Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays!

We are staying home for Christmas this year. Between significant anniversaries, family transitions, and Christmastime funerals,* we have traveled for entirely too many years running. It is wonderful to be with family, but 1500 miles of driving, a week away from home, and the inevitable accompanying colds and flu get to be a little much after a while.

Staying home means having the time to decorate the house, send cards, cook, and generally enjoy the season, at least in theory. We did manage to decorate this year, and we have definitely been enjoying the season. Christmas at home virtually guarantees a stress-free holiday.

I'm sure we will be back on the road next year. Which helps me appreciate this week even more. And no matter what holiday (or none) you celebrate at this time of year, the turning of the year has its own weird magic. With the dead of winter staring us in the face, it's a natural time to look forward and back at the same time.

Whether you are fighting the holiday rush, fighting over the last glass of wine at the family gathering, or nestled snug in your home, have a Merry and Happy, and whatever else you can manage.

* Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marking Time

Civilization is all about mediating our baser instincts with layers of ritual and indirection. Let's face it, many (if not all) of our relationships are based on what someone else can do for us, as long as the price is not too odious. But when we strip away enough of the dance to simply trade sex for cash, the veneer gets too thin for most people's tastes.*

Another place the veneer can get pretty thin is the timesheet. From the time I was fifteen, I was compelled to punch in, sign in, or log in at every job I worked, accounting for my time to the minute initially, and later to the quarter hour. Like toddlers getting haircuts, new workers generally find this practice horribly degrading and painful, and it often takes several years for the indignation to fade. This is because they see it for what it is.

After about thirty years of this, I found my indignation returning. I'm sure this is partially because of the type of jobs I was doing, and the accompanying changes in expectations. Dairy Queen paid me $2.50 for every hour that I spent cooking, mopping, waiting on customers, and making out with Nancy Jacuzzi in the walk-in cooler. After I clocked out, they stopped paying me, and I effectively stopped being an employee. They really didn't care much what I did, as long as I wasn't wearing the little paper hat.

Inexorably, job by job, that social contract changed. I was still expected to account for every minute that I was on the job, but employers expected more. Loyalty, concern for company property and welfare, unpaid overtime, appropriate wardrobe, abstinence from certain extra-curricular activities, and "other duties as directed" are routinely expected by employers, with no real change in attitude toward the employee. Admittedly, they pay more than Dairy Queen, but as the punchline to the old joke goes, "Now we know what you are, we're just haggling on price." In the most extreme cases, we essentially rent the best years of our lives to someone else. The final straw for me was my CEO calling on a Saturday afternoon, asking why I had not responded to the e-mail she sent two hours before.

The last four years have been the first of my professional career without timesheets, and it is hard to describe the difference. People still tell me what to do and expect me to be at work, but I feel much more in control of my own priorities and actions. Our focus is on results, not what people do with every minute of their day.

In the end, the real difference is probably inconsequential. I'm still doing what someone else wants in exchange for money. But the extra layer of indirection makes it easier to pretend we are all in it together.

* Mine included, in case you're wondering. On the occasions I've been compelled to visit "gentleman's clubs" for bachelor parties, I generally keep to myself, try not to touch anything, and leave as soon as possible. I think they are the saddest places on Earth. A stripper actually asked me once if I was "afraid of titties." True story.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Attitude is everything

A million years ago when I sold things for a living, the phrase "attitude is everything" was doled out like roofies at an NFL after-party. It made sense, right? You can't control anything but how you approach what happens, so might as well be positive.

While there is truth in the sentiment, I eventually realized that it was a euphemism for, "This job sucks like nothing has ever sucked before, and if you don't want to end up curled in the fetal position or staring down the business end of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, you had better get with the maximum false enthusiasm." Many of my co-workers combined this advice with heavy drinking, drug abuse, serial adultery, and/or stealing audacious amounts of company property and cash. I opted to quit instead, got divorced (different story), and went back to college.

I was really just never any good at the fervor-on-demand thing. The best I could achieve was an "Eeyore on Plavix" vibe that just tended to confuse people. I managed my early career(s) with the strategy of proving myself smarter than everyone else, certain that they would eventually realize my inherent superiority and put me in charge of things. Every occasion that I was proven right, and no apology was forthcoming, I considered to be a personal affront, and another token for my necklace of petulance. I would tell all who would listen that my bad attitude was earned.

I eventually learned that, earned or not, churlishness was not paying off the way I expected. It turns out that people are less grateful having their errors pointed out than one might think, and nothing good ever comes of winning an argument with the boss. They like it even less when you throw it back at them later. I relearn this lesson almost daily, but I'm getting better at catching myself before I utter some synonym for, "Told you so," rather than wishing I hadn't said it.

I found it also helps immensely to work with people you respect. It's a bonus if most of them are smarter than you. It took me the better part of thirty years to arrange that. Now all I have to do is remember what it was I was hoping to accomplish.