It’s 1991 and I’m in stereotypical mid-life crisis mode: What next? Forty looms just over the horizon; the empty nest lurks in the not-too-distant hills. Taking stock of my options, I am revisiting idle speculation about the ministry: Can I handle the position requirements? Sermon writing: absolutely. Public speaking: sure. Committee work: well, OK. Counselling and pastoral care: umm, maybe not. My explorations have led me to a woman qualifying as a minister at 40-something. As we sip tepid tea in a fast-food fair, she offers her insight into what we can hope to accomplish, in life and in the ministry.
We can’t fix people’s problems, she says. The best we can do is to be with them on the journey.
Not fix problems? Is she kidding me?
Be with them on the journey? Bah!
This touchy-feely, low-expectations talk doesn’t sit well with me. Task oriented (some might even say ‘task driven’), I like to fix problems; I want visible results from my work. Leaving the mall, I mentally scratch ‘ministry’ off my list. The next month I launch what will become a career in proposals and corporate communications: deadline-driven, output-oriented project work. Now that’s more like it.
Fast forward 10 years and I am watching in disbelief — almost in horror — as my department crumbles around me. A corporate headquarters’ relocation sees me in a new role in a new city. A new president wants his own person in the communications job, speaking with his voice, jumping to his priorities and his alone. A new sales manager first disses and then dismisses brochures and a website my staff and I painstakingly developed with the previous sales force. A new manager responsible for half of my old job sees no value in the information-sharing linkages I created to serve both halves: corporate communications, now her domain, and the proposal function, still my responsibility. Unwilling or unable to relocate, my entire team has left the company. Just two months after the move I look around and see nothing — not marketing products, not internal processes, not staff — that remains from my 10 years of work. Zero. Zippo. Zilch.
It’s been another 10 years since that move from Edmonton to Calgary shook my work world and I can still almost taste the despair that filled my days. Outside work, I struggled to find a new home in a significantly more expensive housing market. At work, I paddled madly to keep my head above a wave of new responsibilities inherited from yet another group that hadn’t made the move — work that more than took the place of the amputated communications function, at least by volume. Needing a new team to help with the paddling, I was stymied by the new office’s lack of hiring support. In my spare time, I grieved for this little death: the loss of my imprint on the company’s public face.
What do we say to people who think they’re indispensable?
Put your hand in a bucket of water and pull it out: the hole that’s left is how much you’ll be missed when you’re gone.
I hadn’t thought I was indispensable, certainly not: I’d just never imagined I was quite so, well, dispensable. Although I hadn’t left the organization, my hand had certainly been pulled out of the bucket. What was the point of my work through all those years? And what point could I find in my new work, knowing as I now did just how quickly it could all go south?
It was several months before I got the answers to those questions: several nasty months. Clearing storeroom shelves of outdated brochures (unwanted, anyway) to make room for Something More Important for Someone Too Important to do it himself (no, I wasn’t in a snit), I was reminded of similar sessions with my previous staff. In a decade of corporate communicating, we had gone through several iterations of our marketing materials. Out with the old, in with the new: it had never caused us any grief. Things had changed, and so did we.
Nothing is forever: it wasn’t a revelation for the ages, but it was the revelation I needed in my own personal dark ages. The brochures I was grieving would have gone the way of all flesh sooner or later, even under my watch. The processes I had developed to facilitate our work would have been superseded by better processes. The staff I had formed into a team would one by one have gone on to new endeavours. That’s life. What made it feel like a death was the compression of all these changes into such a short period.
What I saw clearly, though, for the first time, was that my work output — as important as it was to my bosses, my compensation, and my sense of self — was not what would last. No matter how my career went, after I retired no one would care about the documents I had contributed to, or the processes I had established. Then as now, what would last was the people and what we meant to each other: the challenges we overcame, the fun we had, the things we taught each other, professionally and personally…
Clarity takes effort, but it’s worth it; elegance, on the other hand, is pure fun.
Someone else’s job always looks simple.
Analysis may be power, but creativity is energy.
The big picture is nothing without execution. And vice versa.
Sometimes you wait, sometimes you drive it: the trick is knowing which time this is.
Other people see different things, as well as things, differently! No one sees everything.
If we can learn to be patient with others, we might even learn to be patient with ourselves.
Excellence requires thinking your task is the most important thing ever; sustainability demands feeling the truth of Balfour’s adage: Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all. Or as the moderns have it: Not all hills are hills to die for.
Blurring the line between work and play may not be the supreme accomplishment, as Arnold Toynbee reportedly said, but it’s pretty damn fine.
By learning to work together — solving lots of little problems and even a few big ones — we became better employees. By exchanging bits of ourselves — being with each other on the journey, if you will — we became better people.
It’s sort of the Zen of Project Management: Task-Driven meets Touchy-Feely, isn’t it? In the moment, nothing matters more than the task at hand: in our case, the document and the schedule. But at the end of the day or the week or all the months and years spent charging hard — all the moments taken together — nothing matters more than the human connections.