental problems with seeking the kind of peace found in Taoism. For starters, the practical things in life are practical for a reason. It would be great to live the carefree life, to float like a leaf on water, knowing we have no control over the currents of the stream or the wind in the air.

A leaf has no mortgage. Or a family to help support. No obligations.

There is no college tuition to pay. Clothes don't just show up at my house.

But the basic truth is this: stop worrying. That's nearly impossible for me; I have ambition, and even though at 48 (almost) it is pretty clear I won't achieve that ambition (at least professionally), I cannot simply shed that particular mantle. It gnaws at me. I'm not a conspiracy theorist or big believer in karma; but sometimes it makes a person wonder if things aren't stacked against me for some reason. Why rip a person's dreams away from them with no explanation or discussion? Perhaps the world has simply become evil, and it infects people I once considered friends.

I am Piglet combined with Eeyore. All this time I defined myself in that way. An anxious worrier whose depression is an obstacle no employer can get around. There are no Poohs around me, though, no Christopher Robins to accept me, warts and all. Only after reading the book did I understand that I should try to be Pooh, and I recognized that, to others, maybe that's what I can be.

This is what I will meditate on as I ride my bike down long, winding Middle Tennessee roads. I will strive to not need to strive. I will plan on not having to plan. I will let life wash over me as water over a rock.