The Safe Play

24 Jan

Each day grinds me down like the lead of a pencil. Each night I whittle the pencil down into a sharp point with dreams of the previous day’s markings and the world I hope to build for myself one day.

I once proudly showed a co-worker the macro I had created to save me hours per day in data analysis. “Spreadsheets.” He said. “Is that what you want your life’s big accomplishment to be? When you tell your son what your life’s work resulted in, are you going tell him you made rows of data look nice?”

It was disconcerting to receive this reaction. I was using my knowledge and skill to organize data and make it meaningful. He didn’t know an integer from a text value. He had inherited a different set of ideals and ambitions than I had and had not focused on learning skills with data tools that I found essential for keeping my place in the economy. I know he sensed that there was more to me than picking through numbers in a corporate office. We were both in the wrong place for different reasons. I was there out of necessity. I needed to work to support myself and my family. He was there because a family member, a senior executive, had gotten him the job. My group had been the recipient of a nepotistic-political hire.

Of course, he was treated with kid gloves, even when it became apparent that he didn’t like the work we were doing. Technical data analysis was not exactly what he considered interesting. Eventually, everyone noticed the real reason for his placement. The executives of our department gave regular speeches over the phone. The whole department would gather in small groups in the various meeting rooms to listen together, but, he always went missing shortly before these events. We found out that he was in the board room with the executives, one of whom was his family member. Whatever menial task had been assigned to him for our group was not as important as the work he did for her. He was writing her speeches.

Executive speeches are the most carefully crafted language that exists, outside of the political realm. The messages have to be congratulatory without sounding pandering, optimistic yet cautious, inspiring and encouraging. Every sentence spoken in Executivese is designed to sound as if it contains authoritative and concrete statements while only giving glimpses of the real meaning behind them. The latest business buzz words are mixed with diplomatic language hinting at what departments might expect to reduce the number of employees, where the money will be invested and which departments are going to have to change their focus and methods.

Once I learned that he was writing these speeches, I sent every politically delicate email that couldn’t word properly to him for final editing. Each one came back with my lumbering sentences transformed into the most articulate, concise, professional wording that I’d ever seen. He was a real magician with language.

The man left soon after his relation moved on. My boss got tired of him; he didn’t belong there. I learned a lot about writing professionally and a few other tricks of the trade while we worked together. He showed me a few of his blog posts. I thought they were rather brilliant. I showed him some of mine from that period. He thought they were well written, but, on the gloomy side. I guess we had different perspectives entirely. Whatever schooling he had received, private no doubt, prepared him for a career I had no right to dream about with my unambitious youth. Still, we found common ground.

I looked him up and found a Linkden account and he seems to be doing very well. He was made for the executive lifestyle.

Me, I’m not an executive. I keep at it with my spreadsheets and databases, knowing that while I am good at it, it is not my ideal work. I’m trying to build something besides a long corporate tenure, pension plan and retirement plan. It’s the safe play I took when I was young, after wasting my younger days with no direction. Now, I know I have to make a solid attempt at making something bigger before the pencil whittles down too far. If it fails, at least I can say that I tried to build something more than spreadsheets for some executive.

One Response to “The Safe Play”

  1. Greg Swann January 24, 2014 at 3:43 am #

    “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” is horrible romantic advice, but I think it’s ideal for working. Men can focus with a near-impregnable intensity, and that’s my favorite way of working, no matter how mundane the task. I want for everything I do to be me, and I make it me by making it wholly mine.

    Me, a long time ago, on this style of working:

    I think every choice can be a victory if you approach it that way. Winning is literally the only thing if you refuse to lose.

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