Archive for June, 2007

Yesterday, my superpower manifested itself again. It’s not a talent like a photographic memory, or an idiot-savant talent like being able to glance at a number and instantly know its square root (I’ve been called an “idiot” many times, but rarely a savant). Instead, it’s a usually dormant power, a kind of dedicated healing mode when a cold or a ‘flu attacks.

I rarely get a bug, but, when I do, my body instantly leaps to the attack. My temperature rises slightly, and my caloric intake rises sharply. Suddenly, I have an infinite capacity to sleep. This period lasts about twenty to thirty hours – maybe as long as two days for really virulent strains. Then, suddenly the mode reverses itself, my metabolism returns to normal, and I’m healthy again.

“Clean living,” I like to explain smugly when people around exclaim over my resilience, but I don’t really know. Perhaps it comes from some fluke in the crossover of chromosomes after all, making me some kind of third rate mutant.

Of course, crashing so throughly for a day or so could be inconvenient. But it almost never is. For about six semesters in a row at university, I finished my last exam or handed my last paper in, then retired to bed as soon as I got home. Similarly, yesterday, the ability manifested after I had met my monthly quota of articles – not my idea for a way to spend spare time, but economically convenient, all the same. My body seems not only unusually efficient in fighting infection, but, to a certain extent, able to hold off infections for a brief period as well.

I can’t say that this healing ability is what I would have chosen, had I been bitten by a radioactive hamster or fallen into a vat of nuclear waste. I’d go for flight, myself, or maybe eternal youth and immortality. Often, several years go by between manifestations, and I wonder if it’s gone or diminished.

Still, as I think how wretched I felt at this time yesterday, and compare the memory to how rejuvenated I feel today, I’m not complaining. Anyway, I make a lousy patient, and feel guilty when people do things for me that I can ordinarily do for myself. So, as super-powers go, it’s not a bad one. I just wish sometimes that it was more flashy.

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Martin Michlmayr, the former Debian project leader and recent Cambridge graduate, wrote to say that my dismissal of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as “simplistic hypocrisy” in a recent blog entry was an interesting contrast to the “glowing review” he had read on another site.

I answered privately, but Carnegie’s book has been viewed uncritically for so long — almost seven decades — that I think a public debunking is in order. So let me say here and now that Carnegie’s book presents a limited view of complex problems, and trying to follow his advice usually leads to psychologically dangerous behavior — two points that are often lost in his readers’ relief at being given concrete solutions to problems that concern almost everyone at one time or another. His advice is especially unsound in the IT department, whose members mostly interact in situations for which Carnegie’s advice is simply not designed.

You should never forget that Carnegie is a salesman first and last. And, like many people, he sees all situations in terms of the one that’s most familiar and important to him: being face to face with a potential customer, trying to close the deal. However, if you think for even a moment, there are many situations where this view is both inappropriate and misleading. Should you really see closing a deal as having anything to do with working on a group project? To the relationship between teacher and student? To a marriage? While you may find aspects of sales in some of these relationships, none of these examples are defined nor dominated by closing a deal — or, if they are, they are profoundly toxic.

The same is true of people. In the true capitalist tradition, Carnegie assumes that you can appeal to people’s competitive spirit in your effort to persuade. Yet, when you stop to think, even those who are competitive in certain situations hardly want to be so all the time. Often, other values like truth or reciprocity have a higher priority, even in the business world. Encourage computer programmers to compete, and they’re likely to roll their eyes. Ditto for graphic artists or researchers.

And just ask yourself who you’d rather work with on a project: someone who wasn’t outgoing but came up with original insights, or someone whose first priority was to be liked? Yet Carnegie urges that, in your efforts to be liked, you should hide your own passions in favor of echoing other peoples’, thereby cutting off the exchange of ideas that often leads to the greatest creativity.

The truth is that many situations require some give and take, even some temporary disagreement. But a person trying to follow Carnegie’s advice will shy away from conflict, even if it is ultimately useful. In many situations, trying to live by Carnegie’s stripped down sense of the world means that you won’t be able to function effectively. Outside the world of sales, being liked just isn’t the most important concern. Much of the time, assuming that it is becomes a dangerous and unproductive simplification.

Consider, too, the effect that following Carnegie’s advice can have. In his book, Carnegie stresses the importance of having a genuine interest in people, and genuinely listening to people. And, granted, diplomacy is a social grace. Yet if you have a shred of honesty,you have to admit that you will not have a genuine interest in some people. At times, you won’t even have a genuine interest in listening to the most important people in your life, because you are tired or distracted.

In such situations, what are Carnegie’s followers to do? Unless they abandon their credo, they can only lie, both to themselves or to those around them in everything they say and do, pretending an interest when they have none. In other words, they can only transform themselves into hypocrites. They are not just being polite; when you are polite you may not tell a boor that you want run screaming from him, but at least you know that’s what you would like to do. But when you are being a hypocrite, you add a level of manipulation to a relationship that is not only avoidable, but destructive to both you and the relationship.

Carnegie’s advice contains a fundamental contradiction: on the one hand, you are supposed to genuinely like people and encourage them to warm to you people, but, on the other hand, you do so only in order to manipulate them. Making a point of remembering their name, leading people along with a chain of questions that leads them to buying, letting people blow off steam so that they are calmer when you start addressing their complaints, offering upbeat praise, introducing them with a compliment that they will feel they have to live up to — all these are ultimately ways to control people, according to Carnegie, not things to do to develop a relationship for its own sake. So, once again, hypocrisy taints the relationship if you follow Carnegie’s advice.

Not that all relationships are between equals, or should be. But when you are constantly concerned with manipulating the other party, how can respect or any other mutual feeling enter the relationship? You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t despise a person you can always manipulate. You may even come to despise yourself for being the manipulator.

For these reasons, dealing with one of Carnegie’s followers can be a deeply frustrating experience. When you want a new perspective, often they won’t give one. If you want honesty or team work, you’ll be lucky to get it. If you’re used to not hearing a compliment unless it’s sincere, a Carnegie follower can momentarily lead you to think that you’re been extraordinarily successful — at least, until you realize that he or she says much the same of everyone, and the compliment is empty. In fact, once you become aware of Carnegie’s relatively limited bag of tricks, they become so obvious that you quickly stop trusting the person who uses them and start wondering what their hidden agenda might be. In the end, conversation, let alone working together, can become almost impossible.

Carnegie’s advice is not always so unhealthy. Some of what he says, such as trying to imagine yourself in the other person’s position, or allowing them to save face when you admonish them are solid people skills. Other pieces of advice, such as readily admitting you are wrong are also good advice — good enough to have come down over the millennia from Aristotle. But the trouble is, these nuggets are embedded in such an unstable strata of simplistic and hypocritical advice that they are hardly worth the effort of separating them out.

Unfortunately for Carnegie, all relationships are not a sales deal — and trying to pretend that they are is not only risky, but mentally unhealthy as well.

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After fourteen months of enforced inactivty, on March 7 I finally returned to a schedule of heavy exercise. Since I’ve been fanatical about exercise since I was in Grade Three, the return is a relief. It also has me appreciating anew all the benefits I’d almost forgot about.

Not wanting to place too much strain on my knees, at least until I discover their limits, I’ve developed two different exercise regimes. On one day, I run 5 kilometers and do 24 kilometers on a stationary bike at my local rec center. On alternate days, I run 7 kilometers and swim a kilometer. On both days, I do 100 situps, 50 pushups, 60 half-squats, 80 stretches with each leg, and roll a ball up the wall 60 times with each leg. Two or three times a week, I also walk between 1 and 4 kilometers. These routines amount to less than I did when I was running 9 miles a day, but they give me a good workout without straining my beleaguered knees unduly. They take up almost two hours a day, but, since I used to spend the same amount of time commuting before I started working from home, I have little trouble fitting them in around a productive work day.

The health benefits are obvious. I’ve dropped 10 kilograms and counting, and stopped worrying about the family tendency to hypertension. I need less sleep, which makes sense: I’m carrying around less weight and more of the reminder is muscle. I also eat less, seeming to metabolize the food I do eat more efficiently.

None of these are benefits to ignore. However, I’ve also rediscovered other benefits. The most obvious ones are work-related. I have greater powers of concentration when I work at the computer than I did three and a half months ago. Just as importantly, between swimming (which means breast stroke for me) and pushups, even the first twinges of carpal tunnel no longer happen to me.

And if I have a problem with wording or organizing an article, all I have to do is take a break and go exercise until I break into a heavy sweat for 10 or 15 minutes. By the time I’m in front of the computer again, I have either solved the problem or else found a couple of ways to approach it.

Alternatively, if I’m out of sorts, a bit of exercise restores my good nature and optimism. Some days, I use that restorative at the start of the day, so that I feel energized for my work. On other days, I save most of my exercise for when I’m finished working, so that I’m renergized when I finish working.

The only way that my routines haven’t worked out is in meeting people. Vancouver had a damp spring, so often I’ve been the lone occupant of the pool in our townhouse complex. Similarly, at the gym, most people are fixed on their own routines, and don’t communicate much with each other. But I don’t mind much. Exercise has always been a meditative-like activity to me, and, on the whole, I prefer to approach it alone. Besides, the daily benefits far outweight this small negative.

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Business experts always have an air of fantasy about them. Many give watered-down accounts of outdated psychology like the Meyers-Brigg personality test. Almost all give the impression that the writer’s experience of the modern office is either scant or years in the past. I mean, what other field would still consider a piece of simplistic hypocrisy like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People a significant work for seventy years? But while their sense of dislocation fascinates me, business experts can be dangerous and offensive — and never more so than when they are promoting the modern cult of the leader.

According to this cult, proving yourself a leader is the way to advance your career. If you are not a natural leader — whatever that means — then you should try to become one by imitating various role models. Some experts go so far to suggest that you should copy the fashion sense and behavior of those higher in the corporate hierarchy. The goal is to become someone that others look up to and admire so that they follow you willingly (that is, are willing to sacrifice their personal time for your business goals). Should you not appreciate this goal, the subtext always seems to be, something is deeply wrong with you (presumably, that you’re a natural follower instead).

Where do I start explaining what is not only misguided but also deeply insulting about this sales pitch? Perhaps the point to make first is that this advice is based no more solidly on research than creationism, cryptozoology, or any other junk science. Are some people natural leaders? Or is that just code for being aggressive and extroverted? Can you really become one by imitation? Or does such imitation simply flatter your models and identify you forever as a follower? What percentage of people who use these techniques succeed, and what percentage fail? The failure rate must be extremely high, since by definition there are far fewer leadership positions than candidates for them. And how does the undisguised opportunism advocated fit with the more laidback, flatter corporate structures of today?

For that matter, who says that people are just looking for a leader to follow? Many jobs in modern business, up to (and maybe especially) most management, executive, and officer positions, can be done adequately by the average eighth grader. Beyond the inevitable division of labor and the coordination that it requires, very few people require a leader — and those that do aren’t people you want to hire anyway, because they are probably untrustworthy.

Similarly, while it’s true that people are often looking for a higher cause to give meaning to their lives, most of them don’t expect to find it at work. They put in hours of over-time because doing so seems a job requirement and they’re afraid of being fired if they object. Just because they put the best face on such demands, that doesn’t mean they enjoy them. Most people know when they’re being exploited, and having a leader won’t inspire most of them to do anything except hide their resentment better. Generally, it’s only very young workers or those very high up in the power structure who have a mental stake in a business. For the rest, it’s a income, a means to an end.

Nor does the average person’s relative indifference to advancing their career indicate inferiority in intelligence and talent compared to those who are dedicated careerists. Some people prefer to stay in a position where they are competent or fulfilled rather than advance. Many prefer to carve out their own small empire at right angles to the main power structure, like the quartermaster or surgeon on a 19th Century sailing ship. Others see those in the main power structure as enemies, and more or less actively oppose them — unionists, for example. An even greater number seek meaning from something other than work.

But the worst thing about those indoctrinated into the cult of leadership is that their beliefs encourage an arrogant oversimplification. Ambition, to cult members, is the only legitimate aspiration. From that position, it is a short step to justifying everything you do and viewing others as stupider and less talented than you are, and yourself as a superior being (or, at least, a demi-god in training).

Such a world view may be comforting to you when you have doubts at night, but, during the day, it’s also likely to make you a damned unpleasant person to be around. I wonder, too, how many cultists have defeated their own ambitions because they made their goals a little too obvious and displayed their contempt for others just a little too openly?

Perhaps the rest of us should thank the business experts for making it easier to detect their cult members. However, I think this service is vastly outweighed by the disservice the experts do by encouraging the cultists in their worst behavior by flattering them with comparisons to samurai warriors and heroic Antarctic explorers, and by pretending their naked ambition is anything except the rather paltry egotism that it so often is.

And should you be someone attracted to the cult of leadership, take a moment to consider how many assumptions that are either unexamined or at best proved by anecdotal evidence are contained in the key message of the cult of leadership. Personally, before I guided my future by such experts’ advice, I would like more proof that it was well-thought out and based on solid evidence. Otherwise, I may be making plans on a very shaky foundation — foundations that could very easily crumble beneath me and leave me unhappy and, because of my arrogance, very much alone.

Of course, the experts would have an explanation ready for such failure. Probably, they’d say I didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t apply their ideas correctly. That’s the beautiful thing about closed systems of belief — for the faithful, they defy debunking.

All I know is that I wouldn’t do a relatively unimportant thing like buy a washing machine from a clerk who sounded like the so-called business experts. So why would I buy a philosophy of life from them?

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“Oh, do not tell the priest our plight, or he would call it a sin,
But we’ve been out in the woods all night, a-conjuring summer in.”

– Rudyard Kipling

Well, not really. I’m a little old for the Elizabethean sport of greengowning, let alone getting up and out before sunrise. But I admit to a romantic fondness for the idea of the old observances like the solstice — no doubt due to raising myself on tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Certainly, they’re more evocative than the empty cant of Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, those artificial holidays of the consumer culture.

Of course, with more people tied to their cars than to the land, the solistice doesn’t mean much to most of those around me. But, as a regular jogger, it means a lot to me. I run early in the morning, so all the year around, I’m keenly aware of the changes of daylight. And this year, the start of summer (called Midsummer by my medieval English ancestors because they reckoned summer as starting on May 1) has coincided locally with the end of rain and the first really decent weather all year, so the day feels worth noting, even if I don’t make the traditional observances.

Not being a pagan, neo or otherwise (or especially virtuous, for that matter), I won’t celebrate with anything more strenuous than rereading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or possibly hauling out Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel riff on Shakespeare’s play.

Still, all day long, I’ve been channelling Rudyard Kipling by way of Peter Bellamy. I know that oak, ash and thorn are simply a spelling out of “oath” in an alphabet of trees, but they’re still full of poetic mystery and splendor to my ear, and I can’t get Kipling’s words or Bellamy’s music out of my mind:

Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn good sirs,
All on a midsummer’s morn.
Surely we sing of no little thing
In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.

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In part of my never ending efforts to get out of the house for more than my daily exercise, last night I went to a meeting of the local Linux Users Group at the new Free Geek warehouse just off Main Street in Vancouver. I went away more convinced than ever that Free Geek is one of the more innovating activist groups about town.

Free Geek Vancouver, whose origins I’ve written about professionally, is the first Canadian implementation of an idea that originated in Portland, Oregon. Basically, the idea is to combine the recycling of computer equipment with education and the promotion of free software. For a nominal fee, the group will recycle computer equipment, taking care that it is disposed of ethically – and not just dumped in landfill or shipped to a developing nation where recovery of the raw materials becomes a health hazard to those who undertake it. Higher end computers are refurbished and loaded with free software like Ubuntu and OpenOffice.org and sold or donated to charities and other needy groups. Volunteers can also work with Free Geek for a set number of hours in order to get a computer of their own.

Officially, the group is run by consensus. However, if David Repa and Ifny LaChance, the two Free Geekers to whom I’ve talked the most are typical – and they seem to be — I’d say that it’s equally fuelled by apparently limitless supplies of enthusiasm and energy – to say nothing of a talent for principled promotion. Recently, for example, the group turned down coverage in a national newspaper because the journalist wanted to do a stereotypical article focusing on poor people who had benefited from the group’s services. Believing the story would violate the confidentiality in which they pride themselves, the group refused. Of course, with the coverage they are getting in the local media, they hardly needed the exposure, but many groups wouldn’t have resisted the temptation to compromise for the sake of publicity.

And the group is resourceful, too. What other group would turn having one of their members stopped with a bicycle cart full of computers on the way back from a client into an opportunity to enlist the local police department as supporters?

At the same time, the group is far from humorless. So far as I’m concerned, a group that claims to prefer “catalyst” and “primordial ooze” instead “founder” is refreshing in its refusal to take itself too seriously. The same humor is found in the movement’s slogan, “Helping the needy get nerdy since the beginning of the third millennium.”

Besides the resourcefulness and outlook of the people involved, what I like best is the way that Free Geek combines two activist groups that traditionally have little contact. Too often, social activists never think to apply their convictions to the software they use, and geeks never think of applying their equally high ethical standards outside of computing.

For over a year, I’ve been writing about the Free Software Foundation’s efforts to bridge these gaps, and I’ve even made some attempts to help in this effort myself, notably in an article called “Free software!” for the New Internationalist. Now, in Free Geek, I’ve found another group interested in doing the same.

I’ll need to think about it, but I’m seriously thinking that one of the ways I’ll be getting out of the house more is as a volunteer. At the very least, I’ll be sending a cheque once I recover from the shock of paying taxes on my sole proprietorship.

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Articles about dealing with a bad boss always seem to center on enduring the situation. They tell you to avoid being judgmental, to understand a boss’ situation, to find ways to relieve your stress – and to leave quitting or complaining as last resorts. The assumptions are always that you are powerless, and that you are the one who has to change. However, a few years ago, I discovered that another alternative exists. Instead of finding ways to cope, you can sometimes train a bad boss into better behavior, even if “better” only means leaving you alone.

The setting was a small high-tech company where I was working as a technical and marketing writer, attached – who knows why – to the testing department. The new manager was a small, fussy man, with a great drive to conform to corporate culture to further his ambition. On being hired, he went out to purchase dozens of books on testing and management to decorate his office, all cataloged with stickers according to his own system, and none of which I ever saw him read. His office was soon decorated with motivational posters, corporate toys, and the most elaborately color-coded spreadsheet printouts ever. The result was so stereotypically perfect that, when a film maker wanted the perfect corporate setting, she chose his office.

As I might have predicted from his mannerisms and office, this new manager loved being in control. He was always insisting on progress reports (which he had the right to expect), and trying to change priorities developed in cooperation with other departments (which he had no business doing). Despite the fact that I had defined my position, he started trying to micro-manage me along with the testers. He also showed an alarming tendency to hold meetings, one on one or as a department several times a day, frequently at ten minutes before quitting time.

The company officers were either clueless or frequently absent, so complaining to them was out of the question. Nor did the manager himself have enough self-reflection that he would have welcomed advice or criticism. At the same time, department morale was plummeting, and the manager was seriously getting in the way of meeting deadlines, so something had to be done.

No one else would do more than make jokes at the manager’s expense, and several seemed worried about losing their jobs. As a consultant, I had seen jobs come and go, so I was less worried and had less to lose.

If the department as a whole wouldn’t act, I decided, it was time for me to show some initiative and lead a revolution of one. But it would be a polite revolution, with never a raised voice – just a calm and firm insistence.

Instead of waiting for the manager to assign priorities, I began telling him what the priorities would be, citing interactions with programming leads and other managers. Since he didn’t know my job, or where it fit into the company’s release schedule, he was more than glad to let me take over. For my part, I had been largely setting my own priorities since I started at the company, so I wasn’t taking on any extra work. Once I established quickly that I knew what I was doing, and would meet my self-imposed schedule, he was more than happy to spend his time producing elaborate color coded spreadsheets of my schedule for his own satisfaction while I returned to being productive.

Avoiding his meetings was a little harder. Fortunately, my work frequently involved making appointments with other members of the company, so I got into the habit of scheduling these appointments around the same time as his meetings, giving me an indisputable excuse to leave. The only meeting that I didn’t try to evade was the weekly departmental planning meeting, which I judged legitimate and occasionally useful for my work.

The meetings just before quitting time were hardest to get around. But, in the end, I hit upon a compromise of attending them until ten minutes after the end of my work day. Then I would plead an excuse, such as a need to meet my wife or to go grocery shopping, and exit. If necessary, I was prepared to point out that, as a consultant, I got an hourly rate, so he should seriously consider if he was making good use of company funds to have me bill an extra hour for a meeting that could just as easily be held during normal business hours, but that fallback position was unnecessary. After three or four weeks, he was soon conditioned to scheduling any meetings with me at other times.

Throughout all these guerrilla tactics, I was careful never to have a direct confrontation with him. I stayed polite, and even joked with him, a tactic that furthered the larger campaign by encouraging him to think of me as an equal rather than a subordinate.

Outwardly, I was a model employee, showing commendable initiative. It was only inwardly that I was undermining his authority.

I do admit that I wished I could tell someone what I was doing. I became fond of whistling “The Black Freighter” from the Threepenny Opera, but, fortunately, no one else in the department was a Bertolt Brecht fan.

In the end, I gained what I had wanted all along: The ability to work unmolested by meaningless interruptions. And when the manager was fired after a few months for incompetence, I felt my subversiveness fully vindicated.

Some people are horrified when I tell this story. In effect, they say that I stepped over the line and didn’t show myself a loyal employee. But, to say the least, I would beg to differ.

No employee is being paid to obey orders. They’re paid for results, and this manager was seriously interfering with those results. While I admit that a large part of my motivation was my own peace of mind, what I did allowed me to better accomplish what I was paid to do. Besides, no job is worth unnecessary stress. For these reasons, I would have no hesitation in doing the same again.

Of course, being a consultant rather than a regular employee, I had the advantage of being more independent than a full-time employee. Also, I knew my job far better than the new manager. But my experience convinces me that most so-called job experts are leaving out some important advice for dealing with problem bosses.

Sometimes, you don’t have to cope. Sometimes, so long as you stay polite and show some initiative, you can survive bad bosses by training them out of their bad behavior.

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