The Job Won't Save you
But what I was going to write about today is complexification.
I am good at my job and I don't always get it right. In fact sometimes, I make big mistakes. What I am good at is learning from these mistakes and improving my performance in the future.
I do my best to honour my commitments and be consistent and sometimes because of events and circumstances beyond my expectation and control I can do neither of these things.
This feels so fucking weak. Who am I to give anybody any advice? I'm not successful. You can see the attraction of writing a self-help book in the "Positive Thinking" mode. "Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway." Uh?! OK. Good idea (puts book down and continues to retreat from things that are scary). So I'm going to try to come at it a different way. This is something that I've come to realise, with embarrassing slowness. Why am I pussy-footing around this? Because. You know that thing where you put your hand if the fire and it's really painful? You learn not to do it again? Right? My experience with even tickling this subject of competence is that it upsets really clever people who are normally mild-manner. Oh, well. Fuck it.
If you attach your identity completely to your competency it will either kill you or make you very miserable - probably on the way to killing you
This kind of reminds me of that talk by David Foster Wallace - "Water", although that guy did kill himself (did he manage to take his own advice, I wonder).
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
One of the weird things that you realise from being a coach and trainer fuck that sounds like "CV speak" doesn't it. I actually have done the coaching and training thing and one of the things that you notice is the huge gap between what you tell people and what they hear. So if I say something like this, about attaching to competency, people are going to run it through their internal filters and probably the first thing out of their mouths is "you're saying that I should do a 'BAD JOB'?" Did I say that? Anywhere? That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying rather you should understand that your competence is not the be-all and end-all.
I once - hmm, this is a worthwhile story to tell here. I once suggested when I was on a course for Research Associates - were they called that at Cambridge? I can't remember something like that. Anyway researchers on short-term contracts who are treated as the lowest of the low. I was on a course which had an interesting lineage. It had started off as a course that the university had decided to give to it's academics about how to look after their careers - and so the university had gone out and found some trainers who did these kinds of courses - can you see where this is leading? So the poor benighted trainer started running through his powerpoint deck of "Think Positive" bromides about how to manager your own career (I don't know the actual content, I'm imagining) and the people in front of him either mocked him, or quietly seethed and at then end of the day - as all academics do, they went to the pub (I think they might have been in some town on the coast that actually has its own brewery) and there they did the other thing that academics do, they bitched and complained. But, possibly unusually, possibly because of the perceived status difference between them and the trainer, the following morning they did something rather unusual. They staged an intervention on their own course. They dictated what the course should be about - what they actually wanted to know (shit, the more I think about this, the more sorry I feel for the poor sod who gave that course).
The nature of delegate courses being what it is, I only remember three other things about it.
There was a very sexy French woman on the course, and the way she said "Waterbeach" will be with me forever
The trainer who took the course (I'm guessing it was a different trainer) advised us to "have a social life and interests outside of academia" - sound advice
At one point I suggested that one way of dealing with the ridiculous demands that our bosses put us under might be to deliberately do a bad job - the trainer said she thought this was a very bad idea.
And it was a very bad idea. But now I see, there was a kernel in the idea that wasn't bad because:
A bad job is not the only alternative to doing the best that you possibly can.
Here a couple more:
Doing a job of illegible quality. This is a job that's good enough to get by, but not so good that anyone is going to devote resources to attacking you for it and not so bad that it's going to attact attention, get you fired.
Doing a job of "good enough" quality to get you through this particular stage, so you can learn from it and do better next time - this is whole ethos of an iterative approach.
Ok, all right. I can hear the screams and wails of protest. You know what else the detachment from competence doesn't mean? It doesn't mean that you shouldn't:
force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
But as you're doing this, you should understand that you might fail. Because somebody has to (gah! How anti-self help is that thought). And maybe you should bear in mind, that even if you don't fail, even if you succeed, that might not be what you think it is. Maybe fulfillment really is, as the poet Philip Larkin said an "desolate attic.".
When you try that hard and succeed, don't be surprised if the people who haven't done as well find a way of tripping you up. If you try that hard and don't succeed - but let people see how hard you're trying, don't be surprised when people exploit the areas where you've shown weakness.
Because you should also know that there are some other people knocking about who've spotted that they're not that good at what they do - or have been forced to admit it - and so are spending all of their time and resources manipulating those who are still attached to their competence. In the language that Venkatesh Rao uses, and I'm becoming more and more uncomfortable with - these people who've figured this out are the "sociopaths" and the people who they are manipulating, who are still attached to competence are "losers" . The kind of people who are exceptionally vulnerable to this kind of manipulation by sociopaths? In my own experience?
Academics and software developers, they're the people I've worked with who attach most to their cleverness and competence. I'm sure it's a longer list. I'm sure there are people in the caring professions who are manipulable for just the same reasons.
This is a notebook right? A commonplace, so I don't have to have things in exactly the order they would be in a more "established" format, like a book or a talk. I have to keep reminding myself of this. So I want to end by pointing to this video from "The Wire".
"Fill your ass up" - I wonder what Freud would have made of that?