29 July 2008

On Mondays

Sometimes, you know it will be an inauspicious Monday before you even get out of the car and trudge up the hill to your office building.

Yesterday, I was running late and on low blood sugar. I had cooked up some spaghetti for our Monday and Tuesday lunches and doled them out into 4 plastic containers, trying my best to divide the spaghetti evenly among them (388 calories each). This activity kept me from eating my morning Cheerios, which really can leave me in a bad mood. To make matters worse, I could only find 3 lids, so I slapped some plastic wrap on the fourth container and figured I would take it to lunch that day in order to just get it out of the way.

I rushed to work, having left home about 10 minutes after I normally do. And, being who I am, I was stewing the whole way there over how late I was going to be. As I whipped through the rain-drenched streets, I nearly spilled my plastic-wrapped spaghetti container on the floor going around a corner, and quickly resolved to be more careful. I drove a little more slowly the rest of the way.

When I arrived in the parking lot at work, I juggled my newspaper, industry education textbook, umbrella, and lunch as I got out of the car. I finally settled with the newspaper and textbook under my left arm and the umbrella in my right hand, along with the spaghetti. This was my first significant mistake.

As I walked into the fierce wind, struggling to keep my umbrella from getting out of control, I made my second mistake. I thought I could certainly reconfigure my umbrella to limit the amount of surface area exposed to the wind, so I tilted it back. Not much, but enough to make my morning much, much worse.

A gust of wind caught my umbrella, jerking my arm back. I lost control of my lunch container, and my umbrella was swept inexorably to the ground. Fortunately, I had a tight enough grip on the handle of the umbrella to keep it from blowing away.

And, as I looked down at my predicament, I saw that my entire lunch had deposited itself neatly into my umbrella. Just then, a co-worker walked by. She looked at me curiously, and I can't blame her -- there I was, standing in the rain and wind, with my umbrella upside down and resting on the ground, and a neat little heap of spaghetti and meat sauce piled in it, while I held an empty plastic container.

"I swear there is a logical explanation for this," I told her. She just smiled and kept going, clearly impressed by my prodigious intellect.

It is very rare that I give a day up for lost at 7:45 a.m., but when I do, I always have excellent reasons for doing so.

27 July 2008

The Danger of Excessive Competence

I am not generally opposed to competence. In fact, I am all for it -- I like competent people since they can get things done well without an undue amount of trouble for all concerned parties. The problem comes, then, when a competent person oversteps her bounds and begins to become supercompetent.

It happens slowly, of course. At first, it is just a too-eager response to a manager or supervisor when they are assigning her to a task. She comes dangerously close to being enthusiastic about work, which is a trait that the system should have been beaten out of her between the 6th and 8th grades. By the time she was in high school, she should have developed a well-pointed disdain for any sort of assignment given her by anyone in authority. Something along the lines of "Ohmygosh, I can't believe you're giving me WORK to do" or "Oh, how sweet, you still think you are in charge of me."

And yet, somehow, she has slipped through the system with a modicum of her work ethic intact. Who knows how or why -- perhaps she was homeschooled, or maybe she just spent too much time with the wrong crowd. There is no point in flinging accusations and recriminations at this point; the barn door was open, she got out, and nothing we can say now can backdate the shutting of said door.

The important part is that she has begun to ruin her own life and the lives of her co-workers. Again, this occurs gradually. Her bosses, gratified by her willingness (and capability) to actually do good work without being coerced or threatened, do not immediately take advantage of her. They praise her, promote her, coddle her for a little while.

Initially, her co-workers are cautiously approving. They rightly figure that if she is willing to work harder, be more conscientious, and do her tasks more thoroughly, the team will perform better without them having to actually change anything. This may mean more prestige or better bonuses, and they don't have to do a thing to gain it.

But they, like our hapless hypercompetent heroine, don't see the long-term dangers of the situation. First and foremost, management will soon build up an immunity to her current level of supercompetence. This, in turn, will necessitate increasingly higher levels of competence if she wishes to attain the same performance level.

Worse still, managerial expectations for other team members will also increase. Managers will realize, "Hey! Our employees may potentially have the ability to do things correctly the first time, thereby increasing productivity, efficiency, and overall performance! Perhaps we should expect everyone to be competent!" Which, of course, is a death knell for the rest of the team.

Not even the excessively competent one is immune from the negative effects of her actions. She is constantly asked to do more and more things as she demonstrates that she is capable of getting tasks done. Eventually, her Outlook inbox fills up, never to be emptied again. She may block off an entire afternoon, resolved that she is going to be caught up TODAY... but she can't stop the e-mails from coming, and she sure can't stop people from marking them "urgent."

Her fate, then, is somewhere between drowning and suffocation, as she slowly runs out of time and enthusiasm. And about the time that she loses the will to live, she is promoted to middle management, where the circle of life can be completed. It is a tragic fate, but also somehow appropriate, as are so many of the most heartrending sights in this world.

14 July 2008

On Brush Thievery

My suspicions began shortly before Independence Day. At first, I was somewhat less than credulous about the prospect. After all, I thought to myself, who on earth would steal something so... worthless?

And yet, little by little, the pile of dried-out brush on the walkway next to my garage continued to shrink. Initially, I had attributed its diminution to the simple processes of nature. When I cut that brush at the beginning of June and piled it in its place behind the trash can, it had been resplendent with verdant foliage. As the weeks progressed, however, the leaves dried up and began to blow away, leaving the pile (I thought) a little less impressive than it initially had been.

My original plan of disposal was dependent on thrift, as so many of my plans are. I would borrow a friend's truck and take the mound of branches to a place of disposal, if I could
a.) find a free Saturday morning
b.) arrange for my friend not to need his truck that same morning
c.) overcome the revulsion in the bottom of my soul that arises every time I am required to pay any money at all for any goods or services that seem less than absolutely necessary (such as a fee to allow a forestry center to recycle my yard waste into mulch that they then sell by the truckload to interested parties)

So there I was, slightly less than a month later, and my three conditions still had not been met. Nonetheless, as I mowed the lawn that day, I noticed that the pile seemed to be getting smaller. And the more I thought about it, the less able I was to attribute this to the normal shrinkage of drying leaves. It was seriously smaller; I was able to get my lawn mower through to the back yard without my normal tortuous strivings.

Something was very wrong here.

Yet, as the weeks progressed and the pile continued to vanish, I was unable to find the culprit. Until yesterday, that is.

My wife and I were coming home from a friend's house, and as we pulled into the driveway, we saw a jeans-clad figure hunched over in the yard by our brush pile. I knew it was time to act, so I flung open the car door and raced over to the scene of the crime.

"Hi, Pat!" I said. "Nice day, isn't it?"

She looked up sheepishly. "Yes," she replied, a twinkle in her blue eyes. She brushed a loose strand of white hair from her face. "So nice, I thought to myself, 'Pat, you've just got to get out of the house and do something in the yard today.'"

"Well," I responded, feeling grateful and ashamed all at once, "I appreciate you stealing my brush pile."

"Aw, it was nothing," she said. "I have extra room in my yard-waste cans every week, so I thought I'd just help you get rid of this pile. Besides, what are neighbors for?"

What, indeed.

I love this town.