It Just Ain’t Sexy

Considering the value we place – in work in particular and in society in general – on starting things as opposed to maintaining them.


It is the early 1980s and our entire five-person Operations Research department is on our scheduled afternoon coffee break in the company’s subsidized cafeteria. The boss has just announced the latest organizational convulsion. The Software Department — not yet called ‘Information Technology’ in those primitive days — is being split into two sections: New Projects and Maintenance.

Who’s getting stuck with Maintenance?

Going for the laugh, I am also being entirely serious: software folk were already notorious for preferring the thrill of development to the drudgery of maintenance. After the break, my too-earnest-to-take-a-joke boss on this summer job pulls me aside for The Talk: Maintenance is just as valuable as New Projects. Both must be done and done well for the business to succeed. Blah blah blah. I don’t argue the point because I don’t disagree. My comment wasn’t about value but about attractiveness. Maintenance is necessary, all right, it just ain’t sexy.

Jump ahead 10 years and a friend in city management is commenting on the tendency to over-rate the contribution of special projects: A lot of management is just keeping things ticking along. Having excelled at both the day-to-day trudgery and the zoom-zoom of those self-same special projects, she might reasonably be expected to know. Even in municipal government — devoted primarily to maintenance of various forms, you’d think — maintenance is necessary, all right, it just ain’t sexy.

This phenomenon afflicts our public life in many areas. We announce new programs but don’t report on old ones. We build new bridges but don’t keep the old ones from falling down. We install water plants on reserves but don’t maintain them in running order. We overthrow repressive regimes but don’t stay the multi-generational course to build democratic capacity.

As with our public lives, so too with our private ones. We lose weight, but don’t keep it off. We redecorate and renovate our homes but don’t maintain a weekly cleaning schedule. We work hard to recover from injuries but don’t maintain the exercise regimen after we stop hurting.  We suffer through dental surgery but don’t floss every day for the six-month eternity between appointments. Or if we do manage to keep on keeping on, it takes every ounce of discipline we can muster. There is no joy in it, and not even much satisfaction.

Our apparent societal preference for New Projects over Maintenance is reflected even in our religious myths. The Hebrew Scriptures, for one, highlight the creation story, with nary a word about the after-market maintenance required. Even for the gods themselves, it seems, maintenance is necessary, all right, it just ain’t sexy.

Maybe we’re tuned by our biology for time-limited, build-something-new, get-in/get-out projects. After all, in a world in which life expectancy at birth was 20 or 30 years and people lived in caves, being good at maintenance wouldn’t matter as much as it does now, when so many more of us attain our threescore-and-ten-and-then-some spans within a complex physical infrastructure. Or maybe we’re tuned more by society, and could find meaningful variations across cultures or through historical periods, if only we knew how to look for them. Maybe as the Boomers age we will see a subtle shift in perspective, putting a higher value on maintenance in general as we come to terms with the higher maintenance our aging bodies demand.

Or maybe not. But in any event, as my city-manager buddy said, a lot of management (of work and of self) is about keeping things ticking along. So I figure: Whatever works. At my age, waiting for evolution to take a hand is unreasonable: I can’t even wait for societal mores to catch up with the gradual drip-drip-drip of my own physical attrition. And so today I’m announcing a new self-motivational program: Maintenance Reframed as a New Project. I’m starting by reframing calcium supplements, core abdominal exercises and twice-daily flossing as a make-over project.  If I can get through that, I’ll move on to a real challenge: reframing routine dusting as a redecorating project.

I’d commit to letting you know how it’s going, but that would be too much like, well, maintenance. And who wants to get stuck with that?

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8 Responses to It Just Ain’t Sexy

  1. Alison Uhrbach says:

    Oh, you make me laugh.. you and I are just TOO close … we face the same issues.. and obviously with the same thoughts.. shall we hold each other accountable for the lofty goals you set out?? I sure could use the motivation!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Holding accountable?? Are you mad?? That takes way too much stick-to-it-iveness! I do try to remember that there might be people who actually enjoy maintenance as opposed to new projects–perhaps resident in large organizations?–but it just seems sooooo unlikely….

  2. Wade says:

    Isabel, I hear you loud and clear, brilliantly expressed as usual. Having the attention span of a flea, I embrace new projects but as they extend themselves whether in length of commission or the demands of ongoing maintenance, I find myself looking around to start something new.
    Many of us also apply or in my case, have applied, this to relationships. Before finding love and marriage I called it an attention span problem. One of my wife’s friends who was single from 30ish to 50ish called it differently: the men in her life had a shelf life.
    My wife says no, but I think more of us have grades and shades of ADHD than we care to admit.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Wade – Well, it seems to me that many of the syndromes have ranges, manifesting themselves in an ‘extreme’ from that is diagnosable and treatable, but also in a mild form that is just irritating to live with. Maybe a bit of ADHD is useful for survival in some way – letting us cope with a whole raft of challenges in our environment – and it’s only when it gets carried away that it causes real problems.

  3. Susan Wright says:

    Oddly enough I do like maintenance, but only if it’s ironing or windexing the dog’s nose prints off the patio doors. There’s a zen-like peace that comes with doing a chore that ultimately results in something looking neat and clean. I must have been a charwoman in a past life; either that or I’ve got OCD.

    Thanks for the provocative post Isabel.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – See now, I get that way with tidying, but not so much with cleaning. Maybe because tidying lasts longer – maybe because I have a “place for everything and everything in its place” sort of mentality. Maybe we could work a swap – I tidy your place and you clean mine…. Now that would be zen-like, wouldn’t it?

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel: Trust you to come up with such a KISS idea and an idea whose time has definitely come.

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