Where’s My Reality Show?

How often have you found yourself stranded on a desert island with no food, 15 sociopaths, and a full television crew?  Or what about that one time you lived for 3 months in a gorgeous penthouse apartment shared with 10 other people, all of whom were delusional, suicidal, homicidal or all three?

I love reality shows, but I want one that’s more, well, reality-based.  Lots of people work in offices, and I’m one of them.  The closest thing to a reality show we’ve had was The Office. Neither the British nor American versions made anything up; they just took what was actually there and exaggerated a bit.  There are millions and millions of us who spend the majority of our week days working in an office environment, and I think we deserve a reality show that depicts our life.  So I’ve created one.  Here’s my pitch for a new, guaranteed to be a success show.  If you are an executive producer, please contact me and we can discuss terms.

Project Survivor

Elevator pitch: The Office meets Survivor.  A competitive quasi-reality show in which contestants are forced to work their way through office politics and shenanigans until one person emerges successfully as the winner. 

Description:  Teams compete weekly to achieve meaningless goals.  The losers nominate 2 people each to go to Human Resources (HR), where one or more people are selected for right-sizing.

The season begins with 3 teams of 8 people each.  Teams include these types of members:

  • Aging Boomers who complain about everyone younger except when they need help accessing emails
  • Someone who never seems to do anything but still gets the credit for other people’s work 
  • A few people who gossip and trash talk everything and everyone
  • At least one person whose main skill is derailing every effort at organization and competence
  • A few Millenialls with loads of enthusiasm and energy coupled with a complete lack of people skills and knowledge
  • Several people with mad skills in one area only, and no interest in doing anything else
  • A sociopath who wants to take over every everything and doesn’t care who gets destroyed
  • A nurturer who spends all their time planning parties and pot lucks

Each week consists of 2 challenges. The first is at the individual level, with scores ranked by team.  The winning team will receive a reward or be given an advantage in the final team-based challenge. 

Individual challenges are based on office skills and situations.  For example, a memo-writing challenge would have each person handed a new, 2-page policy with 90 minutes to understand it and write a memo explaining it to staff.  Judging is done by a panel of office experts looking to see who can write in the most boring and unreadable style, and for the ability to white-wash negative information.  Other individual challenges could focus on stealing office supplies, staying awake during HR training, or creative back-stabbing.

The main challenge each week pits the teams against each other as they try and accomplish a strategic initiative.  Teams have 2 days to complete each challenge, and can divide up that time between planning and execution in any way they want.  There are some defined milestone deliverables where points can be won or lost, but the majority of points are earned at the end when the project is complete. 

It is exciting to watch as one team may spend a day and half arguing over project scope and roles, and then have only a few hours to actually do what was requested.  Another team may jump right into executing the project, and discover at the very end that they’ve successfully completed the wrong work.

What makes Project Survivor stand out is that the teams change every week.  After HR has decided on the right-sizing, remaining participants are reshuffled with a weekly reorganization into new teams based on no logic or rationale discernible by anyone outside of HR.  This upending makes the game new every week, and will keep viewers on the edge of their ergonomically designed office chairs. 

The core audience is expected to be the millions of people that work every day in an office environment.  A strong secondary audience will consist of telecommuters watching streamed versions of the show from their home offices while they are pretend to work. This show is bound to be a hit.   Please, contact me as soon as possible to discuss terms.  I desperately want out of office work, and am hoping this is my ticket out.

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Learning to Live in the Now

Remember the old story about the grasshopper and the ant? The ant spends the pleasant days of summer working hard building a nest and filling it with food, while the grasshopper enjoys the lovely weather and plays.  The two encounter each other one warm day and the grasshopper asks the ant to come and join the party; the ant declines.  A few months later, snow covering the ground and a cold wind blowing, the hungry, freezing grasshopper shows up at the ant’s door and begs to be let in.  The ant, sitting in front of a roaring fire with a larder full of food, turns the grasshopper away with a stern lecture about the value of work before play. The ant was clearly a total douche.

I’ve always identified with the ant (although I would share with my grasshopper friend.)  Years ago I made the decision to change careers to something that would give me more financial security, but less day to day satisfaction.  I decided my compromises would be made at work, not at home. To me, money means choices, and the more choices I have the better I feel.

My plan worked well; while I never loved my job, I always liked it, and more to the point, I was able to have that good life.  However, over the last few years my enjoyment of work has steadily declined to the point where I really and truly don’t want to be here anymore.  I’m at the age where looking for a new job is limited; few places are interested in hiring someone over 60.  That leaves retiring, which brings me right back to that darn ant.  What the story got wrong is that the ant would never spend winter relaxing by the fire with a good book.  A real ant type would be nervously pacing back and forth, thinking how safe is the food supply from being ruined by pests, and that there probably isn’t enough to last the whole winter anyway, and getting ready to go out and forage some more as soon as the storm died down. 

That’s the reality of being an ant: worrying more about what might happen instead of enjoying what is happening.  The battle wages within me, but I’ve come to a decision.  

I think…

Grab a bucket and start bailing

There’s a lot of chatter out there on the interwebs about the difference between optimists and pessimists, and if pessimists have been unfairly maligned. Traditional thinking labels them as the gloomy Gus’ and Debbie downers of the world, the people that see the glass as half full, those who are just resolutely negative. The new approach identifies “positive pessimists” as pragmatic planners who hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

I think the real difference is being missed. It’s not a matter of being positive or negative, but rather how much a person thinks they can affect the external world around them. Let’s call this the difference between passivity and activism.

An activist who is diagnosed with a chronic disease doesn’t go home in defeat, but instead researches treatment options, enlists friends and family to help, and does everything possible to improve their situation. Activist pessimists and optimists can be hard to tell apart because they are often doing the same things; it’s the reasons that will differ. An activist optimist will exercise and eat right because they believe doing so will keep them healthy and provide a better life. An activist pessimist will follow the same exercise and diet regimen, but will explain that it’s to prevent health problems from affecting them. The difference is subtle; the optimist acts offensively, the pessimist defensively.

The same holds true for the passive optimist and pessimist. Neither of them will change their diet and exercise patterns: the optimist because of a belief that everything will turn out fine anyway, and the pessimist because of a belief that “when it’s your time, it’s your time.” There’s an old joke that perfectly defines the passive person. An area has had a massive flood, and a guy is climbing up on his roof just as his neighbor paddles over in a rowboat. “Climb in” says the neighbor. He waves him off saying “No thank you, I have faith that God will rescue me.” A few hours go by and water starts lapping at the base of his roof. A helicopter hovers overhead and drops a ladder; again, he refuses, stating that God will rescue him. Eventually, with the waters closing in, he loses his balance, slides off and drowns. The man awakens at the pearly gates of heaven, in front of St. Peter. “What happened,” he angrily demands, “Why didn’t God rescue me?” St. Peter looks at him and says, “Who do you think sent the boat and the helicopter?”

The passive optimist believes that things will turn out well, and therefore no special action is required. The passive pessimist believes that things will not turn out well, and therefore why bother trying. These two groups have far more in common with each other than they do with their more active compatriots. Passive people are less likely to be strategic, because being strategic means thinking through possible scenarios and having plans on how to react.

Why is this important? Speaking as a life-long pessimist, I’ve caught my share (and more) of grief for raising “what if” questions. I approach new things or ideas by first trying to disprove them, working my way around the edges looking for soft spots. It’s disconcerting to be perceived as that person always trying to ruin the party. Then there is the body of work suggesting that pessimists get sicker and die younger because of their negative views.

I never felt that the traditional description of a pessimist fit me. While I’m more than willing to entertain “the dark side” doing so has never deterred me from moving forward with a plan to lesson the impact of that worst-case scenario. There are a lot of people out there like me; we aren’t afraid to consider negative possibilities, and then we work like hell in the hope we can either stop them or mitigate their impact.

The revelation for me was realizing that the more important distinction was between those folks who put their hands up to do something versus the ones who sit and wait for someone else to do it. The underlying reasons why are less important.

Daily Prompt: Party Animals (?) – A fairly tame animal…

After spending time with a group of people, do you feel energized and ready for anything or do you want to hide in the corner with a good book?

Ever been Myers-Briggs tested? This question gets to the heart of one of the indicators used in that test – whether you’re an introvert or extrovert.  I took this test as part of work-related training, and this is exactly how the I (introvert) versus E (extrovert) designation was described.  The question is about how you recharge your personal “batteries”; with quiet isolation or through interaction and exposure to others.

I fall within the E range, but on the low side.  When I’m feeling low and depressed I want to see other people, but there are also times where I need a bit of solitude; it’s about a 75% to 25% ratio.  I’ll take a book or my computer and head out to a coffee house.  Just being around other people makes me feel better, even if the only conversation I have the entire time I’m there is with person who hands me my drink.  I love being in a city, but I’ll also look for the quiet places where you don’t see other people.

My favorite type of vacation is to go to another city and spend a few days exploring it.  When Rick was alive we did this a few times every year.  We’d see music, go to a few museums, find the local brewpubs, see baseball games; but mostly we’d spend time just walking around and encountering new people and places.  Neither of us ever wanted to spend a vacation in quiet solitude in a cabin up North.

The really interesting thing about the introvert/extrovert alignment of people is how relevant it is to understanding and getting along with people.  When I was introduced to the Myers-Briggs test, it was an eye opener.   I worked in IT, an industry that attracts a far greater number of introverts than extroverts.  It was a constant struggle for me to figure out how to work with people on projects.  When handed a problem, my gut instinct was for everyone to go off somewhere and talk it through. I love fast, rapid-fire back and forth conversations where people feed off each others ideas and quickly put forth new ones.  When I’m working through a problem or trying to come up with a solution, I need to talk it through with people.

Most of the people I worked with in IT were the opposite.  They wanted to go off to a quiet, isolated space, shut the door and work through everything first.  For the introverts, ideas are processed internally, thought through, and carefully considered before sharing.  The result of those very different styles was that I spent a lot of time chasing people down, trying to talk with them, while they were just as busy running from me.

What I learned is how to respect and understand the value that each type of person brings.  My friends and colleagues who spend their vacations in quiet solitude come back refreshed and energized, just as I do after spending several days in a new city.

When I’m working with individuals who need solitude to refresh and recharge, I do a few things to make sure they can get that solitude.  I don’t hand out materials at a meeting and expect an instant response; I distribute them ahead of time to make sure people have time to review them in private and then be ready to give a response.  In meetings where planning or idea generation is needed, I get input by going around in a circle, so the quieter people can know when their turn will be.  I often have people write things down and then read it back to the group.  Most of all, whenever possible, I make sure that final decisions are delayed to a later point in time; often the people who need that solitude to recharge and refresh also need it to reflect, and their insights and thoughts are best when they are given time outside of a group to do so.

For me personally, I realize that I’ll never be that person who lives all alone in a small cottage and writes a beautiful memoir of my year in (fill in the blank: Ireland, Tuscany, Northern Wisconsin, the coast of Maine).  No, if I ever get the chance to do something like that it will be the story of my year living in mid-town Manhattan.

When Rick was alive we’d often talk about becoming snowbirds, those people who leave Wisconsin in the winter.  Our ideal was to spend the winter in New Orleans and San Francisco, surrounded by noise and people and music and activity; but then to spend a few weeks in Kauai, on the quiet and remote Northern end of the island.  That would be the perfect blend for me; most of the time in crowded, noisy people-rich cities, with a small dip into a serene and quiet small-town rural area.

That dream is still alive, but in the meantime I’ll meet my 75 – 25 need for interaction versus solitude by living in a central city neighborhood of a small city.

Stupid answers to snappy interview questions

It’s easy to find information on what to do when applying for jobs and how to shine during interviews.  What about the job you apply for but really don’t want?   How can you be sure to come across poorly, but in a way that isn’t obvious?  Maybe your folks are paying the rent and you really don’t want that to stop, or perhaps you’re holding out for that dream job but need to look busy in the meantime. 

I’m here to help, based on my on-the-job experience in reviewing applications and participating in interviews.  Where I work we add a kind of essay requirement to the higher level job listings.  Nothing too hard, just 2 or 3 questions that give the applicants a chance to address direct expectations of the job.  People who do well at the first interview are asked back for a less formal peer interview.

I need to mention that these hints apply only to high-level positions with expectations of strong skills in written and verbal communication and the ability to do well leading groups of people.

  1. Blow off the essay by answering “check resume” for each question.  If your potential new employer wants to know anything more they can ask you.  Besides, writing is hard work.
  2. Answer the questions but submit a very poorly written essay.  Look, just because you’re applying for a job where writing skills are expected is no reason to proof read what you submit.  Include spelling and syntax errors, ignore basic grammar, and  make sure that apart from stylistic concerns what you write doesn’t make sense.  Bonus points for having similar errors in your resume.
  3. Ignore the questions in the essay.  Write what you’d like to say and just forget about what was being requested.   The more bizarre the better.
  4. Come across like an arrogant jerk.  I can’t emphasize enough what a great strategy this is, and it works equally well in written materials and interviews.  Be sure and tell everyone how you can’t wait to show them better ways of doing everything they are currently doing.
  5. At the end of the first interview ask what the salary will be, and be sure and mention that you would expect to be on the high end of the pay range for the position.
  6. Act surprised that an interview is going on.  As each question is asked, appear puzzled and somewhat offput that you were questioned.  Mumble answers while looking down.
  7. During the peer interview, talk down to the people who just might be your co-workers.  Make sure they get how superior you are to any of them.
  8. Trash talk your current employer, past employers, the company where you’re interviewing, and pretty much everyone and everything.  Putting other people down always reflects well on the person doing the insulting.
  9. During interviews pay no attention to what the interviewers are asking; ignore requests for specific information and just talk about whatever you feel like.
  10. When given a chance to ask questions of the people doing the same job you might be hired for, ask questions about everything but the actual job.  Ask if there’s a softball team, or where people go after work, or how easy it is to leave early.

Snappy answers to stupid interview questions

There are few things in life more stressful than going through the interview process for a job, especially if you’re in the position of being out of work. I’ve been on both sides of the table, and retain sharp memories of the awfulness of being on the other side.

I never minded answering the good questions, the ones that were appropriate to the job and provided a way for the interviewers to get a sense of my abilities. What always bothered me were the questions designed to ambush a person or, worse, the ones that were just plain stupid. You know the ones I mean – those stock questions that make you groan inside when you hear them. What possible value is gained from asking these questions?

I was reminded of this recently as we’ve been hiring. Luckily, my employer does not do this, instead using the interview to ask questions that actually focus on the skills needed for the position. Still, the experience brings back memories of interviews where I was asked questions that just made me want to leap across the table and throttle the interviewer. My fantasy during those interviews was that I’d won the lottery and was interviewing just for the hell of it, with a personal goal of seeing how poorly I could do.

In case anyone reading this has just won the lottery, and is inspired to do just that, here are a few of those awful questions and my suggestions for answers. Use this as a starting point and go wild. In fact, to anyone reading this, I’d love to see your suggestions for answers (or even more questions with your answers) added as comments.

Why should we hire you?
• I need money to support my addictions
• I’ll buy the first round after work

What’s your biggest weakness?
• It’s hard to narrow it down to just one, but I guess it’s between hacking, theft or fits of uncontrolled violent rage
• An inability to answer stupid questions – like this one

Why do you want to leave your current job?
• They’re on to me
• I’ve stolen all the good office supplies

If you were an animal, what would you be and why?
• Body lice, because I’m a people person
• A rabid dog; I think that would help me be successful in the corporate world

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
• Either in jail or in office
• If my plan works, on a beach in a country that doesn’t have reciprocity with the US

First world problems: Do you love your job?

The consultant walks confidently out on stage, big smile on his/her face. “I LOVE my job! Do you love your job? If you don’t, why are you still there? You need to figure out what you love and start doing it!”

Umm… yeah. I’ve been lectured, hectored, and schooled by the best on that topic. I still don’t buy it. Look, don’t get me wrong. I know there are people who truly love what they do. Being able to have a rewarding career in a field that you love, while still being able to support yourself and your family is a noble and wonderful goal, and I salute every woman and man who has been able to achieve it.

I also believe that this goal is not one that everyone can meet; or even needs to try and meet. Further, I think the adoption of this as a corporate dogma is just another cynical attempt to make people feel that any problems with their jobs are their fault, rather than looking to the company as the cause.

At the heart of this screed are a few assumptions. Let’s examine them.

First is the view that your job should be a central (if THE central) focus of your life. You should be living to work, not working to live. This is the view that of course everyone should just love spending time at work, and if you don’t it speaks to a character flaw. A great example of this mentality is Fish http://www.charthouse.com/productdetail.aspx?nodeid=11010 . The great thing about this (if you’re the employer) is that all responsibility for providing a rewarding and decent workplace is now up to your employees. I mean, those guys tossing fish back and forth don’t work in the greatest environment, and look how much fun they’re having! If you aren’t happy about your job, it’s not because you’re doing the work of two people and earning less money than you did 5 years ago; no, it’s your fault.

Articles focusing on the best companies to work always list the great perks these places have. Mostly these seem to be things the rest of us look for in our own personal lives. Instead of spending time with friends hanging out, play Ping-Pong and video games at work. Need to pick up groceries to cook dinner? Don’t bother! You can stay late and have dinner at work. Reading between the lines, some of these great benefits make it easier and more comfortable for employees to spend 50, 60 and more hours per week at work. Personally, I’ll trade a more glamorous work place for an 8-hour day.

Second is the idea that your job should be a natural extension of what most interests you. It’s kind of an anti-hobby mentality; instead of pursuing interests on your own, you make those interests your life’s work; the “do what you love” idea, with the assumption that once you’ve honed in on what you love, you will be able to turn that into a viable source of income. This doesn’t always work. For every success story of a person who managed to create a thriving business based on their passion, more people tried and failed. If the thing that you truly love is corporate law or Wall Street investing, you have a much better chance of making a good living doing what you love than the person whose passion is music or art. Inherent in this assumption is that it is always possible to make a decent living. Keep in mind that the consultants lecturing on this are not making the 10 bucks an hour that day care workers make.

Finally, there’s the belief that your job should be the most rewarding aspect of your life. Fact is, there are a whole lot of jobs that may not be all that rewarding to the people who work them, but are still needed. Do you really think that everyone working as a hotel maid is doing so because of all the possible jobs in the world, cleaning bathrooms is the one they wanted more than anything else? I doubt it. I bet that most people doing that job are doing so because it’s all they could get. That doesn’t mean they can’t feel pride in doing the job well, or enjoy the people they work with, but to assume that everyone is going to be able to cherry pick only what they truly love is unrealistic.

Here’s what I think. All of us want to feel meaning and joy in our lives. The ideal is that you derive part of that satisfaction from your job, if for no other reason than most of us spend so many of our waking hours at work. If you are lucky, you get to work a job that matches your interests and skills, provides a supportive environment with enjoyable people, and pays a salary that allows you to live decently and to have a private life that is equally as fulfilling.

However, to imply that it is always possible to both find the exact perfect job that is the fulfillment of all your dreams and will allow you live a fiscally viable life, is ridiculous. Sometimes the best choice is a job that allows you to live a good and decent life but doesn’t match your dreams. That is not a bad thing. Providing a decent standard of living is worth a lot, and the only people who think money doesn’t matter are those who have never had a lack of it. If you end up in a job that doesn’t provide you with soul-full satisfaction, you can still find ways to make it through; focus on the parts you do like, but mostly focus on having a good life outside of work.

Because, in the end, it’s a lot better to have a life you love and a job you tolerate than the other way around.