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.

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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.

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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.