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.

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