Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Ahh, The Corporate Life!

OK—so now I know what the trouble is, since I’ve just given 14 minutes of my time to Tim Urban. Nor am I alone, since over 2, 736,000 people have given 14 minutes to Tim Urban. And presuming that every one of those people indeed listened to the end, that means that something like 700,000 hours have been given to Tim Urban. And since a full-time job usually is 20,000 hours yearly, that means….

…OK, mathematics is not my strong suit. But it’s obvious that a lot of people have done and are doing what I am doing, which is not getting down to business. Which means, of course, that in the time that I should have spent writing, or putting together the magnum opus that will be entitled A Year in the Poet’s Passage…well, what have I been doing? Procrastinating, by watching Tim Urban! And the title of his talk? Inside the mind of a master procrastinator!

Right—definitely the case of the snake eating its tail…..

Oddly, when I worked in the corporate world, I tended not to procrastinate. I entered work at a bit after 6:30, sat down and wrote a chapter of a textbook I was working on, and then started teaching an hour later. News flash—it will take six months, but you can produce a 200-page manuscript only by working an hour a day.

Urban thinks that having a deadline is the only thing that spurs the procrastinator to action. All well and good—but what about all of those situations for which there is no deadline? You know, things like “promote myself / promote my book” or “improve my relationship with my husband.” OK, I suppose I could write down a goal—goals were always big in the corporate world, as well as metrics—and say something like “by 31 December 2016, I will have a completely open, honest, sincere and caring relationship…” but why do I feel that’s not going to happen?

At any rate, I’m completely happy to tell you that I know nothing about Tim Urban, and why is that? Because instead running over to Wikipedia and finding out about Urban—and thus wasting precious time that I should be writing a blog—I got right down to work? And so now I have utterly nothing to say about Urban, which is a shame, since he is cute and funny—always a winning combination.

To a procrastinator, the biggest temptation is always just to do one thing before getting down to work—and that one thing, of course, will make all the difference in the world. I will, for example, check in on Tim Urban, and instantly be told that Urban has solved that old question—which has a formal name which I have of course forgotten, and I could check in on that too—of why God, all powerful and all knowing, allows really rotten things to happen to really nice people. There’s me, for example: why should I be afflicted with procrastination? And if I could be a “self-starter” at Wal-Mart, well, what’s bothering me now?

There is, after all, nothing like having a supervisor. And though my own supervisor had absolutely no idea of what I did—and neither did I—she did have to evaluate me once a year. And even worse, I had to evaluate myself, which meant that I would fill out a five-page Excel form, she would fill out the same form, and then we would compare. Depending on how completely ineffective you were at your job, you spent either inordinate amounts of time or no time at all in this foolishness.

There were several problems: in the first place, nothing I said about myself made the least bit of difference. It was the supervisor’s word that carried the day, so why bother? And so I routinely gave myself 4.5 to 4.8 rating out of a scale of 5.0—one does have to have a bit of modesty. My supervisor, of course, was giving me 3.5 to 3.8.

And that was the second problem: to achieve anything over “satisfactorily meets expectations,” you had to do something extraordinary. Oh, and you want an example? How about bring Sam Walton back from the grave?

Those lesser individuals among us who could do no such thing were stuck with “average” evaluations. That was OK, since everybody had an “average” evaluation, so that was in fact a good evaluation. So for an hour or so, my supervisor and her supervisor (yes, it was two against one) would sagely evaluate my “achievements” over the past year, and then address my…wait, what was it called? Oh yes, something like “area of opportunity!”

This was another cherished piece of the foolishness. Because I could never just be going along, putting in a solid performance, doing my job. No, there had to be some area where I needed to work, where I had to put special attention. In the last year, for example, my area of opportunity was “should integrate more fully with the operation and financial areas of the company.”

Did it mean that I should push boxes in the Distribution Center? Rustle up a few spreadsheets for Accounting? I finally decided that I would meet a few times during the year with the heads of both departments—both friends, both great guys. And so I developed, after each meeting, the basis of a “master plan.” The first, of course, was to establish a task force. Then to establish needs. From that we would have “directed actions”—I had no idea what those were, but it sounded great—and then “verifiable metrics.”

It was, in short, all pure hooey, the hooeyest of the hooey. After my last class ended at 4, and before I could sneak out the door at 4:40, I used my brain-dead wits to write the plan, which came in at 20 pages or so. And oddly, it was only when I was exhausted mentally from teaching for eight hours that I could produce the gobbledygook required for the plan. At any other time, my brain would have been engaged, I would have howling, the editor in me would have been slashing the landscape with a red pencil.

So I produced it, and then I bound it very nicely, and I handed it in—not without first resisting the temptation to bury, somewhere in the middle of the report, three or four pages devoted to the history of baseball. Or a detailed history of Adolf Sax, inventor of the saxophone. For I had discovered, actually, that one didn’t have to write anything original in my monthly reports (another achievement in my goal toward accountability). In fact, I never did anything but change the dates on my monthly reports, and never was the deception detected.

I was lucky, of course. The guys in merchandising had it truly tough. There was a favorite student, whose job it was to sell digital cameras. And sell them he did—first selling the 2 megapixel cameras, and then convincing everybody that they needed more and more megapixels. (Eventually, we were up to 12 to 15 MP—very useful for people needing to create murals, completely silly for the rest of us….) Then he sold the cameras as a fashion accessory: you know, the camera had to match the shoes and bag. He sold, in fact, millions of dollars of cameras a year, and then the iPhone came out.

The problem?

The iPhone had a camera.

And a great camera it was. Oh, and since it was a status symbol to have an iPhone, then why bother with a pink 15 megapixel camera? It was so much more cool to be seen using your iPhone.

He pointed this out in vain. He had met all of his goals for all of his years as the buyer for cameras—now, for the first time, he failed. And the metrics—that is, the sales—showed it.

Well, I never knew what happened to him, since before his evaluation came my termination. We are Facebook friends, though, and he’s still with the company, so it must have worked out OK. I wonder about it, on those days—surprisingly infrequent—when I miss corporate America.

Well, well—three pages, 1381 words. Satisfied, my master procrastinator? Now, may I please, please find out about Tim Urban?