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Archive for the ‘work’ Category

The last time I worked in an office, I couldn’t wait to work from home. I had lost what little tolerance I ever had for endless meetings, and HR managers dragging everyone from their keyboards to play morale-building games of charades. Yet no sooner had I started working from home that I started looking for other places where I could sometimes work. The search continues, eight years later.

The trouble with working from home, especially when you live alone, is that you can easily spend days with no human contact. Yet finding the right work space elsewhere is difficult, too, since I would prefer to walk or cycle, and, although I want people around me, I don’t want so much noise that work becomes impossible.

Less than twenty meters from my door is a gazebo surrounded by flowers. Unfortunately, it’s in a courtyard where children are playing at most times of the day. Their parents are usually in the courtyard, too, idly chatting, and while I’m glad enough to talk to them when we meet at other times, I have been unable to convince them that when I’m carrying my laptop I prefer not to talk.

The same problem exists with the pool in my townhouse complex. I’d love to sit by the water on a deck chair, and dive in to do a few lengths while I’m working out how to word something, but, when I try, neighbors persist in asking what I’m doing.

Less than a kilometer away, there’s a rec center. It has an open area full of tables, which is often used by ESL tutors to meet their students. Unfortunately, it’s right beside the gym, where troops of adults and children are constantly passing. Also, every now and again, the staff decides to discourage people using the tables, so I can never be sure that the tables are available.

Not much further on are coffee shops. Unfortunately, one is too quiet to bother with. Another is wedged into a corner of the supermarket. A third has glass down one side, and by early afternoon feels as comfortable as a greenhouse, even on cloudy days.

Besides, I feel like a dilettante working at a coffee shop – and more of a bit of a freeloader, even if I buy something every couple of hours.

The best solution I’ve found is to sit in the shade under a tree in the local park, where I can hear the nearby stream and watch people pass on the sidewalk. However, when I do that, I usually drowse, leaving my work half-done.

Usually, the off-chance that I might get work done in any of these locations seems to small to gamble on. Instead, I stay by my work station, half-convinced that I am missing something somewhere, being productive, but convinced that by staying I’m one day closer to a curmudgeonly and lonely old age. Yet even that seems a brighter prospect than returning to an office job.

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Long ago, I lost count of the classes I taught and the talks I’ve given. The number, though, must be in the hundreds. I can remember only a handful in which I wasn’t nervous beforehand – and they were uniformly disastrous. At least for me, anxiety about speaking in public is normal, so over the years I’ve learned to cope with it.

Notice that I said “cope,” not “eliminate” or “reduce.” In my experience, you can’t eliminate or reduce what actors call flop-sweat, and you shouldn’t even try. I strongly believe that nervousness is unchannelled energy, and the trick is contain and direct that energy so that you release it while speaking, and give your talk an extra edge.

How do I turn that anxiety to my advantage? If the class or talk is especially important, and I feel even more nervous than usual, I make sure that I exercise lightly or moderately in the morning. The exercise bleeds off the excess energy, and leaves enough adrenalin and endorphins in my body that I’m awake and alert.

If possible, I like to eat lightly about two hours before I talk. I don’t want to eat too much, because doing so would make me drowsy. Nor do I want to eat so little that I’m thinking about food when I should be watching how my audience is reacting to my words.

I also want to eat healthily. If I eat junk food, then the sugar rush will be leaving me just about the time I speak. Fruit or fruit juices are usually a good choice, I find.

About half an hour before I speak, I prefer to find a room – or at least a corner – where I can review my written or mental notes about what I wish to discuss. Even if the material is as familiar to me as the ring on my finger, reviewing the notes gives me something to do and reduces any fear that I don’t know the material. Besides, I may discover something new to say that enhances my presentation.

If I am more nervous than usual, a short, slow walk helps. During the walk, I concentrate on breathing regularly, and mentally go over my topic. If possible, I try not to speak to anyone. If talking is unavoidable, I’ll be friendly, but keep my responses to a minimum.

Just before I enter the room where I’ll be talking, I may also do some breathing and visualization exercises. One exercise that has helped for years is to count ten deep, slow breaths, imagining each one descending to my navel and sitting there. Then I take another ten breaths, imagining as I exhale that each breath expands from my navel through my torso and down my arms and legs.

In another exercise, I repeatedly imagine myself drawing a line from my forehead to my navel, my breath following the line. If I am alone, my hand may actually trace the line in the air, almost as though I am closing a zipper.

Both these exercises help to calm me and leave me centered and ready to speak.

Finally, just before I speak, I take a few seconds to look over the audience. This habit convinces me that the audience is not so fearsome as my imagination made it. But I also imagine that all the nervous energy I’ve been struggling to contain expands like a sphere to include the audience and myself – and, with that, I’m ready to begin.

As I talk, now and then I’ll mentally renew the sphere, sometimes imagining smaller ones reaching out to audience members who seem disinterested. Perhaps it’s a selective memory, or the disinterested audience members simply notice that I’m looking at them, but the visualization usually seems to refocus their attention.

Perhaps this routine is part neurosis or superstition. However, for me it works, so I’m not very tempted to tinker with it. I don’t suggest that everyone follow my routine, but I do suggest that people follow their own. And if any of my routine works for anyone else, so much the better. With a little experimentation, you should be able not only to control your nervousness about speaking, but also use that nervousness to help you speak with more energy and confidence.

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When I was working at a startup, I arrived one morning to find several developers crawling out of the boxes in which file cabinets had arrived the day before. They had slept there after working late into the evening. No deadlines were looming, but they had done the overtime so they could get the full experience of a startup. From the look in their eyes, I could see that they had already started mythologizing the experience of sleeping in the boxes, even while they complained of aching backs.

For me, the scene has become a symbol of workaholism – compulsive, often pointless overwork. Seeing my busy schedule, you might have a hard time believing this, but it’s the kind of work I’ve always declined.

Nowadays, people are as likely to condemn such behavior in themselves or others. Yet I can’t see that workaholism has declined any, especially in high-tech. People may coyly agonize over how long they work, but for all the relaxation schemes they try, and all the aphorisms and rules they tape on their monitors, they don’t change their habits. Just as people trying to drop ten pounds never manage to get out to the gym regularly, or to cut their portions at lunch, so the self-proclaimed workaholics never quite manage a more relaxed lifestyle. Being a workaholic is part of their identity.

Only now they are recovering workaholics, and want you to know they are aware of their problem.

No one, of course, is going to admit that they are not working as hard as they might. The same corporate culture that claims to be sympathetic to these pseudo-addicts also tells them to give 110%, and to work hours of unpaid overtime. To admit to a desire to do less would be like saying that you aren’t a serious person, and possibly a liability for everyone around you – that you are, in fact, intimidated into making an effort that you would prefer not to make.

Such an admission is not compatible with most people’s self-respect. So instead of finding less demanding or more fulfilling work, they keep pushing themselves too hard, using the language of twelve step programs so they can dramatize their dilemma until it’s bearable.

As a coping mechanism, seeing themselves as addicts is much easier than actually working towards changing their lives. If nothing else, truly changing themselves might take a year or two because of their previous obligations, and as a culture we’re not skilled at delaying gratification. Call yourself an addict, though, and you have the perfect excuse for never changing anything.

If that is what they want to believe about themselves, who am I to argue them out of it? Yet I do wish that they would stop insisting that, if I work hard, I must be in the same position.

I can understand why the workaholics might think that. Like them, I work long hours – far more than the forty hours each week that once was supposed to be the norm. Ten, twelve, or even fourteen hour days are very familiar to me.

The difference is, unless I’m sick or injured or traveling, I rarely go as long as two days without exercising, and always take some time for myself.

Even more importantly, I’m as busy as I want to be. I wasn’t lucky, as they often say, to become a freelance writer. I took years to maneuver into my present position, Now, when I work long hours, I may have deadlines to meet. But I chose to take on those deadlines, and I meet them because I more or less enjoy what I’m doing.

Admittedly, some of the assignments I take on aren’t ideal ones. Nor can I say that, were I suddenly independently wealthy, that I would keep on doing exactly what I’m doing now. But I would keep much of present routine, and the rest wouldn’t be that different from what I do now.

Isaac Asimov said that he was once asked if he would rather have sex or write. He replied that he would rather write – after all, he could write for twelve hours a day. I don’t know that I would go quite that far, but I know what he’s talking about.

Quite simply, my work writing is fun. It’s not drudgery. I like it so much that when I finish my paid work, I go and write some more, either in this blog or on some other project. I enjoy putting words on the screen, and I see no reason for being apologetic about the fact.

Workaholic? Me? Sorry, when you enjoy it, work’s a healthy thing. Just because you haven’t learned that doesn’t mean that I haven’t.

I wish you might learn the difference one day; you’d be better off. However, until you do, please don’t mistake my definition of work for yours.

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Considering how much I dislike authority figures, I have had surprisingly little trouble with them in my working life. Maybe the fact that I am habitually polite in person helps – although it can also give rise to charges of hypocrisy if I criticize someone later in an article. Maybe, too, the fact my acts of subversion are usually covert has something to do with it, too. But whatever the reason, I only remember a single reprimand – and then it was without any intent on my part.

The incident happened when I was working for a small company that was being slowly ground under by its CEO. He was new and. while he was learning as he went along, he lacked the empathy to understand that repeated purges of the staff might have an effect on morale. I mention this background because worry among the top management might have been responsible for my reprimand.

At the time, I had the habit of entering small jokes into the screensaver banner – wry, mildly amusing one-liners of the sort you often see today on Facebook and Twitter. Most were so trivial that I no longer remember them. One might have been “Common sense isn’t,” and another (borrowed from Doonesbury), “It’s tough being pure. Especially in your underwear.” If I didn’t use either of these, the ones I did use were similarly innocuous.

So, too, I thought was the one that caused me trouble. It was a T-shirt slogan that I had first heard about at a Garnet Rogers concert: “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?”

I changed the banner after a morning of editing a manual for publication when I reflected that I was lingering over changes that probably no one except me would ever notice or care about. To me, the expression was a comment about how overly-punctilious I was being and how close I was to losing my sense of proportion. I posted it, and went for lunch.

When I got back, the fourth highest executive in the company accosted me with a look so grim that I thought another company purge had come. Instead, with lips quivering with disapproval, he insisted that I take down the banner.

“Why?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

The lip quivering increased. “I shouldn’t have to tell you. Some things are simply unacceptable in the work place.”

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that comment,” I said, secure in the knowledge that I had a consulting contract with a kill-clause. “What’s the problem?”

But finally, after the executive made a few vague efforts to talk around the issue without being specific, I relented. All I really understood was that he thought I had overstepped and that, more in sorrow than in anger, he had to correct my behavior.

“No big deal, if that makes you happy,” I said. “But you’re making a fuss over nothing.”

To this day, I am still not sure what he thought I was saying. I doubt that he was suggesting that I was making a comment on micro-management, because, if anything, the company management style was too remote.

The most likely possibility, since he was a fundamentalist Christian who had read little outside the Bible, was that he was unfamiliar with the term “anal-retentive” and jumped to the conclusion that the expression was obscene. Maybe he just felt that a phrase whose meaning he didn’t know should be deleted on principle.

But, whatever the reason, I not only felt that the matter was hardly worth bringing up, but that he had over-reacted. I had no point to make, and would have removed the comment at a simple request.

For a month after the incident, I had little to do with the executive. Technically, I was reporting to him, so matters might have been strained, but since his supervision consisted of approving the task list that I wrote for myself and collecting my time sheet so he could initial it before sending it off to payroll, the main difference was that we talked less.

Finally, he decided he had to discuss the matter with me. He claimed that he was the main reason I was hired as a consultant, and insisted that he had done the right thing, and expected me to agree.

However, I was in no mood to give him much satisfaction. “You over-stepped your authority,” I said, “But that’s in the past, so I’m willing to forget what happened.”

That wasn’t good enough for the executive. He tried to get me to apologize, but I simply continued to insist that we move on until he gave up.

We never did return to the relatively friendly relationship we had before. But, a few weeks later, I put in my notice, and the issue ceased to matter. Since then, I’ve thought more than once that the real sign of how anal-retentive I can be is that I’ve wondered occasionally since exactly what he thought was happening.

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The local real estate agent has always seemed a decent sort when I’ve talked to him. However, he has one annoying habit: he persists in filling my mail box with notepads and calendars that I will never use, because I don’t think the little things in my life should be converted into advertising. Today, he left a flier that included a quote that contained all the elements that I detest in Dale Carnegie and similar business gurus.

The quote was: “Did you ever see an unhappy horse? Did you ever see a bird that had the blues? One reason why birds and horses are not unhappy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses.”

Like much of what Carnegie had to say, the banality alone is enough to drive me screaming down the hall, banging my head against the walls in the hopes of driving the quote from my mind (perhaps I exaggerate). But such a quote passes for wisdom because it is short and makes a general statement, the way that aphorisms are expected to do. I suppose you could say that the quote is a triumph of style over substance; people sense the aphorism-like structure, then assume the profundity they expect, even though it isn’t there.

However, what really gets up my nostril about the quote (to use a wonderful Scots or Aussie expression I picked up from a live Eric Bogle album) is how sweepingly and utterly wrong it is on every possible level.

For the record, I have lived with four parrots for over two decades and I have seen my share of horses, considering that I’m a city-dweller. So I am in a position to confound Carnegie by saying that, yes, I have seen unhappy birds and horses. Many times.

I have also seen them trying to impress potential mates, sexual rivals, and the humans in their lives. They are social animals, and all social animals that I am aware of learn to do these things early. Many continue the attempts until their last moments.

Anybody who can assert that birds and horses are not unhappy and never try to impress simply hasn’t been paying attention. Both have enough sense of self that they have no trouble being unhappy (most often because they are being mistreated by humans) or worrying what others think of them. Moreover,they are in no way shy about revealing their feelings. It speaks volumes – if not flashdrives full of ASCII text – that Carnegie never noticed, and, this blindness alone disqualifies him from making any general statements about existence. I would sooner trust someone who had never noticed gravity, or was unable to judge an oncoming car’s speed well enough to cross the road safely.

Carnegie further reveals the shallowness of his own perceptions (or perhaps how sheltered a life he lived) in his implication that all unhappiness stems from the wish to impress. Hunger, poverty, violence, envy, unrequited love – you can’t begin to list all the causes of unhappiness without sounding banal yourself. But the point is: how could he have missed the falseness in what he said? Did he simply not care about the truth of what he said, so long as it sounded clever? Or was he so obsessed himself with impressing others that he was trying to elevate his own personality to the status of a universal truth? Either way, he reveals himself as an untrustworthy guide to any part of life, and unfit to dispense advice of any kind.

Personally, I work too hard to evolve a mental map of the complexities around me to accept over-siimplistic and inaccurate observations simply because their structure leads me to expect wisdom. Yet that describes every line of Carnegie that I have ever read. Next to him, Ayn Rand is a towering genius of literature; her prose may be tortured, and her world view is that of a failure dreaming of the esteem they would like to believe is their due, but at least her thoughts have some complexity and a relation – however distant – to observable truth. By contrast, Carnegie has only a superficial glibness that cannot hide his inability to say anything that is accurate, let alone profound. It says a lot about the business world (none of it good) that such a shallow thinker continues to be read and admired.

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The Geek Feminist Blog, which is always a source of intelligent reading as I start my daily routine, recently posted an answer to question about how to maintain self-confidence. The poster responded with suggestions, several of which were about how to boost self-esteem – for instance, talk to supportive friends, celebrate your accomplishments, and “don’t forget to be awesome,” which apparently means to feel good about yourself and what you do. However, what neither the poster nor most of the commenters on the entry ever seemed to consider is that self-doubt might have any advantages, or, at the very least, be preferable to self-esteem.

One of the peculiarities of North American culture is that it emphasizes the extrovert. In the popular conception, to be confident and outgoing is to be successful – and not just at one end of a personality perspective.

By contrast, to be diffident and private is nearly synonymous with sociopathy. Geeky high school kids, for example, are widely viewed as the ones most likely to gun down their classmates.

Yet, when you stop to think, both these views fall far short of reality.

Confidence is based on experience, on having gained an understanding of a situation or the ability to handle a situation. But the problem is that North America favors the appearance of confidence – especially in men – and is careless about whether it is real or not. The result is a culture in which, all too often, criticism is ignored and those who argue risk being branded “not a team player.” The dangers of risk-taking are ignored, because to doubt is to show a lack of of confidence and to reveal yourself as being less than leadership material.

Sometimes, the result pays off, because audacity can take people by surprise. But, if you look around business, more often the result is rash, ill-considered, or just plain wrong decisions whose shortcomings a moment’s reflection would have revealed.

For instance, I once worked for a company that brought in a CEO armed with the latest managerial theories. His inevitable response to any company financial crisis was to purge the staff. He would protect his officer team, but otherwise his purges were random. Frequently, he fired key employees who were the only ones who understood major parts of the software that the company was producing. Not that he meant to fire key employees, but the problem was he couldn’t recognize them and was just as likely to fire them as anybody else.

The result? Survivors were demoralized, because not even the jobs of key players were safe. Often, a few months later, the key players were hired back at the more expensive rates of consultants. Other times, the company blundered on alone, trying to recover the lost knowledge instead of doing original development. Four purges and two years later, the company sold its resources and ceased business. What looked like bold and decisive action to the board of directors in the long-term destroyed the company because it was uninformed.

By contrast, self-doubt carried to extremes causes indecision. But what few people seem to consider is that, kept within reasonable limits, self-doubt can be a healthy and creative attitude. Where the artificially confident plunge unthinkingly ahead, the self-doubter looks for information and considers alternatives. Afraid they have left something out, they ask for feedback from other people. Before they act, they double-check, and try to allow some flexibility. While they may miss opportunities that require immediate response, the self-doubters are far less likely than the self-confident to do something wrong – or, if they do, they may have a plan to correct or mitigate the problem.

In other words, doubting yourself can be a source of creativity and painstaking. In fact, of all the accomplished writers and artists I have known, and of all the entrepreneurs I have known who were successful over a period of years or decades, not one of them fell into the category of the artificially self-confident. They might have a facade of confidence, especially the entrepreneurs and especially the men, yet talk to them in private and you would be in no doubt that they were self-doubters. Some of them were not the most naturally gifted, yet they succeeded because their self-doubts drove them to compensate for their perceived deficiencies.

What I have suggested seems a paradox: those who appear most likely to succeed aren’t. Yet I think this paradox is central to creativity and planning.

Robert Graves expressed the paradox elegantly in his poem, “Broken Images:”

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

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When I was a university instructor, the semester was over by Christmas Eve.When I was a consultant, I could usually contrive to take the day off. Consequently, I’ve rarely had to work on Christmas Eve. But looking back, I think that the last Christmas Eve I did work was a major reason why I made the move into freelance journalism.

At the time, I was working in Yaletown, at a small software company that had limped along for twenty years without ever finding much of a market for its product. Realizing that the company’s time was running out, its board had hired a new CEO for one last shot at profitability. The CEO was full of management theories, and was fond of saying that he wanted passionate employees. At the same time, his core approach to leadership must have been modeled on Josef Stalin’s, because he had the habit of periodic purges.

In six months, the CEO had three purges. Between the difficulties of losing key information with key employees and the waiting for the next purge, morale was deeper than the Mariana Trench, and falling.

Having just come off two successful positions in which I had been in the inner circle of decision makers, I found the CEO’s antics hard to tolerate. My frequent thought that I could do a better job was not conceit – I had done so, and little credit to me. Frankly, anyone with sense could have done a better job than the CEO, too.

Surprisingly, the CEO sprung for a Christmas party. Looking back, I wonder if he calculated that, the office being in Yaletown, an ex-warehouse district where every block had half a dozen restaurants, most people would have put in a full day before the party began. More likely, he had simply read in one of his management books that a Christmas party was a way to win over the staff.

Whatever his motivations, the party was not exactly a success. The food was better than average, but the talk was about the rumors of a new purge, which made the occasion as festive as a school tour of a slaughter-house. Spirits rose a little with the gift exchange, but it seemed a dismal occasion compared to the one in which I had participated a couple of years earlier in Indianapolis. A few games of pool and foosball later, everyone had gone except the CEO and a couple of other company officers.

Still, the party had encouraged everyone to think that the CEO might unbend enough to let people go home early on Christmas Eve. But he had said nothing on December 23, so everyone arrived the next day uncertain what was expected.

The CEO showed up early in the morning, then went out. As usually happens in an office on Christmas Eve, most people made a pretense of trying to work, and the more conscientious actually put in an hour or two . But by 11AM, people were drifting between offices, leaning in door frames and chatting. Occasionally, they shifted positions so as not to be too obvious.

By 12:30, people were concluding that the CEO wasn’t coming back. In fact, he had left without a seasonal greeting to anyone – and no mention of whether people were expected to work the entire day.

Before long, people started to sneak out. By 2PM, the last of us decided that there was no point being martyrs, and exited together. I don’t think the CEO ever did learn what had happened.

Being a contractor, I noted that I owed two hours, and made up the time in the next week. But I kept thinking of the CEO’s abandonment of his responsibilities.

Perhaps he felt that he could not officially condone people going home early, and his disappearance allowed him to offer the holiday without officially knowing what people were doing. But, considering his purges, I doubted he had such a humanitarian gestures in him. I think he left early to please himself, and never considered the employees at all – and that his behavior was only an extreme form of what I had seen elsewhere in business.

Frankly, I was fed up.

I am not one for New Years’ Resolutions, but, that year, I promised myself that I would not celebrate another Christmas at that company. By next summer, I had moved on. But the company officers at my new consulting gig proved just as unempathic, so, with Christmas approaching again, I took the jump into journalism.

I have never worked in an office since. But this year, as I’ve spent a leisurely Christmas Eve going to the bank to pay for our latest work of art, then coming home to exercise and wrap the last few presents, I feel overwhelming relieved not to be in an office at Christmas. So far as I’m concerned, people like this CEO rank next to malls crowded with shoppers – both are things I’m grateful to be able to can avoid.

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